World War 1 was an international conflict that embroiled most European nations, Russia, the Middle East, the United States, and other regions. Lasting between 1914 and 1918, it pitted the Central Powers made up of Germany, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary against the Allies consisting of the Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, and eventually the US. The conflict may have been triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, other causes were as a result of events that go way back to the nineteenth century. This essay looks at how the forces of imperialism, militarism, and nationalism contributed to the First World War. It will also analyze the rise of Pan-Slavism in Eastern Europe, the equivalent upsurge of nationalism in German-speaking countries, and contribution of the alliance system to the eventual outbreak of war.
Imperialism presented both a context and cause for the First World War. It is a system whereby a single powerful colony takes control of and exploits one or several colonies. Before the war, the Great Britain was the most dominant imperial power in the world. By the late 1800s, British colonies included Canada, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Burma, Hong Kong, several Caribbean and Pacific Islands, Egypt, South Africa, and other parts of Africa. While many of these regions were acquired without much difficulty, others took a lot of effort, time, and warfare. British imperialism concentrated on expanding and maintaining trade, supplying raw materials, and marketing manufactured products.
France was another notable imperial power. It imperial holdings included several colonies in north and West Africa, Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam), and some Pacific Islands. The German Empire was made up of a Chinese province called Shandong, samosa, New Guinea and other Pacific Islands, and a number of colonies in south-west and central Africa. The Spanish Empire was initially made up of the Philippines and large chunks of South America. Other European empires included Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary. Russia presided over Poland, Finland, and a number of Asian regions.
Imperial instability contributed a lot to tensions in Europe. Major issues within the Ottoman Empire somehow tampered with the balance of power in Eastern Europe. By the second half of the nineteenth century, it underwent a rapid economic, military and political decline. With the Ottoman Empire crumbling and on the verge of collapse, other imperial powers in Europe scrambled to secure territories or influence in the area. The Eastern question-which involved what would happen to Eastern Europe once the Ottomans got out of there- was the subject of intense debate during the late nineteenth century. These developments created intense rivalry and tensions that set the stage for the First World War.
Militarism meant an increment in military expenditure, an increase in army and naval force numbers, more military influence on policies made by the civilian government, use of force to solve problems. After 1907, there was a rise in military influence when it came to policy making, particularly in Russia and Germany. During this period, the German Army was referred to as a state within a state whereby parliament and politicians in general had to follow what the General staff said. The Schlieffen Plan was accepted as a battle plan by the German civilian government although it angered Britain and brought the British into war. In 1914, the Russian Czar was pressurized into accepting a full military mobilization by his generals. They threatened him with the threat of defeat if he failed to do what they told him.
After 1871, a war atmosphere was created as a result of various secret alliances and which led to an arms race amongst the Europeans superpowers. The race was especially intense between 1900 and 1914 considering that the international situation worsened during this period. There was a notable increase in the numbers of those in the armies and navies of respective European nations. It is worth noting that at around this time, Germany increased her defense budget by 73%, Russia by 39%, Britain by 13%, and France by 10%. Such increments in war chests enabled the countries improve their battleships and train more soldiers. By 1870, all continental powers had put into place the conscription system. After 1890, the worsening diplomatic relations amongst them fast-tracked their military expansion programs.
Between 1913 and July 1914, Germany boosted her standing forces by about 170,000 men. Russia extended her period of military service to three and a half years while France did likewise and stretched the term to three years. While Britain did not adopt the conscription system, it had prepared her armed forces for both home defense and foreign expedition. Simply put, all the European powers produced more modern weapons and increased their stockpiles of arms. The result of this arms race was the belief that a major conflict was imminent. It also led to a firmer military control of civilian governments, especially in Russia and Germany, and more cooperation between military staff of nations belonging to the same camp. For instance, Britain and France agreed that the British Navy should be concentrated in the North Sea while the French Navy in the Mediterranean. Austria and Germany also made some military arrangements. When World War 1 broke out, all powers participated since they made joint military plans.
Nationalism can be defined as intense loyalty and patriotism to ones own country. Nationalists tend to put the interests of their own country before those of other nations. While nationalism can be a unifying force within a certain country, it can also lead to intense rivalry with other countries. It was quite prevalent in Europe in the early twentieth century, and one of the main causes of the First World War. Most Europeans during this time believed in the economic, military, and cultural supremacy of their respective countries. Politicians, diplomats and royals did little to stem the spread of nationalism, with some of them actively contributing to it with provocative rhetoric and remarks about other nations.
In the early twentieth century, nationalism triggered an intense rivalry and competition between the Great Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and Austria-Hungary. For any of these nations to be considered the greatest, it had to be the best in terms of the economy and military. German technology was much more advanced when compared to that of the Russians, British, and French; mainly due to the latters late experience of the industrial revolution. Russia had the least advanced technology due to its location and absence of a warm-water port, and hence the worst military. Competition for natural resources needed to run industries and act as raw materials for various products was among the causes of rivalry between these nations. Some of these resources were found in Africa since the continent was rich in things such as gold, diamonds, and rubber. Due to the need to access these resources as well as national pride and security, colonies and territories were required. Territorial disputes were among the main causes of the First World War.
During this time, Russia and Austria-Hungary were battling to gain control of the Balkans located at southeast Europe. In this region were numerous ethnic groups such as Romanians, Bulgarians, and Serbs, each of them fighting for independence. The intense nationalistic sentiment in Serbia, considering that it was mainly Slavic, made the country side with Russia, which was also inhabited by many people of Slavic descent. Serbia wanted to create a single large nation that would unite all the Slavs living in the Balkan Peninsula. However, Austria-Hungary would have none of this as it did not want to allow Serbia to extend its borders. It was afraid that attempts to form a Slavic state would cause a rebellion. Austria eventually annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina which happened to be large Balkan regions with many Slavs. These were the same regions that Serbia planned to extend to; a situation that greatly angered the Serbs. The events led to animosity between Austria and Serbia together with hatred amongst their citizens. While the Serbians wanted to invade the two Balkan areas, Austria-Hungary swore to thwart any efforts to do so. These events eventually led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered the First World War.
References Coffman, E. M. (2014). The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. University Press of Kentucky.
Herwig, H. H. (2014). The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918. A&C Black.
Hewitson, M. (2014). Germany and the causes of the First World War. Bloomsbury Publishing.Strachan, H. (Ed.). (2014). The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War: New Edition. Oxford University Press.Van Evera, S. (2013). Causes of war: Power and the roots of conflict. Cornell University Press.
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