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Accounting for the First World War

Academic Discipline: History
Course Name: History
Assignment Subject: Accounting for the causes of WW1
Academic Level: High School-Grade 12
Referencing Style: Chicago
Word Count: 2,023

The First World War was historically unprecedented in terms of the advanced warfare tools, casualty rates, and involvement of multiple nations from different continents. Although the onset of the war is largely attributed to the 1914 Sarajevo assassination, the causes of the war pre-date the events of 1914. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the causes of the First World War, to ascertain the relative importance of cumulative factors that led to the war. It will be argued that while several factors contributed to the outbreak of war, the single most important factor was the alliance system.

The first major cause of the First World War was the alliance system. On the one hand, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed the central powers or Triple Alliance, while on the other hand, the Allies or Triple Entente comprised France, Russia, and Britain. The alliance system contributed to the onset of war for three main reasons. First, the system was based on distinct alliances or partnerships that dictated the unfolding of war, as an attack on one member of a faction was necessarily perceived as an attack on all members belonging to the faction in question (Alpha History 2021). Second, the alliance network divided great powers across two distinct camps, thereby essentially pitting the two groups against each other in the battle to control Europe and the rest of the world. Third, the alliance system was based on the mandate to protect mutual interests, in turn perceived as mutually exclusive with the strategic interests of the other camp (Alpha History 2021).

In addition to the alliance system, Europe was engulfed in an arms race in the years leading to 1914. The arms race was characterized by the heavy militarization of both the Central powers and the allies, with the intent to create naval, air force and standing army capacities that would rival and dominate the other (Maurer 1997 p.286). The arms race was facilitated by the industrial revolution and subsequent technological advancements, which paved the way for the manufacture of semi-automatic rifles, tanks and other warfare tools. The arms race contributed to the onset of the First World War in three distinct ways. First, the arms race resulted in the creation of war equipment that had the inherent capacity to devastate entire populations and destroy cities to the ground- which increased the likelihood of a total war among the warring parties. Second, the arms race was fuelled by a spirit of competition, thereby intensifying the rivalry that existed between the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente (Maurer 1997 p.286). Third, the arms race provided each faction with a legitimate prospect for victory over the other, thereby exacerbating tension as neither party was likely to back down from a military confrontation with the other.

The third contributing factor of the First World War was the influence of nationalism and the empire building mentality among European statesmen. Since the unification of both Italy and Germany in the late 19th century, both countries had expressed an intent to maintain their territorial empires within Europe- especially staving off potential attacks from some of the already established powers- such as Britain and France (Williamson 1988 p.795). Nationalism and the empire building mentality contributed to the onset of war in four major ways. First, it created a hegemonic power battle between Britain and France on the one hand, against Germany and Italy on the other, as the latter powers sought to increase the diplomatic and economic importance of their respective countries in Europe and beyond. Second, nationalism fuelled the sentiment that each country was virtually on its own, and that the ability to protect its strategic interests was paramount to maintain relevance in the restructured European order. Third, the empire building mentality informed the sentiment that each country had to expand its physical geographic boundaries to increase prospects of successfully staving off an attack from real and perceived enemies. Finally, nationalism and empire building both contributed to the balance of power crisis that Europe experienced at the time, as a range of competing countries with comparable economic and military strength were vying for the opportunity to dominate Europe.

The fourth factor contributing to the eruption of war was imperialism. All major countries in both the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance had overseas empires that were useful in fuelling the industrialization drive in their respective domestic economies, in addition to providing critical resources that could be used for armament among other initiatives. Imperialism’s first contribution to the war was intensifying the rivalry and hostility between the European powers, for instance illustrated by the fight for territories in the Scramble for Africa (Weinstein 2000 p.11). Second, imperialism fed the notions of nationalism and empire building, thereby providing an additional incentive to maintain the tension and hostility between European powers. Third, imperialism enabled the European great powers to amass resources from their colonies, which were used for industrialization, and the manufacture of advanced weapons. Therefore, in the absence of colonies and imperialism, industrialization may have occurred much later, which would have also ostensibly delayed the onset of war.

An arguably more proximate cause of the war was the Balkan crisis. Prior to 2014, Austria-Hungary had tension with Serbia over the latter’s desire to unify all Slavic people including some populations residing in Austria-Hungary (Alpha History). Austria-Hungary perceived the Serbian intent as a direct assault on its nationalism and empire building imperatives, thereby increasing the tension between the two in the region. With the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian extremist, Austria-Hungary capitalized on the opportunity to not only redress the issues experienced with Serbia. The Balkan crisis was therefore not only an ongoing tension between Austria-Hungary and Balkan states, but one that served as the final impetus for war.

This paper has thus far argued that the First World War occurred because of cumulative factors, specifically the alliance system; the arms race; nationalism and empire building sentiments; imperialism and the Balkan crisis. The next important question pertains to which of the identified factors can be deemed most influential and important in leading to the First World War. This section will argue that the alliance system was the most important, single contributor to the First World War, primarily because each of the other identified factors were not sufficient causes to single-handedly lead to the eruption of war. The relative importance of each factor will be considered separately, prior to defending the identified thesis.

As noted earlier, the arms race was critical in setting the stage for war, as it created the impression that each country had the capability to not only stave off an attack from an enemy, but also successfully launch an attack for its own strategic purposes. However, the arms race was insufficient as a single cause for the war. This is because both historically and in the contemporary context, countries have always had different levels of armament, and the imperative to create a military force that can successfully quell an external attack has existed since time immemorial. The implication is that the armament race was necessary insofar as providing the tools for war, although it remained insufficient to cause the war between European powers.

Similarly, it was established that nationalism and empire building sentiments were critical in driving the tension that eventually erupted into war. However, like the arms race, nationalism and empire building were not stand-alone causes for the war. First, nationalism is arguably an important aspect of any country, both historically and in the contemporary context, as it provides the basis for national unity, a sense of belonging and national pride. Therefore, nationalism did not cause the war. Instead, the leading statesmen in both the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente manipulated nationalistic sentiment to create a zero-scum game in Europe. That is, nationalism was used as a vehicle to fuel the othering of external societies, to an extent where nationalism was perceived as synonymous with defending one’s country against enemies. In similar token, empire building may not have necessarily led to war, primarily because each great power had a subtle respect and acceptance of the empire building ambitions of the other. For instance, Germany’s unification process led to its acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine from France. Although France was not impressed with the cessation of its territory after the Franco-Prussian war, this was insufficient to make France declare war on Germany to gain back its territory. The implication is that empire building did lead to the exacerbation of tension among the great powers, although it did not single-handedly lead to the eruption of war.

Imperialism was equally important insofar as exacerbating tension and hostility among European powers, especially in contexts where they were vying for control over the same colonial territory. The first reason imperialism did not single-handedly lead to war is because it had existed for decades prior to the First World War, intimating that at the very least, it was not a proximate reason for the war. Second, imperialism was an all-European affair, in that each country was virtually capable and permitted to annex foreign territories to fuel industrialization or other agendas in the domestic context. For instance, although Britain and Germany were virtually enemies by 1914, both had territories in Africa which were acknowledged and respected as such despite the rivalry between them. This demonstrates that imperialism was not a zero-sum game, and the ability for each European power to exercise it implied that it was not a proximate cause for the war.

Of all factors identified as contributing to the onset of war, the factor that could have single-handedly led to the eruption of war was the alliance system. First, the alliance system created a reality in which an attack on one was perceived as an attack on all, implying that any skirmishes had the potential to bring Europe to war. Second, the Balkan crisis and the Sarajevo assassination both revealed the significance of the alliance system in leading Europe to war. This is because Austria-Hungary had to secure support from the Triple Entente, while Serbia received the protection of Germany, prior to making any official declarations of war (Alpha History). In other words, the Sarajevo assassination assumed importance and significance because the conflicting parties were assured of the intervention of their allies should they engage in warfare- thereby underscoring the significance of the alliance system in leading to war. Finally, the alliance system was important because the war involved most of Europe, and eventually the United States and Japan- demonstrating that in the absence of camps, war may have been inevitable on a smaller scale. However, the magnitude of the war and the involvement of multiple parties demonstrated that the alliances created formal allegiances that had to be honored, in turn leading to the involvement of multiple countries and setting the stage for a historically unprecedented conflict.

In conclusion, this paper sought to identify the causes of the First World War and isolate at least one cause that may have unilaterally resulted in the war. It was argued that the main factors contributing to the onset of war included the arms race; the political significance of nationalism and empire building sentiments; imperialism; the alliance system; and the Balkan crisis. Moreover, the paper argued that of all identified factors, the single most important determinant of the war was the alliance system. It is important to stress that each of the identified factors were all significant in leading to the First World War, and that the complexity of the war is such that it cannot be attributed to one single factor. This paper demonstrated that while all identified factors contributed to the eruption of war, the alliance system was the most significant culprit. This is because in the absence of the alliance system, war may have been inevitable between some great powers, but its magnitude and effect would have been equally on a smaller scale. Therefore, the alliance system forged networks of allegiance that had to be honored, in turn explaining why the First World War involved several countries, was fought in many countries, and led to casualty rates of more than 20 million.

Alpha History. 2021. “Alliances as A Cause of WW1”. Accessed May 10 2022 from

Maurer, John H. 1997. “Arms Control and the Anglo-German Naval Race before World War I: Lessons for Today?” Political Science Quarterly 112 (2): 285-306.

Weinstein, Jeremy M. 2000. “Africa’s “Scramble for Africa”: Lessons of a Continental War.” World Policy Journal 17 (2): 11-20.

Williamson, S. R. 1988. “The Origins of World War I.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18 (4): 795–818.