World War I (1914–1919)

by: History SparkNotes

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

World War I has often been described as an “unnecessary war.” Why? Do you agree?

World War I has been called unnecessary because the original dispute that triggered the conflict was limited, yet it triggered a massive, global war. In short, the conflict stemmed merely from Austria-Hungary and Serbia’s disagreement over how to handle the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand: the Austro-Hungarian government believed that the Serbian government was connected with the assassination and therefore demanded to be involved in the investigation and judicial process within Serbia. No other countries had a direct interest in the matter. Russia and Germany were the next to get involved, not because of animosity toward each other but because of their intentions to protect Serbia and Austria-Hungary, respectively. France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire had even less interest in the matter. Thus, one could argue that much of the war could have been avoided if Russia and Germany had simply kept out of the matter.

On the other hand, real tensions existed among many of the principal nations prior to the war, and these conflicting ambitions contributed to the war’s escalation. In particular, the naval arms race between Germany and Britain was intensifying, and growing German colonial ambitions raised the tension level further. Additionally, the spread of nationalism in southern Europe was destabilizing Austria-Hungary, making the country dangerously vulnerable to minority uprisings. Thus, many observers and strategists felt that an armed conflict between the European powers was inevitable; the disagreement over the archduke’s assassination simply provided a spark and an outlet.

What, if any, are the connections between the causes of the war in 1914 and the reasons that the war was still going on in 1918?

In many ways, World War I in mid-1914 and World War I in mid-1918 are unrelated. What started as a local conflict over a political assassination had become an unbelievable bloodbath: the Indian troops fighting in Mesopotamia, the Australians fighting in Gallipoli, and the Americans fighting in France had little invested in the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. The same was largely true at the government level in many of the warring nations. For the Allied Powers, the fight was mostly about Germany, not Austria-Hungary. By 1918, those who were still fighting were doing so because they could not find a way to stop without facing unacceptable losses.

On the other hand, some of the roots of the original conflict—factors that predated Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination—were still present and still unresolved. Nationalism, which was spreading rapidly through southern and eastern Europe, became the major cause of mutinies in the Austro-Hungarian army. Ultimately, these mutinies caused Austria-Hungary’s collapse, isolating Germany and helping bring about the war’s end. Thus, one could argue that the same problem that had started the war was at least partly responsible for ending it.

Consider the role of diplomacy in World War I. How was it a positive influence? How was it a negative one?

Although diplomacy traditionally is used to prevent armed conflicts from happening, in the case of World War I, it in many ways played the opposite role, whether intended or not. Few of the combatant nations in World War I were directly interested in the disputes between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and in many cases they became involved only because of treaties obligating them to defend other countries. Although some of these treaties were publicly known, many had been made in secret, preventing potential enemies from ascertaining the consequences of their actions.

This opaqueness of diplomacy was arguably one of the main factors that led Germany to make such aggressive moves early in the war, as many German leaders believed that Britain would never enter the war against them. Russia likewise pursued a number of secret treaties and agreements both before and during the war. Italy even went so far as to shop around secretly when trying to decide which side offered the greatest potential benefits. Ultimately, these secret diplomatic maneuverings escalated the war to catastrophic levels. As a result, one of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points policy was that henceforth, all treaties and trade agreements between nations be held with full public disclosure.

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