B. E. Schmitt : the alliances ceased to be the guarantors of the status quo, and might instead become instruments of aggression Thus the alliances, which had originally served the cause of peace, when put to the fi

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The relative importance of the causes of First World War
Alliance System

Pros argument

  1. The momentum of the more aggressive members might drag their allies, like tied mountain climbers, over the edge of the abyss. By 1914 the system had become rigid and inflexible. This meant that after Sarajevo none of the major powers made serious efforts to restrain aggressive allies, or to co-operate with the opposing coalition for fear of appearing disloyal.

b. B.E.Schmitt: the alliances ceased to be the guarantors of the status quo, and might instead become instruments of aggression...Thus the alliances, which had originally served the cause of peace, when put to the final test, almost mechanically operated to convert a local conflict into a general war.* He argued that each alliance was transformed from defensive to aggressive nature.( for details, please refer to p.1)

Cons argument

a. The best hope for peace was that the powers, like bands of mountain climbers tied together with ropes might contrive to haul back to safety any member of the party about to stumble over the edge of war. In fact, in the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, and in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, the system of alliance worked in this helpful manner. Russia was finally withdrawn from the crises because of her lack of support from Britain and France. Hence, allies served as powerful friction-brakers on the headstrong.

b. Taylor argued that the alliance system was not stable at that time. The agreements made in the alliance system might soon be reversed. Besides, he argued that one of the powers acted according to the letter of their commitments.* (for detail, refer p.3)
Economic and colonial rivalry

Pros argument

a. The competition between nations for trade, for colonies and spheres of influence led to the conflicts of interest, which resulted, inevitably into war. This economic factor, indeed, played a very important part in the Moroccan Crises (in the conflict between Germany and France) and the Far East (in the conflict between Britain and Russia). The conflict of economic interest became more intense as the area for peaceful expansion became less and less.

b. Besides, such rivalry also changed the relationship among powers. Italy joined with Germany and Austria because of her conflict with France over Tunisia. Britain arranged naval convention with France and agreed to support France in military terms was also because of another colonial conflict with Germany over Morocco.

Cons argument

a. James Joll argues that to some extent imperial interests did not always coincide with European alignments...Within a decade, it seems that colonial ambitions and rivalries had ceased to be the main feature of the international scene.

b. In fact, most the colonial conflicts were solved peacefully before the outbreak of the First World War. (e.g. Italy and France on Tunisia, France and Germany on Morocco, Britain and Russia on Persia and Balkans, Britain and France on Egypt, Triple Entente and Germany on Berlin-Baghdad railway.)

c. A.J.P.Taylor even argued that imperial conflicts delayed the outbreak of war among European powers because Africa and other colonies provided a back door for powers to expand without serious cost. To the powers, according to Taylor, such colonies were not a matter of life-and-death. Therefore, they were willing to get compromise and give concession. As a result, most colonial conflicts were solved peacefully. It was only after the partition of Africa that the powers turned back their attention to Europe, especially on Balkans where was a matter of survival to Austria and Serbia that finally led to the outbreak of the war in 1914.


Pros argument

a. It seems that this factor was important in affecting the relationship of powers, especially between Britain and Germany during their naval competition. Besides, the failure of the Hague conferences and the increase of expenditure on military armament tend to suggest the importance of this factor. People became increasingly more war-minded as the prospect of a general European conflict increased after successive crises and incidents. Militarism denoted a certain enthusiasm for war-preparedness.

b. Besides, the military influence on policy determination seems to support this view. After 1900 in all major countries military and naval personnel were consulted more frequently. Considerations of war gradually overrode other factors as senior staff officers were permitted a larger share in policy-making. e.g. The German Admiral Tirpitz rigidly opposed any proposals for naval disarmament, and Moltke, the Chief of Staff, was keen on war against France.

Cons argument

a. Relations between Britain and Germany had improved considerably since 1912. An informal agreement had been reached for the construction of battleships in the ratio of 16:10.* B.E.Schmitt. (refer to p.1)

b. J.Joll : This factor is a neutral one. Although the army planned the strategy and pressed on the military build-up, such policies were not prepared to start the war, it only facilitated the actual operation. The decision to go to war depends on the state of mind of statesman.
*** However, the military plans, especially of Germany and Russia, did constraint the exercise of policy-making process in deciding to go to war. (refer their mobilization plans during the outbreak of war)

a. James Joll

It was a fundamental cause.* In late 19th and early 20th century, nationalism was changed to the seeking of national glory and prestige. There was a widespread revolt against the liberal values of peace and rational solutions of all problems, which had been taken for, granted by many people for much of the 19th century. Indeed it was sharpened by neo-Darwinism language of the struggle for survival and the survival of the fittest, and in which ideas of liberation through violence. New type of strident nationalism had found expression in the writings of publicists and nationalist pressure groups. * (for detail, refer War mood)

Thus, new nationalism was thought of as being a matter of instinct rather than of reason, based on the fundamental ties between men and the soil of their country and such ideas were closely associated with racialist theory, Darwinism.

It was due to this new nationalism that conflict among powers on national interest finally led to the formation of the alliance system, the imperial and colonial rivalry including Moroccan Crises and Balkan Crises, armament race, and finally the assassination at Sarajevo which led to the outbreak of war in 1914.
b. B.E.Schmitt

The primary cause of the war was the conflict over political frontiers and the distribution of peoples, the denial of what is commonly called the right of self-determination. Thus, the cause of nationalism was the underlying factor for the outburst of the WWI.

To Schmitt, the nationality issue of powers, especially in Austrian empires, was a main factor in affecting their policy before the WWI. the Slavs in both Austria and Hungary denied the rule of their Habsburg rulers and turned for help to Serbia.* Hence, nationality issue became a matter of survival to Austria-Hungary who was determined to crush Greater Serbian movement and Pan-Slavism. As a result, this Austro-Serbian rivalry led to the outbreak of war in 1914.

Yet, the situation in 1914 cannot be judged exclusively in terms of Austro-Serbian relations. Their conflict did affect the national interest of Germany, Russia and Turkey . The issue was basically a struggle for mastery on Balkans. Hence, according to Schmitt, it was under this calculation of national interest on both sides that war was finally broken out in 1914.

***More than any other circumstance, this conflict between existing governments and their unhappy minorities was responsible for the catastrophe of 1914.


a. Alliance system and imperialism were not important in causing the outbreak of WWI. To a certain extent, they even delayed the outbreak of war!

b. Alliance system, imperialism, militarism and nationalism did lead to the widespread of war mood among the people at that time. (Explain facts on war mood for evidence) Yet, it must be made clear that such war mood did not actually start the war in 1914, it only supported and welcomed the decision of the policy-makers in 1914. To a small extent, those statesmen were affected by such atmosphere in deciding to fight the war in 1914.

c. Militarism was quite important in affecting the scope of the war. The military plans of Germany and Russia did constraint the policy-makers in 1914. As a result, the war was extended.

d. The decision to start the war in 1914 was due to the lack of statesmanship. It was due to the miscalculation and wrong assumptions of those statesmen that war were finally broken out.

e. One can argue that WWI could be avoided if the statesmen of the powers were wise enough to solve the conflicts despite the atmosphere of war-mood and constraint imposed by military plans.

Granted wise leadership in Germany and elsewhere, these questions need not have exploded in a major conflict.* However, such view was true only in terms of time and scope.

f. WWI may be avoided in 1914 if the leaders could make right calculation. France and Britain may not involve in the WWI if Russia and Germany did not follow their military plans. Yet, sooner or later, there would have been an European war, in which at least Germany, Austria, Serbia, Russia and Turkey would involve.(because of nationalism) (For detail, refer Schmitt)

Besides, Germany wanted a quick victory over Russia and France for fear of being encircled. Such fear was increased after 1905, when Russia turned back to Europe after her defeat in Russo-Japanese War. As a result, Germany wanted to defeat Russia and France before the recovery of Russia, which was expected in 1917. In this sense, France would be most probably dragged in this European war too.

Thus, the only accident in 1914, as out of the expectation of Germany on this possible European war, was British involvement. Yet, British involvement was also undoubtedly certain if Germany invaded Belgium, which was already planned in the Schlieffen Plan in 1892-94. Hence, once Germany followed this military plan, as she did in 1914, Britain was dragged into the war too.

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