A Current Historiography of the Causes of the First World War

One of the most cataclysmic events in world history, naturally, attracts much attention from historians, and making sense of the historiography surrounding the war’s causes can be tiresome. This essay attempts to provide a structured and up-to-date outline of the topic.

The First World War was a conflict of unprecedented scale and the debate as to the most important reason for its outbreak has polarised historians for decades. The conflict had immediate causes in the short-term, but was also the culmination of over a century of socioeconomic and political change. Nationalism, born out of the French Revolution, spread rapidly across Europe, and the rise of Germany destabilised the geopolitical status quo, whilst a dangerous web of alliances spanning the European continent was constructed. However, underpinning all of these phenomena was the socioeconomic upheaval and instability brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of market capitalism.

In the short-term, the First World War was a direct result of the events that took place in Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914 when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, visited the Bosnian capital, a hotbed of Serbian irredentist nationalism. There, Gavrilo Princip, a teenage member of the pan-Serbian Black Hand organisation, shot the Archduke at point-blank range, fatally injuring him and triggering the July Crisis, culminating in the outbreak of war. Though it is easy to attribute the onset of the war to the assassination in Sarajevo, the Archduke’s death was merely ‘the spark that lit the tinderbox’ and it was, in reality, an accumulation of long-term factors over the past century that had created the perfect conditions for a global conflict.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a system of alliances developed throughout Europe, splitting the continent into two entangled, hostile camps who became the belligerents of the First World War. This web of alliances bound the continent together, meaning a small-scale conflict could easily escalate into a global war, as in 1914, when a localised Austro-Serbian confrontation spiralled into what became the First World War. For Bernadotte Schmitt, the alliance framework ‘almost mechanically operated to convert a local quarrel into a general war’.

Though the alliance system was a crucial condition for the short-term outbreak of conflict, it was by no means a direct cause of the war in itself. The division of Europe into alliance blocs was more a symptom of an already polarised geopolitical landscape, caused by the rise of Germany and increasingly abrasive nationalism, both underpinned by socioeconomic changes. Christopher Clark stresses that ‘the bifurcation into two alliance blocs did not cause the war’, arguing that it ‘did as much to mute as to escalate conflict in the pre-war years’, suggesting that, through collective security, alliances provided a stabilising deterrent, delaying, rather than causing, conflict. This perspective is well substantiated in that, during the 30 years prior to 1914, localised conflicts, such as the 1911 Italo-Turkish War and the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, remained localised, despite the alliance system’s presence. Furthermore, arguing that the system pushed Europe to war involuntarily suggests that the alliances were strong, binding agreements. A.J.P. Taylor posits that, in reality, the alliances were too fragile to be a prime cause of conflict, arguing that ‘none of the powers acted according to the letter of their commitments’. Italy, for example, despite signing the 1882 Triple Alliance, refused to declare war in 1914, arguing that Austria-Hungary was the aggressor and that the Triple Alliance was strictly defensive. However, Britain, despite only being bound by the Entente Cordial, did decide to go to war. Both Italy and Britain put their own interests above any superficial pact, exemplifying the weakness of the alliance framework in the face of national interests and its lack of significance as a major cause of the war.

Bethmann-Hollweg’s August 1914 speech to the Reichstag supports the argument that alliances were insignificant in causing of the war. In it, he asserts that ‘English statesmen assured Parliament that…England is free to decide whether she would participate in a European war’. He dismisses the claim that Britain went to war to defend Belgian neutrality, instead reasoning that Britain ‘allowed this war’ because she thought it in her interest. The source’s value lies in Bethmann-Hollweg’s insider perspective. As chancellor, he had extensive contact with high-ranking British diplomats, most crucially Sir Edward Goschen, British ambassador to Germany, giving him a unique viewpoint on British aims, untainted by British bias. However, as wartime chancellor speaking after Britain entered the conflict, Bethmann-Hollweg aimed to blame the enemy’s belligerency for the outbreak of war, stressing that Germany was fighting ‘for reasons of self-preservation’. He hoped to thereby justify the conflict in the eyes of the public, amongst whom his popularity was waining. Bethmann-Hollweg’s jingoistic tone — he ends the speech by declaring ‘Germany cannot be crushed!’ — further suggests that the underlying motive was to garner patriotic support for the war effort. He also used such rhetoric to win the support of the Reichstag, a key arm of government. The chancellor thanks members for voting through ‘the hugest war bill ever recorded’, indicating the speech’s Anglophobic tone was an attempt to justify the fiscal cost of maintaining the German military. Crucially, by 1912, the SDP, a socialist party, held 110 of 367 Reichstag seats. Bethmann-Hollweg’s anti-British jingoism was also an attempt to counter the internationalist, anti-war socialist narrative and unite other parties in support of the war. Overall, the source provides a unique first-hand perspective of British foreign policy, but its reliability is tarnished by the underlying motives of its speaker.

Nationalism — ‘the belief that the nation was the natural form of large scale political organisation’ — was a new concept which spread rapidly due to increased governmental centralisation and better connected populations, both facilitated by the continent’s socioeconomic upheaval. This new ideology destabilised international politics, generating friction between neighbouring states and increasing popular support for war. Nationalist revanchism, for example, dominated French political discourse during the late 1800s, a consequence of defeat in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by a newly industrialised Germany. The conflict was settled with a 5 billion frank indemnity paid to Germany in the Treaty of Frankfurt, scarring national pride and generating calls for revenge throughout the Belle Époque. Recapturing these regions was not ‘merely desirable’ for the political nation of the Third Republic, but ‘absolutely necessary’, according to Taylor, escalating Franco-German tensions. The Anglo-German naval race provides another example of nationalism leading to friction between the Great Powers. British policy had long been to maintain the Two Power Standard, whereby the navy was ‘at a strength at least equal to that of any other two powers’. When Germany challenged British naval dominance she invoked renewed patriotism in British society. The British government was pressured into building more dreadnoughts, with protestors chanting ‘we want eight and we won’t wait’. Although by 1914 the race was at an end — Britain’s 29 dreadnoughts dwarfed Germany’s 17 — relations between the two had frayed significantly in the face of nationalist sentiment, escalating the arms race and increasing public support for war, setting the stage for a global conflict.

Nationalism was not limited to France and Britain; ethnic nationalism also played an important role in German politics. Aggressive ethnocentricity was commonplace amongst the German leadership, as illustrated by communications between Prince Lichnowsky, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Helmuth von Moltke from 1914, collated by Fritz Fischer from the Imperial German archives. In these letters, there are constant references to ‘the imminent struggle for existence’ between ‘Teutons, Slavs, Gauls and Anglo-Saxons’. Wilhelm describes the July Crisis as ‘not a question of high politics, but a question of race’, asserting that ‘no conference can smooth this over’. The letters provide a valuable depiction of the convictions of the German leadership at the time, especially given the backgrounds of the three; Kaiser Wilhelm was the most important figure in the Germany Empire; Lichnowsky was ambassador to Britain and head of an immensely wealthy noble family; Moltke was nephew of the eponymous Franco-Prussian War hero and head of the German military from 1911. These illustrious backgrounds make the social Darwinist tone prevalent throughout the communications even more alarming. Wilhelm’s flagrant refusal to find a diplomatic solution, embodying his zero-sum approach to international relations, lends weight to the argument that ethnocentricity played a crucial role in encouraging German aggression. Furthermore, the private nature of the letters reduces the chances of any underlying motives for such rhetoric, making the source even more valuable. However, it is important to note that these three were by no means ordinary Germans, meaning this source provides little evidence that such attitudes were prevalent throughout German society.

Any examination of the causes of the First World War would be incomplete without considering the role played by Germany. Since German war guilt was enshrined in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, historians have argued that German militarism was crucial in causing the conflict. Fritz Fischer, the foremost advocate of this view, argues that Germany deliberately launched the First World War in an attempt to become a Great Power. He asserts that Germany’s instigation of conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia was driven by a desire to annex new territories and expand Germany’s empire. He cites Bethmann-Hollweg’s Septemberprogramm, where the chancellor outlines plans for the annexation of territories across the continent, forming ‘Mitteleuropa’, along with African colonies, forming ‘Mittelafrika’, as evidence. Such imperialist pursuits were undoubtedly motivated by the emergence of market capitalism; more colonies meant new markets and raw materials. Fischer also argues that a tradition of Prussian militarism, woven into the fabric of the young German state, motivated this deliberate provocation of war. Prussian militarism was born out of necessity, as the Hohenzollern dynasty built a professional army to protect against neighbouring Sweden, France, Poland and Austria in a political climate similar to the ‘einkreisungspolitik’ German military planners would later obsess over. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Prussia saw rapid territorial expansion by way of warfare, facilitated by a powerful military-industrial complex, leading Voltaire to declare ‘where some states posses an army, the Prussian Army possesses a state’. The Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars of 1866 and 1871 respectively consolidated Prussian dominance over German culture, with the latter uniting Germany into one state effectively under Prussian rule. This remarkably successful history of expansionist warfare, Fischer argues, meant that war was seen as a force for good so that, by 1914, ‘The Emperor, Bethmann-Hollweg and Jagow were all convinced of Germany’s military superiority’, giving them the confidence to push Europe into war.

Another important aspect of Fischer’s argument is his claim that ‘Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war’, deliberately antagonising Russia by providing Austria-Hungary with a blank cheque and pressuring them into offering Serbia an ultimatum tantamount to vassalage. Edward Grey’s memoirs evidence this argument. He recalls that Jagow and Bethmann-Hollweg, ‘by their own admission’, understood the ultimatum contained ‘demands Serbia could not comply with’, yet they allowed Austria-Hungary to act ‘without lifting a finger to moderate her’. His first hand experience of the July Crisis — he had frequent meetings with Lichnowsky throughout the month — makes him uniquely placed to provide an insider’s perspective on German foreign policy. However, the reliability of Grey’s account is questionable. His blunders during the July Crisis, namely his failure to effectively mediate the Austro-Serbian dispute, and the collapse of his four-power talks on the 28th of July, meant that the lack of a diplomatic solution was, in part, blamed on him. Grey’s account of events carries a distinctly accusatory tone, glosses over his own failures and is doubtless an attempt to divert blame towards the German leadership, diminishing his impartiality. Furthermore, the fact that Grey was writing after the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where the Treaty of Versailles, containing Article 231 — the ‘war guilt clause’ — had blamed the war entirely on Germany, made the German leadership an ideal scapegoat to deflect blame onto and preserve his public image. These underlying motives diminish the reliability of Grey’s memoirs.

However, the Fischer Thesis is not without its flaws. Firstly, Fischer’s views must be contextualised within the wider historiographical debate that took place in 1960s West Germany. Fischer advocated the Sonderweg theory of German history, arguing that Germany took a ‘special path’ to democracy, and that the country’s history unfolded in a manner that ensured the emergence of Nazism. Crucial to this school of thought is the case for continuity between the Second and Third Reichs, meaning Fischer is naturally inclined to attribute authoritarian behaviour associated with Nazis, including aggressive foreign policy, to Wilhelmine Germany, leading to the common accusation that he was ‘reading history backwards’. The fact that he analyses the First World War through the lens of the second, whose horrors he experienced firsthand, takes away from the objectivity of his examination of the causes of the First World War. Furthermore, after the rise of fascism, West German historians became, perhaps out of guilt, predisposed to point out the negative effects of German nationalism, such as that prevalent in Imperial Germany, a dynamic accentuated by Fischer’s personal involvement in the Nazi Party; he was a member from 1939 to 1942. Besides his personal convictions, Ferguson disagrees with Fischer’s arguments on the basis of what he calls ‘a fundamental flaw in Fischer’s reasoning’. He argues that the Septemberprogramm, though it outlines plans formulated during wartime, is insufficient evidence to suggest that these were Germany’s pre-war aims. He asserts that ‘no evidence has ever been found…that these objectives existed before Britain’s entry into the war’, discrediting the argument that Germany instigated the war in pursuit of territorial expansion. Moreover, Mommsen argues that Fischer’s Germanocentric methodology — his evidence consists mostly of documents from Imperial German archives — overlooks the irredentist aims and ethnocentricity of other Great Powers, and fails to examine the Septemberprogramm within the context of wider continental developments. The aforementioned French revanchism regarding Alsace-Lorraine, Serbia’s claim to Bosnia, and Russia’s desire to conquer Constantinople, are clear examples. Examining Germany in isolation, argues Mommsen, overlooks the similarly expansionist aims of other Great Powers, leading Fischer to an inaccurate conclusion.

The 100 years prior to the outbreak of war were characterised by unprecedented socioeconomic upheaval, and it was these changes that were the root causes of the First World War. Most importantly, this transformation led to the outbreak of conflict by facilitating the aforementioned spread of the nation-state model throughout the Europe, whose introduction led to an unparalleled level of governmental centralisation. Swelling taxable urban populations created richer governments, providing education that became ‘a central element of the state’s role in European society’, and implementing new policies such as compulsory military service. This standardisation of experiences throughout the nation encouraged a sense of fraternity, strengthening national consciousness amongst the masses. Railways accentuated this phenomenon; by making travel faster and cheaper, Europeans no longer identified only with their immediate region, but with their entire country. Anderson describes ‘a crash program of national integration of unparalleled scope and effectiveness’ as a result of nation-wide railway construction in France. Furthermore, a stronger, richer state meant that governments could tackle problems such as illiteracy, eradicated in Germany and Scandinavia by 1881. Increased literacy amongst the masses meant previously inaccessible political literature became widely read. This exacerbated nationalism, but it also made socialist tracts popular amongst urban proletarians whose working and living conditions were abhorrent. The resultant growth of socialism, exemplified by the emergence of trade unionism, prompted the political establishment to use nationalism as a counterweight to internationalist socialism. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Germany, where, in 1912, the SDP held 110 of the 367 seats in the Reichstag. Fischer argues, on the basis of Primat der Innenpolitik (primacy of domestic politics), conservative Prussian Junkers, who even considered a ‘coup d’etat… against the SDP’, hoped to drum up patriotism through aggressive foreign policy, in an effort to ‘temper the nation’, leading to increased nationalist sentiment. Nationalism was complemented by the expansion of the franchise. Economic transformation distributed wealth, and therefore political power, more evenly, allowing the middle and lower classes to push for the vote. France guaranteed the male franchise after 1848, and Britain greatly expanded hers in 1884. As socioeconomic changes proliferated nationalist sentiment, the democratisation of the Great Powers meant that politicians had to respond by aggressively asserting their national interest on the international stage.

The socioeconomic changes Europe experienced also led to groundbreaking technological advances and increases in productive capacity, playing an important role in the outbreak of war. Michael Howard argues that the mass production of more destructive armaments created an atmosphere of suspicion between neighbouring nation-states. Each would raise their military expenditure in response to a neighbour’s rearmament, further escalating tensions, creating a vicious cycle where war is the only outcome. This argument is well substantiated by military spending statistics; in 1870, Germany and France spent £10.8m and £22m on defence respectively, but by 1914 this had jumped to £110.8m and £57.4m. Furthermore, the ability to produce more effective armaments was crucial in the aforementioned dominance of Prussian militarism within German culture. Had it not been for Germany’s growing economy— her GNP rose from $7.2bn to $26.4bn from 1830 to 1890 — Prussian victory against France in 1871 may have not come to pass. Prussian military superiority meant that, when Germany was unified, conservative Prussian Junkers, whose positive conception of war became entrenched in the national psyche, dominated it. Indeed, Kennedy argues that, surrounded by other European nation states, the economic and military rise of a belligerent Germany ‘altered the relative position of all the existing Great Powers’, illustrating how economic changes generated political instability.

To conclude, though the reasons for the outbreak of the First World War are undoubtedly complex, the roots of the conflict clearly lie in the socioeconomic upheaval Europe experienced in the century prior to 1914. By facilitating centralised governance and better connecting populations, socioeconomic changes generated a new national consciousness that put the Great Powers in direct competition with each other, a phenomenon exacerbated by the spread of the franchise, which placed public opinion in the driving seat of international relations. The emergence of market capitalism encouraged both colonialism and militarism, leading to competition for limited territories and expansionist military aims complemented by rearmament, respectively. This demonstrates how economic changes served to escalate tensions between European powers, a dynamic especially manifest in Germany. Though historians have attempted to argue that nationalism, militarism or alliances alone caused the outbreak of conflict, it was in fact Europe’s 19th century socioeconomic transformation that underpinned all of these phenomena, ultimately culminating in the First World War.



Primary Sources:

  • Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg’s speech to the Reichstag, Sourced from: http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/bethmannspeech1914.htm, 1914
  • Letters between Moltke, Lichnowsky and the Kaiser, Sourced from: Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, 1967, pp. 32-33
  • Sir Edward Grey, Twenty Five Years – Volume I, Hodder & Stoughton, 1924

Contemporary Sources:

  • M.S. Anderson, The Ascendancy of Europe, Pearson Education, 1972
  • T.C.W. Blanning, The Oxford History of Modern Europe, OUP Oxford, 2000
  • Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, HarperCollins, 2012
  • Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, Basic Books, 1999
  • Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, W. W. Norton & Company, 1967
  • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books, 1987
  • V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916
  • Frank McDonough, The Origins of the First and Second World Wars, Cambridge University Press, 1997
  • Wolfgang Mommsen, Imperial Germany 1867-1918, Bloomsbury, 1995
  • Bernadotte Schmitt, The Origins of the First World War, 1958
  • Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work, OUP USA, 2014
  • A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, Oxford University Press, 2003
  • Hutton Webster, Modern European History, DC Heath & co. Publishers, 1920


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