Did German Ambitions for World Power Make War Inevitable in 1914?

1 January 2017

The First World War was the biggest and bloodiest war to have been fought with modern technology and caused wide spread chaos and tragedy that until that date was unparalleled in Europe. Of the 65,038,810 people mobilized to fight from all the countries involved 8,556,315 died, 21,219,452 soldiers were injured, and 7,750,945 were reported missing/P. O. W.

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Because the war was fought on such a massive scale, and caused such wide spread tragedy, all within living memory, it makes it both an interesting and controversial subject, and because of this there are many different theories about what the cause of WWI was. The most blamed party for the outbreak is Germany. There were many different factors involved in the events leading to war, and Germany found herself at the root of the majority of them in one way or another.

Even German historian F. Fischer was quoted saying “Germany had a will to war” in his book Griff nach der Weltmacht (Germany’s aims in the First World War) [1] Fischer’s theory on the origins of WWI was that Weltpolitik was instigated because Germany wanted a war. However the impact of the events surrounding assassination of Franz Ferdinand must be taken into account, as well as the other power’s actions/responses.

In 1890 after the dismissal of Bismarck for Caprivi, Germany’s Weltpolitik began with three main aims; colonial annexations, creation of economic spheres of influence, and expansion of the navy. It can be argued that Germany knew that each of these policies would cause conflict with the other powers, and that they were introduced not only for the purpose of making Germany a great power but also to instigate a war.

In his first years in power Caprivi attempted to untangle the complex system of alliances and commitments Bismarck had created during his long stay in office, and it can be said that his most important decision in accordance with Weltpolitik was his decision not to renew the Reinsurance Treaty between Russia and Germany[2], however this was mainly due to Holstein- a senior official in the foreign ministry- who managed to use Caprivi’s lack of experience of foreign affairs to exert great influence over German policy. By planning to expand their navy as part of Weltpolitik Germany began a naval ace with Britain. In 1898 came the first German Fleet Act, two years later a second doubled the number of ships to be built, to nineteen battleships and twenty–three cruisers in the next twenty years By aiming to have a bigger navy than the other powers Germany hoped to become a great power, and to have influence over the Balkans, and to be able to gain a colonial empire[3]. It can be argued that, because as part of the naval expansion policy was to keep Britain in the dark about it, Germany knew naval expansion would provoke the British and that it could lead to a struggle between the powers.

With their secretive naval race and the creation of the Dreadnought, Britain became severely provoked and soon Germany and Britain were turned into enemies. Germany and England had previously been friendly due to France being their mutual enemy, but with the secretive start of a naval race with Britain Germany pushed them away and towards a new Britain, Russia and France alliance. This was most certainly a large contributing factor to the events leading to WWI, and ensured that Britain would not take Germany’s side- a factor that they were ill prepared for and would eventually lead to their loss of the war.

Germany’s ambition for worldwide expansion, though, is arguably the single most prominent event whose ripples caused World War One. By 1890 almost all of the colonial territories that were rich in export goods and had a good climate, such as Africa, were already divided up and part of the major power’s empires so by the time Germany decided that she wanted to expand her empire worldwide there was little land to be gained, and the land that was available to be claimed was inhospitable or poor and so Germany was faced with the options of taking land that no one wanted or to try to take the land from another country.

Britain had wished to have good relations with Germany, but did not want its hands tied by continental commitments, or, as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury put it:  Britain wished to avoid the “encumbering engagements of an alliance”. Relations with Britain did improve, thanks to the gestures by Germany, such as the Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890[4], which neutralized colonial tensions in East Africa and provided Germany with a naval base in the North Sea.

Russia aided by the fear of an Anglo-German alliance, allied itself with France in 1892, putting an end to decades of French isolation, which had been one of the aims and greatest achievements of the Bismarck system. Germany made minimal gains, while an embittered France had now gained a powerful ally on Germany’s eastern flank, something which Bismarck had sought to avoid for his entire time as chancellor. Had Germany not wanted to cause conflict that could end in war then they would have tried to gain lands by political means, purchase or just settling for land that was yet unclaimed.

However Germany decided to try to take French and British lands in Africa, not only alienating them from Germany but also driving them together and forming their political friendship and support that would later lead to the triple alliance. [5] During the Boer war Germany started to support the Boers and providing them with the latest rifles to fight the British with in a hope that they would instead gain the lands and the gold and diamonds to be found there by “diplomatic” means after the British had been beaten.

Their bid for the Boer lands was unsuccessful, and they led the condemnation of the Boer war, and the British’s use of concentration camps and the killing of prisoners without trial- ironically some 40-50 years later they would themselves use this tactic on a larger scale and are still condemned to this day for it. This drove Britain and France into cementing an alliance in 1904, and the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911 only served to drive them closer together for safety against Germany’s aggression. Germany’s actions also made the other powers extremely hostile towards her, creating mass conflict.

It was this aggressive attitude coupled with other countries fear and concern that created mass tension throughout Europe. As a result of their aggressive foreign policy and expansionism plans, by 1912 Germany found herself surrounded by hostile countries. The Kaiser and leading military leaders held a war cabinet meeting to discuss “how to get out of this mess”. It was decided that as they were surrounded by hostile countries that they would need an ally to help fight their way out. The decision to ally with Austria rather than Russia is what led to the signing of the “Blank Cheque” of support for Austria[6].

It was also decided that if a war happened that it would most likely be in the Balkans, and that the sooner it happened the better because if Russia had more time they could become too strong to defeat, and as their ally Britain would be dragged into it on the side of Russia- something that Germany did not want as they sought Britain as allies. Although it can be said that Germany set the wheels of WWI in motion, it can be argued that it was not at Kaiser Wilhelm’s direction alone, it was also due to Bismarck.

Bismarck’s alliance systems had created rivalry and suspicion between the powers, causing worldwide tension. The first of the major alliances to be formed was Germany with Austria-Hungary forming the Duel Alliance to combat Russian influence in the Balkans, and in 1882 expanded to include Italy and became the Triple Alliance. Bismarck’s Franco-Prussian war of 1871 ended in France being defeated by the Germans, and the construction of an alliance system to isolate France, and then Germany forced France to pay Germany reparations.

This alliance system, although short lived, allowed Germany to become stronger and allowed her to think that she could get away with a more aggressive foreign policy in the coming decades as there had been little/no intervention with their war with France[7]. In 1892 the Triple Entente, an alliance between France, Russia and Britain was formed to counteract the force of the Triple Alliance and led to heightened tensions as Germany found herself encircled by hostile powers.

A lot of emphasis is put on Germany’s involvement in and actions leading up to WWI however there are many other prominent contributing factors that can be said to have caused the war. One of these is the instability in the Balkans. After the decline of the Turkish Empire there was a “power vacuum” in the Balkans[8]. Both Russia and Austria wanted to control the Balkans and so were not reliable in an alliance together, and so Germany chose to renew an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than Russia.

Serbia an ambitious Slavic state won its independence from the Turkish Empire allied itself with Russia, and the Austrians took control of Bosnia in 1908 causing them to almost come to blows with Russia who had hoped that the “Black Hand” from Serbia would assimilate Bosnia into Serbia. Austria looked back to the Duel alliance between themselves and Germany, who promised to support them if they fought with Russia. [9] After the assassination of the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand from Austria by a member of the Black Hand the Balkans found themselves split in two, with Serbia and Russia on one side, and Germany,

Austria and Bosnia on the other side. Although the “Blank cheque” of support promised by the Germans contributed to the outbreak of war, it can also be argued that had Austria reacted to the incident with diplomacy rather than the demand of war then WWI may not have happened, or if it had then it would have been at a different time and perhaps with other powers against each other. However, Germany, Austria, and Russia are not the only powers who can be said to be responsible for the outbreak of WWI; there was also the contribution of the French. The French never got over their defeat by the Germans in 1871, and remained hostile towards them.

France had an expansive colonial empire and had refused to give any to the Germans[10]. Perhaps had they done so then Germany may not have adopted the aggressive foreign policy tactics that they did, and so would not have surrounded themselves with hostile powers. Another factor of France’s contribution to the beginnings of WWI was their alliance with Russia. The alliance with Russia meant that Germany was further surrounded by hostile powers and would have felt trapped and there would perhaps have been no need for her to act so belligerently towards her neighbors.

Also, Britain can be partly blamed for the outbreak of war. As the strongest power Britain could have used her influence to prevent events from escalating to a full out world war, however at the turn of the century Britain had been preoccupied with solving the Irish question,[11] and by the time that she turned her full attentions to the worldwide stage, events and tensions had escalated beyond the point of return and WWI was firmly on its way.

In conclusion, although Germany’s grand expansionism plans and uncontrolled ambition are certainly a main contributing factor to WWI, it would be impossible for them to have a war alone, which would suggest that they cannot be soley blamed for it and that it was a mixture of everyone’s actions that culminated in war. By 1914 tensions between the major powers were high, further driven by shifting alliance systems. At this time any of the countries involved could have sparked of the final steps towards war, it ould be argued that it was just serendipity or chance that it was the Germans, however had their Schleiffan plan taken into account that the British would become involved in the war then it perhaps would have been a different power that took the final steps to war. Although it can be argued that everyone was at least partly to blame for the outbreak of WWI, it was in fact mostly the result of Germany’s unchecked ambition and expansionism attempts.

This is because, although all the powers had a hand in the outbreak of war most of the events that caused the tensions and rivalries had German actions behind them; France were unwilling to share colonial territories after being defeated by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war 1871 and allied with Russia, causing Germany to feel surrounded. Russia, threatened by an Anglo-German alliance allied with France, and backed Serbia against Bosnia and her Austro-German alliance. England was hostile towards Germany after the Boer war and Moroccan crises, and became close allies with France, who of course were hostile to Germany. In short it was Germany’s own actions that caused the war, and also her downfall in it, as had she acted differently she may not have driven her allies away and into each others arms.

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