The Causes of World War One

The following essays are on the topic, "What was the major cause of the First World War?"


These contrasting opinions were posted on the web by the History Society of LaurenHill Academy in October 1997, but were lost when the geocities site closed down in 2009.



                1.  Build it and They Will Use It

               2.  The Corrosion they called Nationalism



"Build it and They Will Use It,"

by Debbie Inniss

When the world realized that it would see it's first world war, leaders began military preparations, however certain leaders began to think with their weapons rather than with their minds. For years it seemed as though everyone in Europe was holding their breath. They all knew it was just a matter of time before the continent erupted into full-blown war. The question was just when would it happen. They did not know when it would start or what the trigger would be, but everyone wanted to be prepared. Two of the world's greatest powers became locked in a naval race. Peace conferences failed due to the preoccupation of military leaders with armaments. At this time in history, technology was progressing rapidly in all the major European nations. U-boats were being introduced into warfare and battleships were improved. If a country had it, it would be certain that sometime during the coming war they would use it. As everyone watched everyone else prepare for war, things got out of hand. As countries saw their neighbors gear up for war they decided that they should be ready just in case someone accidentally dropped a bomb on them. Everything was just waiting for a chance to be used.

One of the main reasons why the elevated production of armaments had an impact on the course of the war was simple. It was really hard to trust the country next door when their arsenal ws increasing every day. In 1905 Britain began construction of a battleship named Dreadnought. In response to this supposed threat the Germans began constructions of their own. Between the years of 1900 and 1911 the Germans tried to enlarge their naval fleet to a size that would be comparable to the British fleet. Unfortunately by 1914 when the war began Germany only had eighteen battleships and cruisers to Britain's twenty-eight battleships. The race eventually led Germany and Britain to the blockade of 1915 where the Germans used the U-boat in order to gain an edge over the British fleet. Although the addition of the U-boat did give them an edge, (At this time U-boats were undetectable) the only thing their naval race really accomplished was to intensify the tension and animosity on both sides.

During this time, most of the military leaders of the European nations were content to occupy themselves with the concerns of armaments. In 1899, The Hague Court was held and in 1907 the Hague International Peace Conference was held. Both were held in the hopes of achieving disarmament. Most of the countries who were attending the conference worried that if they started to disarm themselves, someone would see it as an opportunity to 'kick the other guy while he's down'. Germany wasn't too worried about being 'kicked' since it already had a war plan which 'guaranteed' them a swift victory. At the time Germany felt that any pause in the action would give Russia time to rearm itself and build up stockpiles. If this happened then Russia may have been able to defend itself against the Schlieffen Plan and possibly defeat Germany. For this reason, (or fear on the part of Germany) Germany declared war in 1914 so Russia wouldn't have the time it needed to arm itself.

As the nations waited for one of them to make the first move (or a really good excuse), they began to mobilize their armies and their weapons. This did nothing to improve the already corroded trust between the nations. It started with Russia who was followed by Germany and finally France. Russia mobilized because it wanted to protect its ally, but Germany felt threatened. Germany had already been involved in a naval race with Great Britain and therefore had superior naval technology. Germany was opposed to the proposal of disarmament because there was a chance that Russia would fully prepare itself for war. Even after all these minor conflicts and even with it's technological advances Germany was still feeling endangered. Due to these reasons Germany gathered their army and their military accomplishments, such as the U-boat, in order to be ready for what might come. France, as a close neighbor of Germany went on the alert when the Germans started to mobilize by mobilizing their army. At this point Germany had Russia on one side and France on the other. The Germany's leaders began to feel uneasy, so to take everyone by surprise they declared war.

When Gavrillo Princip fired the shot that killed Franz Ferdinand, he also fired the starting gun that triggered Europe's first major war of the twentieth century. By firing on the Archduke he gave Europe the excuse they wanted in order to do some serious damage. Some leaders ventured as far as trying to make two different peace conferences work, while others 'surrendered' to the inevitable. Both were unsuccessful, because those who were present had limited their views to the same range as their weapons. All these concerns about armaments and increased technological advances, eventually led to four, long years of bloodshed. The four dominant European nations (Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia) had entered various contests amongst each other in order to see who could build the best weapon of devastation. When they had stopped quarreling amongst themselves they joined forces and threw Europe into turmoil. For the first time U-boats and Dreadnoughts were seen, but for some unfortunate soldiers they were the last thing they saw. None of the nations could agree on peace or disarmament, but they could all agree on building more efficient ways to put the lives of innocent people in jeopardy.


"The Corrosion They Called Nationalism"

by Mandeep Dhillon

Growing nationalism had been building up long before World War I. Along with the citizens of many multi-ethnic nations of Europe who strove towards independence and unity with their brothers, were the Great Powers who wished to extend their hand over the greater part of Europe and save their prestige. By the time the war started, millions of people were inflamed by patriotism and, contrary to those who believe the armament to be the major cause of the war, if the masses hadn't had such great nationalistic sentiment, they would not have rushed to the guns being supplied to them. And no war could take place without the manpower and feeling of purpose. The people were delighted by the chance to prove their nation's superiority and power and greeted the war with open arms. Ethnicity and hurt pride created alliances between nations that would fight side by side and enemies that would cut each other's throats. The nationalist sentiment of the masses created the combustible atmosphere, and proved to also be the spark which ignited it. This could best be described by a quote from Hitler's thoughts from his book Mein Kampf: " As a boy and young man I had so often felt the desire to prove at least once by deeds that for me national enthusiasm was no empty whim... Thus my heart, like that of a million others, overflowed with proud joy that at last I would be able to redeem myself from this paralyzing feeling..."

The rising feelings of nationalism manifested themselves in two major ways. The "power trip" of the great powers of Europe was one. The disputes between France and Germany to control the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine created some anti-German disturbances in 1913. It was protest against the loss of this area to Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. In fact, one of the key French leaders to war with Germany was the French president in 1913, Raymond Poincar‚. He had been ten when the Germans had marched through his home town in Lorraine in 1870. Many Germans on the other hand, including politicians, intellectuals and Kaiser Wilhelm II, believed their German culture and nation to be superior. Some of them dreamed of uniting all the Germans in one Pan-German state.The state would also include large parts of Austria-Hungary. Starting with the war in 1870 and for the next thirty years, the German nationalists expressed their wishes to have a colonial empire the like of that of England and France. As Germany led by Kaiser Wilhelm II tried constantly to expand her influence in Europe, Britain and France grew closer to protect their common interests. In keeping with the attitude of the great powers, Britain and Germany entered a "naval race". German nationalists encouraged and were enthusiastic when Germany expanded her navy in the early years of the century. Britain was alarmed because it prided itself on its unchallenged Royal Navy and as well as the sentiment, its economy depended on its control of the marine trading routes.

The Pan-Germanists, those who dreamed of a new united Germanic state, were countered by Russian Pan-Slavists who wished to unite the Orthodox Slavs who lived in the Balkans(South Eastern Europe). Russians planned to increase their influence in the Balkans during the century before World War I because the control of the Ottoman Empire in this area was weakening. Instead, the Russian nationalists suffered many disappointments. Their loss of influence in Bulgaria and defeat along with Serbia when Austria Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, were two of them. The latter would lead Russia to back up Serbia when the Great War would break out against Austria-Hungary. If Serbia were to be defeated in the war, Russia would lose all hope of having influence in the Balkans. When Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, Serbia made threats and asked Russia for help. Germany promised Austria help and sent the Russians a note demanding that the Tsarist government recognize the annexation and not support Serbia. Russia agreed and Serbia had no choice but to accept the annexation. Austrian pressure also made Serbia promise to stop activities that were hostile to them. However, Serbian bitterness and nationalism would increase the crisis leading up to the war.

As the conflict of interests between the Great European Powers continued, nationalism manifested itself in one other major way, the unrest of the subject peoples of the multi-national empires in Europe. The disputes among the Balkans had resulted in two wars already: the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 were fought over the disposition of the Ottoman Empire's former Balkan territories. Serbia was already very glorified by the Balkan Wars. Now the Serbian nationalists turned their attentions to liberating the South Slavs of Austria Hungary. For the Serbians, independence from the Turkish Empire was not enough, they wanted to create a Yugoslavia (south Slavia). This desire created an obvious problem for the German empire which wished to incorporate parts of Austria-Hungary in a united German state. The creation of Yugoslavia would mean a limit to their empire. If Southern Slavs broke out of the Empire, other peoples such as the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks would follow. The head of Serbia's military intelligence was in fact also head of the secret society, "Union or Death", under an alias. The society pledged to the pursuit of the Pan-Serb ambition. It encouraged ethnic Serbs in areas like Bosnia to work for the unification with Serbia. It helped to smuggle men, guns and propaganda to sympathetic people outside the Serbian borders. Believing that the Serbs' cause would be served by the death of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian emperor Francis Joseph I, and learning that the archduke was about to visit Bosnia on a tour of military inspection, the head of Union or Death plotted his assassination.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand sat along with his wife in the open back of a car which was travelling in the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia. At 11:15 a.m, a nineteen year old Serbian of Bosnian nationality who was also an active Serbian nationalist, stepped into the street and fired several shots, killing the archduke and his wife. Along with his fellow "Union or Death" members and countless citizens of Serbia, he dreamed of Bosnia breaking away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and becoming part of a Greater Serbia. As the world watched, exactly one month later to the day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and so started one of the greatest battles in our recent history. How the murder of the archduke started the "war to end all wars" had been in the atmosphere of Europe for some time. Nationalism not only created the many divisions that would propel the need for war but was also the catalyst, the shooting of the Austrian Archduke. The passion of the people and their leaders would result in four years of battle and millions dead.