Robert Kennedy's United States History Class
Learning Objective One:
Discuss the background leading up to World War I.
The FOUR basic factors which were responsible for World War I.
- MILITARISM (Anglo-German Arms Race)
- ALLIANCE SYSTEM
Causes of World War I
Although many Americans wanted to stay out of the war, several factors made American neutrality difﬁcult to maintain. As an industrial and imperial power, the United States felt many of the same pressures that had led the nations of Europe into devastating warfare. Historians generally cite four long-term causes of the First World War: nationalism, imperialism, militarism, and the formation of a system of alliances.
Throughout the 19th century, politics in the Western world were deeply inﬂuenced by the concept ofnationalism—a devotion to the interests and culture of one’s nation. Often, nationalism led to competitive and antagonistic rivalries among nations. In this atmosphere of competition, many feared Germany’s growing power in Europe.
In addition, various ethnic groups resented domination by others and longed for their nations to become independent. Many ethnic groups looked to larger nations for protection. Russia regarded itself as the protector of Europe’s Slavic peoples, no matter which government they lived under. Among these Slavic peoples were the Serbs. Serbia, located in the Balkans, was an independent nation, but millions of ethnic Serbs lived under the rule of Austria-Hungary. As a result, Russia and Austria-Hungary were rivals for inﬂuence over Serbia.
For many centuries, European nations had been building empires, slowly extending their economic and political control over various peoples of the world. Colonies supplied the European imperial powers with raw materials and provided markets for manufactured goods. As Germany industrialized, it competed with France and Britain in the contest for colonies.
For many centuries, European nations had been building empires, slowly extending their economic and political control over various peo- ples of the world. Colonies supplied the European imperial powers with raw mat- erials and provided markets for manufactured goods. As Germany industrialized, it competed with France and Britain in the contest for colonies. xt
Empires were expensive to build and to defend. The growth of nationalism and imperialism led to increased military spending. Because each nation wanted stronger armed forces than those of any potential enemy, the imperial powers followed a policy of militarism—the development of armed forces and their use as a tool of diplomacy.
By 1890 the strongest nation on the European continent was Germany, which had set up an army reserve system that drafted and trained young men. Britain was not initially alarmed by Germany’s military expansion. As an island nation, Britain had always relied on its navy for defense and protection of its shipping routes— and the British navy was the strongest in the world. However, in 1897, Wilhelm II, Germany’s kaiser, or emperor, decided that his nation should also become a major sea power in order to compete more successfully against the British. Soon British and German shipyards competed to build the largest battleships and destroyers. France, Italy, Japan, and the United States quickly joined the naval arms race
By 1907 there were two major defense alliances in Europe. The Triple Entente, later known as theAllies, consisted of France, Britain, and Russia. The Triple Alliance consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.
Germany and Austria-Hungary, together with the Ottoman Empire—an empire of mostly Middle Eastern lands controlled by the Turks—were later known as the Central Powers. The alliances provided a measure of international security because nations were reluctant to disturb the balance of power. As it turned out, a spark set off a major conﬂict.
The Central Powers or the Triple Alliance:
the Triple Entente :
The development of "international Social Darwinism" started in Europe in the late 1880's and early 90's. During this period, European nations began a game of high stakes imperialism which resulted in colonial possession in Africa, the Pacific, and through indirect economic and diplomatic pressures in Asia and the Near East.
An Assassination Leads to War
That spark ﬂared in the Balkan Peninsula, which was known as “the powder keg of Europe.” In addition to the ethnic rivalries among the Balkan peoples, Europe’s leading powers had interests there. Russia wanted access to the Mediterranean Sea. Germany wanted a rail link to the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary, which had taken control of Bosnia in 1878, accused Serbia of subverting its rule over Bosnia. The “powder keg” was ready to explode.
In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, visited the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. As the royal entourage drove through the city, Serbian nation- alist Gavrilo Princip stepped from the crowd and shot the Archduke and his wife Sophie. Princip was a member of the Black Hand, an organization promoting Serbian national- ism. The assassinations touched off a diplomatic crisis. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared what was expected to be a short war against Serbia of subverting its rule over Bosnia.
The “powder keg” was ready to explode. In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, visited the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. As the royal entourage drove through the city, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip stepped from the crowd and shot the Archduke and his wife Sophie. Princip was a member of the Black Hand, an organization promoting Serbian nationalism. The assassinations touched off a diplomatic crisis.
Austria was determined once and for all to put an end to the Slavic threat. She presented stringent demands with which Serbia could not comply, save at the cost of her own independence. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared what was expected to be a short war against Serbia. The alliance system pulled one nation after another into the conflict. On August 1, Germany, obligated by treaty to support Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia. On August 3, Germany declared war on Russia’s ally France. After Germany invaded Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Great War had begun.
The Fighting Starts
On August 3, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium, following a strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan. This plan called for a holding action against Russia, combined with a quick drive through Belgium to Paris; after France had fallen, the two German armies would defeat Russia. As German troops swept across Belgium, thousands of civilians fled in terror. In Brussels, the Belgian capital, an American war correspondent described the first major refugee crisis of the 20th century.
Unable to save Belgium, the Allies retreated to the Marne River in France, where they halted the German advance in September 1914. After struggling to outflank each other’s armies, both sides dug in for a long siege. By the spring of 1915, two parallel systems of deep, rat-infested trenches crossed France from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Alps. German soldiers occupied one set of trenches, Allied soldiers the other. There were three main kinds of trenches—front line, support, and reserve. Soldiers spent a period of time in each kind of trench. Dugouts, or underground rooms, were used as officers’ quarters and command posts. Between the trench complexes lay “no man’s land”—a barren expanse of mud pockmarked with shell craters and filled with barbed wire. Periodically, the soldiers charged enemy lines, only to be mowed down by machine gun fire.
The scale of slaughter was horrific. During the First Battle of the Somme— which began on July 1, 1916, and lasted until mid-November—the British suffered 60,000 casualties the first day alone. Final casualties totaled about 1.2 million, yet only about seven miles of ground changed hands. This bloody trench warfare, in which armies fought for mere yards of ground, continued for over three years. Elsewhere, the fighting was just as devastating and inconclusive