World War IWorld War I
The onset of WWI marked a turning point in the history of mankind, dramatically redefining the nature of warfare. The brutal restructuring of national policies to involve the entire nation, from industrial production to unwarranted assaults upon civilians, represents a tragic shift. The severity of this change warrants examination of both the general historical factors and specific events that produced such dire consequences, as well as speculation on whether WWI may have been avoided.
Historians largely look toward two general trends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rapid economic development and industrial growth that occurred in the 19th century, coupled with the diminishing availability of abundant resources, fostered a high sense of nationalism among Europeans. Economics and politics became intertwined, with pursuit of further economic growth intensifying political tension among neighboring countries.
Nationalistic rivalries appeared throughout Europe. Britain jealously guarded its diminishing status as the world power, harboring much negative sentiment towards prosperous Germany. Meanwhile, under the lead of the militaristic Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany attempted to rush its own emergence as an economic powerhouse. Kaiser Wilhelm, both jealous of being shut out of the colonial race and hoping to preserve Germany’s rise, cultivated a large naval fleet. This only served to increase tensions with the British, as well as to threaten the French and drive them into a favorable relationship with Britain. Austria-Hungary, an empire rapidly losing its respected status, was also swept up in the nationalistic fervor, with Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Bosnia largely intended to assert his nation’s power.
The nationalistic fervor was fed by the absence of a large war involving any of the great powers in over fifty years. Even the most prominent political and military leaders lacked a true sense of what combat entailed. Most viewed war as some idealistic entity, nothing more than a way to heroically promote their interests. Through development of massive armies and acquisition of advanced weaponry, a country could bluff its way to greatness. The greatest form of defense was considered a strong offense. Because few people had experienced the true horrors of war, the British approached WWI as the war to end all wars for the good of mankind; while the Germans felt the German spirit will regenerate the world. Neither country recognized the realities of the death and destruction accompanying a war of the caliber for which they had prepared.
Despite the tension created by European nationalism and militarism, an uneasy peace was maintained. Historians look at actions by certain groups or individuals as having been responsible for spurring the chaos of WWI. One determining factor was the development of the Schlieffen plan in Germany. It called for capitalization on the sluggishness of the Russian military through rapid mobilization. German forces were to first take France through Belgium and then attack Russia, thus preventing a war on two fronts. Arguably one of the greatest catalysts of the war, the Schlieffen plan was intended for defense, but only in the sense that protection comes from striking your enemies before they can mount an attack. Hoping to prevent an alliance such as the Triple Entente, the strict timetable of this plan left no time for diplomacy once Germany was threatened. Germany either had to attack, or lose all hope of the advantage provided by a single front war. Had Schlieffen had the insight to examine recent wars, such as the Russo-Japanese War, he would have seen that due to railroads allowing for rapid deployment of troops to a set location, an effective war would be waged employing defensive tactics. Those who sought to hold their ground and could be quickly reinforced were more successful than those who attacked. A defensive plan would have allowed Germany to answer Russian challenges without the instigation of war, not only leaving it possible for tensions to fade but also keeping Germany out of immediate conflict. Unfortunately, Schlieffen’s policy left his nation no choice but to attack. Mobilization meant war.
Historians postulate that Britain could have avoided the hardships of WWI had it chosen to wait and observe German actions, rather than immediately delve into battle to ally with its formidable economic rivals France and Russia. Britain, as an alternative to the declaration of war, could have accepted Germany’s pledge to honor the territorial integrity of Belgium and France; this would have preserved British interests and lives, as well as shortened the war considerably. The highly probable German victory on the continent would have yielded a European economic union similar to the one that exists today. The unfortunate reality of this action though, is the degree of faith Britain would have had to have put in German promises, promises which were almost certain to go unfulfilled once Germany established complete control of the continent. Inevitably, another war would occur.
WWI may have only been avoidable in hindsight. Had the world powers recognized the magnitude of the devastation war was to bring, they would have had the incentive to avoid war at all cost. However, this cataclysmic event was not the version of war that a majority of the European leaders foresaw. The people of the pre-WWI era imagined war with an idealistic attitude; it was to thrive upon economic success and bring with it further prosperity of the nation. This, coupled with the economic pressures of expansion and rapid industrialization, made war not a matter of if, but when.
There are actions which, if taken during pre-war era, could have not only lessened the severity but also shortened the duration of WWI. Had Germany, instead accepting of the Schlieffen plan, taken a more defensive attitude during 1914, war would have been postponed. An increase in time between the initial mobilizations and the actual occurrence of warfare would have significantly altered the nature of the war. The Germans, taking only defensive measures against the threat of Russian mobilization, may have delayed their entrance into war for some time. Germany initiated battle with all except Britain, but even then Britain was drawn in by German actions. Deferment of the onset of fighting, through lack of a German declaration, may have afforded world powers time necessary to develop effective strategies for the swift resolution of the conflict. Alternatively, had Britain chosen to accept German promises and to remain neutral, the course of WWI would have been dramatically shortened. The almost certain victory of Germany may have proven beneficial and prevented the loss of millions of lives. Though this would have opened the possibility of future war with Britain, it is unlikely to have been comparable to the devastation of WWI.
Through examination of the causes of WWI, it becomes evident that they were both general and specific. The war had to happen in some form as a result of the driving historical forces of the time. Nationalism coupled with idealistic militarism left no choice in this matter. It was the actions of a few that shaped the nature of the war. Better diplomatic decisions on the part of any of the great powers, particularly Germany or Britain, could have both considerably reduced the severity and greatly altered the outcome of WWI.