World War I, one of the most catastrophic events in modern history and the first to involve so many nations at once, has been studied profoundly in an attempt to find the one underlying cause for the war. Although it historically began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on the 28th of June 1914, historians have agreed that the assassination was just the final ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. Over a few decades, all the main European powers had build up many small and seemingly isolated events that ended with the assassination of the Archduke and catapulting Europe and all their territories into a world war. The main reasons behind WWI were events caused by the ideological factors of Imperialism, Militarism, and Nationalism, as well as the vast alliance system created in Europe at the time. Yet historians have not been able to define out of the four, which one was the most important and relevant to the beginning of the war. In my eyes, the outbreak of war in 1914 stemmed from a deep economic resentment by the late players of the Imperialistic game, which lead to all their military actions, alliance making, and the growth of Nationalism. I understand that there are many ways to refute my claim, and that this is simply my opinion on the matter; and although there isn’t a correct answer to the underlying cause of WWI, I’m attempting to prove exactly that.
Nationalism, the sense of pride people feel towards their shared history, language and achievements, is one of the main causes for WWI. Yet, from where does this pride originate? I believe the culprit to be imperialism. Although imperialism began as a means to gain wealth at the expense of others, slowly these conquering countries began to feel superior not only economically and militarily, but also as a country and society. They started to excuse their presence in their colonies by stating that they were bringing them civilization, yet those imperialized colonies felt they had nothing in common and fought for independence. All the while the late players in the “Imperialistic Game” tried to find means to reduce the power of their enemy and prove themselves as equal or superior to the ‘Main Powers’ economically, militarily, and as a society. This race to become the best was driven by Nationalism, but Nationalism itself originated from the economic resentment by the rest of the world to those who dominated it through their Imperialistic feats.
Taking Pan-Slavism for example, one might directly think it to be Nationalistically motivated, for a movement aimed at uniting all the Slavic people seems to be as Nationalistic as can be. Yet the mighty Russian Empire supported this movement, and used Pan-Slavism as a political and military tool to influence and control them. The Slavs confused the Russian’s aim to control them as generosity. One could also consider this act as Nationalism, yet Imperialism doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical thing. The definition of Imperialism states that it’s a “policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force”. Thus, wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe that the Russian’s subtle yet strong political control over the Slavs be considered as Imperialism? Although controlling the Slavs was something the Russians were proud of, the fact that they could control them through politics is in itself an act of Imperialism.
We also see evidence of this in the German’s gain of the territories of Alsace and Lorraine during the Franco-Prussian War. Although it was motivated by a sense of unity because of the shared language, the people from those two states didn’t feel this unity towards the Germans, and the Germans knew of this fact. Thus, we can reason that although they wanted to unite with them because they felt they shared history and language, in reality is was an imperialistic act, for the territories they “united” did not feel this same sense of unity with the Germans.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavril Princip, a member of the Black Hand is also considered to be promoted by Nationalism. Yet the Black Hand was a Serbian society that used terrorist methods to promote the liberation of the Serbs. The world liberation itself implies that someone else dominated them, in this case the Austro-Hungarians. Then, it makes sense to say that since the Austro-Hungarians had political and military control over the Serbs, the Serbs can be considered as a sort of “colony” of the Austro-Hungarians; making the Serbs an imperialized territory by part of the Austro-Hungarians.
Yet, on could refute all these events by saying that in reality they are nothing more than acts of Nationalism, for they are all fighting for the goal of uniting a group of peoples and feeling proud of ones country, and that Imperialism has nothing to do with this. Or that in reality, the countries that are said to be using imperialistic methods to control others, are actually truly trying to help them achieve independence. Taking the Balkan Wars for example, it is seemingly entirely motivated for the Nationalistic reasons of seeking independence for their ethnic groups. Although this is an obvious underlying reason, this war would not have occurred in the first place if the Ottomans hadn’t wanted to maintain their control over the Balkan territory.
Through prosopography, one can put itself into the skin of a civilian who is fighting for independence. If for example we take the Serbs fighting for their independence form Austria-Hungary, they were probably first thinking that they have the right to be independent because they speak their own language, have their own customs, and have their own history; yet they might also be thinking that they are just being used and controlled by the militarily superior Austria-Hungary not only by force, but also through politics. Thus, since they are being controlled by what they would consider a foreigner, they might view this foreign ruling force as imperialist taking advantage of their land.
Nationalism was a strong force throughout World War I, yet Nationalism wouldn’t exist if Imperialism didn’t. Imperialism, gave the Main Powers something to feel proud of, something to declare their superiority to other countries; and thus creating this pride in one’s country and the feats they have achieved, otherwise known as Nationalism.
To achieve these Nationalistic feats, which were triggered by either a desire to separate from a dominating country or to be the dominating country (both derived from Imperialism), one needed a strong militaristic force. With events such as Industrialization, The von Schlieffen Plan, or the Franco-Prussian War, we can see evidence of how Militarism had a great role in the success of imperialistically related feats, be it to dominate a nation or to separate from one.
Industrialization was a great leap for the military, for the mass production of steel allowed for new and advanced military technology to develop. This also meant that all the powerful nations would compete to see who had the greatest military force. The two main contestants in this battle would be Germany and Britain with their constant goal to surpass the other in the naval field. Although this little ‘battle’ ended with Britain’s launch of the Dreadnaught in 1906, this aim to succeed the other maintained. This desire to surpass another started with Imperialism, both in Asia and in Africa, when all the European powers wanted to gain more territories – and thus more economic revenue – to surpass the other.
In events such as the Franco-Prussian War militarism had an important role in Prussia’s success. Their avid use of the railway system and their better steel artillery, allowed the Prussians and Germans to defeat the French. The Franco-Prussian war itself was an act of Imperialism justified by Nationalism, for the Germans wanted to expand their territory and they used the excuse that Alsace and Lorraine spoke German to claim them as part of their territory. This war wouldn’t have been successful if not for the avid use of both an advance in military tactics and weapons by part of the Germans and Prussians.
As we see in the previous paragraph, not only did their weaponry advance, but also their strategies to accommodate the new weapons. Strategies such as the German Schlieffen Plan and the French Plan 17 developed during this time period. The Schlieffen Plan, which was created in case they were confronted with war on two fronts, was a plan where the Germans aimed to quickly defeat Franc through Belgium and then be able to defend the more difficult enemy of Russia. The French response to this plan was the Plan 17, where they decided a plan of mobilization in the case that Germany attacked. Although the Schlieffen Plan failed and only brought about years of trench warfare, it also brought about advancement in military tactic planning. Yet again, all of this tactical warfare wouldn’t have been necessary if it weren’t for Imperialism; for the origin of this tension and preparation for a war that at the time hadn’t yet begun, came from the resentment between nations over who had the most control of the world and its wealth, which inevitably led to wars.
Although one could attempt to refute my claim by stating that militarism is the ideology to maintain a strong military force in order to defend national interests, and thus the events stated above are only to defend ones’ country and not to extend imperialistic power. Yet seemingly unrelated events to Imperialism such as Bloody Sunday in Russia 1905, can be proven so. The peaceful protesters who were shot by Tsar Alexander’s soldiers were there because of their dislike of the tsar. Then, why did they dislike him? It could be because of his massive spending while his country was suffering in poverty, their humiliating defeat by the Japanese, or Russia’s involvement in WWI. Yet all of these come back to imperialism, for his aim for expansion into Japan is an imperialistic act; the money he spent was mostly on wars and the building on the Trans Siberian Railway – which can be considered imperialistic since they wanted to connect all of their territories (and some which technically weren’t theirs) and thus have a better control of them; and finally, his involvement in WWI was to defend his country and allies, and the war itself wouldn’t have started if not for the economic resentment between the main powers because of Imperialism.
From a militaristic historian’s point of view, actions such as the Germans’ Schlieffen Plan or their advancements in artillery, were taken to protect their respective countries’ best interests; while a revisionist such as V.R. Berghahn, would consider these events as a provocation for war, “a decision that made war inevitable”.
Thus, Imperialism and Militarism are closely linked, for without a strong military, a nation can’t attempt to physically gain control over another or to politically manipulate and scare them into doing what they want. Also, on many occasion as we have seen throughout WWI, words came to death ears, and the only way nations responded to another’s’ plea was through military force. All Nationalistic actions often took the form of militaristic actions, such as constructing a stronger navy or assassinating an Archduke, yet again, Nationalism itself wouldn’t have been developed I it weren’t for Imperialism, and thus there wouldn’t have been a need for a militaristic mindset.
The complex alliance system created during the years before WWI was also vastly influenced by Imperialism, for many of these alliances began as a means to take power away from the more dominant powers at the time as evident in events such as the Triple Entente, the “blank cheque” issued by the Germans to Austria-Hungary, or the Entente Cordiale.
The United Kingdom and France over the past hundred years had been in an almost constant conflict over colonial concerns, and the Entente Cordial signed on the 8th of April 1904 finally ended this long conflict. In order to protect themselves by a seemingly more aggressive Germany, they decided to put away their differences and join forces in order to avoid going to war. This union has at its base an imperialistic output, for their main differences were because of imperialism; which once more proves my point that indeed imperialism was factor that forced this two nations into years of hatred and eventually led them to a forced reconciliation.
The Triple Entente, an alliance created in 1907 by Britain, France and Russia along with agreements by other nations such as Japan, the United States, or Spain; was to be used as a counterbalance to the alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, known as the Triple Alliance. This alliance, as with the Entente Cordiale, was also vastly influenced by imperialism, for the reason they had to unite was because of the fear of the war, a war that had its roots in imperialism and the economic resentment between all the belligerent nations.
We can also consider the “blank cheque” issued by the Germans to the Austro-Hungarians to do as they please with the Serbs, as a sort of secret alliance with Imperialistic roots. The Serbs, who searched for freedom and had assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne to achieve their goal were obviously influenced by their Nationalistic feelings and their desire to free themselves from the Austro-Hungarian control, which in itself was a form of Imperialism. Thus, if there had been no Imperialistic control over the Serbs, they in turn wouldn’t want to rebel and express their Nationalistic thoughts, which in turn wouldn’t have lead to the assassination of the Archduke, which finally wouldn’t have lead to the issuing of the “blank cheque” or the catastrophe that was WWI.
It could be difficult to see how a treaty such as the Re-Insurance treaty between Russia and Germany could possibly have any ties to Imperialism, but the treaty was a form of reassurance between the two, an attempt to minimize the amount of damage they would receive through their predictions of the war. Yet as all the countries struggled to seek support and protection from another, it all stemmed back to Imperialism. If there hadn’t been Imperialism, there wouldn’t have been as many tensions between the nations and a disturbance in the balance of power, which would have meant that there wouldn’t have been a war in the first place, making the creation of such a treaty useless.
A political and diplomatic historian might have argued that these alliances were made in order to protect oneself from an impending war; while an economic historian could consider the fact that the alliances were made to economically protect themselves and gain some strength by combining forces economically and thus weaken a common enemy, and that the origin of the war itself was due to economic factors such as resentment from imperialism, which in turn lead all the nations to the actions they did –especially alliance making.
Thus, it would be reasonable to agree that all the alliance making at the time was due to the fact that they needed to protect themselves from the reality of the threat of war; a threat that originated from Imperialism itself, for if there hadn’t been imperialism, there wouldn’t have been resentment, and without resentment, there wouldn’t have been a war.
Finally, one must wonder about Imperialism itself. It emerged from an economic desire to expand and use other countries to achieve such wealth, it’s a long-term event that slowly trickled and contaminated the world with warfare. The origin of the war is what matters the most, and although the Assassination of the Archduke is what started the actual fighting of the war, the real cause had been building up for decades. Yet in close proximity to the actual start of the war, there are plenty events that are closely linked to Imperialism such as Germany’s Support of Morocco, Italian-French Resentment during the era or the Opium Wars.
The Opium Wars of 1840’s and 1850’s, begun due to Britain’s economic aims in China. When China refused to buy any more opium from the British due to the visible negative effects on society due to Opium addiction, the British responded by ravaging a few coastal towns with their superior navy and forcing the Chinese to sign a treaty in favor of British commerce. Britain’s control of China was through Opium, and when the Chinese threatened to eliminate this massive source of wealth, the Brits needed to act.
Germany’s support of Morocco was also influenced entirely on Imperialism and the desire to achieve economic revenue. Due to the resentment they felt towards the French’s increasing control in the territory, Germany pushed for an Open Door Policy, one that would allow German business to access their rich market. They promoted Moroccan Independence in hopes to further increase the gap and instability between Morocco and France. It eventually led to the Algeciras Conference of 1906 where the main European powers and the U.S attempted to mediate between the two countries.
The Italian-French resentment during the era was also caused directly by Imperialism, which in turn provided more build-up and tension between the main powers. Italy, who had control over a small part of Africa – Libya, Tunis, and Ethiopia – was often forgotten in decisions about Africa by the British and French. The Italians resented this sense of superiority that they flaunted, which influenced their decision to join the Triple Alliance rather than the Triple Entente (although Italy secretly agreed with France, which in turn nullified Italy’s agreement with Germany).
There might be issues in trying to justify how an event such as the decline of the Ottoman Empire could have any relationship to Imperialism and WWI. Yet the Ottomans had been loosing power since and territory since 1827, power that came from the territories they controlled, and the territories, which came from their Imperialistic feats.
An economic historian would most likely agree that Imperialism was the underlying cause of WWI, for the envy of other powers felt towards those who had achieved greater wealth through their larger colonies and influenced territories, lead those countries to attempt to prevent any more Imperialistic power to be held by only a few, and instead partake in the ‘Imperialism Game’. And thus this feeling of resentment grew, and without the economic resentment, there wouldn’t have been a war.
However, how would we know how to answer such a question? Why is it even important to answer? As to it’s importance, we can clearly learn from our predecessors, and by understanding the reasons behind the war, especially by identifying the main one, we can make sure that in the future we don’t make the same mistakes. Yet as to how we identify the main reason, depends not only on logic and reason, but also on emotion and sense perception. If we analyze the causes reasonably by using the Socratic Method, we can try to narrow our reasons to just a few, and thus decide on the most important one, eliminating those that we can find exceptions to. It also depends on how you view the world and what you emotionally would consider important, thus Sense Perception and Emotion have great influence in our decision, especially since it’s a personal one.
As to the underlying cause of World War I, I have come to the conclusion that it is indeed Imperialism, for the outbreak of war in 1914 stemmed from a deep economic resentment by the late players in the Imperialistic game, which lead to all their military actions, alliance making, and the growth of Nationalism. If Imperialism gave the Main powers something to feel proud of and the other nations to aim at, Imperialism created Nationalism. If Nationalism was responsible for many of the military actions taken during the time, since Nationalism originated from Imperialism, than that means that Militarism is also related to Imperialism (not only in the fact that to achieve Imperialism you need a strong military). That also means that if Alliance making was all done in order to protect themselves from the impending and approaching war, that since alliance making was to prevent any militaristic acts, and militarism was tied to both Imperialism and Nationalism, the latter also originating from Imperialism, that logically, it would seem that it all goes back to Imperialism, thus making it the underlying cause of World War I. It was human greed for wealth and the envy of others that caused world war one, which lead them to expansion, and in turn lead them into their own destruction and death.