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Voices to All That-- Reasons for the Outbreak of WWI

Author: Weiyang Cheng

Updated Sep.12th


“War is what happens when language fails.” Just as Canadian poet Margaret Atwood famously stated, there was no exception to the breakout of World War I. A brief overview of what happened from the 1870s to 1914 is that German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck conducted a series of negotiations which created conflicting terms for Germany, also known as the Bismarck alliance system. However, after new German Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck, the Bismarck alliance system collapsed and diplomacy failed, resulting in an escalation in tension. Starting from the 1900s, two groups started to emerge: the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia. Meanwhile, the development of imperialism greatly influenced major European countries to extend their spheres of influence to areas outside of Europe, such as the Balkans and Africa.


June 28th of 1914, Austrian Archduke and heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. That was the last straw. On the same day, Austria-Hungary, supported by Germany, declared war on Serbia who was backed by Russia. Russia and Germany then started fully mobilizing their forces, a hostile sign to both the Allied and Entente powers. Then, all the major powers started, one after another, mobilizing their forces to embrace war.


A comprehensive view of first world war would suggest that the great war was caused by multiple factors, and according to a structuralist perspective, multiple parties instead of a particular individual or country caused the outbreak of World War I. Furthermore, a Marxist perspective would suggest that class and economy are the fundamental reasons for conflict.

One factor that structuralists take into consideration is German foreign policy which was impractical and unsustainable. An example would be the Bismarck alliance system which involved relations with different countries and with conflicting goals. For example, Bismarck did not want Austria to be involved in a potential war between Russia and Austria since Germany bordered Austria and would also be threatened, but at the same time he also wanted Austria to win a war between the two countries because Germany and Austria are close allies. It takes more diplomacy to cover up the already convoluted politics. Hence, after new German Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck, the Bismarck alliance system collapsed and resulted in an escalation in tension. The tension caused by the instability of German policies accumulated and eventually contributed to the outbreak of war.

The structuralist view takes a relatively neutral stance on the matter and points out that other powers were also responsible for the war. For instance, Balkan nationalism was a significant factor. In the Balkans, public awareness of nationalism heightened and Balkan people developed nationalist groups, a member of which assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This gave Austria a cause to send an ultimatum to Serbia for the actions of the Serbian assassinate, demanding compensation and rights in Serbia. When Serbia declined one of the terms, Austria declared war. This led to alliance powers on both sides to mobilize their forces, escalating to a full-scale world war. In this case, Balkan states and Austria are the direct causes of the war, proving that Germany was not the sole factor.


Another important perspective which focuses more on the fundamental root causes of the war is the Marxist view. According to a Marxist theory, class interests and economic development were key causes of war. According to Lenin, industrial development and imperial rivalry led to a competition for limited land and resources. For example, Britain wanted to take over land in Africa, such as Fashoda in East Africa which France also wanted, and to extend its spheres of influence into Asian countries such as China, as per the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. These imperial ambitions created hostilities and further destabilized the fragile peace in Europe.


Also based on the Marxist perspective, economic and industrial development were important factors. The rapid development of German economy and industry allowed it to massively expand its military and reinforce its armament, leading to an arms race between the major European powers, especially Germany and Britain. The arms race provoked further tension and militarism in Europe, which favored the outbreak of war.


The world is still recovering from the great war. Analyzing their causes may not necessarily indicate how to avoid another major war but produces a clearer picture of how the world has become what we see today. Have humans truly learned from history? Only time will tell.



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