Academic journal article History Review

The Origins of the First World War

Academic journal article History Review

The Origins of the First World War

Article excerpt

What cause the First World War? This is a perfectly legitimate historical question. Historians have always been primarily concerned with change and thus with the causes of change. Also, we have to be concerned with big issues and really formative events - like the 1914-18 war. The great War not only killed about nine million people and ended Europe's supremacy in the world (so that, according to Sellar and Yeatman, America became `top nation' and history came to a full stop); it also transformed the political map of Europe. Indeed some of the major features of European history between the wars - like Soviet communism, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, and even the depression of the 1930s - are unthinkable apart from the legacy of the war. It also changed the way we perceive the world. It may be said, with pardonable exaggeration, that `modern consciousness', at least for Westerners, began in 1914. The questions of why the war began is thus an important one; but it is also immensely difficult, if not impossible, to answer.

The purpose of this brief essay is not to attempt the impossible but to pinpoint some of the reasons why the origins of the First World War are so complex that they defy simple, straightforward answers. First, it must be said that the study of history is difficult: the attempt to understand the past is forever doomed to at least partial failure, and on the naive think otherwise. But if we show real awareness of the historian's problems, we also demonstrate a valuable understanding of the nature of history itself. The other difficulties may be divided into half a dozen convenient sections.

The issue of causation

Why things happen is something of a mystery. Anyone who delves into philosophy will see this. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy asked in War and Peace a very pertinent, but also very perplexing, question: `When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?' We may think that any one of these provides a possible explanation, depending on our perspective.

Historians use a variety of causal labels to help our understanding of why things happen, but because we do not all assign the same meaning to them they can in fact be bewildering. Everyone is familiar with the concept of `short-term' and `long-term' causes, but not everyone has the same timespan in mind - and whatever happened to `medium-term'? Historians also write regularly of `objective' and `subjective' causes; of `sufficient' or `necessary' factors, as well as of `occasioning' factors or triggers. In addition, there are still `root', `basic, `fundamental' and `important' causes of an event, does this means that there are `unimportant' ones as well?

A.J.P. Taylor once compared the outbreak of World War I with a motoring accident for which it makes no more sense to blame the driver of the vehicle involved than it does the inventor of the internal combustion engine - or, he could have said, of the wheel. It is an analogy well worth thinking about. Certainly the origins of traffic accidents and of wars can be traced back ever further into the past, and none of the participants is ever likely to agree on who is to blame. But so complex are the ramifications of causal theory that most of us have at one our shoulders and take refuge in another of Taylor's notions -- this one decidedly perverse -- that `things happen because they happen'.

The time span

We all know that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg Empire, was assassinated at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by Gavrilo Princip and that this unleashed a chain reaction of events that led Germany to declare war on Russia on 1 August. The adoption of the German Schlieffen Plan then brought France and Britain into the conflict. …

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