Nationalism as a Cause
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and the ensuing chaos triggered a cascade of events that later culminated in the First World War. While scholars agree that the shooting and killing of the Austrian heir sparked the war, issues surrounding nationalism, imperialism, and militarism contributed significantly to it. This section analyzes the role of these forces and especially the rise of Pan-Slavism in Eastern Europe and the corresponding rise of nationalism in German-speaking states.
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Nationalists are concerned with the well-being of their countries. The majority of Europeans were overconfident in the economic and military capabilities of their nations (Sluga, 2016).). This belief was fuelled by nationalistic speeches and warmongering amongst the ruling elite, assuring citizens that their countries were ready to win any battle. For instance, the Russian tsar claimed that his throne was protected by God, and coupled with 1.5 million military personnel; he would certainly win any war (Sluga, 2016).
On the other side, the Germans trusted their extensive military establishments and armaments to subdue any enemy in case of a confrontation. They even had the Schlieffen Plan, which would allegedly topple Russia and France without resistance (Henig, 2001). As such, Slavic nationalism defined Russian interests in the Balkans and especially in Serbia, where Austria-Hungary was trying to establish a presence.
Russia was convinced that Austria-Hungary had sinister motives in Serbia, especially after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 (Sluga, 2016). Therefore, Russia supported Serbia’s expansion plans into Bosnia, which was under the control of Austria-Hungary. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia, and the nationalists in Serbia wanted their country back (Sluga, 2016).). On the other side, Germans, with their bellicose nationalism, supported Austria-Hungary in the quest to cling to Bosnia.
These nationalistic advancements created tensions in the Balkans. Therefore, when a Serbian shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it was seen as an act of aggression in an already volatile relationship. Gavrilo Princip belonged to a terrorist cell that had support from the Serbian authorities. The shooting of Franz Ferdinand was a statement that Serbia was a force to reckon with, and thus Austria-Hungary retaliated. In the ensuing confrontation, Germans backed Austria-Hungary while Russia supported Serbia, and thus it became a worldwide debacle.
The alliance system contributed significantly to the war. On one side, Serbians were boisterous in the region because they had support from the Russians. On the other side, Austria-Hungary had assurance from Germany that it would assist in any way should a war break out. Even before the shooting of Franz Ferdinand, France and Russia had partnered to extend territory towards East Prussia by building a railway in the region (Henig, 2001).
This move inflamed Germany as it feared encirclement from the advancing coalition. Therefore, Germany joined Austria-Hungary to have a strategic footing should its enemies decide to attack. Ultimately, given the bellicose nature of Germany, Austria-Hungary was confident to attack Serbia in retaliation. If Austria-Hungary did not have an alliance with Germany, it would not have attacked Serbia, given the involvement of Russia.
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America’s Neutrality Between 1914-1917
The United States adopted a neutral stand between 1914 and 1917 due to political and economic reasons. Politically, the US sought to preserve its foreign policy of not entangling alliances as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural address at the start of the 19th century. Therefore, based on this idealism, President Wilson wanted to promote the culture of not taking sides during wars. However, the main reason for neutrality was economic.
The US economy was growing consistently at the start of the 20th century, and thus President Wilson did not want to lose the gains that the country had achieved. Additionally, the US saw an opportunity to profit from the war by supplying munitions to the warring sides. It is estimated that the US exported war materials worth $1.29 billion between 1914 and 1917 (Finney, 2017). This economic perspective explains why the US remained neutral even after Germany killed hundreds of Americans in different instances.
Role of Ethnicity in America’s Neutrality
During the first decade of the 20th century, over 3 million immigrants had settled in the US from different countries across Europe. This was the largest number of immigrants to enter the country in such a short period, and by the time the war broke out in 1914, close to 30 percent of Americans or their parents were born in foreign countries. Therefore, given the diversity that the country had at the time, it was difficult for the nation to take sides in the war. The immigrants identified with their countries of origin, and supporting one side would have sparked ethnic tension in the US.
Events that Led to America’s entrance into the War
The US was finally drawn into the war by Germany’s aggression and rejection of peace talks. In May 1915, Germany killed 128 Americans on board a British ocean liner. In 1916, it torpedoed an Italian liner killing 27 Americans despite promises to avoid such occurrences. In 1917, Germany hit several other American liners, and these events forced the US to enter the war officially on April 6, 1917 (Finney, 2017).
America’s Contribution to the War Effort
The US contributed to the war by supplying the warring sides with munitions and especially the Allies. However, when 14,000 US troops arrived in France on June 26, 1917, it changed the correlation of forces (Finney, 2017). German troops could not stand the new coalition between the Allies and the US, and in 15 months, the war ended on November 11, 1918. Therefore, the entry of the US contributed largely towards the end of the war.
Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, and effectively ended the war. It demanded that Germany would assume the responsibility for the war and compensate the affected countries. However, the involved parties were divided in views of how Germany would be punished. While France pushed for the dismembering of the country, the British and Americans had a different view of not creating pretexts for another war (Thorntveit, 2011). Germany signed the treaty, albeit unwillingly. France seemed to pursue the enforcement of the treaty, but it was forced to retreat by financial pressures occasioned by the US and Britain.
Due to the Great Depression, Germany was excused from paying the reparations in 1932 before Hitler rejected the treaty in 1935 (Finney, 2017). Towards the end of the war, President Wilson came up with14 points that would guide the peace process and rebuild the nations affected by the conflict. However, during the Paris Peace Conference on January 18, 1919, Wilson’s 14 points were rejected (Thorntveit, 2011).
However, he was lauded for his proposal to establish the League of Nations. Back home, he faced stiff opposition from the Senate. Ultimately, the US did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations. These events downplayed the role of America in the world during the 1920s and 1930s as it did not come out as a strong nation that could influence international politics significantly.
Henig, R. (2001). The origins of the First World War. New York, NY: Routledge.
Finney, P. (2017). Politics and technologies of authenticity: The Second World War at the close of living memory. Rethinking History, 21(2), 154-170.
Sluga, G. (2016). Nationalism, the First World War, and sites of international memory. History of Education Review, 45(2), 212-227.
Thorntveit, T. (2011). The Fable of the Fourteen Points: Woodrow Wilson and national self-determination. Diplomatic History, 35(3), 445-481.