There are a variety of opinions regarding the causes of the World War I (the Great War, the First World War, or WWI); however, the consensus has been reached that WWI resulted from the expanding military power, imperialism, and nationalism. This meant that the desire to serve one’s country led to the desire to hate another, and the aggression of some European leaders towards foreign countries fueled the rise of nationalism.
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Pan-Slavism and German Nationalism
The role of Pan-Slavism in fueling WWI has often been put in the center of discussions about this historic event. Pan-Slavism can be defined as a social and political movement that emerged in the nineteenth century; it implies the recognition of the common ethnic background between different Slav nations (Eastern and East Central Europe) for the purpose of uniting them for the creation of mutual political goals and even a unified political force. The Russian government had been tremendously inspired by the idea of a great state; historians alleged that the World War I was “the most violent tendency of the Slavs toward union and the preliminary step toward their general movement westward” (Levine, 1914, p. 665). The ideas of Slav nationalism contributed to the tensions in the Balkans; fuelled by Pan-Slavism, Russian policymakers pointed to the need of enhancing the country’s commitment to Serbia through taking over the actions of the Austro-Hungary (Snell, 2015). Particularly after the Balkan Wars, Russia paid enhanced attention to what Austro-Hungary planned to achieve in the Balkans.
In the German-speaking world, such an image of Pan-Slavism was painted in dark colors particularly in order to encourage the nationalism that would oppose that coming from the East. There was a corresponding expansion of nationalist attitudes in Slavic and German countries, which then led to the development of WWI. For instance, the Pan-Slav propaganda encouraged the Russian troops while also targeting the Austro-Hungarian soldiers in order to recruit them as the allies of the pro-Slavic movement. On the other hand, Germany used the Pan-Slavic ideas as a threat to the national identity, leading to the severe persecution of Slavs before and during WWI.
Role of Alliances
Alliances have always been made at the beginning of wars to unite the divided powers and heighten the tensions that existed between the rival powers. This means that the creation of alliances also played a role in the ultimate outbreak of WWI. For instance, at the wake of WWI, Britain competed with Germany after the formation of the Triple Entente (Russia, France, and Great Britain), leading to the improved readiness of the nations to participate in WWI. Another point to mention with regards to alliances’ contribution to the First World War is the appearance of nations’ suspicions about plans due to the increased secrecy of details related to alliances.
Such suspicions contributed to the inability of diplomats to develop viable solutions to overcome the crises that preceded war or occurred during it. In addition, since alliances were made between several national powers, any conflicts that appeared within the two camps meant that the other parties of the camp were also involved (e.g., the conclice between Serbia and Austria-Hungary led to WWI). Alliances led to war because the powers involved in them lacked the desire to settle disputes peacefully since their military allies could support them if needed. Lastly, it is important to mention that the formation of the Triple Entente became a significant threat for Germany, which was encircled by several enemies, leading to the country creating an aggressive military and politic policy to destabilize the unification of the three powers.
Role of the US and Woodrow Wilson
Despite managing to maintain neutrality in the World War I (although indirectly supporting Britain), the United States entered the conflict. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed neutrality in the wake of WWI due to the vast support of the public in maintaining the country’s non-involvement (Folly & Palmer, 2010). Ethnicity played a significant role since around a third of American citizens were of European descent, and despite sympathizing with their allies, they chose to remain neutral to protect the prosperity of their families.
The position changed with Germany’s attempt to quarantine the British Isles, and the country was the US’s key trading partners (“U.S. proclaims neutrality in World War I,” n.d.). In addition, Germany’s announcement of unrestricted warfare against all ships around Britain led to concerns that American ships would also become targets. The inevitable sinking of an American ship and the attack on Lusitania (a passenger vessel that had 128 Americans on board), led to the shift in the public opinion away from sustaining neutrality. Even the first attempts of the US to fight in WWI were characterized by Wilson’s desire to remain neutral while fighting off the submarines. However, the United States could not maintain its neutrality due to the direct threat from its immediate neighbor, Mexico (Tuchman, 1996). In January 1917, Britain encrypted a message from Zimmerman (Germany’s Foreign Minister) to von Eckhart (German Minister in Mexico), in which the former proposed an alliance between the two countries in the case when the US joined WWI to support the Triple Entente.
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The US’s entry was a significant force in ending the Great War. For instance, the appearance of the large supply of new American soldiers that were at a significant advantage was extremely demoralizing for German troops. However, the efforts on the battlefield were not the only factors in ending WWI; the entire US economy mobilized to help the allies and the national troops. Ranging from the governmental propaganda that captured citizens’ morale to the efforts to grow more produce to feed the soldiers, America did everything in its power to prevent Germany from reaching its military goals.
The Treaty of Versailles was the official document that ended the First World War on June 28, 1919 (Goldstein, 2013). However, the ratification of the treaty was significantly undermined by the US Congress’s criticism of the Article X, which implied the military support of member state in the case of their allies going into war. Critics saw such a condition as an attempt to violate the US sovereignty; in addition, some believed that the Article X would lead to another war. Thus, the Congress refused to ratify the treaty despite Wilson’s attempts in its negotiations. This meant that the US did not become the League of Nations’ member. Despite the fact that the war was won, the two decades that followed were characterized by extreme isolationism characterized by the US’s attempts to be less involved in global affairs, closed its borders for immigrants, and avoided any factors that could undermine the political stability of the country.
Folly, M., & Palmer, N. (2010). The A to Z of U.S. diplomacy from World War I through World War II. Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press.
Goldstein, E. (2013). The First World War peace settlements, 1919-1925. London, UK: Routledge.
Levine, L. (1914). Pan-Slavism and European politics. Political Science Quarterly, 28(4), 664-686.
Snell, J. (2015). Pan-Slavism and the origins of the First World War [Blog post]. Web.
Tuchman, B. (1996). Zimmerman telegram. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.
U.S. proclaims neutrality in World War I. (n.d.). Web.