14 Reasons World War I Happened (And Four Things That Could Have Stopped It)
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.