World War I

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World War I:
Origins of the War in Europe
The war that erupted in Europe in the summer of
preeminent position in the world from which it has
1914 and that spread to much of the rest of the
never completely recovered.
world in the next four years was rooted deeply in
Liberalism as it was defined in the nineteenth
the general cultural life of that continent and the
century referred to the movement for
changes that had occurred there during the half
constitutional government, protection of individual
century preceding the outbreak of that conflict.
liberties from arbitrary power, religious toleration,
An intensive examination of the origins of what
free and fair economic competition, national self-
became known to an entire generation as the
determination, and the solution of problems by
Great War is beyond the scope of this work. It is
rational means and orderly procedures. In the
possible, however, to take a brief look at the general early nineteenth century, liberalism was on the
trends and developments in Europe that led to the
rise in Europe, but in the years after 1870, it began
war that in turn set in motion the course of events
a gradual retreat. This retreat was characterized
for most of the twentieth century.
by several things. One was the reversion back to
The background for war can be traced to at
protectionism from free trade in which countries
least six major developments in Europe:
tried to protect their own industries from foreign

competition but which ended up creating some
(1) The decline of liberalism and reliance on reason
economic strangulation and heightened economic
to resolve disputes.
suspicion and distrust from recurring tariff wars.
(2) The rise of a virulent, jingoistic form of
Another manifestation of the retreat of liberalism
nationalism in virtually all of the major European
was the weakening of the belief in human reason
and its ability to solve human problems. The new
(3) The rise of imperialistic thought and pursuits.
trend in European thought was the glorification
(4) The use of secret treaties.
of violence and an increasing emphasis on irrational
(5) A rapidly accelerating arms race.
motivations in human behavior. Yet another
(6) A growing military influence on government
sign of the retreat of liberalism was the rise of
pseudo-constitutional government in countries like
Germany where constitutional forms were kept in
These trends did not develop separately but
use but rendered meaningless. This was largely due
rather occurred together and reinforced each
to the increasing glorification of the military and its
other. A closer examination of each of these major
purposes and by the dominant executive authority
trends will cast more light on why an otherwise
of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1870’s
progressive civilization chose to exhibit such
and 1880’s and by Kaiser Wilhelm II in the decades
barbaric and uncivilized behavior in the years from
before the war.
1914 to 1918 and which caused Europe to lose its

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World War I:
Origins of the War in Europe (continued)

Nationalism had been linked originally to
several centuries. Europeans gradually adopted
liberalism as a means of fighting the reactionary
an increasingly romanticized view of the nation
forces of local nobles and their narrow
and saw it as the most venerable institution of
particularistic interests. Nationalists, such as in
all. Death on the battlefield for the national cause
Germany and Italy, believed that unifying their
was now seen as the most glorious form of public
nations would create material improvement and
service and self-sacrifice.
a better life for much larger numbers of their
Starting in the 1870’s, many European
citizens. They also believed that national unity
countries engaged in a race to establish colonies
would lead to the realization of the liberal ideas
in underdeveloped areas of the world, such as in
of constitutional government and individual rights
Africa, the southwest Pacific, and in East Asia. This
for all citizens. In addition, they believed that
trend toward imperialism was encouraged by
unifying the nations of Europe would create a more several factors. One was the growing maturity of
stable and peaceful international order than what
European industry which brought on the need for
existed under the old order. After the unification
new markets and new sources of raw materials.
of Italy in the 1850’s and Germany in the 1860’s,
Another factor was economic hard times in the
however, the development of nationalism began
1870’s and 1880’s which encouraged working class
to take a more ominous turn. Instead of being
people to give business interests political support
a means to progressive ends, the cause of the
in their search for these new markets and new
nation gradually became an end in itself. In all the
sources of raw materials. Trade protectionism and
major European countries and even most of the
increasing distrust between nations also encouraged
smaller ones, the primacy of the nation gradually
the race for colonies. As the pursuit of empire
became so important that its interests had to be
building proceeded, it created more and more
upheld at all costs including war. This change in the
clashes between the European powers and with
nature of nationalism began to uncouple it from
the native peoples they were trying to intimidate
liberalism. In this atmosphere, liberalism declined
into colonial submission. By 1905, however, all
while nationalism grew in strength and intensity
the major European powers, i.e., Britain, France,
and eventually began to spawn racial ideologies
Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia, had suffered at
that culminated after World War I in various fascist
least one major military or diplomatic defeat in the
movements generally throughout Europe but
course of empire building. While this stanched the
especially with Nazism in Germany.
flow of imperialistic expansion, it only exacerbated
In a sense, nationalism became the secular
the already growing mutual suspicion and distrust
religion of Europe in the years after 1870 as a
of one another. Also, while imperialistic expansion
replacement for organized Christianity which
began to subside by about 1905, the burdens
had already been declining in influence for
of imperial administration continued to create

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World War I:
Origins of the War in Europe (continued)

diplomatic problems between the powers right up
Sometimes strong military personalities overrode
to 1914 and also created conflicts with the colonies civilian authorities as was the case with Field
themselves until well after World War II.
Marshal Conrad von Hotzendorf in Austria and
The foregoing developments also led to the
Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz in Germany.
use of secret treaties. These treaties created
Civilian authorities, such as Russian foreign minister
a situation in which every country became fearful of Alexander Izvolsky and Austrian foreign minister
losing allies and becoming isolated and surrounded
Count Aehrenthal, allowed themselves to be
by enemies. For example, in 1890, when Germany
overcome by the increasingly militaristic mentality
ended its alliance with Russia in favor of one with
in policy making and drove their policy making in
Austria-Hungary, a whole new alignment of alliances riskier and more dangerous directions. This in turn
occurred as Russia established a new alliance with
led to a series of localized wars in the Balkans in
France. When the French eventually linked up
southeastern Europe starting in 1908. Although
diplomatically with Britain, Russia felt compelled
these wars were resolved by the diplomats, every
to join the British also, especially after losing
succeeding conflict wore down the morale of the
a war with Japan in 1905. This fear of isolation
diplomats and increased the fighting spirit of the
also allowed the most irresponsible members of
soldiers and the military establishments.
each alliance to control the alliance. During the
By the spring of 1914, Europe was a powder
final crisis in 1914, Germany could not restrain
keg that was ready to be lit. Then on June 28,
the irresponsible elements in either its own
the Austrian heir apparent, Franz Ferdinand, and his
government or the Austrian government while
wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of
the British and French were unable to restrain the
Bosnia, a politically unstable province of the
irresponsible elements in the Russian government.
Austro-Hungarian Empire, by Gavrilo Princip,
All these trends led to an accelerating arms race
a young extreme Serbian nationalist. There had
among the major European powers. Virtually all of
been considerable friction between Austria and
them tripled their military spending between 1870
Serbia for years, and the Austrian government used
and 1914, with an acceleration beginning about
the assassination as an excuse for extreme action
1900 and increasing in particular between 1910 and against the Serbs. After receiving an essentially
1914. Germany challenged Britain to a naval arms
“blank check” from Germany to take any action
race while all countries produced new ships, new
they pleased, Austria sent an ultimatum to Serbia
guns, and new battalions.
on July 23 with demands that would have effectively
The growing arms race led to rising military
ended Serbia’s national sovereignty. Russia, Serbia’s
influence on government policy decision making.
major ally in the region, had been counseling
Civilian political leaders listened more and more
moderation and restraint. However, on receipt of
to advice from their military and naval officers.
news of the ultimatum, political momentum in the

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World War I:
Origins of the War in Europe (continued)

Russian government shifted from the moderates
enter the war as Russia’s ally, the Germans decided
to the militarists and the country began to prepare
to strike quickly against them. They used a plan
for war. Serbia responded to the Austrians by
developed by General Alfred von Schlieffen some
accepting almost all the terms of the ultimatum, but years before in which Belgium was invaded as
Austria declared their response to be unsatisfactory a means to outflank and encircle the French.
and declared war on July 28.
This violation of Belgium’s neutrality on August 3
Now the system of secret treaties came into play helped to trigger a British declaration of war on
and worked its deadly effect. Like a chain reaction
Germany on August 4. For the first time since the
each major power was pulled into the conflict, and
days of Napoleon a century earlier, Europe was now
in just one week they were all at war. Austria’s
involved in a general war. Although few could have
declaration of war against Serbia only stimulated
suspected it in the war enthusiasm of the moment,
Russian mobilization. Germany sent a formal
this would be the deadliest and most destructive
demand to Russia to stop its mobilization. When
conflict in Europe since the religious wars of the
Germany received no reply, it declared war on
seventeenth century.
Russia on August 1. Knowing that France would