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New Imperialism and how it Contributed to the Origins of WWI

Posted June 18th, 2012 at 07:38 PM by jttwong

Personally speaking, I have always believed that New Imperialism played a large role in the origins of WWI. It created tensions amongst the European powers that was just shimmer under the surface. Because of this, when looking at the origins of the Great War, it would unwise to neglect new imperialism’s impact

(Disclaimer: this article purely focuses on the political causes of the First World War without mention of the ideological causes such as nationalism)


Introduction

There were many reasons that were blamed for beginning WWI. When the Treaty of Versailles was formulated, it was obvious that the people of time placed the blame squarely upon Germany. Yet in hindsight, history revisionism has shown that other issues had also played a tremendous part in the origins of the war. Often, the French desire to re-capture Alsace-Lorraine and avenge its Franco-Prussian War defeat or the naval arms race begun by the British gets the blame. Others targeted issues that were boiling over in the Balkans that ultimately provided the final spark with the Serbian assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. These states are only a few of the many that had responsibility for the war. Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire, the Austria-Hungary and Italy can all receive partial blame for beginning the war. However, if one looks carefully behind the curtains at the political atmosphere, new imperialism were the primary motivation behind each state’s interest in the war. Yet, nationalism seems to be blamed much more often than new imperialism. Perhaps this is because of modern western powers are ashamed of their imperial past. Countless reasons can explain why new imperialism does not receive the blame it deserves for its part in the origins of WWI. Hence, in this article, I will seek to provide an overview of how antagonism developed during these overseas expeditions contributed to the breakout of World War One.

Background

New imperialism was the competition for colonies between the European powers during the late 19th and early 20th century. This renewed struggle for colonies had its seeds sown during Congress of Vienna where agreements were made that brought about a change in European policy – the most significant of which was the establishment of the balance of power through European states. Because of the Napoleonic Wars’ devastation upon much of Europe, the Congress tried to equalize national military strength in hopes of preventing the rise of another aggressive invader. This effectively ended the major battles on the continent of Europe for the remainder of the century. Instead, wars were fought throughout Africa and Asia over potential colonies and skirmishes broke-out between the European powers.

The Purpose of Colonies of the New Imperialism

With the exception of Austria-Hungary, new imperialism was entrenched in the policies of all the European powers. This frenzy to acquire colonies was due to the potential financial and psychological benefits that colonies provide. Financially speaking, the colonies can help European nation’s name economy by firstly providing the raw materials necessary for industrialization which were lacking in continental Europe. Secondly, after using the raw materials to produce the merchandise, the colonies provided a market where the European nations can sell their manufactured goods. Hence, new colonies can begin an exploitive cycle where the European nations take resources from their colonial subjects then profits exportation of completed goods

Besides the economical benefits of the colonies, glory would also come to the colonizing nation. The European states had always been vain and concerned with their national prestige. Colonies, assets of the parent nation, contributes to this prestige. An example of this would be India; as a British Colony, the Indian peninsula was called the “brightest Jewel of the Imperial Crown.” With Britain as a colonial frontrunner in the 19th century, other nations quickly followed suit and acquired large swaths of land by occupying previously independent foreign lands as colonies. The lure of prestige is especially important to the two recently formed states– the Italian and the German Empire respectively.

Despite being termed a great power after its unification, it was technologically inadequate compared to the other European great powers particularly in the southern region of the boot to the south of Rome. To strengthen its position as a European power, Italy began its own campaigns to take colonies including the invasion of Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia. This new colony provided salt and prestige for the newly formed Italian Empire.

On the other hand, Germany, (formerly known as Prussia) had been a great power even before its unification. Hence, unlike Italy, Germany’s efforts at colonization were not simply for the sake of territorial gains. Rather, the Germans occupied colonies that were of strategic importance in hopes of weakening the British Empire. This was motivated by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s ambitions to have a place in the sun similar to that of the British Empire. They did so by taking African colonies that were located between separate British colonies making inland transportation between the two impossible. Such tactical actions sparked numerous conflicts, diplomatic and military, between Germany and other powers already in Africa. The importance of confrontation between the states towards originating of the First World War cannot be overstated.

New Imperialism’s Role in Leading to War

Because of the interest in land grabs that arise out of new imperialism, I had always believed that it was partly responsible for triggering of the First World War. With different European nations all vying for land, it was impossible for the relationships between the European powers not to become strained. Similar interests in the expansion of their empire all but guarded that conflicts were bound to erupt. This antagonism caused was best demonstrated by the brinkmanship between Germany and France over Morocco.

This altercation occurred when the United Kingdom officially recognized the French sphere of influence and supported its wish to establish a protectorate in Morocco in 1905. This enraged Germany who also held ambitions in the area leading to a series of escalating incidents. This altercation was called the First Moroccan Crisis and led Europe precariously close to a continental war before France agreed to attend the Algeciras Conference set to begin on Jan 16th, 1906. The events are as follows:
- June 15th France cancelled all military leave
- June 22nd Germany threatened a defensive alliance with the Sultan of Morocco
- Dec. 30th Germany calls by its reserves
- Jan. 3rd France moves troops to the French-German border
After four months of negotiation, Germany, with little support from the other attendees at the conference aside from Austria-Hungary, was forced to accept the French control of Moroccan political and financial affairs. France, on the other hand, conceded to the return of control of the Moroccan police. This agreement ensured peace for the next few years; however, it strengthened the Entente Cordiale agreements signed by the British and the French in 1904 – the alliance that would play a significant role in starting WWI.

However, in a few short years, another diplomatic issue arose with the onset of the Second Moroccan Crisis in April 1911. German gunboat Panther arrived in Morocco amidst the rebellion against the Sultan in July which antagonized the French greatly. Because of the presence of military forces from both sides the two states got even closer to war. The only thing that halted stemmed the aggression from both sides was a German financial crash leading to mass hysteria. Although a peace agreement was eventually reached with France giving Germany its Neukamerun, a French colony within French Middle Congo. Such clashes are amongst one of many reasons is one of the many nudges that eventually sent the world into war.

Conclusion

Many different problems and all the European states involved could be held somewhat accountable for the onset of WWI. Yet, one of the lesser mentioned of the many problems that led to conflict was new imperialism and disregarding its culpability would be a complete disregard to the affairs that were happening in Europe. There had been many crises around the Balkan regions happening in the decade before the war that were partially responsible. Yet, for a rivalry between particular nations to truly become global, large alliances would need to be pitted against each other. New imperialism and its byproduct, for example the Moroccan Crises, led to the development of both the strengthening of the original Entente Cordiale and the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary. Hence, despite the underlying friction between the European powers, the greatest political motivation behind WWI was new imperialism. Overall, bad decisions were made on all sides and with constant conflicts resulting from imperialistic ambitions, there was little possible outcome aside from total war.

Bibliography

1. Harvey, David, The New Imperialism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
2. Judd, Denis, The Lion and the Tiger, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. P. 82
3. Blim, Michael, Made in Italy, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1990.
4. Schnee, Heinrich, German Colonization Past and Future, New York: Joseph Press, 2007.
5. Jordan, Winthrop, The White Man’s Burden, New York: University of Oxford Press, 1974.
6. Winks, Robin, Europe, 1890 – 1945: Crisis and Conflict, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
7. Maurer, John, The Outbreak of the First World War, Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc. 1995.
8. Stargardt, Nicholas, The German Idea of Militarism, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1994.
9. Hamilton, Richard and Herwig, Holger, The Origins of World War I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
10. Cecil, Lamar, Wilhelm II, Emperor and Exile, Chapel Hill: University of Northern Carolina Press, 1996.
11. Marshall, SLA, World War I, New York: American Heritage Inc., 1964.
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