|MAIN Causes of World War I: Lyrical Footnotes
M stands for “militarism (1), A for “alliances” (2), I for “imperialism” (3) and N for “nationalism” (4).
The MAIN Causes of World War I (5):
Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism are the main long term causes
of the Great War, later known as World War I. There were short term sparks that caused the European War, such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo during the summer of 1914. But these four long term causes developed over decades, and slowly created the atmosphere of fear and distrust which led to the conflict. The US did not enter the War until 1917, almost three years after it began.
(1) Militarism is defined as a national policy of aggressive armament--building up weaponry and armies. European powers were engaged an escalating arms race in the years before World War I. Between 1870 and 1914 overall European spending on weapons increased 300%. A good example of the militaristic atmosphere was the naval arms race between England and Germany, in which each side struggled to build bigger, faster and deadlier dreadnought battleships. England was committed to the “2:1 standard”. It vowed to have twice as many battleships as any potential enemy. When Germany built ships to project their new global power, England was forced to build even more, driving the Germans forward so they would not fall too far behind. This spiraling militarism created a European continent that was dangerously armed when conflict arrived. The major combatants proved quick to mobilize and attack, in part because they had assembled such large armies.
(2) Alliances: The European system of Alliances pitted the Central Powers (Germany,
Austria-Hungary, Turkey) against the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France and Russia).
Russia dropped out of the War in 1917, the same year the United States entered on the Allied side. The system of alliances, where each nation promised to back up an ally if they went to war, meant that a smaller conflict was much more likely to expand into a large war. This was seen clearly in the clash between Austria-Hungary and Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Without an alliance system this might have been a much smaller regional conflict. With alliances, the whole of Europe plunged into war.
(3) Imperialism is the process of expanding territory and building an empire. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, European countries competed fiercely to take control of territory in Africa, Asia and South America. They sought markets where they could sell goods, sources of raw materials, and gain national prestige. The process of imperial expansion accelerated by the 1880’s because no European power wanted to be “left out”. If one country didn’t act to take control of a part of Africa, for example, another European country might. As a result, Africa was frantically carved up into colonies by the European powers. This contributed to the atmosphere of tension before the War because countries clashed over territory in the great land grab.
(4) Nationalism is extreme patriotism. Before World War I the governments and people of all major European countries were extremely nationalistic, trumpeting their own greatness and putting down other nations. Supercharged patriotism added to the climate of fear and distrust before the War.
(5) Interrelated Causes: Although militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism may be analyzed separately, it is important to realize that they affected each other and functioned as an inter-woven whole. For example, imperialism made countries feel the need to have large armies and navies to protect their empires (militarism); this became a source of great pride in one’s nation (nationalism). With potential enemies growing stronger, it made sense to have other nations on your side (alliances). All four MAIN long term causes of World War I were connected.
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