World War I, the first globally destructive conflict that the Western Civilization produced, has been the subject of various analysis, interpretations and reevaluations of the various causes that led to it. Initially, the guilt was placed upon Germany and its allies. Eventually, historical analysis conducted in decades after the event, lead to a shift from the guilt perspective, to a broader one of various interacting factors. Although almost nine decades have elapsed, one question still persists: “Which explanation is best suited as the cause of WWI?”
To provide an answer, the views of six historians shall be considered. To begin, James Joll’s answer to the question will be examined. It will be seen that he considered several factors that, according to him, interlinked and lead to the conflict. Five additional explanatory models will be analyzed: those of historians Arno Mayer, Wolfgang Mommsen, Donald Lammers, Micheal Gordon and Konrad Jarausch. They concentrated on more specific issues as part of interpreting the causes of the conflict.
In his 1980s book The Origins of the First World War, historian James Joll offers an explanation linking the entire social, political and economic spectrum of 20th C. Europe. First, he starts his search for a cause in the July Crisis of 1914.
The July 1914 crisis started with the diplomatic ultimatum that Austro-Hungary gave Serbia. The rest of the European powers, galvanized in the various alliance systems, where overwhelmed. Thus, Germany was offering unquestioned support to the Hapsburgs, even if it was to be military, whilst knowing that the Russians were objecting to any use of force against Serbia and threatening their intervention. France seemed confused, but was ready to support Russian intervention against Austria-Hungary. Britain, pressured both by France and Russia, was undecided until it officially announced its military support to them. In the end, according to Joll, in July “events were moving too fast for the diplomats because the decisions were now more and more being taken by the soldiers.” What had started as a diplomatic crisis had resulted in military action.
The second causal factor offered by Joll is the Alliance System between the Great Powers. Germany was thus allied with Austria-Hungary. France and Russia had their own pact. Adding to these treaties, aiming for a Balance of Power, where the secret ententes between England and France, and England and Russia. The result was a military and political planning that depended, or was strengthened by this polarization of the two camps: The Alliance and The Entente. The various treaties thus “provided the framework within which the diplomacy of the pre-war years was conducted.”
Thirdly, Joll analyzed pre-war militarism and strategic planning. Germany, militaristic, had increased its naval program enough as to lead to “a radical change in British strategic thinking.” The British were involved in the usual strategic planning aiming at securing their access to the Empire and, in the end, the arms race “contributed to the feeling that war was inevitable.” French militarism was aiming at increasing the draft term, whereas the Russian military recovery from the 1905 loss to the Japanese was “alarming the Germans”. All major powers had anticipated war, and the pre-war planning, such as the Schlieffen Plan, exacerbated everything. The Powers were ready for the conflict, had planned for it, and when the crisis came, diplomatic thinking was bypassed by military critical readiness.
Fourthly, Joll examined the importance of domestic policies, which, according to several historians, could have influenced foreign policy decisions. Every Great Power was “passing through a political and social crisis in 1914.” The Austro-Hungarian Empire was losing its geopolitical integrity; Britain had to deal with the Ulster Irish question that was about to overspill; France had as issues taxation and the Three-Year service issue. Nevertheless, Joll points out that domestic policies played a part, but not a big one as to lead to war. Ultimately, politicians did not “deliberately embarked on war as a way out of their insoluble domestic, social and political problems.”
Economic rivalries were another factor that Joll examined. He indicated that “not all imperialistic policies were inspired by direct economic interests.” Although economic interest had often lead to strategic frictions between the Great Powers, in the end “economic interests were not too much in the minds of the politicians” in July 1914. To minimize the role of economic calculations vis–vis a war, Joll indicated that the opponents had not “taken into account the economic consequences and needs of a war.” Governments thus did not embark on war in order to satisfy private or budgetary financial interests.
Regarding Imperialism, Joll pointed out that, although it did increase in pace between 1880 and 1900, it was not the immediate cause for war. Britain had an Empire to defend; Russia was pushing in the Middle East and was already present in Persia; Italy wanted to live up to its glorious past and Germany wanted to create its own sea power, or Weltpolitik. Yet, despite obvious opposing aims, the Great Powers were able to expand while preserving peace. Joll thus mentions all the various treaties that the Great Powers signed in the 19th C. and early 20th C. The only agreement that was not achieved, the Anglo-German one, was still not enough to spark the war. An agreement would have been achieved if “the Germans had been prepared to abate their claims to naval hegemony and world power.” Joll thus concludes that “imperialist policies had contributed to the frame of mind in which decisions were taken” , but the war itself was not caused by “immediate imperialist activities”. The immediate cause, according to Joll, was to be found in the attitudes of 1914.
The seventh factor evaluated by Joll, the Mood of 1914, was the cumulative result of 19th C. nationalism and patriotism. Therefore, in all belligerent states the war was unanimously accepted. Despite beliefs that socialists might determine workers not to support the war effort, patriotism, “inculcated at many levels of national life all over Europe,” prevailed. The youth had slowly been indoctrinated for war. Society itself was familiar with the possibility of war. In the end, according to Joll, “governments were able to fight the war because their subjects accepted the necessity for it.” Some people believed that a war would solve internal problems. Others saw it as a solution for external ones. Joll thus concludes that, ultimately, it was “attitudes which made the war possible.”
The author concluded his work admitting that, in a different time, a historian will see causes from a different perspective. The following historians wrote in different decades and approached the causes of WWI from different directions.
In his article “Domestic Causes of the First World War”, Arno Mayer detached his analysis from the usual multi-factor explanatory model, and focused instead on the role of domestic policies in igniting the war. Mayer thus points to a pre-revolutionary state of affairs in all of Europe, which lead to an intense “interconnection of domestic politics and foreign politics.” In his analysis, Mayer points out that Germany’s social issue pushed politicians to want war in order to provide a solution to internal problems. In Britain, France and Italy, “liberalism was heavily besieged” whereas Russia had labor problems to deal with. The solution, again, was war. Mayer concludes his article indicating that failing to analyze the interconnection between domestic and foreign policy is “likely to leave a distorted picture of the long-run and immediate causes of the Great War”
Wolfgang Mommsen’s article “The Debate on German War Aims” revolves around the controversial subject of Germany’s immediate pre-war aims. Mommsen criticizes the work of another historian, Fritz Fischer, who pointed out that Germany had a “will to unlimited world power.” Mommsen refutes Fischer’s claim that Germany was pursuing nothing but imperialist aims and points out that the German Chancellor, Bethmann, was moderate and not an annexationist. The author agrees that the military were more influential than the politicians and points to a certain “spirit of fatalism” that made the Germans wait for the war. Mommsen concludes his article implying that German aims can be found from a detailed political, social and constitutional study of pre-war Germany.
In his article “Arno Mayer and the British Decision for War: 1914”, historian Donald Lammers searched for answers in Britain. He criticizes one of Arno Mayer’s articles in which he attributed Britain’s commitment to war as a move to avoid or solve internal problems. Lammers thus points out that the Ulster problem was big, but not “apocalyptic.” Socio-political tensions within Britain had split Liberal and Conservative views, yet they both agreed on Britain’s commitment to support France if she was attacked by Germany. The determination to go to war did not emerge from domestic pressures, or one party would have opposed war as a way to weaken the other one politically. Lammers concludes that an answer to Britain’s commitment is more likely to be found in Mayer’s own conclusions on “Balance of Power and the security of the Empire,” and not in the internal socio-political turmoil.
Michael Gordon joined the causal debate with his article “Domestic Conflict and the Origins of the First World War,” in which he compared pre-war Britain to Germany. First he described foreign policy and concluded that Britain was “hesitant”, whereas Germany was “rash and aggressive.” Secondly, by comparing domestic politics, Gordon concluded that both Britain and Germany were on the eve of constitutional crisis, yet Germany contained more social extremism within than Britain. With regards to the domestic-foreign policy link, Gordon states that Germany’s elites “had an overwhelming incentive to use foreign policy as a method for domestic control,” whereas the British ones did not. To explain these differences, Gordon’s detailed comparison first points to economic factors: rate and form of industrialization and international implications. Britain had developed early both industrially and socially; Germany had been rushed through this process in just decades and was thus in turmoil. Another factor was different between the two states: governmental institutions. The British solved political problems within the parliament; the Germans diverted them in foreign policy. Nationalism was also different between the states, just as their politics were. The final conclusion Gordon arrived at was that, all things considered, domestic politics had clear impacts on the foreign policy of the states. Britain grew defensive and weary, whereas Germany grew fearful of “international specters” in addition to following a domestic propaganda program aimed at diluting internal problems.
Konrad Jarausch pursued a conciliatory explanation of Germany’s Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann, and his immediate pre-war decisions. In the article “The Illusion of Limited War”, Jarausch described Bethmann as an optimistic politician who was “hoping for a breakthrough.” The Chancellor supported Austria but, considering Britain’s silence, believed in a localized European war, similar to the Balkan one of 1913. Eventually, according to the author, the Chancellor lost effective control of the events as the military influence, the “Bismarckian legacy,” bypassed civilian decision taking. He realized too late, that what Germany had risked was, in fact, a full continental war. Jarausch thus concludes that Bethmann did not enter the war as a “rabid pan-German expansionist, but as a traditional nationalist.”
The explanatory models presented by these five historians have the undeniable quality of elaborating and detailing complementary explanations about the origins of the WWI. Even if many historians have not spent time analyzing Bethmann’s decision making process as Jarausch did, his research reasonably exculpates the Chancellor from beliefs that he pursued annexationist policies. Gordon’s comparative article of Germany with Britain produces one of the most efficient analysis in understanding why Germany and Britain took, in a moment of crisis, radically different decisions. Donald Lammers also used a socio/political comparison of Britain and Germany in order to conclude that all the evidence is insufficient to attribute input guilt to the socio/political differences between the states. Mommsen’s article had as aim to eliminate as a causal explanation German imperialistic aims and the argumentation is convincing in that respect. Regarding Mayer, he clearly attributed a large causal role to domestic policies within the Great Powers and presents compelling evidence to that effect. Ultimately, these explanatory models do not present a clear view as to the cause of the war, as much as they elaborate on individual factors believed to have contributed to its start. The complex European problems of 1914 make it quite difficult to discern a clear view as to what ignited WWI. Historians have thus been forced to work by elimination of improbable causes and by researching bit by bit the various socio/political/economic/cultural aspects of early 20th C. Europe in order to complete the larger, explanatory puzzle. WWI, its arrival and devastating effects, truly was a mind boggling Gordian Knot, for the events shattered all positive beliefs and hopes of the Western Civilization. Joll’s work is thus an efficient multi spectral analysis. The additional explanatory models, although they are sometimes contradictory, complement each other in providing the future historian, and any reader, with an answer as to what caused WWI. Which explanatory model, however, seems to provide the best answers as to the cause?
Joll’s analysis of militarism, strategic planning and militarism, provide the best explanation as to what ignited WWI, whereas Lammers’ model is a good counter balance for Mayer’s domestic policy explanation and explains what did not spark the conflict. The influence of domestic problems upon foreign policy, such a the Russian social turmoil, the Ulster problem in Britain, the pending constitutional crisis in Germany, the French tax and draft problem, not forgetting the Austrian nationality problems, existed but was not sufficient in starting the war. Beginning with the 18th C., European states have faced, at one moment or another, simultaneous domestic problems that have not significantly influence foreign policies. The War of the Austrian Succession, the 7 Years’ War, the Napoleonic wars, the Crimean War and the Franco Prussian war all had a common causal factor, and it was not primarily a domestic/foreign policy link. During all these mentioned wars, there were certain domestic problems affecting each of the belligerents in smaller or higher degrees, but they did not led to conflicts. Economic and domestic problems may have dictated the ignition time of the war, such as 1914 instead of 1913 or 1919. However, they did not cause the war, for the common factor to all theses conflicts, as well as WWI, that inevitably lead to them was Imperialism
Imperialism, “the policy of extending a country’s influence over less powerful states,” has shadowed any state’s consolidation at all times. The Chinese, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Ottomans, French, Russians and Germans all aimed at imposing their own economic, cultural, political and social views to less powerful states. The only historic reality, often overlooked, is the fact that the last six mentioned empires all developed and expanded in the same time frame, and grew around a geographical basin that used to be controlled by only one or two powers. European Imperialism went through its expansionist phase form the 16th C until the 1890s. In the 19th C., influenced by the Industrial Revolution, European Imperialism adopted new terminologies: search for materials, market creation, commercial expansion, civilizing mission etc. It nevertheless remained the same, except that, in 1890, it entered a new phase: displacement.
Joll was incorrect in minimizing the role of Imperialism as a factor for WWI. The Great Powers truly grew while preserving peace, but, as of 1890, the Great Powers almost stopped growing. Expansionism became displacement. The reality was that all geographical areas that could be colonized or incorporated in spheres of influence, such as Africa, China and Latin America, had been fully partitioned. 1890 is the starting point for displacement: to expand further, an empire must displace another physically. It is the last stage before armed conflict, and it has always been characterized by an increase in alliances, by a weapons race, by national indoctrination and by a diversion of attention from domestic problems toward foreign factors. A typical example of displacement Imperialism would be the 2nd Punic War, which had Romans and Carthaginians go through pre war social/economic and political concerns. The reality was, however, that for the Roman commonwealth to expand, it had to displace Carthaginian power. Interestingly, the Romans were claiming to defend the Commonwealth’s interests and future survival by fighting farther and farther abroad.
European Imperialism was to be kept in check by Balance of Power principles and various treaties. The British thus settled the Persian and Afghanistan issues with the Russians. The Germans consolidated their southern flank with an alliance with Austro-Hungary. The French wanted to resist the Germans by allying themselves with Britain and Russia. The Triple Alliance and The Entente were formed. At this point, however, Balance of Power was no longer the issue as it had been at Vienna in 1815. At stake was nothing less then strategic thinking, which, although well described by Joll, is not clearly identified as a tool of Imperialism. Joll contradicted his model by splitting militarism and strategic thinking from Imperialism, and giving them various degrees of causal responsibility. In realty, 19th C European militarism and strategic thinking were subservient to Imperialism. The agreements mentioned above had the following aims:
First, Russia had to prevent its Empire from colliding with the British Empire in the Middle East for it risked loosing on the battlefield what it could gain by negotiating. After 1905 it had to recover its Imperial prestige and prevent defeats that could lead to a loss of glory and possible emergence of regional nationalism and territorial disintegration . Secondly, Austria-Hungary, more developed then Russia, had to deal with modern nationalism and disintegration of its Empire in the 1900s, just as Russia would in the 1990s. At stake, again was the preservation of its empire. Thirdly, Germany, the youngest Great Power, was going through an economic “accelerated growth” upon a socio-political structure unable to keep up. The Junkers’ 18th C. Imperialist values still persisted and reflected German nationalist policies but especially Prussian aristocratic aims. Bismarck did not just create a large Germany in 1871: he expanded Prussia over the rest of the German States thus creating the 2nd Reich. In 1900, Prussian imperialism, aiming at a Weltpolitik, was following similar patterns to those of 18th C. Britain except that it could no longer just expand, it had to displace other powers, and not just any powers, but French and British ones, in order to further grow. Fourthly, France, the second largest empire in the World, had to recover the national prestige lost in 1871, as well as Alsace Lorraine, in addition to preserving an Empire that seemed to be an easy prey to German militarism. Aggressive colonialism in Africa, in Senegal and Algeria, while shadowing close by German movements, was an indication that France was not willing to be displaced as an imperial power. Fifthly, regarding Britain, its case is simple to interpret: with or without domestic problems, its empire had to be protected. The Ulster problem did not affect the 1914 decisions, as it did not affect many others until the present day. Britain secured strategic alliances and pursued military developments that were going to prevent it from being displaced from anywhere and by anyone. In 1914 the threat was no longer coming from Russia or France, but from Germany. Finally, Turkey was trying to hang on to what it had. It failed.
In all the previous cases, Imperialism was the main concern, whether conscious, or subconscious. The very rapid spread of the war from a continental scale to a global one is an indication of the true nature of the clash: neighboring empires had ran out of expanding space. Two empires never have and never will grow side by side because of their very nature. One, or both, will be conquered. The only factor that, if it had not been present in 1914 Europe, there would have been no war, was Imperialism. The arms race, nationalism, strategic alliances, economic rivalries were in fact long term subservient effects of Imperialism. Even the attitudes of 1914 were a normal, 200 year old, organic growth of the belief that the empires had to be preserved or expanded. Nationalism and social Darwinism were no small causes in sustaining the belief in imperial prestige. Soldiers joined to fight for their Emperors and Empires, for glory and for adventure.
Was Imperialism alone responsible of the global conflict? No, for Imperialism, in itself, is a “multi spectral” entity, if one may call it so. As previously mentioned, it concludes social, economic, political and cultural factors. By force opening China to the market, Britain asserted economic imperialism. By sending the 23d Welsh Regiment against the Zulus, it aimed at military imperialism. The political control of Asian states throughout the 19th C. represented political imperialism, just as much as the German move at Tangiers in 1906. The cultural aspects of Imperialism are visible from the claims of “civilizing primitive people”. In all cases foreign policy will be employed as the means to achieving all goals with the least amount of costs. But domestic problems, unless one is referring to a civil war or anarchy, have a smaller influence upon foreign policy then expansionist aims might have. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty was purely imperialist: Germany had finally obtained, for a short duration, agricultural and East European resources it wanted for so long. Furthermore, the distribution of the German colonies amongst France and Britain clearly points to Imperialism as well. Was WWI started by domestic factors just to culminate in imperial annexations? No. Like any 16th to 20th C. major European war, it was based upon Imperialism and saw the spoils distributed amongst the victorious empires. The war saw the collision of six empires separated in two camps. WWII had at its center the 3d Reich and was, to a certain extent, the continuation of unfinished business of 1919. The Cold War continued the imperialistic trend as Communism and Western Capitalism collided ideologically, as each one wanted to displace the other. Imperialism is, again, the geographical, political, economical and cultural expansion of one’s state or commonwealth’s influence over another state, regardless of its current stage of development. From time to time it even implies that one empire will have to step over another.
Could WWI have been prevented? No, for WWI logically followed three centuries of aggressive European expansionism. The war had been thought and planned for well before 1914. The moods of the people were largely the product of a subconscious eagerness for an aggressive war and a century of nationalist/patriotic indoctrination. By the time civilians were rejoicing in the capitals, the war had already started, as orders had been issued days before and the troops were already proceeding towards their initial objectives. A war in 1914 might have been prevented; a World War could not. After 1900, any European war, nothing new in itself, would have spilled all over the European dominated planet. Earth itself had become the battlefield. Two more wars followed: WWII and the Cold War. By the third one, war itself was the enemy, for there could be no winner. In 1900 European empires could produce enough ships and ammunition to fight over the entire planet. They did. In 1896, as a young Bostonian engineer was looking for work, a friend told him: “Invent something that will allow those bloody Europeans to kill the hell out of each other!” Two years later, demonstrating his new toy in front of an exhilarated British General Staff, Browning fired non-stop hundreds of rounds through the world’s first belt fed, gas operated and water cooled machine gun. 16 years later, serving with all European nations, the Browning machine gun design was killing hundreds of thousands. HOMO HOMINI LVPVS EST, and yes, war was coming for the European empires.
One may thus conclude that the research of various historians is, overall, vital in assembling the large puzzle that details the causes of the conflict. Despite certain contradictions, all models complement each other and offer pros and cons that differ from one generation to another but provide insights into the people and mentality of 1914 Europe. Joll’s approach to Militarism and Imperialism is a good, but incomplete explanatory model of the causes of WWI. It is incomplete because it has separated elements that should have been regrouped in one category: Imperialism. He did not recognize Militarism and strategic planning as Imperialist agents. Although Imperialism has been given in this essay a large share of responsibility, it has been so because by itself, Imperialism was a multi factor cause for WWI. All things considered, it is the only variable which, if removed, would seriously question the possibility of the conflict occurring.
James Joll, The Origins of the First World War (London: Longman, 1984) p30.
Ibid., p. 55.
Ibid., p. 63.
Ibid., p. 75.
Ibid., p. 92.
Ibid., p. 119.
Ibid., p. 124.
Ibid., p. 140.
Ibid., p. 164.
Ibid., p. 167.
Ibid., p. 184.
Ibid., p. 196.
Ibid., p. 196.
Arno Mayer, “Domestic Causes of the First World War”, The Responsibility of Power, (1967), p. 287.
Ibid., p. 291.
Ibid., p. 300.
Wolfgang Mommsen, “The Debate on German War Aims”, Journal of Contemporary History, 1 (July 1966), p. 56.
Donald Lammers, “Arno Mayer and the British Decision for War: 1914”, Journal of British Studies, 12 (May 1973), p. 164.
Michael Gordon, “Domestic Conflict and the Origins of the First World War: The British and the German Cases”, Journal of Modern History, 46 (June 1974), p. 197.
Ibid., p. 201.
Konrad H. Jarausch, “The Illusion of Limited War: Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s Calculated Risk, July 1914”, Central European History, 2 (March 1969), p. 54.
Ibid., p. 76.
Oxford Reference Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 691.