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The outbreak of the First World War is one of the most controversial and debated subjects in history. The immediate origins of the war can be seen in terms of the crisis following the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, Bosnia on 28th June 1914. Austria, who believed Serbia was behind this, sent a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia on 23rdJuly, which was not accepted in its entirety. Following a series of diplomatic maneuvers including Russian mobilization, Germany finally declared war on Russia on 1st August, leading to the First World War. However, in order to understand the context which allowed this crisis to precipitate into a World War, we need to review the conditions in Europe in the preceding decades.

It was S.B. Fay, who had first propounded the concept of long-term and short-term causes to explain the origin of WWI. According to him, it was five causes that brought about this war: the principle of Imperialism; system of alliances; Nationalism; rise of militarism and Newspapers and the role of the press in promoting war like conditions.
Imperialism as a phenomenon had existed since the 15th century. But post 1870, imperialism had undergone a qualitative departure from its earlier forms in terms of scope, intensity and consequences. It was no longer confined to Asia or the Americas but every single part of the world had come under the scanner of the colonial powers. The unification of Italy and Germany and the rise of new powers like USA and Japan had led to new entrants in this race for colonies. This had created the belief that the balance of power had to be regarded as a worldwide question and not one limited to Europe alone. In fact, it was this imperialist rivalry between nations that had intensified and antagonized relations between countries, thereby, giving rise to war like conditions. Moreover, the world had reached a saturation point by the beginning of the 20th century in which no new colonies were available for colonization and war seemed to be the only viable option to overcome this problem.

Different interpretations have been given to explain this imperialist expansion. Among the earliest theories explaining imperialism were those that linked new imperialism with economic factors and saw imperialism as arising out of modern capitalism. JA Hobson, a British liberal economist, in a pamphlet titled ‘Imperialism’(1902) argued that the main motive for imperialism was finance capitalism. According to him, advanced capitalist societies in the West were marked by an unequal distribution of wealth and this concentrated surplus capital would exert pressure on their respective home governments to seek outlets abroad for investment avenues. Search for new outlets for fresh investment, new raw materials, and fresh markets etc made colonialism extremely important for these new industrial societies. Hobson has also argued that by the 1870s almost all European countries with the exception of Russia found that they were oversaturated. Thus, a great scramble for colonies between the nations had started. Some like Rosa Luxemburg, argued in ‘The Accumulation of Capital’ (1913) that the nature of modern industrial capitalism inevitably led to rivalries, which would lead to imperialism, which in turn would lead to war. According to him there was a glut in the European market and hence, no one saw the point in investing in the European market. It is for this reason that the European powers were searching for new markets or avenues for investment. He believed that imperialism passed through different stages; the first stage was political and military conquest; and the final stage was finance imperialism or complete control of markets through merchants and banking. These ever continuous processes’ eventually lead to WWI.
Lenin argued that the accumulation of capital reached a stage beyond which it needed to be disbursed. In order to disburse it, imperialism is a necessary phenomenon. According to Lenin, in order to utilize and invest this capital to the fullest extent, new fields must be explored. Lenin believed that because of the expansion of industry there was a huge demand for labour and hence this led to a higher bargaining power which saw wages increased. Thus, new fields had to be sought out in order to both disburse this labour and to get labour at cheaper rates. This has been contradicted by David Thomson. He argues that for instance a country like Denmark which had few colonies had a higher growth rate than France and Germany which had a large number of colonies. This it is incorrect to say that industrial growth would lead to colonization.

Karl Kautsky however argued against the claim of inevitability and believed that imperialism could be avoided if governments chose to democratize their institutions. Rudolph Hilferding, an Austrian Marxist in Finance Capital(1910) too saw no inevitable link between finance capitalism and war believed that the government could allow surplus capital to be absorbed by the economy.
Imperialism has also been seen in terms of extra-economic origins. CJH Hayes emphasized the political climate of Europe, which was one of mass-based nationalism. He also refers to the importance of public opinion and nationalist sentiment. The Cambridge School dominated by Robinson and Gallagher has also argued that if one analyses the colonization of the world it was initiated and sanctioned by the parliament, which consisted of people from the elitist, aristocratic and moneyed background. Thus, it wasn’t the people involved in business, who were taking up the cause of colonization. It was motivated mostly by strategic than economic factors. When the newly risen countries like Germany and Italy began to carve out spheres of influences for themselves, Great Britain was greatly alarmed as it did not want to be left behind and thus, plunged into the partition of Africa as well. Simon and Sighal refute such an argument saying that the effort to separate politics from economics is incorrect. They show that around 25% of the investment in this entire period was conducted in Africa-Asia, 34% in South America and only 17% in other European countries.
JA Schumpeter however argues that imperialism was a pre-capitalist, atomistic phenomenon and denies any link that capitalism may have with imperialism. The link between the two can also be questioned when we see that two of the most aggressively imperialist countries of the late 19thcentury – Russia and Italy were severely capital deficit. Even between France and Germany, it was France that was more imperialist even when it was lagging behind Germany in terms of industrialization. We can see therefore that capitalism played a crucial role in imperialism but its effects cannot be generalized and definitely no inevitable causative relation between the two can be established. Schumpeter argued that capital flowed within the system and had no reason to accumulate. He believed that profit did not exist due to intense competition between producers. The only break he identified was that of a technological breakthrough which he believed the system resolved as other producers eventually caught up.
A new Marxist school headed by Paul Barren and Andre Günter Frankappeared in the 1980’s. They argued a world chain began to be created – there was a metropolis, which was surrounded by satellite states. These were systematically exploited by the metropolis. They argued that all the major countries were scrambling to become the metropolis and the only way this chain could be broken was if the lowest point, i.e. the marginal people were set free.  
James Joll has emphasized the idea of sub-imperialism. He argued that once colonies were launched, they took on their own momentum and developed vested interests which pushed for imperialism. Governments occupied areas in order to stop other governments from moving in; the strategic needs of existing colonies demanded the safeguarding of their boundaries and of the routes to them, so that the imperialist powers felt obliged to acquire more territory.  The case of the French colonization of Algiers where the considerations of the French military administrators in Algeria pushed for the colonization of Morocco is a good example.

Many have also seen cultural factors in the rise of imperialism, in terms of the role of religion. In the 19th century, many colonial ventures began as missionary activity. The desire of Christian missionaries to convert the heathen led to the establishment of centers of European influence in remote parts of the world. This was related also to the European sense of superiority and these ideas in conjunction with the civilizing mission of the Christian faith served as a justification for imperialism. These ideas were used to create a common ‘scale of civilization’ and served the interests of European imperialist ambitions. This can be related to the concepts of the White Man’s Burden and the moral imperative for empire. An urge for scientific discovery and exploration of unknown territory also helped to open up Africa. It should of course be noted that trade, missionary activity and exploration were inextricably involved with each other. Imperialism however needs to be considered in its specific context, which varied from country to country and time to time. Imperialism was a dynamic process, and there was interaction between the imperialists and the colonies.
In the 1870s, imperialism was focused mainly in Africa and East Asia. In 1885 Bismarck organized a Conference at Berlin, which culminated in the Treaty of Berlin where it was decided that the Great Powers would now have ‘spheres of influence’, in Africa and China and territories would be divided peacefully. The impact of this treaty was immediately felt in Africa leading to the ‘Scramble for Africa’. In roughly 15 years, almost the entire the continent with the exception of Liberia, Ethiopia and the two Boer Republics was divided between the European powers. By the early 20th century imperialist rivalries among the European powers were amply evident. Britain was in conflict with France over Egypt, with Germany in South Africa, and with Russia over Persia. In the Pacific Russia was in conflict with Japan. There was also the Franco-German rivalry over Morocco and finally Russia and Germany were in conflict over the Balkans, the area which was to provide the immediate background to World War I. This also broke the age old theorem of Germany being a dominant power in Europe and England outside of Europe, and now both countries felt the need to interfere in each other’s zones.
A lot has been written about the German desire in this period to attain a Great Power status and to be an active bulwark against revolution and democracy. In the case of Germany the desire for a colonial empire was one aspect of a deep sense of uneasiness and dissatisfaction about Germany’s place in the world at the end of the 19th century. Bismarck, although he had occasionally encouraged the colonialist lobby for his domestic or diplomatic ends, he was fundamentally disinterested in colonial expansion. Weltpolitik meant for the Germans in the 1890s the invention of a new world mission for Germany worthy of her industrial, technological, cultural and military strength. Germany began the construction of a massive navy and this soon made Britain suspicious.

Konne Zilliacus argued that no European nation went to war in 1914 due to treaty obligations, moral issues or the rights of small nations, but to defend imperialist interests, which consisted of the private interests of finance and monopoly capital. However, the point to be noted however is that virtually all these rivalries had been dealt with before 1914, and therefore one cannot make a direct link between imperialist rivalries and the First World War. It should also be noted that there was no linear one-to-one relationship between colonial rivalries and cooperative alliances. Britain and French relations within and outside the European continent illustrate this dichotomy well.
James Joll writes that there were three ways in which the imperialist movement directly affected the relations between the European states and contributed to the atmosphere which made war possible. Firstly, the international alignments adopted over colonial questions often cut across the pattern of international relations that had emerged in Europe itself in the years after the Franco-Prussian war. Secondly, specific agreements on particular colonial questions sometimes led to a more general entente, as in the case of Britain’s settlement of outstanding colonial disputes with France and Russia. Thirdly, the colonial rivalries and arms racewhich accompanied them affected the whole of international life, encouraging doctrines of racial superiority and giving support to the crude evolutionary theories which interpreted the relations between states in terms of the struggle for survival, by then widely accepted as governing the world of nature. Therefore if we look for a link between imperialist rivalries and World War I, we see that it was only indirect. With the rapid growth of colonial empires in the late 19th century, nationalism itself came to be defined in terms of colonial assets and imperialism. Alliances only came into play when the final conflict erupted in 1914.

Closely linked to the question of imperialism was that of the system of alliances that had been formed between the European nations. The outbreak of war is a question related to the balance of power. In the years preceding the First World War, a number of alliances had emerged and Europe was divided into two mutually hostile and armed power blocks. Traditionally the outbreak of the war is viewed as a chain reaction, whereby Europe was fated to war due to these alliances.
After 1870 Germany, France, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia were undoubtedly the great powers of Europe, with Italy staking a claim to be regarded as one of them. The balance of power in Europe consisted in the shifting balance between them and in the various alignments they adopted. It is important to note that at this point of time Britain was following a policy of splendid isolationism and her interests lay primary outside of Europe particularly to protect her Asian possessions. It is for this reason that she had feared the Russian expansion eastwards into Persia and Afghanistan. The annexation of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany following the Franco-Prussian War had made it clear that France would never side with Germany in case of any international alignment. Germany, on the other hand, had emerged as the leading industrialized nation following the mid-19th century, which was further strengthened by its unification. It was the emergence of such a strong, industrial and united nation that made it imperative for the Germans to assume an important role in the sphere of international politics.
The origins of the alliance system as was seen in the years preceding the war can be traced to Bismarck’s foreign policy in his years as the imperial chancellor of Germany between 1870 and 1890. What was different about this policy of alliances was that earlier alliances were only made before wars and lasted through the duration of the war. The alliances that Bismarck envisioned were to be forged in peacetime with no immediate prospect of war for reasons of security. The reasons for Bismarck’s policy were largely pragmatic. Bismarck wanted to maintain a balance of power in Europebetween the five Great Powers – Britain, Russia, Germany, Austria and France in order in order to safeguard German interests against a hostile coalition. Ever since the time of the France-Prussian war he had feared a possible attack from France and thus, wished to safeguard himself against that. Thus, he especially sought to isolate France. ‘Always try to be one of the three in a world of five great powers’, was the maxim on which his foreign policy was based. Moreover, he considered Germany to be a satiated power, which was in no mood to expand or impose upon any other country’s sovereignty. His foremost concern was to protect the frontiers of Germany.

In pursuance of this policy Bismarck sought to cement Germany’s position in Europe through diplomacy rather than aggression, an approach which was in the mould of Metternich’s conservatism. Initially, Bismarck had tried to revive the Holy Alliance between the three conservative states of Austria, Russia and Germany with the purpose of preventing a conflict between these three states, especially since they were not natural allies and also to protect the German Empire from a potential attack from France. In 1873 he had proclaimed the Dreikaiserbund or the League of Three Nations. However, differences between Russia and Austria over the Balkans and the subsequent conference of Berlin (1877), which nullified all of Russia’s victories in the Balkans compelled Russia to walk out of this alliance.
In such a situation it was only the alliance with Austria-Hungary which was able to work. In 1879 the Dual Alliance was formed between Germany and Austria-Hungary by a secret treaty. In the search for a third power, Germany had to settle for Italy, with which a secret Triple Alliance was forged in 1882. In 1887 a Reinsurance Treaty was signed with Russia, which guaranteed secret neutrality of Russia in the event of a conflict. After 1890 when Bismarck was dismissed, German foreign policy changed to one of Weltpolitik. The policy of assurance towards other European countries was ended and the spirit of the Triple Alliance changed from being an alliance for defence to being a springboard for Germany’s own ambitions. It was also used by Italy to bolster her efforts in the Libyan war against Turkey and by Austria in her Balkan policy.

With this change in policy a new system of counter alliances also began to emerge. In 1893 a Dual Alliance was made between France and Russia. Great Britain was the only large European power that was being kept out of all these large alliances that were being formed. An alarmed Great Britain began its quest for allies in the Pacific with the Anglo-Japanese treaty of 1902, clearly directed against Russia. In 1904 a Dual Entente was signed between Britain and France, based on a colonial settlement whereby Britain and France got a free hand in Egypt and Morocco respectively. Both Russia and England also felt that they needed to ally themselves with each other in order to ensure security for their interests in Asia and the Balkans respectively. Moreover, while Russia had come into conflict with Germany over its cultivation of Austrian interests in the Balkans, the Boer War in South Africa in which the Germans had assisted the Boers against Britain had led to a serious deterioration of Anglo-German relations. Thus, a path had been created for Russia and England to come together to form an alliance. In 1907 the Anglo-Russian Entente was signed and colonial claims in Persia, Tibet and Afghanistan were settled. It should be n oted that these alliances were by and large agreements and not definite military alliances. Therefore their importance should not be exaggerated.
The formation of such alliances undoubtedly led to increased tensions in Europe. The secret nature of these treaties added to the suspicion. Fay argued that it was these alliances that bred an important cause for the outbreak of the war. It had led to the division of Europe into two rival camps, thereby, creating an atmosphere of mutual fear and suspicion. He goes on to argue that as a result of these alliances nations were drawn into conflict in areas, where they otherwise had no interest. For e.g., Germany was not interested in taking over any territory in the Balkans but the fact that Austria was interested in this area drew Germany into the region as well. Finally, he stated that Imperialistic clashes helped to cement these alliances together, which were further crystallized on account of these alliances.
Alliances however could not automatically lead to war and conversely alliances could contribute to peace by acting as a deterrent against possible aggressors. It was the change in the nature of these alliances from defensive to aggressive that made a difference. The theory of two balancing power blocs actually implies preservation of balance of power and thereby preservation of peace. AJP Taylor points out that the pre-1914 alliances were so precarious and fragile that they cannot be seen as the major cause of war. This indicates that a fundamental problem which contributed to the outbreak of the war was the lack of a fully effective balance of power in Europe, not its existence. Alliances were important, but as James Joll has argued no European power really accepted that the alliance system consisted of two firm and balanced power blocs and no major European power subscribed to the idea that the alliance system was a complete deterrent against war. Each power made wrong calculations about the likely behaviour of its alliance opponents, thereby, creating that environment of mutual suspicion and fear.
While the specific terms of the alliances were kept secret, the knowledge of the very existence of these alliances determined direction of mobilization plans. It seems that the alliance system raised expectations about likely allies in a future war, and influenced the military plans of each power. However each nation seemed to base its decision for war on an assessment of national interests, which were linked to alliances, but were not, in all cases, determined by them. The alliance system determined extensive timetables which were chalked out in planning for war. It is to this extent that a link can be drawn between the alliance system and the outbreak of the First World War.

The growth of militarism is the years preceding the outbreak of the war, has also been perceived as a factor leading up to the war. Militarism refers to the arms buildup and escalation of tension before the war. Europe has been viewed as an ‘armed camp’ from 1870 to 1914. Michael Howardargues that each announcement of increased armaments’ expenditure by a European power before 1914 was viewed as a threat by its perceived rival, and thus created an atmosphere of mutual fear and suspicion which played a major part in creating the mood for war in 1914. However, the idea that a buildup of arms naturally leads to war remains dubious. The belief that high expenditure on arms leads to a desire for war remains unproved. Niall Ferguson has claimed that the role of the arms race in encouraging the First World War has been greatly exaggerated. AJP Taylor argued that the outbreak of the First World War was caused almost entirely by rival plans for mobilization by the European powers. All European powers had developed detailed war plans in expectation of war. Military planners believed in a swift mobilization of forces and lightning offensives. However the relationship between military plans and actual decisions for war is complicated.
When considering militarism as a cause for the war, we should also consider it in the context of a cultural phenomenon as well. Militaristic language in which war was glorified as good, leading to rebirth and peace seen as degenerate came to affect the language of international relations in this period. When the war broke out it was greeted with hysterical enthusiasm over all European capitals.
The roots to the militaristic attitude of the late 19th and early 20th century can be seen in what has been seen by many as the crisis in the liberal, Enlightenment, rational values, which in turn was being translated into politics. This challenge can be seen as a kind of neo-Romanticism. This kind of a mindset found expression in both ends of the ideological spectrum. On the Left Marxism seeped in a violent rhetoric of class war saw an extreme like the Syndicalism of George Sorel. On the right, this was reflected in the rise of a new brand of irrational politics, to be shaped by the elites who would use irrational means like myths to move the masses. The age of mass politics was finally ushered in to stay. The elitist concept of democracy was replaced by the concept of universal male suffrage. Many like Bismarck spoke with great skepticism about the great years of romantic idealism. Perhaps it was Bismarck’s statement that ‘the politics of Germany would no longer be decided by ideas and assembly speeches but by blood and iron’ that truly marked the end of liberal ideology and the introduction of a brand of irrational politics.  The cultural crisis of this period was therefore a crisis in liberal values and explains much of world politics in this era.

When we see those thinkers whose ideas percolated down to the masses and also contributed in a most powerful way to the creation of a militaristic environment in this period, the names of Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche stand out. Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) Origin of Species challenged the Christian conception of origins and placed the origins of species in a competitive process of natural selection. Darwin’s ideas were later adapted as Social Darwinism, which applied Darwin’s ideas to society and argued that society also evolved through struggle and therefore class struggle was perceived as natural. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) believed that life was a constant struggle, and existence fundamentally chaotic. He believed that there was no absolute morality. Struggle as a moral obligation was central to his thought. As a part of evolution, he believed that the pinnacle of development was thesuperman’ or ubermensch. Nietzsche saw in this superior man the natural urge to dominate, and in them he saw potential tyrants as well. The ideas of Nietzsche and Darwin were distorted, vulgarized and popularized and used to justify later philosophies such as Nazism and Fascism. This was the kind of language that permeated down to the masses.
These new ideas provided a rhetoric in which international relations came to be debated, but it should be clarified that this language didn’t create the war itself. The effect of these ideas can however be seen in the manner people were responding to the European situation. Militaristic ideas also explain the unnatural hysteria on the eve of the war. 

The role of national self-determination in the origins of the war has been another important area of debate. Martel has argued that the First World War grew out of a clash between ‘Slav nationalism’ and the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. This type of interpretation which sees the Balkan crisis in the context of the long running ‘Eastern Question’ views the First World War as one which was fought for the future of Central and Eastern Europe. According to this view the primary responsibility for beginning the war is shared between Austria-Hungary, which wanted to restore its prestige, and Serbia which stood in a good position to benefit from European rivalry in the region. John Leslie, a British historian however has cast doubt on the importance of the Austro-Serb quarrel. He points out that Austria-Hungary can be held responsible for planning a local Austro-Serb conflict, linked to the question of Balkan nationalism. Germany however was not interested in this quarrel and deliberately used it as an opportunity to launch the European war.
Balkan nationalism, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, has been traditionally viewed as an outburst of oppressed European Christians against Muslim Turkish domination, in ethnic and religious terms. Due to the unique isolated Balkan terrain, the dominant form of consciousness in this region was village patriotism. There was also a divide between the rural areas dominated by people of Slav origin and the urban areas populated largely by Greeks. The identity of the people was asserted at two levels. The first was the ethnic identity based on linguistic differences and the second was the religious identity. The Ottoman Empire of the 17thcentury was multi-ethnic and multi-religious, in which ethnic identities could be preserved more easily. Hardening of religious identities was only witnessed late in the 19th century.
An important element of Balkan nationalism was the peasantry, who had high participation levels due to their religious millenarianism. A second important element was the intellectual class who began to espouse modern values of nationalism. Early Balkan nationalism was understood in the context of Enlightened Despotism. Libertarian Enlightenment of the time of Napoleon and the French Revolution also influenced Balkan nationalism. Another strand which flowed into this was the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment, with its focus on culture and preservation of tradition. The local Turkish Chiefs or Pashas were also an important element in the emergence of Balkan nationalism. Due to the vast nature of the Ottoman state, there was invariably a struggle between these power local officers and the central government at Istanbul. It was in this conflict that these governors often chose to foster Balkan nationalism to serve as a tool. Muhammad Ali in Egypt and Ali Pasha in Greece were such powerful governors.

The most important element in Balkan nationalism was however the role of the Great Powers, in what they termed as the ‘Eastern Question’. This Eastern question concerned the disposal of the Balkans after the decline of the Ottoman Empire. In this region increasing Russian interests were witnessed and Russia began to lay claims to the Balkans for strategic reasons, on religious and racial grounds. As a part of the racial argument, Russia encouraged Pan-Slavism in the Balkans. Austria-Hungarytoo was deeply concerned with the question of nationalism in this region primarily because it was a multi-ethnic region where Balkan nationalities often overlapped with ethnic identities.
Among the most dominant Balkan states was Serbia. The Serbs were a Slav people who had been conquered in the 14th century by the Turks. The Serbian capital, Belgrade was dominated by the Local Provincial Governors or Pashas, who were engaged in a power struggle for Serbian autonomy. In 1804, they revolted against Turkish rule. Their outrage was directed against the Christian nobility who were loyal to the Turks. The Christian nobles decided to appeal to Russia for help. Between 1815 and 1830 under Russian pressure, the Pashas were replaced by the Christian notables. In 1830, Serbia was also granted autonomy. In 1878 following a Russo-Turkish war, Serbia was declared an independent state at the Congress of Berlin. For Serbia however this was not the realization of her nationalism and she sought to unite all Slavs into a Yugo-Slav union with Russian help. It was the Austrian insecurity at this that led directly to the World War.  

While the Balkan question was an old one, in the 20th century the situation had become more volatile. Austria had begun to feel threatened by the very existence of Serbia. Till the time of Metternich and Bismarck, Austria had been reined in. However following the dismissal of Bismarck in 1890, the character of German foreign policy changed to a more aggressive stance and under the new approach of Weltpolitik no attempts were made any longer to rein in either Austria. The Dual Alliance was in fact used now to urge the Austrians on to a forward policy in the Balkans. The new German foreign policy, among other things took the form of a challenge to Britain, as a part of which Germany started building a huge navy. The second was the expansion of German power on the continent through what was called the Mitteleuropa Policy, which aimed at concrete economic dominance over the European continent.
The other European powers were also disconcerted by the rhetoric adopted by Germany in their expansionist drive. There was a constant feeling that Germany had arrived late on the scene, and therefore there was a sense of urgency and aggressiveness in her policies. Germany’s deliberate escalation of crises which could have been controlled such as the Moroccan and Bosnian crises also added to this feeling. Germany’s declaration of war in 1914 at Russian mobilization was also seen in similar light. Germany of course saw 1914 as a defensive struggle against her perceived encirclement.

Bosnia, which had been conquered by the Turks in the 15thcentury, was at the core of the Austrian-Serb rivalry as both of them desired to control Bosnia. In 1878 at the Congress of Berlin, Bosnia had been placed under Austrian administration. Austria began to fear the impact of the Young Turk movement in the predominantly Muslim Bosnia, and in 1908 annexed Bosnia. Russia and Serbia immediately protested. However Germany now threatened Russia with the prospect of a European war if she decided to intervene, forcing Russia to step down. At the same time in Serbia, terrorist groups began to emerge with the aim of carrying out terrorist activities to liberate Bosnia. This forms the background to the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand at Sarajevo. Austria was now assured of Germany’s support (‘blank cheque’) against Russia and Serbia. In the crisis following the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand therefore, both Germany and Russia now knew they could not turn back. Russia began to mobilize her troops and on this pretext, Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August and on France on 3rdAugust. .
On 4th August, Britain declared war on Germany. While Britain’s real reason for entering the war was to prevent a disruption of continental balance of power, her official pretext was German entry into neutral Belgium. USA too entered the war on the pretext of the German submarine blockade. It is interesting to see that as status quo powers both Britain and USA were able to enter the war on idealistic grounds, in which they were almost as aggressive as Germany.
The role of the press in causing the war has to also be highlighted. Fay argues that it plays an important role in any war. For instance, during the Franco – Prussian war the EMS telegramwas publicized to a great extent by the press. Fay says that jingoism prevailed among the press on the eve of the Sarajevo crisis in Russian, Austrian and Serbian newspapers. This “war hysteria” thus had a definite impact in aiding sentiment in favour of war.
Recent works have tried to suggest a link between different kinds of economic pressures and the outbreak of the First World War as well. Paul Kennedy has suggested that economic interests are a key reality behind diplomacy. In this view politicians have autonomous freedom to pursue foreign policy and even make vital decisions for war, without reference to economic interest groups in society. However the economic and industrial resources of each nation ultimately determine the success or failure of these decisions. This implies that economics plays a vital role.

There is also the view of Carl Strikwerda who argues that the crisis of 1914 needs to be understood within a framework which investigates whether all European leaders actually believed that political and military power were essential to economic success. He shows a very high level of economic cooperation and integration in Europe prior to 1914. Most industrialists desired mutually beneficial economic relations and many wanted greater economic integration within European trade and financial sectors. The most significant influence over foreign policy was thus exercised by the political leaders and not the industrialists. Thus the link between economic imperatives and Great Power status can be questioned.
The above discussion suggests that any single explanation for the outbreak of war is likely to be too simple. While in the final crisis of July 1914 the German government acted in a way that made war more likely, the enthusiasm with which war was greeted in all the belligerent countries and the assumption by each of the governments concerned that their vital national interests were at stake, were the result of an accumulation of factors – intellectual, social, economic and even psychological as well as political and diplomatic – which all contributed to the situation in 1914.
Joachim Remak in his book ‘The Origins of the World War’ raises the question of responsibility and the factors that goaded the countries into declaring war. The official report on the origins of the war, written by the victorious powers, and presented to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 concluded that the war was premeditated by Germany and resulted from acts deliberately committed in order to make it unavoidable. This German war guiltis enshrined in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles.
The debate over whether Germany intended an offensive war of territorial expansion or a defensive war is still debated. In 1961, Fritz Fischer, a German historian apportioned chief responsibility to Germany for preparing and launching World War I. According to him, the German desire for territorial expansion and desire to break free of its diplomatic encirclement culminated in the war. Fischer stated that Germany was ready to go to war at any cost in order to establish herself as a Great Power and she even went to the extent of provoking her alliesinto instigating war. He attempted to show that Germany was pursuing an aggressive policy, inspired by economic interests and designed to achieve world power. Fischer never deviated from his basic line of thinking that Germany was eager to make up for the disadvantage suffered as a result of entering late into world politics and this would have made war inevitable. Such viewpoints have been echoed by scholars like AJP Taylor, David Thompson and HAL Fisher. For instance, Taylor had argued that at the time of WWI, Germany had held this belief of grabbing huge territories and thereby, creating a huge pan-Germanic empire.

 Fischer’s work was criticized by Gerhard Ritter, a German historian, who saw Fischer’s work as an act of national disloyalty. Ritter had admitted that German war-guilt literature needed revision but did not accept Fischer’s thesis. Ritter had argued that Germany was not following an aggressive policy at all and it was only the fear psychosis of being isolated or attacked by other powers that compelled her into initiating the war. Moreover, Austria was her only reliable ally in Europe and she wished to protect her at any cost. Finally, Ritter said that one should understand that the national policy of Germany was in the hands of a few military generals and planners, who were acting responsibly and the German chancellor was never in favour of war. Thus, it was because of a few individuals that Germany launched the war. The real significance of Ritter’s viewpoints lies in the parallels that he draws between the imperialistic drive of Germany and Italy with that of USA and Japan. In this sense we can see that aggression was not the prerogative of any one country. The imperial aspirations that Germany has been accused of were also experienced by the other Great Powers. The clearest example of this is the feeble pretexts on which Britain and USA entered the war.
The argument of a defensive German war has been articulated by scholars belonging to the defensive school such as Egmont Zechelin and Karl Erdmann. They argued that the Balkan wars had proven to be highly advantageous to Serbia. This meant that Serbia was going to be dominant in this region for a long time. After seeing this, the German chancellor was not ready to resolve this through discussions. On the other hand, he started supporting Austria not against Serbia as much as against Russia. It felt that if Austria lost this war then it would be driven out of this region and Russia would dominate the entire region through Serbia. This would have been a total defeat for the Triple Alliance. These scholars were willing to accept that Germany was keen to break up the power of the triple entente in order to serve its own interests.

There are many other views as well on the extent of responsibility that needs to be apportioned to Germany for the war. Geiss suggests that the main long-term cause of the First World War was the German desire for Weltpolitikor world politics. It was only after Bismarck’s death that the generals, who succeeded him wanted to take up a more aggressive policy as opposed to Bismarck’s policy of not getting involved in any war. John Rohl sees the origins of the war in the German government’s pursuit of a pre-existing plan to split the Triple Entente or provoke a European war. Most historians however reject the idea of a pre-planned German war.

Paul Kennedy believed that it was the internal politics of Germany that played a major role in the outbreak of the War. He argued that German government at this stage was facing strict opposition from the social democrats and at one stage it actually seemed that the social democrats would come to power. It is for this reason that the Germans wanted to distract the attention of the country. Moreover, the ruling elite wanted to suppress and win over the middle classes at the same time. It is for this reason that they believed that War would act as a unifying bond. 
It was during the interwar years, the idea of collective responsibilityfor the outbreak of the war came to become the orthodox interpretation. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister suggested that ‘all the nations of Europe slithered over the edge of the boiling cauldron of war in 1914’.

Thus, to conclude, one can see that holding one single factor as being responsible for the outbreak of war is an oversimplification of the issue. It was interplay of all the factors mentioned above that created an environment that made war inevitable. While in the final crisis of July 1914 the German government acted in a way that made war more likely, the enthusiasm with which war was greeted in all the belligerent countries and the assumption by each of the governments concerned that their vital national interests were at stake, were the result of an accumulation of factors – intellectual, social, economic and even psychological as well as political and diplomatic – which all contributed to the situation in 1914.

As far as the responsibility for war is concerned it is Fay, who has given a balanced judgement. He has said that the entire blame cannot rest with Germany alone. Other countries should share the blame as well because when war ultimately broke out because of the Sarajevo crisis, it was essentially a conflict between Serbia and Austria- and not because of some German interests-that got blown out of proportion. A quotation on a war memorial at Belgrade stated that “Serbia was right in wanting to expand, Austria in wanting to survive. Germany was in right in fearing isolation and Great Britain in fearing German power. Everyone was right and everyone was wrong…all were sinners, all were sinned against.” 

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