What were the incendiary forces of the first Great War?

History is replete with accounts and anecdotes of wars; those wars which changed the course of history in more ways than one.  As far as international relations is concerned, the 30-year old war, and the ensuing Treaty of Westphalia was very imperative, to say the least.  After the inception of the Westphalian system of state sovereignty, concepts like national interests, balance of power and in a way security dilemma began to take shape. However, Cardinal Richelieu gave the concept of Raison d’état even before 1648.  Britain was astute enough to pitch the weak against a comparatively mighty power, in a view to maintain balance of power. A Semblance of protracted peace was evident in the 19th century; however, something was cooking-up. Nationalist movements, coupled with revolutions and feuds, resulted in the unification of Italy and Germany. Soon, at the fag end of the 19th century, things took a new course. Eventually, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered the war. But that event was just a tip of the iceberg; there were reasons beyond this single act of lunacy, which caused the powers to go dagger drown in 1914. Penny and penny make up many; it is difficult to ascribe one factor as a major cause of the war. “On the one side we should have to trace the influence of Prussia on the creation of the Reich, the political conceptions of Bismarck, the philosophical tendencies in Germany, and the economic situation – a medley of factors which transmuted Germany’s natural desire for commercial outlets, unhappily difficult to obtain, into a vision of world power.” (Hart 1972)  For the consumption of this piece, let’s shed-light on a few evident causes, and then try to pick out one most significant. The causes under question are imperialism, arms race, alliances and discrepancies in philosophy. Let’s discuss the causes one by one.

Intricate Alliances

Alliances are made ostensibly to bolster national security against threats. This is sometimes referred to as external balancing. Pakistan allied itself in West-sponsored military pacts, to baulk the threat perception from India, veritable or not, that is not the focus of this piece.   The Europeans made alliances galore, especially after the unification of Italy and Germany.   In 1873, Bismarck enunciated the Three Emperors’ League of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. After strenuous efforts to keep the cleavages between Russia and Austria-Hungary, the Three Emperors League broke in 1890. Soon, Austria and Germany came closer. In fact, the Germans and Austrians had hobnobbed way back in 1879. Russia was seething in frustration. Soon, we saw the emergence of the infamous Triple Alliance with the inclusion of Italy.  The Triple Alliance panned-out in favour of Bismarck. He was thus able to kill two birds with one stone.  Firstly, the induction of Italy was a death knell for France, owing to rivalry over Tunis and secondly, it strengthened German alliance system. (Mahajan 1965)  If these countries were thinking, that their alliance would go unnoticed, then they were utterly wrong.  Russia, after getting a rough deal from their previous entanglement, groped for other allies. In short, Russia entered into an alliance with France in 1893-94. Soon, Britain and France signed the Entente Cordiale; this treaty tried to mitigate the rivalries caused by imperialism.  With the Anglo-Russian alliance, the Triple Entente came into being. So there were two camps prior to war.  Germany, Austria-Hungary , Turkey and Italy was in one camp, whilst, Britain, Russia, France and Japan were in the other. There is no need to further delve into these alliances. Let’s analyze the significance of the alliances as a cause of this war. At the most these alliances, all by themselves were able to give a feeling of war. Indeed, there were intra-European tensions; the alliances had delineated friends and foes.  The only reason that the alliance system caused war is that, since the camps were pitched against each other, they were looking for excuses to fight; a snowfall or a domino effect certainly worked. Perhaps, the allies pushed each other for launching attacks; like Germany was encouraging Austria post June 1914. However, I beg to differ with those who give primacy to this cause. Alliances are made to bolster one’s capability against an enemy or a bloc of enemies: NATO and Warsaw is an archetypical example. Alliances are made either to deter opponents from launching war, or in case of war, giving the ability to fight. The alliances were fostered to enhance power and isolate France, in case of Germany. Russia allied itself, owing to the fact that it was literally ousted by Germany/Austria from the Three Emperors’ League. Similarly, France had her own reasons to cobble-up. Mere alliances can possibly do nothing; they have to be backed up by arms and ammunitions and perhaps a genuine Casus belli. Scepticism, paranoia and gimmicks of diplomacy caused these groupings. Indirect war mongering, arms race, especially between England and France; imperial rivalries in Africa and the Middle East were other factors, which contributed towards war. Alliances were ostensibly made to thwart the impending threats; these surreptitious hobnobs advanced the war, but did not initiate it. And even otherwise, alliances are formed after enmities.


We often talk about and find out, the bone of contention between states. In the Indo-China scenario, we single out the NEFA and Sikhim crisis as an apple of discord, for instance. Certainly, the scramble for colonies was a stumbling block in intra-European relations. I would say that the Scramble for Africa was the major bickering point. Some rivalries originated from the quest for imperial expansion. As Kissinger pointed out “the new Austro-Hungarian Empire had no place to expand except into the Balkans. Inherent in this policy was conflict with Russia.” (Kissinger 1994) We see that, frictions were caused by overseas expansion.  Italy was averse to France because of a stake in Tunis as aforementioned.  Foreign lands were used to extend European rivalries. There are instances galore, which could have erupted in major spats. The infamous Fashoda crisis took place in 1898 just near the Nile River. Both, Captain Merchand and Kitchener diffused the situation sagaciously, though. After this incident, both countries came that close to each other, that an Entente was reached, which culminated in the Triple Entente.  Germany, after the epoch of Bismarck became Britain-centric, to say the least; imperialism was used to good effect against England. The Kruger Telegram must have irked Britain. Kaiser took the incendiary step of writing a congratulatory letter to Kruger on ousting British sorties from Transvaal in the Boer War. Serious tensions emerged between Russia and Austria after the Bosnian Crisis. There were other imperialism-related fissures; however, they need to be discussed here. Why was imperialism one of the causes of war? Indeed, as aforementioned, penny and penny make up many. Imperialism in certain cases, generated rivalries, and while in others simply exacerbated them. The Anglo-German rivalry augmented due to the so-called Scramble for Africa. Certainly, I will not deem this as the most significant cause of war. Conflicts over colonies were localized, and were sorted-out; in fact, we saw hostilities turning into friendship (Anglo-French). All those disputes were papered-over amicably; even if we the Kruger Telegram, we can’t gauge the impact with precision. Imperialism certainly added to fury, but still there were a host of other factors, which conflagrated the situation, to include arms race. People attribute arms race to imperialism, however, I take it differently; arms build-up was initiated by Kaiser as a continuation of German bellicosity; Britain had to follow suit.

Arms Race

At the heart of any military lies arms and ammunition. Offensive realists rename balance of power as balance of military power. (Griffiths 2007). As of this writing, the most intense arms race is seen in the Indo-Pak theatre, but it has ushered in a semblance of strategic stability. We cannot compare this arms race with that of the England and France, for nuclear weapons have brought new concepts, to include deterrence and stability-instability paradox, which need not be sifted upon   here. The concept of security dilemma can explain the fierce naval rivalry between England and Germany.  William 11 outlined the German policy in these words:  “Germany’s future lies upon the water.” (Mahajan 1965) Kaiser deputed Tirpitz to manufacture Trident; this was seen with scepticism by the British. Soon, a fierce race began. British Naval expansion was in response to the hawkish attitude of William 11. The naval race was the main corollary of the arms race prior to World War 1. Conciliatory missions flunked to stop the process; only a trigger was needed to put these weapons on the FDL’s. The Dreadnought was built by both countries with impunity, to say the least.
As mentioned above, arms race brings about a few things as offshoots. The concept of security dilemma states that, a country’s security will only be bolstered by endangering the security of the adversary. Certainly, the security dilemma was an element to consider pre 1914; both the great power tried to outnumber each other qualitatively and quantitatively. What the arms race did was not only to instigate a fresh patina of animosity, but to give strength to both camps to fight when the time comes. Indeed, the contribution of the frenzy for arms is more than the previous two causes. Alliances made two separate blocs, and the acquisition of weapons, provided those blocs something to fight with. The wherewithal of war was complete; a small incident was needed to start a colossal war.  The induction of arms in the cache was one of the major causes of the First Great War, for it aggravated paranoia and make a warrior his toolkit. However, the way these weapons were proposed to be used at the strategic and tactical level, also brought about war.

Conceptual/Attitudinal /Philosophical reasons

As a layman in sociology and philosophy, I don’t have much to speak about. However, I can read a warrior’s mind. War is caused by the bellicose attitude of human beings. The international system has, in my opinion has no room for morality and all liberalism-related concepts. It is a brutal system, typified with anarchy, balance of power and the primacy of power and national interests.  War cannot be resisted when war mongering is at its peak. Austria-Hungary was groping for power after becoming an independent Empire; Austrian policies not only provoke Balkan nationalism, but also made Russia a perpetual enemy.  Let’s try and focus on the mindset of the Germans at length. Germany was obsessed with power, ever since the unification; it left no stone unturned to enhance power and preponderance. Bismarck strengthened Germany through benign   diplomacy, by making alliances, to include the Triple alliance. He succeeded in thwarting the French threat by isolating France. The adept diplomacy of Bismarck was supplanted by the hawkish and jingoistic policies of William II. At first, he did not try to address Russian scepticism regarding Austria, which resulted in Russia’s parting of ways. “German leaders after Bismarck threatened every other European nation with absolute insecurity, triggering countervailing coalitions nearly automatically. There were no diplomatic shortcuts to domination; the only route that leads to it is war.” (Kissinger 1994) one can corroborate this claim further by citing German nefarious activities in South Africa (Kruger Telegram); refusal to ally and instead launch a naval competition with Britain. The Schlieffen Plan will vindicate all those who blame Germany for the outbreak of the First World War. England entered the war because going by this plan , Germany trampled upon Belgian neutrality. Similarly, William II was encouraging Austria to take stern actions against Serbia. As far as Great Britain is concerned, impeccable restraint was shown by her; even during the naval rivalry, Britain tried to diffuse the crisis. The Russians changed their camp owing to Germany and Austria; although they were in deep internal quagmire; the aftermaths of the 1905 revolution were in full swing, but still, bolstered by French and English, they probably wanted the diversionary theory of war to work for them. It proved a death knell for the Tsar.
Thus, we see that there were marked differences in attitudes, which were briefly touched-upon above. These attitudes, especially that of Germany is for me the most imperative cause of the First World War. The German quest for power compelled her to make aggressive alliances, use bullying tactics, ameliorate the military and pitch one against the other. Why does a country embark upon imperialism? To gain power and preponderance; same goes for armament and alliances. Had Kaiser been not ambitious, he would have not started the naval race or for that matter dissuaded Austria from making a mountain of a mole.  Clausewitz said that war is an extension of diplomacy by other means. The German desire for war resulted in alliances and counter-alliances; Dreadnoughts and more Dreadnoughts. Russia was seething for war too, only because it felt insecure from German attitude. War mongering led to stockpiling of weapons, alliances and the conception of hawkish military strategies. All the above mentioned causes emanate from war hysteria or fondness for war, for that matter.


No single factor can be ascribed as the principal cause of the First World War; all powers and their hawkish policies pitched-in to the tragedy. Having said that, some factors  generate other factors. Here, the warlike attitude of great powers, especially and most certainly, Germany was the most conspicuous cause of the power. When there is no will to augment power, then alliances are not made; navy is not built; territories are not captured. Let’s take arms build-up as a cause. Why would a country add deadly weapons to its cache? Armament is not done  either to start a war, or to prevent from being taken for a ride in a war. Hence , the desire to become militarily strong leads to weapon development/acquisition. The first three causes are hence subservient to the fourth one.


  1. Excellent read.... Keep sharing such ideas...


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Iranian Nuclear Program: Issues, solutions and views of Pakistan.

Zarb-e-Azb: A quest for Azaadi

An open letter to Shahid Afridi AND......