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The Causes and War Aims of World War One

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The Traditional Views Rejected

The traditional explanation for the start of World War 1 concerns a domino effect. Once one nation went to war, usually defined as Austria-Hungary’s decision to attack Serbia, a network of alliances which tied the great European powers into two halves dragged each nation unwillingly into a war which spiralled ever larger. This notion, taught to schoolchildren for decades, has now been largely rejected. James Joll concludes “the Balkan crisis demonstrated that even apparently firm, formal alliances did not guarantee support and co-operation in all circumstances.” (Joll and Martel, The Origins of the First World War, p. 79)

This doesn’t mean that the formation of Europe into two sides, achieved by treaty in the late nineteenth / early twentieth centuries, isn’t important, just that the nations were not trapped by them. Indeed, while they divided Europe’s major powers into two halves - The ‘Central Alliance’ of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Germany - Italy actually changed sides.

The Formation of the Alliances

In addition, the war was not caused, as some socialists and anti-militarists have suggested, by capitalists, industrialists or arms manufacturers looking to profit from conflict. Most industrialists stood to suffer in a war as their foreign markets were reduced. Studies have shown that industrialists did not pressurise governments into declaring war, and government did not declare war with one eye on the arms industry. Equally governments did not declare war simply to try and cover up domestic tensions, like the independence of Ireland or the rise of socialists.

Context: The Dichotomy of Europe in 1914

Historians recognise that all the major nations involved in the war, on both sides, had large proportions of their population who were not only in favour of going to war, but were agitating for it to happen as a good and necessary thing. In one very important sense, this has to be true: as much as politicians and the military might have wanted the war, they could only fight it with the approval – greatly varying, maybe begrudging, but present - of the millions of soldiers who went off to fight.

In the decades before Europe went to war in 1914, the culture of the main powers was split in two. On the one hand there was a body of thought – the one most often remembered now - that war had been effectively ended by progress, diplomacy, globalisation and economic and scientific development. To these people, who included politicians, large-scale European war had not just been banished, it was impossible. No sane person would risk war and ruin the economic interdependence of the globalising world.

At the same time, each nation’s culture was shot through with strong currents pushing for war: armaments races, belligerent rivalries and a struggle for resources. These arms races were massive and expensive affairs, and was nowhere clearer than the naval struggle between Britain and Germany, where each tried to produce ever more and larger ships. Millions of men went through the military via conscription, producing a substantial portion of the population who had experienced military indoctrination. Nationalism, elitism, racism and other belligerent thoughts were widespread, thanks to greater access to education than before, but an education that was fiercely bias. Violence for political ends was common, and has spread from Russian socialists to British women’s rights campaigners.

Before war even began in 1914, the structures of Europe were breaking down and changing. Violence for your country was increasingly justified, artists rebelled and sought new modes of expression, new urban cultures were challenging the existing social order. For many, war was seen as a test, a proving ground, a way to define yourself which promised a masculine identity and an escape from the ‘boredom’ of peace. Europe was essentially primed for people in 1914 to welcome war as a way to recreate their world through destruction. Europe in 1913 was essentially a tense, warmongering place where, despite a current of peace and obliviousness, many felt war was desirable.

The Flashpoint for War: the Balkans

In the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, and a combination of established European powers and new nationalist movements were competing to seize parts of the Empire. In 1908 Austria-Hungary took advantage of an uprising in Turkey to seize full control of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a region they had been running but which was officially Turkish. Serbia was livid at this, as they wished to control the region, and Russia was also angry. However, with Russia unable to act militarily against Austria – they simply hadn’t recovered enough from the disastrous Russo-Japanese war – they sent a diplomatic mission to the Balkans to unite the new nations against Austria.

Italy was next to take advantage and they fought Turkey in 1912, with Italy gaining North African colonies. Turkey had to fight again that year with four small Balkan countries over land there – a direct result of Italy making Turkey look weak and Russia’s diplomacy - and when Europe’s other major powers intervened no one finished satisfied. A further Balkan war erupted in 1913, as Balkan states and Turkey warred over territory again to try and make a better settlement. This ended once more with all partners unhappy, although Serbia had doubled in size.

However, the patchwork of new, strongly nationalistic Balkan nations largely considered themselves to be Slavic, and looked to Russia as a protector against nearby empires like Austro-Hungary and Turkey; in turn, some in Russia looked at the Balkans as a natural place for a Russian dominated Slavic group. The great rival in the region, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was afraid this Balkan nationalism would accelerate the breakdown of its own Empire, and was afraid Russia was going to extend control over the region instead of it. Both were looking for a reason to extend their power in the region, and in 1914 an assassination would give that reason.

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