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Ypres via Wikimedia
Ypres via Wikimedia

14 Reasons WWI Happened (And Four Things That Could Have Stopped It)

Ypres via Wikimedia
Ypres via Wikimedia

For the past few years, Erik Sass has been covering the events that led to World War I exactly 100 years later. Here's a look back at how we got here.

In mid-June 1914, Europeans were preparing for a beautiful summer. In the mansions of the mighty, servants covered the furniture and packed heaps of luggage for a season at country retreats, while ordinary folks looked forward to holidays at the seaside, hiking in the mountains, and long afternoons at beer gardens or bistros. Behind the scenes, however, on June 16, 1914, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg wrote to the German ambassador to Britain, Prince Lichnowsky, warning “any insignificant conflict of interests between Russia and Austria-Hungary may set the torch of war alight.” Within a matter of weeks his prediction came true. But was the Great War inevitable?

Well, the final answer to that depends on questions like whether free will exists. But here are a bunch of reasons the First World War happened—and a few reasons it didn’t have to.

1. Nationalism

Outline of History

In the medieval period, Christianity united Europeans across language and culture—but then the Reformation fractured the “universal” Catholic Church and the Enlightenment undermined religion’s hold on the collective imagination. Nationalism emerged to fill the spiritual void with an idea of community based (loosely) on shared language and ethnicity. By the 19th century Europeans took it for granted each nation had a distinct “character” and inhabited sacred, inviolable territory. So when Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, it injured French national pride and provoked “revanchism” (desire for revenge). At the same time, nationalism threatened Austria-Hungary, an old-fashioned medieval empire with a dozen nationalities who wanted out.

2. Racism and Social Darwinism

Wikimedia Commons

Nationalism was never particularly rational, but any contradictions could be papered over with racism and Social Darwinism. Racism, another product of the Enlightenment, linked human cultural differences to variations in appearance that supposedly corresponded to fundamental biological traits, like intelligence. In the 19th century, racism got a more scientific gloss from Social Darwinism, which applied the theory of natural selection to human races locked in a “struggle for survival.” Front and center was the rivalry between the Slavs and Germans.

3. Imperialism

Wikimedia Commons

Technological progress during the Renaissance and Enlightenment gave Europeans a big advantage over less advanced societies, enabling conquest and colonization around the world. By the 19th century, European nations were competing to amass global empires—but Britain, France, and Russia had a head start on latecomers like Germany, whose desire for a “place in the sun” was yet another source of conflict.

4. German Growth

While Germany lagged behind in colonies, its incredible growth at home scared France and Britain. From 1870 to 1910, Germany’s population soared 58 percent to 65 million, while France edged up just 11 percent to 40 million, and from 1890 to 1913 German steel production increased nine-fold to 18.9 million tons—more than Britain (7.7 million) and France (4.6 million) combined. Germany also had the best rail network in Europe, enabling more mobility and growth. With all this the Germans understandably felt they deserved a bigger role in world affairs … but they went about it all wrong.

5. Naval Arms Race

Wikimedia Commons

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pet project was the German Imperial Navy, created in collaboration with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, a sailor who happened to be Germany’s most skilled politician. But their naval obsession alienated Britain, an island nation that simply couldn’t afford to yield control of the seas. In the first years of the 20th century, Britain responded by building more ships and entering an informal alliance with its traditional rival, France—the entente cordiale (friendly understanding).

6. German Fear of Encirclement

uchicago.edu

Even though it was Germany’s own stupidity that caused Britain and France to pull closer together, the entente cordiale (on top of the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892) inspired German fear of a conspiracy to “encircle” Germany. This triggered more German belligerence, which—like any good self-fulfilling prophecy—just made Britain, France, and Russia pull closer together, forming the “Triple Entente.”

7. Arms Race on Land

German paranoia about encirclement triggered an even bigger arms race on land, pitting Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Russia, and Britain (later, Italy got sucked in too). From 1910 to 1913, total military expenditures by Europe’s Great Powers increased from $1.67 billion to $2.15 billion per year in contemporary U.S. dollars. And more increases were on the way, prompting both sides to wonder: would it be better to just fight now before their enemies grew even stronger?

8. Russian Growth

Wikimedia Commons

Just as Germany’s economic expansion scared Britain and France, a few years later Russia’s rapid growth terrified Germany and Austria-Hungary. From 1900 to 1913, industrialization sent Russia’s gross national product rocketing 55 percent to $388 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. Over the same period its population soared 26 percent to 168 million—more than Germany and Austria-Hungary combined. In July 1914, the German philosopher Kurt Riezler, a close friend of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, wrote gloomily, “The future belongs to Russia…”

9. Turkish Decline

As Germany and Russia grew more powerful, the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, creating instability across the Balkans and Middle East. In the First Balkan War, 1912-1913, the Balkan League (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro) carved up most of the empire’s remaining European territories. Serbia’s conquest of Albania put it on a collision course with Austria-Hungary, which didn’t want Serbia to gain access to the sea. Meanwhile, Russia was plotting to conquer Armenia, Britain and France were eyeing Syria and Iraq … and Germany feared it would be left out yet again.

10. Secret Treaties

Wikimedia Commons

Europe’s complex alliance system was even more confusing because many of the agreements were secret, which prevented key players from making informed decisions. For example, if Britain had announced its promises to France it might have deterred Germany from going to war, and Italy had a secret non-aggression pact with France which even Italy’s top generals didn’t know about. The treaties didn’t even have to exist to cause trouble: German fear of a possible secret Anglo-Russian Naval Convention fueled paranoia about encirclement, even though no agreement was reached.

11. International Law? No Such Thing

vredespaleis.nl

Despite the development of a truly global economy in the 19th century, there was no real system of international law that might be used to restrain one state from using violence against another state. There were institutions, like the Peace Palace (above), which were intended to serve as forums for arbitration of international disputes, but these had no power to enforce their decisions, so they were basically a joke. Not much has changed. 

12. Trouble at Home

morgenpost.de

WWI wasn’t just the result of international conflict; domestic tensions played an important role too. In Germany, the conservative elite was frightened by the steady political gains of socialists opposed to militarism (above), and tried to use foreign policy to drum up patriotism and distract ordinary Germans from problems on the home front. In Russia, the Tsarist government embraced Pan-Slavism to shore up its own legitimacy and draw attention away from its own failure to institute democratic reforms.

13. No Going Back

In the 19th century, it became common practice for Europe’s Great Powers to draw up detailed war plans in order to avoid getting caught unprepared—and hopefully get the jump on their enemies. These plans focused on logistics, especially the use of railroads to deploy armies rapidly. This, in turn, required elaborate schedules coordinating the movements of thousands of trains; Germany’s Schlieffen Plan (above) is the classic example. As result, war plans became so complicated it was impossible to modify them or improvise new ones “on the fly.” It also meant there was no going back: Once mobilization began, your enemies were bound to respond in kind, so there was no way to stop the cycle of escalation without leaving yourself vulnerable.

14. Don’t Fear the Reaper

Wikimedia Commons

This one’s a little out there, but worth thinking about. After WWI, Sigmund Freud theorized the existence of a “death drive” pushing humans to annihilate themselves and others. It exists alongside other drives that may hold it in check, like the desire for pleasure, but the death drive is always there in the subconscious, guiding our actions at least some of the time. Destruction is also linked to creation; it’s worth noting how many young people welcomed the war as the “dawn of a new era,” sweeping away Europe’s “old,” “stale,” “stagnant” civilization and laying the foundations for a new, better world (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

Four Things That Could Have Stopped WWI (Maybe)

1. Nobody Wanted It

The greatest irony of WWI was that none of the key decision-makers wanted it to happen (and death wish or no, neither did most ordinary people). Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II prided himself on his reputation as peacekeeper and frantically tried to avert WWI at the last minute. Previously Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef went to extraordinary lengths to keep the peace, and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II was known for his peaceful nature. Although this obviously wasn’t enough to stop the war on its own, it shows the will for peace was there, if only circumstances would allow.

2. Better Instructions

One of the most foolish moves Germany made in July 1914 was giving Austria-Hungary a “blank check,” promising unconditional support for whatever measures Vienna proposed to take against Serbia. The Germans could have benefited themselves (and everyone else) by being a little more, well, German—for example by dictating exactly when, where, and how Austria-Hungary could chastise Serbia; how far to go in trying to call Russia’s bluff; and what their fallback plan should be in case they encountered real resistance from Russia, France, and Britain. Instead Germany just kind of said “go for it!” Very un-German.

3. A Word to the Wise

In July 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary faced off with Russia and France over Serbia, while Europe’s other Great Powers—Britain and Italy—mostly remained on the sidelines. If Britain’s Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and Italy’s Foreign Minister San Giuliano intervened earlier and more forcefully by warning that they would fight, it might have persuaded Germany and Austria-Hungary to back down (San Giuliano had already warned Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia in 1913, and Grey could have informed the Germans of Britain’s commitment to protect France).

4. What If…?

Gavrilo Princip could have missed. But he didn’t.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: Wilson’s “Four Principles,” Broadway Closes

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 301st installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

In addition to the momentous events that finished the First World War, the year 1918 brought one of the most remarkable periods of diplomacy and international politics in American history, as President Woodrow Wilson sought to reshape the world based on the national ideals of democracy and self-determination. The effort reflected Wilson’s belief in American exceptionalism, meaning a special character derived from the United States’ democratic traditions, which gave the American people a historic mission to spread liberty, justice, and the rule of law to the rest of the world.

This sweeping attempt to remake the world based on political and philosophical ideals, though ultimately unsuccessful, wasn’t quite as impractical as it might seem. As Europe destroyed itself in a paroxysm of violence, the United States of America—already the world’s largest economy before the war even began—gathered unprecedented power over the affairs of other nations. U.S. lending to the Allies rose from $2.25 billion in 1917 to $7 billion by the end of 1918, giving Wilson the “whip hand” in negotiations with his European colleagues (in fact, a large portion of these loans were spent on American war supplies, spurring America’s wartime economic boom). France and Britain also imported huge amounts of American grain, meat, butter, and other foodstuffs to ward off starvation, and coal and oil for heat in the winter.

British what imports, World War I
Erik Sass

U.S. agricultural and oil exports, World War I
Erik Sass

Meanwhile British and French investors were forced by their governments to sell off foreign assets to raise dollars for war purchases, and American investors swooped in to buy up undervalued assets, giving the U.S. even more financial leverage globally: as the total stock of British foreign direct investment around the world fell from £4.26 billion in 1914 to £3.1 billion in 1918, and French FDI fell from 45 billion to 30 billion francs over the same period, American FDI soared from $3.5 billion to $13.7 billion.

Most important was America’s critical contribution in manpower and war production, which finally broke the stasis on the Western Front in the summer of 1918. By the end of the war there were 2 million American soldiers in Europe plus almost 2 million more back home ready for deployment. In the desperate days of June 1918, General of the Armies John “Black Jack” Pershing joined the Allied prime ministers in requesting that the American Expeditionary Force be expanded to 100 divisions, with 80 to be in France by April 1919; the U.S. Army had grown to 62 divisions by the time the war ended in November 1918, including 43 in France.

In this context it was widely hoped that Wilson would use America’s newfound power to dictate a just peace in Europe, and the idealistic president felt summoned to this sacred duty, even if it meant conflict with Britain and France. (Wilson insisted that America was an “Associated,” not “Allied,” power, to highlight America’s freedom from any obligation to respect the Allies’ postwar plans for Europe and the world.)

On January 8, 1918 Wilson outlined a new world order in the “Fourteen Points,” calling for the immediate evacuation of Belgium, Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro by the Central Powers; the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, liberating their oppressed nationalities; the creation of Poland; the return of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany to France; open diplomacy and an end to secret treaties; free trade; arms control agreements; and the formation of an international organization to enforce the rules, later called the League of Nations.

With these specific issues addressed, Wilson moved on to broad ideals in a speech to Congress on February 11, 1918, setting forth some steering ideals for his postwar vision in the “Four Principles.” First, all territorial adjustments to the map of Europe should be made solely “to bring a peace that will be permanent.” Second, the peacemakers had to respect the rights of small nations and regions: “Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty.” Third, the interests of local populations trumped those of the Great Powers: “Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst rival states.” Fourth, all smaller groups aspiring to nationhood should receive sanction, as long as their goals don’t stir “discord and antagonism” in conflict with other groups.

The Four Principles were broad enough to permit a range of interpretations. Once again officials on both sides of the European conflict were afraid to openly differ from Wilson’s vision, yet accused their enemies of paying Wilson lip service. In a speech on February 25, 1918, the German chancellor, Georg von Hertling, claimed to agree with Wilson’s proposals in the Fourteen Points and Four Principles, but added that Germany had to have security guarantees from Belgium before evacuating the country and also accused the Entente Powers of violating Wilson’s rules. In response British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour blasted German hypocrisy and reiterated the Allied demand that Germany evacuate Belgium before peace negotiations could begin, pointing out that this injustice was the cause of the whole war.

Both sides could agree to the Four Principles in part because they were so vague, but also because they hoped to use them for their own ends. For example, in Eastern Europe the Germans still calculated that supporting the cause of national self-determination would allow them to dominate newly independent states in the Baltic, Poland, and Ukraine, eventually forming a regional trade bloc under German leadership. For their part Britain and France were happy to cancel promises of territory around the Adriatic Sea to Italy on the grounds of self-determination for local Slavic populations. They also clearly intended to disregard Wilson’s ideals, for example with their division of the Ottoman Empire’s old territories in the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Finally, Wilson’s guidelines simply couldn’t reconcile conflicting claims between a jumble of old and new nations in Eastern Europe: On the heels of the First World War the region saw a new round of violence with wars between combinations of Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic.

BROADWAY CLOSES

As the president put forth his vision for a new world order, at home Americans faced growing wartime shortages as well rising prices due to inflation. In one coldly symbolic development, on February 12, 1918 the theaters of Broadway were temporarily closed to conserve coal for the war effort. Most of the theaters remained closed through cold winter months, shutting down the vital heart of New York City around Times Square, although they reopened in the spring.

The heating fuel shortage was real enough, compounding hunger among the urban poor. In January 1918 Philadelphia had suffered a “coal famine,” prompting one widow to tell the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We’re almost starving, my babies and me. It’s all right to almost starve. We’re pretty near used to that, but we can’t freeze. I could, but my babies can’t.”

U.S. coal price, World War I
Erik Sass

Across the U.S. and Europe, shortages and rising prices triggered a wave of industrial unrest in the latter years of the war, as complaints about low wages and high prices flowed together with demands for political reform. In Britain the number of strikes per year rose from 532 incidents involving 276,000 workers in 1916, to 1165 incidents involving 1.1 million strikers in 1918. In Germany the number of strikes rose from 137 in 1915 to 772 in 1918, as the number of workers involved soared from 11,639 to 1.3 million. Amid growing privation and suffering on the home front, the sinews of the war economy were beginning to snap.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
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This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]

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