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11 months, 3 days ago
With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching, we can expect our bookstore shelves and digital catalogues to be packed with tomes explaining how and why a war that killed 10 million soldiers and had 7 million civilian casualties was fought in the first place.
After a hundred years you might expect some consensus on the causes of the war, but no such luck: you won’t find two historians who completely agree on this topic. And the dizzying array of explanations simply underscores how much we still don’t know, or can’t agree on, about the Great War of 1914-1918.
Here are some (but by no means all) of the major explanations:
1. Friends don’t let friends fight alone
A tangled web of strong political alliances among nations meant that most great powers felt obliged to help their partners once war was declared.
After the murder of an Austrian Archduke by Serbian assassins, Austria-Hungary prepared for war against Serbia, which was allied with Russia.
Once Russia mobilized, Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany, declared war on both Russia and Russia’s ally, France. Great Britain and its empire, sympathetic to France, declared war on Germany (Canada was not consulted).
Alliances originally intended as defensive pacts ended up looking threatening to outsiders. This perilous network of allegiances is an accepted part of all narratives about the First World War. German historian Andreas Hilgruber was one of many who showed how dangerous and costly all of these alliances were.
2. Armed to the teeth
Europe in 1914 was armed to the teeth. Vast fleets of warships were being constructed, conscription was implemented in most of the great powers to allow large armies to be kept in reserve, weapons and ammunition were stockpiled, and detailed war plans were made.
The impact of the proliferation of the instruments of war as a cause of the outbreak of the conflict was highlighted by David Stevenson’s Armaments and the Coming of War (1996). A large army spoiling for a fight may well seek one out.
3. Capitalist imperialism
During the First World War, Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Soviet Union, wrote an essay entitled Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), in which he laid out the foundation of his own philosophy of communism.
He believed that the war was the product of capitalist financial monopolies within states, which created national rivalries and led the great powers into a destructive conflict over access to raw materials and undeveloped markets.
Others since have blamed imperialism itself and commercial interests.
4. War on a tight schedule
A.J.P. Taylor, one of the 20th century’s great historians, argued in War by Timetable (1969) that in 1914, thanks to relatively new transportation (railroad) and communications (telegraph and telephone) technologies, every European power believed that the ability to mobilize their armies faster than their neighbours would by itself deter war.
Every power drafted elaborate mobilization timetables so that they could outrace their potential opponents. When the crisis of 1914 occurred, none of the leaders really wanted war, according to Taylor, but each felt they had to mobilize faster than the others or lose the advantage.
They became the victims of their own logistical preparations, and Europe slid unwillingly but relentlessly into war. Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August (1962) similarly identified the dangers of technology in causing conflicts to escalate rapidly.
5. Blame Germany
In the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the war, Germany was made to accept the blame for causing the conflict, and after that German governments spent decades denying their sole responsibility.
They convinced many people, but after the Second World War, German historian Fritz Fischer looked into previously-classified archives for the first time. Fischer concluded in his book German War Aims in the First World War (1961) that Imperial Germany had deliberately provoked a general war as part of a policy of conquest much like that undertaken by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany 20 years later.
Fischer’s conclusions remain controversial to this day.
6. No, blame Britain
The idea that Britain caused the war was the live grenade that firebrand historian Niall Ferguson lobbed into the debate when he wrote The Pity of War (1999), though Paul Schroeder had put forward a similar argument earlier.
Ferguson claimed that not only did British statesmen encourage France and Russia to oppose Germany, but that Britain’s own intervention turned a regional European brawl into a global war.
The British may not have directly started it, according to Ferguson, but they were liable for greatly expanding the scope of the war and making it drag on as long as it did.
7. People being people
Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan has published a major book, The War That Ended Peace (2013), which presents a synthesis of many different factors: alliances and power politics; reckless diplomacy; ethnic nationalism; and, most of all, the personal character and relationships of the almost uncountable number of historical figures who had a hand in the coming of war.
Her work helps to highlight the fact that for all the great and powerful forces that seemed to grind the world inexorably into war in 1914, everything ultimately came down to the beliefs, prejudices, rivalries, and schemes of a great array of personalities and people.
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