To what extent did nationalism contribute to the origins of the First World War?



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Tamer Khedr

To what extent did nationalism contribute to the origins of the First World War?

Nationalism is the idea that people of the same ethnicity, language or culture ought to unite under one nation. But in 19th century Europe, many people shared the same language, the same culture and belonged to the same ethnicity, yet they were only a minority in the country they belonged to. Consequently, calls for nationalism and the unification of these people under one country increased during the 19th century in Europe. Therefore, many historians consider nationalism to be one of the major causes of the First World War. This essay will now study the degree to which nationalism contributed to the origins of the First World War.

Firstly, European statesmen of the early 19th century were worried about the Eastern Question which was the question of what would happen to the territories of the falling Ottoman Empire. Calls for Slavic nationalism were rapidly increasing, as the Slavs wished to establish their own country. This ultimately threatened the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it was consisted of several different ethnicities, thus they feared that if the Slavs are successful in gaining autonomy, ethnic groups within Austria-Hungary would call for the same thing. Therefore, Austria wanted to assert its control over the Balkans and prevent the Slavs from gaining autonomy as it may lead to the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But on the other hand, Russia supported Slavic nationalism as the Russian people were Slavs as well. Winston Churchill believed that this issue in the Balkans would cause trouble in Europe one day, and he was correct as the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28th, 1914 in Serbia. Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by the Black Hand which was a radical group that fought for the freedom of Bosnia. Even though Franz Ferdinand's visit to Bosnia was to grant her some reforms, the Bosnians wanted complete independence. Thus it was nationalism that led to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and this assassination was the immediate cause of the outbreak of war in 1914.

But on the other hand, it should be noted that Russia's main goal was to control the Straits of the Bosporus due to its strategic importance. Therefore, Russia was not solely driven by nationalist desires, as they wished to secure a warm water port for themselves.

Moreover, some historians argue that nationalism caused an increase in militarism and even in the creation of the alliance system in Europe. Firstly, several countries in Europe allied in Europe due to their common ethnicity or language. For example, a main motive behind the Russian-Serbian alliance was the fact that the peoples of both countries shared a common race and ethnicity. Furthermore, one of the main motives behind the Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria in 1879 was the fact that both nations shared the same language, culture, and ethnicity. Therefore, it seems like nationalism played a role in the configuration of the alliance system which split Europe into factions and ultimately led to the outbreak of the Great War. In addition, it appears that nationalism led to then increased militarism in Europe in the 19th century. The idea of nationalism promoted and encouraged people to become unique amongst other countries. This idea ultimately led to the idea of Welmacht in Germany, which was the idea that Germany is entitled to pursue a large navy and a colonial empire as it is a world power. Inspired by the ideas of nationalism, Germany started building one of the largest navies in the world. This ultimately endangered Britain as they felt threatened by Germany's unnecessary naval expansion. Consequently, this led to the Anglo-German Naval Race which embittered Anglo-German relations prior to the Great War.

On the other hand, nationalism did not cause the creation of the alliance system nor did it cause an increase in militarism in Europe for several reasons. First of all, even though Bismarck claims that he signed the Dual Alliance with Austria due to the cultural ties between the two nations, there are other subliminal reasons behind this alliance. Bismarck allied with Austria because he feared that she would join France and Britain in an entente cordiale. And if such thing happened, Germany would be forced to ally with Austria or face isolation. But Bismarck knew that he couldn't assert his dominance over Russia in an alliance, and Germany was not ready for isolation. Therefore, Germany and Austria signed the Dual Alliance in 1879 for reasons that are far bigger than nationalism.



As for Wilhelm II's policy of Weltmacht that included the expansion of the German navy and the conquest for colonies, it was mainly driven by Wilhelm's personal and selfish desire to rule the world. Wilhelm II did not devote much attention to German nationalism, but he merely wanted to be the ruler of a powerful world empire. In addition, Germany feared Russia's rapid growing Grand Military Program which was preparing Russia for war. Russia was rapidly building railroads and producing arms that would enable her to fight a war against Germany. Therefore, a major reason behind Germany's decision to mobilize in 1914 was hear fear of Russian militarism. Germany knew that Russia was not finished with here Grand Military Program in 1914; therefore, the Germans saw this as the best time to attack Russia. The Russian militarism had nothing to do with nationalism, nor did Germany's attack on Russia.

In conclusion, it seems that nationalism did not have a large contribution to the origins of the First World War. While it's true that nationalism instigated the conflict between Austria and Russia, it did not cause the outbreak of the Great War. Germany knew that 1914 was the best time to fight Russia as she was not finished with her Grand Military Program just yet and so Germany used the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as an excuse to launch the war. So perhaps militarism, the alliance system, and imperialism were all causes of the Great War, but nationalism played a minor role in igniting these causes.


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