Nationalism, Imperialism, and WWI

The outbreak of World War I had very complex causes.  On the one hand, it was closely tied to the nationalist/imperialist activities of the day, which, together with the "balance of power" policy devised at the Congress of Vienna and Otto von Bismarck's diplomatic policies, led to the formation of military blocks that made the confrontation between Austria and Serbia not a regional, but a world-wide warfare.  The entry of the U.S. in May 1917 and the Russian Revolution of Nov.1917 quite changed the nature of war from a confrontation between nationalism and imperialism, and competition between imperial powers, to one for establishing a new international order, based on national self-determination and collective security.

Regional warfare and WWI

WWI was triggered off by the confrontation between nationalist Serbs who wanted to establish a greater Serbia that included Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were under Austrian control in 1878 and directly annexed by Austria in 1908.  Serbian nationalism against Austrian domination was shown in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb at Sarajevo in 1914.  After the incident, Austria asked to search for the radical Serbian nationalist organization that sponsored the assassin in Serbia.  When the latter turned down the request, Austria declared war.

WWI, which covered three continents (Europe, Africa, and West Asia), is an example of how a regional war in the Balkans could ignite an international crisis.

An ally of Serbia, France declared war on Austria, and Germany declared war on France. The allies of both sides were then dragged into the war, except for Italy, which switched sides in 1915.

Bismarck’s alliance system and secret treaties

One of the reasons why the war dragged in so many countries was because of the alliance system: both Serbia and Austria signed military alliances treaties with other countries which were obliged to go to war should their allies do.  The Austrians entered into such an alliance system through the maneuverings of  Bismarck, who wanted a stable international environment for German industrialization. Bismarck devised two approaches:

To isolate France, a potential enemy because of the Franco-Prussian War (1871).

To prevent war in the Balkans where the Ottoman Turkish power was declining and European powers all wanted to get in, some by playing on the nationalism of the Balkans.  To do so, and to isolate France, Bismarck made alliances with potential enemies Austria and Russia.

  • Three Emperors’ League (1873-78): Russia, Germany, and Austria, to balance Russia and Austria’s conflict over the Balkans.
  • Dual Alliance with Austria (1879).
  • Triple Alliance: with Austria and Italy (1882-1914)
  • Reinsurance treaty (1887): secret treaty with Russia.

International competition

On the other hand, the other party in the war also formed military alliances as a result of international competition for colonies with Germany.  Britain drew close to France and Russia because of their common opposition to Germany.
  • As a late comer on the scene of imperialism but the largest producer of steel in Europe by 1900, Germany entered an arms race with Britain: building battleships.  Germany hoped to wrestle colonies from other European countries, especially Britain and France, through a strong navy.
  • Initially a member in the military alliance with Germany and Austria, as time went on, Russia more and more felt Bismarck was biased against Russia, especially through issues on the Balkan Peninsula, e.g. putting Bosnia and Herzegovina under Austrian trusteeship when they became independent of the Ottoman Empire in 1878.  Reacting against Germany, it drew close to Germany's enemy, France, which offered Russians generous loans for industrial development.
  • The Anglo-Japanese alliance (1902) to deter Russian expansion in China: both Britain and Japan had sizable colonial holdings in China, and they allied to deter their mutual formidable rival in China: Russia.
  • The British-French alliance in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5): when Russia and Japan went to war over the colony of Chinese Manchuria in 1904, according to the terms of their military alliances, Britain and France, which were allies to Japan and Russia respectively, should join in the war.  They decided it was not worth it.  This brought about the British-French alliance in 1904  and later, the Anglo-Russian alliance (1907).
  • First and second Moroccan Crisis (1905, 1911): German confrontation with France in Morocco, to intimidate the French and break the alliance between Britain and France, but achieved the opposite effect.  It not only strengthened the Anglo-French alliance, but also made Britain realize their most intimidating rival was Germany.

Nationalism on the Balkans

The First Balkan crisis (1908)

Russia threat to fight Austria-Hungary for taking Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Second Balkan crisis (1912-13)

In 1912, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro attacked Turkey.

In 1913, Serbia defeated Bulgaria.

Austria-Hungary prevented Serb expansion to the Adriatic Sea; Russian support for Serbia, and Germany forced Russia to back down.

The highly volatile Balkan political situation because of nationalism and the persistence of power politics by Austria finally led to the assassination of archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian imperial throne, which became the immediate cause of WWI.

Process of war: central powers

For the central powers:

Concentrate on France before Russia.

Concentrate on French capital.

Best equipped & well trained army could easily coordinate military strategies.

Try to win back Italy.

Schleiffen plan—a plan calling for holding action against slow-moving Russia while Germans thrust through Belgium to knock out France.

The Russian Revolution, or what were the consequences of not developing a welfare state and democracy

Russia industrialized late. In 1861, it formally ended the feudal system, by which time England was well over the first phase of industrialization, and much of Europe was in the middle of industrialization. Late industrialization led to a smaller size of industrial workers in Russian cities. The Russian tsar, less intimidated by the Russian industrial working class, did not feel the need to give democracy or the welfare programs.

The 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions

In 1905, Russian industrial workers and their families demonstrated in St. Petersburg for food. Their petition was showered with bullets.

The armed confrontation between the state and the workers encouraged more militant reactions from the workers, a lot of them came under the influence of socialism and communism.

The heavy Russian losses during WWI led to the popularity of the Soviets, who argued for the end of war and a coalition government of workers, soldiers, and peasants.