The First World War was the inevitable result of the momentous transformations which Europe had experienced during the preceding century. While the nations of Europe long endured a history of violence equatable to that of any civilization of such ethnic and cultural diversity, the First World War is noteworthy in its causes, intensity, violence, duration and consequences. It is not however noteworthy in that it was the inevitable manifestation of its various causes, such is the very nature of any war of that relative magnitude. While the causes of the First World War were hardly inevitable, the conflict which would emerge as a result must, tautologically be an inevitability.
The emergence of Liberalism, industrial production, urban conglomeration, nationalism and imperialism created a highly, albeit subtle atmosphere of contention which would necessarily converge into what Ernst Junger titled a “storm of steel.” It was the inevitable consequence of an era of unprecedented progress and innovation such that the men, women, and nations which experienced such changes were so arrogant, so self-aggrandizing, so certain of their cultural superiority that they would risk total war to preserve this almost delusional sense of greatness. That war finally broke out in 1914 proves only that the plethora of other areas of competition had only in the early 20th-century finally become exhausted. Africa had been partitioned, the ports of China allotted, the states of Germany and Italy unified… By the dawn of the 20th-century there seemed to be no other distraction with which the nations of Europe could busy themselves and postpone the inevitable calamity.
The principles of Liberalism had instilled in the minds of successive generations of Europeans a sense of self-determination, of political and economic freedom which would encourage and serve as an ideological justification for both nationalism and imperialism. These two ideologies taken to their extremes, created a political and social atmosphere in which the First World War was made possible. The idea that an individual should be free from external coercion unless this freedom infringed on that of others, is Liberalism in its most primitive form. In its most processed and reconfigured form, Liberalism is Spencerian Social Darwinism, it is a “survival of the fittest” men and nations. By the time T.H. Green spearheaded a New Liberalism reminiscent of the morality and idealism of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith, the damage had been done. Liberalism became the ideology of the industrialist, the sovereign, and the financier. At odds were the old guard of Prussian, French, and English aristocracy and the avant-garde of socialism, communism and anarchism. The ideals of nationalism emerged from the competitive atmosphere, between both men and nations, which Liberalism had been interpreted to encourage.
As the empires of Europe consolidated, the incidence of international crises rapidly increased. Fashoda, Morocco, Libya… all these colonial disputes served to expose the underlying instability of the status quo in Europe. So too did the rapid rise of socialist movements exemplify the enduring class tensions which had long been overshadowed by economic progress at home and colonial adventures abroad.
As the great powers of Europe industrialized, urbanized and became political and economic hegemonies, nationalism emerged as a necessary consequence. Liberalism, both in economics and politics, had led to a thorough rejection of absolutism, of the divine rule of the monarch and of the economic theory of mercantilism. The political revolutions of the 19th-century resulted in the final deposition of the French monarchy and in many other nations, led to a compromise in the form of constitutional monarchism.
In this atmosphere of individual assertion and self-determination emerged the ideal that a nation, bound by language, culture, and blood could improve its people and mankind better than a chaotic multitude of interrelated kings, princes, dukes and barons. As nationalism spread across Europe, there emerged a competition between its various nations, all instilled with a sense of superiority over the other peoples and races of the globe. In this evolution, from the idealism of Mazzini to the brutalism of Treitschke, there emerged a more militant nationalism, in which every slight, every insult to a nation had to be challenged. The revanchism of France for its loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany is the most potent example of how the ideal, romanticized nationalism of yore morphed into a far uglier and dangerous form.
When war finally broke out in 1914, it is no surprise that the triggering incident took place on European soil. With foreign outlets of competition exhausted, the great powers of Europe had only their own continental system through which they could compete for dominance and prove their great power status. Equipped with the necessary technology, the European powers had divided (either politically or economically) Africa, Asia, and the Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of Europe.” The next point of contention would necessarily be the next weakest link in the international order, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With a multitude of nations, seemingly linked only in their reverence for their aging Emperor Franz Josef (r. 1848-1916) the dominions of the Hapsburgs were ripe for nationalist agitation. When Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand in the name of Serbian nationalism, he exposed the fragility of the European diplomatic order. The aspirations and honor of the great powers appeared at risk, and seemed very much dependent upon how the Austro-Serbian confrontation were resolved. It remains a matter of debate over how each nations’ handling of the crisis reflected their particular situations, and fears. No matter, it is evident that in the aftermath of the fatal shooting in Sarajevo, the leaders of the great powers were struggling to either maintain order or disrupt the status quo for their own nation’s benefit.
The unique, unprecedented character of the First World War was a result only of the inconsistencies between archaic notions of battle beheld by the old military order and the realities of scientific warfare. The highly immobile, highly lethal trench warfare into which the conflict quickly degenerated was a result of obsolete notions of offensive superiority (which military strategists initially favored) confronting modern warfare, which favored the defender and is exemplified by the trench, the machine gun and barbed wire.
As the First World War was the first major war of a generation, the strategies of the Bismarckian era war only gradually were replaced by a new, modern form of warfare which included aerial surveillance, snipers, storm-troopers, gas attacks, and eventually, tanks. The high fatality rate the French experienced in the first months of the war, partly a result of the ease in which German snipers could identify the bright red pants of the French infantry is a prime example of how the old and the new converged with destructive results.
For both the average and elite European, the character of the war was mysterious. What had been intended to be a short war of national assertion became a conflict which ended the age of European hegemony. The war destroyed a generation, both physically and psychologically, and the immense reorganization of the international order it engendered illustrates, in many ways, how the war was the last breath of the “belle époque,” as Victorian and Edwardian Europe has been so termed. In its character, the First World War was unique. In its role as the crescendo of a gradual intensification of European competition, it was nothing new. It was the Napoleonic Wars, the Hundred Years’ War, the Russo-Turkish Wars… It was, like any war of great consequence, an inevitable result of the manifold circumstances with which it had been made manifest.