Few things in history are as simple as they appear in the history books you read in high school, especially wars. World War I is no exception. There were a great number of things that created the climate in Europe that allowed the type of inertia which occured after the assination to…occur. In the interest of time, we will cover only three of them: militarism, nationalism, and a complex system of alliances-ism.
The rest of this post in an assignment I wrote for my English class. I got to choose the subject, so naturally I chose something I wanted post anyway. Brilliant, eh? At any rate, that’s why this one may sound a little more scholarly, hopefully, than part one and why it has quotes and sources. I’ve added a couple of things, and made a few changes and those will be italics. I scored 100% on this by the way.
How did one event in a city of seemingly no real world significance spark a global conflagration that would become the most destructive and devastating in history to that time? How did the concerns of a crumbling European empire and a Balkan country barely larger than the state of Maine lead to what was labeled at the time as the War to End All Wars? Why did the assassination of an heir to the throne, an heir, not even the ruler, cause the great nations of Europe, many of their rulers from the same royal family tree, to march to battle? When one looks at the ruin wrought by World War I in comparison to its catalytic event, it does not seem to add up. But the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was just that, an event, a kick off. When studied within the greater context of the geo-political climate of late 19th, early 20th century Europe, a better question may be, how had it not happened sooner? If the Assassination in Sarajevo was the match thrown into the powder keg that was the Balkans, then that powder keg was only one of many in the powder magazine that was Europe. That singular event set into motion of chain of events that were influenced by the nationalism, militarism, and complicated system of alliances that dominated Europe at the time.
Nationalism had been a growing trend in Europe for several decades leading up to the Great War. While the United States is considered a “young” country, numbering only 230 years, it outstrips many European countries at least as far as nation-state status is concerned. Until the mid to late 19th century many European “nations”, that is those peoples sharing a common language and similar culture, were not united in an all encompassing state. For example, the principalities of Italy were not unified as the nation-state of Italy until 1861 and those of Germany until a decade later. The growing tide of nationalism was especially strong in the Balkan territories under Austro-Hungarian rule in the years leading up to World War I. They were especially vulnerable to such movements because, as Peter Kauffner states, “With five major religions, 11 nationalities, and 16 languages, the Habsburg Empire was an anachronism in an age of nationalism.” Pan-Slavism, a Slav nationalist movement, had been a growing problem for Austrians for some time and the assassins of the Archduke were in fact members of a secret Slav nationalist group known as The Black Hand. Though Serbia was an independent Slav nation, it felt as threatened by Austro-Hungarian dominance as the Austro-Hungarians feared the rebellion of their Slav subjects, spurred on by Serbian Pan-Slavists. The Russians, Slavs themselves, portrayed themselves as the “big brother” to all oppressed Slavs and encouraged Pan-Slavism partly out of, as Michael Duffy explains, “a genuine emotional attachment” but also as “a means by which Russia could regain a degree of lost prestige” after their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. This nationalistic fervor created an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust in south Eastern Europe.
In order to achieve the unification of German states Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had used military might, though he did so judiciously. His opponents in two wars, Austria in 1866 and France in 1871, were isolated and alone resulting in wars that were relatively short. However, with the aftereffect of a powerful and united German state, the rest of Europe began to fret over the prospects of a European continent dominated by Germany. In the years between the Franco-Prussian war and WWI, the standing armies of the major European nations began to swell. As Susan Karpilovsky, Maria Fogel, and Olivia Kobelt observe, “The standing armies of France and Germany doubled in size between 1870 and 1914.” H.P. Willmott agrees that, “the need for all states, unless they were prepared to accept German military hegemony” was to “ensure their security by raising armies through conscription” (12). Germany also challenged Britain’s naval dominance buy building more and larger battleships. Kauffner notes that the British, “responded with an accelerated naval buildup of their own under the slogan, ‘We want eight [new battleships] and we won’t wait.’”
Another factor of the militarist mindset in Europe was intricate war plans. Most nations in the years leading up to 1914 had developed detailed war plans that were based on strict timetables. The most notable of these was the German Schlieffen Plan. The plans had specific trigger mechanisms that would set them in motion and, due to the nature of communications of the period and the fear of losing tactical and strategic advantage, were virtually impossible to stop (“World War I”). It may seem strange that the war plans were unstoppable, but you have to take into account the nature of communications at the time. Even now with cell and satalite phones, email, and other wireless technology, communication on the battlefield is far from flawless. In the early 20th century most communication was either by telegraph or messenger. So even though most of the countries involved were ruled by autocrats who could pretty much do whatever they wanted, even if they wanted to recall the troops communicating with all of them efficiently was impossible.
The destinations of the large standing armies that were set in motion by the intricate war plans were determined by a tangled web of international alliances. After he had consolidated Germany, Duffy writes that Bismarck’s “chief desire now was to maintain its stability. He therefore set about building European alliances aimed at protecting Germany from potentially threatening quarters.” From 1871 until the outbreak of the war, the nations of Europe engaged in a dizzying whirlwind of alliance making, breaking, and rearranging. By the time the fateful shots were fired at the Archduke in Sarajevo, “International tension was greatly increased by the division of Europe into two armed camps” (Karpilovsky, Fogel, Kobelt). What should have remained a relatively minor squabble between an aging empire and an upstart neighbor, rapidly transformed into a chain reaction of reactions, ostensibly in obligation to allies.
If any one of these conditions had been present in Europe alone, the dire consequences may have been avoided. Nationalism without the militarist mindset may have fizzled. Without the alliances, the ordeal between Austria-Hungary and Serbia may have been settled, if not peacefully, at least in a much smaller, limited military engagement. Strident nationalism led to distrust and suspicion among nations, giving rise to the presumptive necessity of large and powerful standing armies. The alliance system provided the impetus for aggressive action because it gave nations the confidence to flex their muscle, knowing they would not be alone in a fight. The resulting conflict would shape not only its immediate aftermath, but, arguably, the future of the next 75 years.
Duffy, Michael. “The Causes of World War One.” First World War: The War to End All Wars. 27 March 2004. 21 Dec. 2006 <http://www.firstworldwar.com/origins/causes.htm>.
Karpilovsky, Susan, Maria Fogel, and Olivia Kobelt. “The Great War: Causes.” IB History Pages. 21 Dec. 2006 <http://www.cusd.chico.k12.ca.us/~bsilva/projects/great_war/causes.htm>.
Kauffner, Peter. “Timeline.” Trenches on the Web. 15 Jan. 2000. 21 Dec. 2006 < http://www.worldwar1.com/tlwarorg.htm#britain>.
Wilmott, H.P. World War I. New York: Dorling Kinderely Publising Inc., 2003.
“World War I.” Wikipedia. 21 Dec. 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I