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Causes of World War One

Posted April 23rd, 2011 at 12:16 AM by Gile na Gile
Updated April 26th, 2011 at 08:11 PM by Gile na Gile

[ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wN-NIHbfJ1k"]YouTube - The Fureys - Green Fields of France - WW1 Memorial[/ame]

What were the root causes of this great and wasteful conflagration? Was it tension in the Balkans or the stirrings of new nationalisms, German expansion threatening Britain's predominance with Willhelm II's naval policy, or the "New Imperialism" with rivalries over trade routes to the Far East and elsewhere - or, was it, as Blackadder said, just too much bother not to have a war? More generally, what were the prevailing ideologies and 'structures of feeling' which contributed to the pre-war zeitgeist?

The rise in anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1880's and 90's (Dreyfuss affair, Polish pogroms etc.) would suggest a strong causative link with the effect and therefore the potency of other racialist theories who had as their purpose the legitimisation of empire (Kipling's white man'sburden etc.). This would in turn imply that the ideology necessitated by the expansion of empire had the further effect of enflaming pre-existing nationalist feelings in perhaps undesirable and unpredictable directions. It is clear that the representation, misrepresentation or underrepresentation of the 'black' and 'yellow' races all furnish us with further insights into how the imperial cultures viewed themselves in relation to this world beyond their door and by implication also their preparedness to go war either to consolidate their dominance of this world or to further approprate it for their own ends.

The colonies issue is the classical Leninist//Luxemburg position which is counteracted by the argument that the colonies weren't particularly lucrative to begin with. Export/import data is then rolled out to confirm the hypothesis but the versions I've read of it seem very shaky to me - it's perfectly plain that overseas territories were most often viewed as strategic bridgeheads for long-term advantage whose usefulness wouldl inevitably become apparent, and this is excluding consideration of the transparent lucrativeness of the prominent colonies in Egypt, Africa, the Middle and Far East. You need only look at the meteoric rise of Japan in the years after it defeated Russia (1900-05) in the first major resource war of the Far East to see how absurd this argument is. Those who oppose the colonies issue as a central fuse, such as Edward Thomson (in "Europe since Napoleon"), will then typically argue that the securing of a particular port was done only in terms of gaining an important bargaining chip - but if the port/routeway/territory has power as a bargaining chip ipso facto it must have a definable value well appreciated by the bargaining powers.

This is a global economic power game whose participants are seeking the 'house edge' which can guarantee their future prosperity. It was often played out, it must be said, with a certain panache and the mutual awareness of the importance of one another's patriotic duties and responsibilities; witness here the stoic and graceful manner in which the Fashoda incident was defused. But the concomitant ideology of 'a special fitness to rule' which underpinned expansion too often robs even these moments of their lustre, especially when 'Empire' proceeded to cling onto it's territories well into the twentieth century blithely ignoring the historically unstoppable movements for self-determination.

Let us take a look at how 'Germanic nationalism' developed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire - the Habsburgs were at the end of the day the 300 year long encumbents of the throne of the Empire that was 'neither Holy nor Roman'. Weren't they then by extension 'German to the core' and the proto-typical exemplars of everything that patriotic constitutional monarchists in the German speaking regions of Austria-Hungary would rally behind in times of crisis? Looking at the demographics of political power within Austria-Hungary it's clear that almost the entire political entity was being run, in the main, by Germans and for Germans. The Social Democrats (founded by 'Marxists' such as Victor Adler) and the Christian Party under Karl Lueger had the largest parties in the Austrian Reichsrat after a general strike in 1907 forced the concession of a universal suffrage 'for every male over 24'. The orientation of both these parties was distinctly Germanic; Lueger as Mayor of Vienna had been accused of promoting the interests of only German speaking peoples and of forming policies 'openly racist' against minority 'ethnic' groups (this type of distinction would not be approved officially as it would lend further credence to Croat, Slovenian, Czech, Polish etc. drives for autonomy). Of course, he's just representative of many of the higher ranked functionaries within the Habsburg domain actively promoting the interests of the German petty princes and bourgeoise. He was perhaps encouraged to lay it on a bit thick so the royals could intervene and appear magnaminous but the overall effect is that in the Austrian side of the dual monarchy the orientation is unmistakeably Germanic.

The Social Democrats, who became the largest party after the reforms in 1907, though with still only 80 + seats in a parliament of over 500, were the primary engine of liberal changes to the constitution which succeeded in affecting a telling blow to the mostly German hierarchy who tended to support Lueger's clique of conservatives and clericalists. But this class schism, the tension between workers and the aristocracy doesn't develop a sufficiently internationalist aspect to trouble the hierarchy unduly until well into the war when SDP leaders were plotting peace deals because of the savage toll the conflict was taking on 'workers and their families'. After the war, and despite everything they were still in favour of Austrian and German unification.

The Marxist Kautsky, a Viennese Czech, who knew the Marxist Adler, a Viennese German, regretted these divisions which pulled their politics apart - though they are both Austrian socialists their true loyalties lay with what they conceived to be their 'motherland'. What is remarkable is how long this stunt of containing all the dozen or so nationalist and irredentist claims was maintained. There was enormous pressure on the Habsburg administration to grant liberal reforms, which in many instances, such as in the case of the Slovenes in the Duchy of Carniola or the Czechs in Bohemia, amounted to concessions regarding the teaching of their language and the promotion of their culture along with the usual demands of shorter working hours, higher pay and an extended franchise.

So the several nationalist genies were being kept in the bottle through incremental concessions which kept the whole Germanic controlled "monstration" chugging over but it's worth considering that a pragmatic, socialist and 'patriotic' 'Slovenian' Austrian could ally himself quite happily to the Germanic wagon - meaning here the Triple Alliance - and be content that that path contains the wisest move available for his people; within the constraints of the times. Given these realities, the Romanovs, who were now isolated in their Balkan ambitions to pursue a policy of pan-Slavism which required uniting under its banner the fragmenting residue of the Ottoman Empire had to eventually fall into an entente and the French knew it - which is why they were happy to send them potloads of francs to fund rearmament, promote Pan-Slavism and ultimately destabilise Metternich's delicately woven monstration.

The Congress of Berlin in 1878 was the last significant occasion when all the great powers convened to sort out the problems in the Balkans and as history has subsequently shown us they did a pretty bad job of it. Not only that but their interception was predicated on all the old territorialising mentality which continued to sacrificed the nationalist aspirations of the Balkan peoples whilst they advanced their own geo-strategic goals. In addition to which I think the Congress of Berlin showed the international treaty system continued to suffer from a crisis of credibility. What Bismarck's realpolitik demonstrated if anything was that raw power was the ultimate arbiter of post-war settlements and pre-war manoeuvrings and not pieces of paper and parchment which attempted to circumscribe the relations between states and empires - however nobly conceived may have been the intentions of some their signatories.

Ultimately, the system of alliances established in the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance can not be viewed as an untouchable monolith which compelled the respective powers to 'engage' for fear of breaching international protocols. Thus it is often thought that Britain entered the Great War because of it's treaty obligations towards Belgium. Not so, both Napoleon III and Britain had similar obligations towards Schleswig-Holstein in 1867 but for their own reasons chose not to intervene on that occasion. That the great powers eventually did chose to engage according to the prevailing alliance system was motivated less by a sense of having international obligations and more by the same considerations as always; will our position be strengthened or weakened by fielding our armies and if we don't what do we stand to lose?

Viewed from the perspective of an absence of confrontation between the great powers the Congress of Berlin may be deemed a success but then it wasn't of the nature of a generalised European settlement like the earlier Congress of Vienna. It had a specific remit to deal with issues which arose over Turkish non-acceptance of the Treaty of San Stefano and thus has less claim to having contributed to a generalised peace. The conditions of this extended period of peace - from the Franco-Prussian War onwards - were more determined by Britain's isolationism and the pace of Germany's military build up. What the Congress of Berlin did do though was to simply bottle up the tension by leaving so many matters unresolved particularly allowing the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian Serb after all.

When the German army set foot in present day Namibia to put down the Herero uprising in 1904 most of its soldiers wouldn't have seen a shot fired in anger. Willhelm was certainly anxious to see his troops have their noses hardened and test their mettle somewhat. He could have ordered the end of the ongoing massacre which was what his governor was advising him to do but decided to support the policy despite the howling criticism in the Reichstag of August Bebel and the Social Democrats. The Herero uprising was portayed as a threat to the Fatherland and thousands of soldiers volunteered to serve in the frontline. In an age of imperialist militarism where significant martial honours had'nt been bestowed since the Franco-Prussian War it was an ideal occassion for the troops to wet their whistles. Willhelm chose General Von Trotha who had played a brief and brutal role in suppressing the Chinese Boxer Rebellion and instructed him to crush the African rebellion by 'fair means or foul'. Germany had, apart from the Tsar, the largest standing army in the world and saw it as a perfect opportunity to test its much vaunted efficiency. Performance-wise, it was like Kosovo; it played the role of keeping the war-machine lubricated. So, the interim of peace is undeniable, even a colonial power like Germany was hard pushed to find any action.

Incidentally, all that's meant by "isolationism" is that Britain refused to be bound up in a system of alliances with any of the other European powers. It is a much commented upon and well noted fact about British foreign policy between (let's say) the Franco-Prussian war and the entente cordiale with France in 1904. We are all aware that it was Bismarck's policy to consolidate his gains after the wars of unification and to this end he resurrected the Holy Alliance of the Vienna Congress in the form of the Dreikaiserbund. Despite Austria-Hungary's rivalry with Russia in the Balkans this worked for a time as they both wished for mutual support in putting a check to calls for liberal and democratic reforms within their own boundaries. For the emperors of Russia and Austria-Hungary it worked as a mutual defence pact against internal revolution. For Germany it fulfilled Bismarck's maxim of being three in a world of five powers and there were also understandings with the Russians for mutual support should the Polish rebel within their respective territories.

The wonder then is why it took so long for the British to come to an entente with France since Britain was perennially distrustful of Russia's intentions; in Persia where they had difficulties in settling on spheres of influence, in the Balkans where Palmerston's policy of supporting the Ottomans to check Russian expansion was largely maintained by Disraeli (though Gladstone's Liberals were supportive of independence for many Balkan nationalities) and of course in the Near East where the north west frontier wars were fought in Afghanistan to secure a buffer zone against possible Russian attempts to annex India. Much of British foreign policy during this period, in fact, can be looked upon as an attempt to further secure its control over its lines of communication with India.

For example, Disraeli's annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 which laid the seeds of the Boer War was done to secure the Cape Colony; a vital part of the supply chain to India. Also, it is interesting that the entente with France, when it did come, contained no reference to mutual defence agreements in the event of a European war (whilst this may have been safely implied) but instead ended long-standing disagreements over the colonies; France ceding all claims over Egypt in exchange for Morocco as well as lesser disputes involving Siam, Madagascar, the New Hebrides, Newfoundland and issues pertaining to West and Central Africa. So, at the centre of the 1904 entente again lay the crucial issue of the Indian supply chain with the securing of British control over the Suez canal.

France clearly would neither forgive nor forget the poaching of Alsace-Lorraine and worked hard in the years immediately after the Franco-Prussian War to end the diplomatic isolation which led to its downfall and this entailed getting Britain on its side; yet Britain remained aloof for over thirty years. I think this delay, which contributed in its own way towards a European peace since it forestalled the emergence of well defined powerblocs can be explained, in large part, by Anglo-French colonial rivalry, particularly over Egypt. Likewise, the alliance with France was not a natural one to the English temperament; their 18th century rivalry in the Americas and the Napoleonic Wars predisposed the English population to perhaps look more favourably upon Germany, in addition to which of course, were the genealogical ties of their own royal house. Joseph Chamberlain, for instance, had been a steady advocate of an alliance with Germany right up until 1904.

Britain achieved global supremacy by the end of the 18th century and could afford to dictate the rules somewhat. By the end of the following century Germany had almost caught up, a scarcely heralded dark horse thanks to the unificatory designs of Bismarck and Metternich. We may look at the population expansion through these unifications, keeping the Habsburg monarchy intact and especially adding the iron reserves of Alsace-Lorraine which became necessary to stunt the development of the French whose Republican government after the Franco-Prussian War made no attempt to hide it's designs for revenge. This was the age of steam and the French had the plate whipped from under their noses. Apoplectic to the point of implosion they knew well what defeat in that war entailed which in turn makes our great conflagration only a matter of timing. You couldn't connect all those dots required of Empire without the railways to take you there. Iron was also needed to build the ships that would be necessary if Britain 's naval mastery were to be challenged. It's extraordinary that by the mid-19th century Britain had 60% of the shipping tonnage of the world's oceans; testament really to how it handled the internal dislocations of the early Industrial Revolution.

Basically, Germany was asking for an equal share.

Denied, she brought down Britain in two installments.

.................................................. .

My sincere thanks to all the historum members with whom I exchanged views and helped stimulate my thoughts on the Great War. Thanks here are due in particular to Corrocamino for the necessary needling (lol), Edgewaters whose silent brooding presence kept me on my toes (sorry we couldn't have that discussion on colonies!), Sturm whose knowledge of the Balkans helped focus my mind on my own competency in that area, Sylla who made me second guess my views on "isolationism", Inflames,who introduced the notion of racial imperialism, Avon, who held the fort during my own period of Splendid Isolation and Lucius whose knowledge of German history, in particular, helped provided the initial and all-important focus on the nature of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. Thanks also, of course, to everyone I haven't mentioned who contributed to a great thread.

Thanks guys
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Total Comments 3


  1. Old Comment
    Lucius's Avatar
    Thank-you, Gile na Gile.
    Posted April 23rd, 2011 at 06:25 PM by Lucius Lucius is online now
  2. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Thanks Lucius, I think we were in the trenches on this one.
    Posted April 26th, 2011 at 08:12 PM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
  3. Old Comment
    You talked the talk but completely missed what was happening.Try some Hegel.
    Posted May 5th, 2012 at 09:42 AM by miley miley is offline

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