The Causes of WW I Nationalism – Competition and Conflict in the Age of Empire (1875-1914)

The origin of the First World War lies in the nature of a continuously worsening international situation which increasingly escaped from the control of governments, which were in the grips of fear. “An important reason for this fear was the development and internationalization of capitalism that pushed virtually all the world’s powers towards state rivalry, imperialist expansion and war. International diplomacy became global. The international context characterized by the ideology of power, the supremacy of the state, the spreading of capitalism and the military-industrial complex, nationalism, power shifts and new alliances fed competition and conflict. Unrestrained nationalism due to the lack of international institutions led all European powers to regard wars as normal contingencies of international politics, with some monarchies having limited power over their armies. Gradually Europe found itself dividing into two opposed blocks of great powers” (Eric Hobsbawn).

Mostly because of these tensions and fears, notably fed by the military establishments in search of aggrandizement, by 1914 there were in Europe 20 million people in arms, and 30 further million ready to be mobilized. The great surprise of all governments was the wave of patriotic enthusiasm with which the masses responded to the call to arms and the way they deserted those leaders who took a stand against war.

The “Age of Empire” (1875-1914) was an era of economic-political rivalry between competing national economies, intensified by protectionism, and unrestrained by a lack of international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, the EU or the like. There wasn’t even a Superpower that could call others to order. Nationalism was widespread. All European powers regarded wars as normal contingencies of international politics, expected that a war would take place whatever the reason, and had war plans for defence as well as for pre-emptive attack.

During the last part of the 19th century, competition among nations could be kept in check largely thanks to German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik.. He notably created the Triple Alliance in 1882, conceived the Reassurance Treaty, and convened the Berlin Conference of 1885 about the The Scramble for Africa. However, while Bismarck’s policy aimed at allowing Germany to play a role commensurate with its growing power without open conflict preserved peace in his time, it had run its course and contained the seeds of its unraveling. It divided Europe in two camps, the Germanic and the Franco-Russian and may have induced Britain to establish a Triple Entente with France and Russia against Germany. Britain’s main aim was always to oppose any alliance among European powers that did not include her in order to preserve the Pax Britannica through the control of the world’s oceans.

Diverging trends in wealth tend to disrupt the balance of power among nations. A “coming country”, whose economy is important and expanding, naturally aspires to play a growing political role. The rise and fall of great powers has almost always been accompanied by war, at least until the start of the nuclear age. Between 1880 and 1913, Britain had moved from a dominant economic position to third place. Germany’s manufacturing production overtook Britain’s within only 33 years starting from one third of Britain’s initial figure. Since 1900 all English politicians, most notably Joseph Chamberlain, wanted to transform the whole British Empire into a giant trading block protected by high tariff walls, and might have succeeded if all Dominions had accepted to remain part of it. In Germany, who lacked colonies, industry started pushing for free trade in order to thrive.

After beating Austria in 1866, and France in 1870, Germany’s swift rise to prominence – economically, commercially and militarily – inevitably became a predicament for Europe’s other traditional great powers. But the historical record contradicts the belief of as an over-aggressive Germany, as the Reich has not participated in any conflict between 1871 and 1907. If Austria-Hungary was in the thralls of a systemic implosion and feared for its very survival, Britain, sensed the loss of pre-eminence on the seas and France sought revenge against Germany. But it was the crisis of the Ottoman Empire that might well have been the most important factor igniting a series of conflicts as the Great Powers tried to get part of its spoils.

There are five main geo-strategic causes of the Great War: 1) the systemic implosion of the Habsburg Empire, and Kaiser Franz Joseph’s refusal to grant to the Southern Slavs a role in government; 2) the overextension of the British Empire, which had upset the world’s balance of power, followed by a sense of loss of pre-eminence at sea;  3) the emergence of Anglo-German antagonism due to diverging wealth trends due to the British attempt to preserve the status quo, and Germany’s intent to gain political power and influence commensurate with its economic primacy; 4) the integration of Britain for the first time into a bloc with France and Russia opposing Germany’s rise to power, and isolating it to the point that it had to stick to its alliance with Austria-Hungary no matter what; 5) The decomposition of the Ottoman Empire, which ignited conflicts among the Great Powers attempting to get part of its spoils, and pushed the Habsburg Empire to prove that it was still a great power in the Balkans.


The fuse was lit by Austria that preferred a preventive war (against Serbia) to the kind of decomposition afflicting the Ottoman Empire. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand allowed killing plans that would have reformed the Monarchy reducing Kaiser Franz-Joseph’s power and better integrating the Slavs. Austria’s wish to attack Serbia and Germany’s commitment to support her – seem to confirm the views of conventional historians that tend to put all the blame for WWI on Germany and Austria-Hungary, and in particular Kaiser Franz-Joseph and Kaiser Wilhelm II. However, for revisionist historians such as J. Steinberg, Germany was not guilty of seeking to become a sea power, but the innocent victim of British envy. Even conventional historians admit that the First World War was essentially a struggle against German power. “Each Entente power wanted to improve its own position, but all wanted the destruction of Germany as a Great Power” (A. Taylor). The autocrats abdicated to their irresponsible military establishments that the democratic forces proved unable to control. Exuding confidence and yearning for battle, all chiefs of staff  – Moltke, Sukhomlinov, Conrad – and also the French and consequently the British military establishments acted in favour of war or at least failed to support peace efforts.

Many, historians, still believe the Tirpitz Plan started the naval race and created a threat to Britain, thereby becoming the major cause of Anglo-German antagonism, and of WWI. But they forget that it was Britain who had created the imbalance in the past, that Germany only tried to redress it. Tirpitz never intended, and actually thought impossible to existentially threaten Britain, and never succeeded in narrowing the naval gap, because Britain boosted its own fleet construction even more. Winston Churchill recognized that at no point was the German fleet a threat to British interests and its command of the seas.

While the Grand-Admiral considered a war possible and likely, preparing his navy for it, he never advised a preemptive strike or a war declaration, and actually asked the Kaiser to withdraw his on 1st August 1914. By contrast, First Sea Lord Fisher considered the war inevitable and is said to have suggested his king at least twice to simply attack (preventively) the German fleet. And Winston Churchill never made an attempt to negotiate peace with Imperial Germany except asking them to stop ship construction without constraints for Britain. According to Rolf Hobson, if Britain had accepted in 1910 Tirpitz’s proposal of a naval agreement between Britain and Germany on the basis of a 2:3 strength ratio, the naval race could have been stopped without weakening the security of either side. But the roots of British anxiety were not the building of the fleet, but German economic competition, which is why no naval agreement could diminish British resentment for the loss of economic primacy.

A number of historians point the finger at Kaiser Wilhelm’s myth mania. No doubt, he had fits of paranoia and several of his statements were ill considered and sounded trigger-happy. But the Kaiser was no warmonger. He simply sought greater prestige and authority in world affairs, preferably by frightening than by attacking other powers. “Yet none of this should detract from the Kaiser’s fundamental failure to provide genuine leadership…Wilhelm II drastically accelerated the deligitimization of monarchy as a German political institution and thereby, though indirectly, bestowed a heightened urgency upon the quest for a “Führer from the people’ legitimated by success and mass acclaim.”[1]

That the Kaiser did actually beg his colleagues Franz –Joseph and Nicholas II to stop the mobilization of their armies, as he did with his own, but all three sovereigns, excluded as they were from active roles in Army strategic or operative management, were overruled by their generals. Attributing much of the blame for WWI on the German side to the Chancellors, Tirpitz remarked that ‘We have conducted for years and even longer a seesaw policy, which ultimately made us enemies of the whole world, and Bethmann lived in the clouds.’

[1] Christopher Clark, Kaiser Wilhelm II, A Life in Power, pp. 365-366