- /The First World War Began
The First World War Began
The first world war began in late July 1914 and ended in November 1918, leaving 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. Unlike the second world war, the causes of World War I remain controversial and debated questions still to this day. Although it may seem the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the immediate cause, the underlying causes may date further back into the nineteenth century. The domestic and foreign policies of the countries involved, the rise of nationalism and imperialism, as well as militarism all played a part leading up to the timetable of events in July that ignited the first world war.
Imperialism is a policy that involves a nation extending its power by the acquisition of lands by purchase, diplomacy or military force. Before World War I, Africa and parts of Asia were points of contention among the European countries, because of the raw materials these areas could provide. Because of the resources made available by imperialism, the world’s economy grew significantly and became much more interconnected in the decades before World War I, making the many imperial powers rich and prosperous. As a result, tensions around these areas ran high and the increasing competition and desire for greater empires led to an increase in confrontation.
The rise of Nationalism was also in large part one of the underlying causes of the war. Nationalism means being a strong supporter of the rights and interests of one’s country. This can especially be seen when looking at Eastern Europe and the Slav nationalists. Pan-Slavism was a 19th century movement that recognized that all speakers of Slavic languages unite and belong to a single nation. Slav nationalism in the Balkans certainly ramped up tensions in that region and across the continent (Kohn 1961). Pan-Slavist tendencies inflamed Russian policymakers. After the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, increasing attention was paid by Russian leaders to the ambitions of Austria-Hungary in that region. This nationalism on both sides escalated tensions and created the potential for crisis. That crisis eventually came after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Serb Slavic nationalism had an essential part in the violence. The alleged terrorist cell that carried out the deed had unofficial support from within the Serbian state and were motivated above all else by the desire for Serbian greatness to flower in the region (Snell, 2018). It was this assassination on June 28th 1914, that on the surface, caused and pushed the European powers over the brink to war.
Militarism also played a large role in the underlying causes of the first world war. Militarism is the belief or the desire of a government or a people that a state should maintain a strong military capability, and that the army and military forces are given a high profile by the government to use it aggressively to expand national interests and/or value. The growing European divide and the imperial rivalries had led to an arms race between the bigger Europena countries. This was especially true in Germany’s case. This idea of building up the military and a strong rise in nationalism shaped German foreign and domestic policies. German historians have long debated these policies, Professor Geiss of the University of Bremen, provides a straightforward and chronological explanation in his book and summarizes war in 1914 was a further escalation in the political practice of the German Empire to preserve its social order and political structure by a combination of pressure at home and abroad. Professor Berghahn, of Warwick University, in his book, In Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, argues that the rapid industrialization of Germany and the country’s sensational economic growth were not accompanied by any corresponding change in its social structure and the resulting dissatisfaction could only be dealt with by what one German historian, H. Bôhme, has called ‘national strategies of distraction’. Berghahn argues these very strategies only intensified the crisis and Germany’s bid for world power provoked the reaction of other great powers, especially Britain. The ensuing Anglo-German arms race and naval build-up imposed an intolerable financial burden on the German Empire which increased the internal strains and pointed to war as a possible, or perhaps the only way out (Joll, 1977).
These ideologies of imperialism, nationalism, and militarism all played a large role in the causes of the first world war. However, each one of these ideologies individually shaped the domestic and foreign policies of the European powers. These policies led to the group of alliances that ultimately ended up provoking World War I. The first of the two major alliances was the triple alliance, originally named the Dual Alliance consisting of Germany and Austria-Hungary, which later added Italy. The second was the Triple Entente which included Russia, France, and Great Britain. Important to note as well the Treaty of London in 1839, which guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium as protected by Great Britain. These alliances were formed in the late 1800’s much before the thought of war was possible, but these were important in that they meant that some countries had no option but to declare war if one of their allies, declared war first.
Responding to the assassination in June 1914, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany tried to leverage the crisis to fulfill longstanding territorial ambitions and as a result the July crisis unfolded, and these very alliances pushed the European powers to the first World War. Austria-Hungary held Serbia responsible for the assassination and demanded that the Serbian government make amends. In early July, German Kaiser Wilhelm II encouraged Austria-Hungary to quickly invade and punish Serbia. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. As Austro-Hungarian warships on the Danube River bombarded Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city, Russia determined to stand by Serbia and defend its own interests in the Balkans. Tsar Nicolas II ordered a general mobilization of his army on July 30, 1914, which Germany viewed Russia’s mobilization as a direct threat. With Russia refusing to halt its mobilization, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914. Two days later Germany declared war on France. As German troops crossed into Belgium on August 4, Britain declared war on Germany to protect Belgium’s neutrality treaty from 1839. When the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers and Japan and Italy joined the Allies, the conflict became a true world war (textbook).
As most Europeans rushed into battle, the United States, however, followed a completely different road to war. Americans pledged a position of neutrality as most Americans felt it wasn’t their war to fight. It took two and a half years for the United States to enter the war. President Woodrow Wilson advised Americans to avoid “passionately taking sides” and to “remain impartial in thought, as well as action.” However, the predicament was how to remain neutral without seriously damaging the American economy. President Wilson tried to limit America’s financial involvement in the war by banning private American bank loans to the belligerent nations, however that ban was lifted in 1915. The Allies were running short of cash, and President Wilson feared a widespread U.S. recession if these nations stopped buying American goods. American manufacturers and banks were free to do business with both the Allies and Germany. Even if American manufacturers and banks had wanted to help Germany, trade became nearly impossible when Britain used its navy to blockade Germany. The blockade immediately affected American trade, and ships could not sail through the North Sea to Germany without first allowing the British to search their cargo for contraband or merchandise such as guns or ammunition that Britain wanted to stop from entering Germany. In March 1915, President Wilson formally protested British blockading practices, and the British agreed to buy enough American cotton to offset the loss of the German market. By 1917, American banks were loaning Britain an average of $10 million a day. In contrast American trade with Germany had dropped to less than one percent of what it had been in 1914. America’s financial elite, however, had no desire to trade with both sides. Many upper-class Americans revered British culture and had warm feelings toward the French. Widespread publicity of German atrocities against Belgian civilians also fanned anti-German sentiment among Americans (textbook).
It was this war at sea between Britain and the Germans, however that pushed America into the first World War. The use of the German U-boat in the blockade front and the active war zone escalated tensions, and the German’s threatened to attack any ship that entered that zone. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sunk the Lusitania, a British passenger ship sailing off the coast of Ireland. President Wilson sent a series of notes demanding that Germany pay reparations and accept the right of Americans to travel on any ship they wished, but the Germans defended the sinking, pointing out that they had published warnings to passengers in American newspapers. As the United States and Germany argued over the Lusitania, another German U-boat sunk another British passenger ship, the Arabic, in August 1915, leaving two Americans among the dead. The Lusitania sinking was an ideological turning point for the United States. In reaction to the crisis, President Wilson redefined the meaning of neutrality, consequently putting the United States on a collision course with Germany.
In addition to the war at sea, conflict shift back stateside and from 1914 to 1917 German spies spent nearly $12 million to support rebel factions in Mexico, who resented the U.S. government’s intervention in Mexican domestic politics. In mid-February 1917 President Wilson learned that the German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann had sent the Zimmermann Telegram to Mexico stating that in the event of war with the United States, Germany would help Mexico recover Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona if Mexico started a border war with the United States. Zimmermann also asked Mexico to mediate between Germany and Japan, hoping to entice Japan into attacking America’s Pacific colonial possessions. This only escalated tensions between Germany and the United States. With additional pressure from the Germans in the Atlantic, and the sinking of American merchant ships and precious Allies supplies, President Wilson on April 2, 1917, went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war, laying out goals that went far beyond simply defeating Germany.
The Americans may not have won the war for the Allies, but they certainly kept them from losing it. At key moments in the German spring offensives in 1918, American soldiers helped stop the Germans from taking Paris. American troops provided key strength for the French-led counteroffensives over the summer, and in the Meuse-Argonne campaign, American soldiers leveled a devastating blow to the German army that helped make British and French advances to the north possible. Also, the prospect of fighting a million more fresh American recruits in 1919 convinced Germany to seek a negotiated peace agreement (textbook).
The Armistice ended active fighting in Western Europe, but the peace settlement took months to negotiate at the Paris Peace Conference. After months of negotiations, by mostly the Big Four; American President Wilson, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George, and the Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando they signed the Versailles Peace Treaty. The treaty required Germany to pay reparations and disarm, despite protest from the Germans, the treaty was signed on June 28, 1919. The treaty also created the League of Nations, a Wilson-supported collective security organization whose member nations agreed to mediate future international disputes to prevent wars and work together to improve global conditions. Although this initiative was vastly supported by President Wilson, it was much debated at home by a republican-controlled Congress. Despite Wilson’s efforts to establish and promote the League, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1919, the Senate in 1920 refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty, or to join the League of Nations (Mckillen 2003). Rejection of Wilson’s vision of collective security through the League did not however signal a withdrawal from world affairs. Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge tried instead to use disarmament and dollars to prevent armed conflict. These dollars were a result of wartime loans and German reparations that fueled a thriving American economy in the roaring 20’s. But after the stock market crashed at the end of the of the 1920’s, American drastically reduced their oversea loaning, and beginning with Germany, and by 1934 most governments had defaulted on their wartime debt loans.
There may not be one single event or even country that caused the first World War, yet what is certain is the imperialistic motives, militarism, and the rise of nationalism did pave the way for global conflict. These ideologies shaped the global powers of the early 1900’s and ultimately led the timeline of events in the summer of 1914. With the infamous assassination of Archduke Ferdinand being the one death that finally tipped the scales in favor of an inevitable world war. Its not first without the web of alliances that we arrive at World War I, and with incitement by the Germans, the United States enters the war nearly two and half years later. In 1918 the war comes to an end with a death toll over 17 million. However, a peace treaty signed under protest by Germany in 1919, and a League of Nations created by President Wilson but never joined by the United States, will set the stage for a second global conflict in years to come.
I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.