Of all the European powers, Britain was arguably the least tied into the treaties which divided Europe into two sides. Indeed, for several years in the late nineteenth century Britain had consciously kept out of European affairs, preferring to focus on its global empire while keeping one eye on the balance of power on the continent. But Germany had challenged this, because it too wanted a global empire, and it too wanted a dominant navy. Germany and Britain thus began a naval arms race in which politicians, spurred on by the press, competed to build ever stronger navies. The tone was one of violence, and many felt that Germany’s upstart aspirations would have to be forcibly slapped down.
Britain was also worried that a Europe dominated by an enlarged Germany, as victory in a major war would bring, would upset the balance of power in the region. Britain also felt a moral obligation to aid France and Russia because, although the treaties they’d all signed didn’t require Britain to fight, it had basically agreed to, and if Britain remained out either her former allies would finish victorious but extremely bitter, or beaten and unable to support Britain. Equally playing on their mind was a belief that they had to be involved to maintain great power status. As soon as war began, Britain also had designs on German colonies.
Austria-Hungary: Long Coveted Territory
Austria-Hungary was desperate to project more of its crumbling power into the Balkans, where a power vacuum created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire had allowed nationalist movements to agitate and fight. Austria was particularly angry at Serbia, in which a Pan-Slavic nationalism was growing which Austria feared would lead to either Russian domination in the Balkans, or the total ousting of Austro-Hungarian power. The destruction of Serbia was deemed vital in keeping Austria-Hungary together, as there were nearly twice as many Serbs within the empire as were in Serbia (over seven million, versus over three million). Revenging the death of Franz Ferdinand was low on the list of causes.
Turkey: Holy War for Conquered Land
Turkey entered into secret negotiations with Germany and declared war on the Entente in October 1914. They wanted to regain land which had been lost in both the Caucuses and Balkans, and dreamed of gaining Egypt and Cyprus from Britain. They claimed to be fighting a holy war to justify this.
War Guilt / Who was to Blame?In 1919, in the Treaty of Versailles between the victorious allies and Germany, the latter had to accept a ‘war guilt’ clause which explicitly stated that the war was Germany’s fault. This issue – who was responsible for the war – has been debated by historians and politicians ever since. Over the years trends have come and gone, but the issues seem to have polarised like this: on one side, that Germany with their blank cheque to Austria-Hungary and rapid, two front mobilization was chiefly to blame, while on the other was the presence of a war mentality and colonial hunger among nations who rushed to into to extend their empires, the same mentality which had already caused repeated problems before war finally broke out. The debate has not broken down ethnic lines: Fischer blamed his German ancestors in the sixties, and his thesis has largely become the mainstream view.
The Germans were certainly convinced war was needed soon, and the Austro-Hungarians were convinced they had to crush Serbia to survive; both were prepared to start this war. France and Russia were slightly different, in that they weren’t prepared to start the war, but went to lengths to make sure they profited when it occurred, as they thought it would. All five Great Powers were thus prepared to fight a war, all fearing the loss of their Great Power status if they backed down. None of the Great Powers was invaded without a chance to step back.
Some historians go further: David Fromkin’s ‘Europe’s Last Summer’ makes a powerful case that the world war can be pinned on Moltke, head of the German General Dtaff, a man who knew it would be a terrible, world changing war, but thought it inevitable and started it anyway. But Joll makes an interesting point: “What is more important than the immediate responsibility for the actual outbreak of war is the state of mind that was shared by all belligerents, a state of mind that envisaged the probably imminence of war and its absolute necessity in certain circumstances.” (Joll and Martel, The Origins of the First World War, p. 131.)