A Primary Source Analysis of the Cause of the First World War

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World War I

The Great War: A Primary Source Analysis of the Cause of the First World War “I always hear Caesar did, Caesar conquered. Was not there at least a cook along?”—Bertolt Brecht In 1914, the world witnessed one of the most terrible and bloody wars in the history of mankind to that date. World War One, at that time entitled the Great War, began as a result of the conflict between the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and the Kingdom of Serbia. On the surface, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, seemed to be the cause of the events that led to a European and, eventually, a world war.

Although the assassination precipitated the events that led to war, the true causes of the Great War were much deeper and much more convoluted than a gunshot and the death of a statesman. In order to fully grasp the causes of the First World War, and in order to eventually determine responsibility for the war, the state of affairs before its inception, including the events and intellectual climate in the previous century, must be recognized and acknowledged as vital components in the shaping of events that led to hostility and mobilization. The prevailing intellectual state in the mid to late nineteenth century was one of change. New ideas were brought to the fore by scientists and expounded upon by philosophers to forge innovative and rather radical notions concerning Man and his place in nature and among his fellows.

Although new philosophy is not a new or even rare event in history, the ideological changes occurring in the latter half of the nineteenth century were markedly different from those in the past because science enhanced their credibility. In 1859, Charles Darwin presented what was to be one of the most revolutionary theories in biological science when he published his On the Origin of Species. Although his theories concerning the evolution of species, containing such invariably difficult concepts, such as mutations, were complex and often misunderstood, the general population understood the fundamental idea concluded in his work: I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection. . . . The expression used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient. Also contained in Darwin’s theories was the notion of the “Struggle for Existence.” In this struggle, the strong dominated the weak in acquiring the necessities of life: food, shelter, etc..

This theory eventually fostered the notion that aggression and war were not wrong or evil; on the contrary, these destructive characteristics of mankind were indeed natural and even necessary. The idea of “Survival of the Fittest” coupled with the notion of the “Struggle for Existence” not only influenced the realm of science, but also profoundly influenced philosophical thought, especially concerning Man’s relationship with his fellows. The new philosophies which evolved from Darwin’s theories were decidedly secular, not unlike Darwin’s theory itself. One of the most influential social and ethical philosophies associated with Darwin’s theory was that of the British philosopher, Herbert Spencer.

Popularly dubbed “Social Darwinism,” Spencer first conceived the phrase “Survival of the Fittest.” His theories proposed that human society progressed as a result of competition, and that it was ethically incumbent upon the strong members of society to avoid helping their weaker counterparts, lest the society, in its entirety, should suffer. According to Spencer, this ethical indifference to the plight of the weak serves to eventually strengthen the society. He argued that, over time, the weaker constituents of society, without the help of the strong, will not be able to survive and, therefore, reproduce, thus preventing the continuation of their weak lineage: The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many “in shallows and in miseries,” are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence.

The ideas first presented by Darwin and later extrapolated to include human society and ethics by Spencer, took a distinctly anti-religious tone in the writings of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Infamous for his decree that “God is dead,” and that religion is no longer useful, Nietzsche also questioned established morality. He proposed that morality is determined by each individual; there is no absolute. Not only did his work attack religion and morality, but it also presented the idea of a “ubermensch,” or the “superman:” I want to teach men the sense of their existence, which is the Superman, the out of the dark cloud man. Nietzsche’s idea of the “ubermensch” gave rise to a number of notions concerning the superiority of certain races over others and strengthened the argument for eugenics, where society or the government should intervene to assure the procreation of the strong in order to produce the “superman.” Although these ideas were rather extreme, they did foster a sense of nationalism based on the idea of the superiority of a race.

This is especially true concerning the alleged superiority of the Aryan race. Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of Nietzsche, contributed to the secularization of human nature through his work in psychology. Freud developed a theory of psychoanalysis in which the individual is governed by the conflict between the subconscious, base desires of the “id” and the socially imposed morality of the “superego.” This conflict is mediated by the “ego,” which constitutes the largest part of the conscious human mind. Through his work, Freud internalized the human struggle, taking it out of the realm of the supernatural and placing the responsibility of Man’s actions on his own experiences: Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from its readiness to fit in with our instinctual internal impulses.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, Europe had been exposed to new ideas, made credible through scientific evidence, and began to think differently about themselves and about their nations. War was no longer the evil result of the work of evil men, but rather something that stemmed from man’s natural instinct and need for aggressive and violent behavior. In fact, war became a useful tool, in the eyes of many, to expedite the survival of the fittest. These changes in the general attitude, coupled with the questioning of established religion and morality, paved the way for the events that would eventually lead to the Great War. One of the most striking influences of these revolutionary ideas was the rise of nationalism among the European nations.

As national pride began to blossom in each country, there was an increasing belief in a national destiny in many of the countries that would play a significant role in initiating the First World War. All of the Powers involved in the Great War began to stake claims in Africa after 1870, eventually creating an animosity that would lead to the creation of the alliance systems; the very alliance systems that were a fundamental catalyst in the outbreak of war. When the recent history of each of the major contributors to the outbreak of war is examined, a interest for war, based on increased nationalism, can be discovered for each. While some countries experienced sweeping movements to unite a people or cultures, others maintain what could be considered national grudges over embarrassing events in the past. Possibly the most influential form of nationalism involved Serbia and the movement which has often been referred to as Pan-Slavism.

The fundamental motive behind this Pan-Slavism was to unite all the Serb peoples under one government. Serbia had already liberated those under Ottoman rule, but many remained in some of the provinces of Austria-Hungary. In this sense, Serbian nationalism became a direct threat to Austro-Hungarian national integrity. If Serbia succeeded in its goal, Austria-Hungary would not only lose a number of provinces, but it would also lose its respect as a major European Power. Russia was also heavily involved in the Pan-Slavic movement, and encouraged Serbia in its efforts by offering its support. Russia was also interested in maintaining a Slavic presence in the Balkan states; a presence without the Dual Monarchy. Germany was affected by the idea of Pan-Germanism in a slightly different manner than Serbia was by Pan-Slavism.

Germany, under Otto von Bismarck, was not interested in gaining new territories and redefining its borders. Bismarck’s goal was to maintain the balance of power in Europe, at least until Germany was stronger, and to avoid a war on two fronts, which would involve France on the west and Russia on the east, at all costs. When Kaiser Wilhelm II came to power in 1888, however, the idea held by many in his country, which involved a Germany destined to be a world power, was finally embodied in their king: We want to be a World Power and pursue colonial policy in the grand manner. That is certain. Here there can be no step backward. The entire future of our people among the great nations depends on it. We can pursue this policy with England or without England. With England means in peace; without England means—through war.

This statement, made by the moderate historian and publicist Hans Delbrück in 1899 in his Preussische Fahrbücher, not only represents the general prevailing opinion in Germany, but it also foreshadows Germany’s desire to pursue its goals at almost any cost—even war. France’s nationalist interest, on the other hand, involved both reclaiming what were perceived to be expatriated French lands and embarrassing memories over earlier military defeats. Both of these factors directly involved Germany. After the humiliating defeat of France at the hands of Prussia at Sedan, France was forced to surrendered the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine to German annexation in 1871. This gave rise to the notion that Bismarck wanted to create the German Empire on French soil. Many French had the impression that Germany was created at Versailles where the terms of peace were dictated to France, at the expense of the French. When the French Assembly ratified the treaty at Bordeaux, surrendering Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans, the deputies of the provinces proclaimed, in protest, the France’s rightful claim to the provinces: We proclaim forever the right of Alsatians and Lorrainers to remain members of the French nation.

We swear for ourselves, our constituents, our children and our children’s children, to claim that right for all time, by every means, in the face of the usurper. The loss of French land was a decisive injury to France, but the treaty also added insult to injury by demanding a march down the Champs Elysées by the triumphant German Army. Like many of the French, future Prime Minister Clemenceau, upon witnessing the march, vowed “neither to forgive nor forget.” Britain’s nationalist interests were not as well defined as those of the other Powers. Britain’s interests mirrored those of the other European Powers in that she was deeply involved in imperialism and the colonization of Africa. In terms of her relations with the continent, Britain chose to maintain, what was commonly referred to as her “splendid isolation.” One marked British interest, however, involved Russian aspirations in the Mediterranean. Russia wanted control of the Dardenelles, which would give them unrestricted access to the Mediterranean and which would lead to competition with Britain’s interests there.

This conflict was one of the few to be resolved later, in the formation of the Triple Entente. The result of increased nationalism and its influence on the new imperialism was unmistakably important in the future formation of the alliance systems. Never before in the history of Europe was the continent so clearly divided into separate camps as it was before the Great War. This was a direct result of the agreements between France, Britain and Russia in the Triple Entente and the alignment of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy in the Triple Alliance. The Triple Alliance was essentially established through the work of Bismarck between 1873 and 1890. After 1871, Bismarck insisted that Germany was satisfied with her position and wanted no new territorial gains. Bismarck feared another war that might threaten what Germany had gained. In his policies and in his words, Bismarck tried to assuage French resentment toward Germany by exercising generally benevolent conduct in his relations with them and even by encouraging their colonial expeditions. Despite these precautions, Bismarck needed to maintain France’s isolation to avoid what he feared most for Germany: a war on two fronts.

In 1873, Bismarck established the Three Emperors’ League between Germany, Austria and Russia. The league soon collapsed, however, because of Russian and Austrian conflicts in the Balkans. Despite the collapse, the seeds for large scale alliances were sown and Germany continued to try to protect itself through alliances with Austria and Russia. In 1879, Germany concluded a treaty with Austria to form the Dual Alliance. The treaty stipulated that either nation would come to the aid of the other if one were attacked by Russia. This stipulation paralleled and preceded the treaties between the members of the later alliances which would fight in the war. The formation of the Dual Alliance proved to be a sage move on the part of Bismarck because, although it was supposed to have been secret, the Alliance made the Russians uncomfortable and their diplomats approached Germany in 1881. The Three Emperors’ League was restored. When, in 1882, it grew discontent with France’s occupation of Tunisia, Italy approached Germany and asked to join the alliance. When another Balkan war erupted, the Three Emperor’s League was crippled once again and Russia was lost. However, Bismarck was able to maintain Austria and Italy as allies and the Triple Alliance was formed. Also, in 1887, Bismarck was able to forge the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, which dictated that, if either Power were to be attacked, the other would maintain neutrality.

Thus, Bismarck, through his masterful use of diplomacy was able to ensure Germany’s security by encompassing it in alliances and maintaining friendship with Russia, thereby isolating France as planned. Despite his success, Bismarck was dismissed in 1890 by Kaiser Wilhelm II because of the aforementioned differences in their visions of Germany’s future. General Leo von Caprivi succeeded Bismarck, but he was not nearly as effective in maintaining the alliances, the most pivotal of which would prove to be with the Russians. Caprivi refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia because he did not feel that he could handle the system of alliances as efficiently as Bismarck had, and he also believed that, by severing his ties with the Russians, he would improve his relations with Britain. The latter reasoning was a result of the fact that Russia had ambitions toward the Dardanelles which alarmed the British. Britain feared Russia’s rise as a Mediterranean power. Caprivi incorrectly assumed that ideological differences would prevent an alliance between France and Russia, thereby protecting Germany from two hostile fronts. Unfortunately for Germany, France and Russia’s mutual isolation drove them to seek an alliance, and in 1894 a defensive alliance against Germany was signed.

Now only Britain remained as the final peace to the alliance puzzle. Wilhelm II had always admired Britain’s navy and her economic success, and he tried to persuade her to join the Triple Alliance. When Britain chose to maintain her “splendid isolation,” Wilhelm’s policy changed. He greatly desired that Germany’s navy rival that of Britain’s. The Kaiser felt that, if Germany’s navy was strong enough to pose enough of a threat to Britain’s, Britain would recognize Germany’s power and agree to become allies. Wilhelm II thought that, even if Germany’s navy did not match that of Britain’s, it could become strong enough to potentially weaken the British to the point where they became vulnerable to the navies of the other Powers. This complex and seemingly backward strategy failed, and Britain eventually sought France as an ally. The alliance with France did not occur immediately, however. Britain did at first feel threatened by the prospect of a strong Germany navy, but the Germans, seemingly nonsensically, rejected British treaty proposals between 1898 and 1901, expecting greater concessions in the future.

The end result of these maneuvers was the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain, which was not a formal treaty, but rather a series of agreements which intertwined British and French interests, especially concerning defense, until after the war. At this point, it made sense for Britain to tighten relations with France’s ally, Russia, and, in 1907, an agreement similar to the one between France and Britain was concluded between Britain and Russia. The Triple Entente was complete, and the two camps in Europe were established. On July 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria, and his wife were assassinated by a young Bosnian in Sarajevo. The series of events that occurred between the twenty-eighth of June, 1914, and the fourth of August of the same year, are referred to as the “July Crisis.” The events that occurred in this one month essentially determined the outbreak of the First World War.

Through an analysis of these events and the actions of the nations involved, the justice and propriety of the “Guilt Clause,” Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles signed at the conclusion of the war, can be determined: The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies. The assassination.............


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