Causes and Consequences

soldiers in a world war one trench

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme.

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, / Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs / And towards our distant rest began to trudge,” begins “Dulce et decorum est,” Wilfred Owen’s heartbreaking poem about World War I.

On Sept. 8-9, the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues hosted two panel discussions to commemorate the centennial of a conflict that resulted in the collapse of empires and ushered in the age of modernism. The panels comprised Dickinson and U.S. Army War College faculty and explored the causes and consequences of this world-shattering event from multiple and diverse perspectives. We asked several of the panelists to give us an abbreviated version of those discussions. You can view both panel discussions at dson.co/exploringWWI.

Kamaal Haque

The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the First World War.” This is what many people have been taught about what was called at the time the Great War. The reality, of course, is more complicated, though it is true that Franz Ferdinand’s killing did put into place a chain of events that led to war; the tragedy is that there were many missed chances along the way, where a different outcome could have been achieved.

Perhaps chief among these missed chances was the response of Imperial Germany. A week after the June 28, 1914, shooting, Germany gave the Austro-Hungarian Empire a “blank check” of support in a war with Serbia and for any consequences that might arise out of one. Nevertheless, upon Serbia’s response to Austro-Hungary’s demands, even the German Kaiser Wilhelm II objected that “every justification for war has fallen away.”

That World War I came to pass despite the Kaiser’s view depended on the machinations of two highly placed German officials, Chancellor Thoebald von Bethmann-Hollweg and the German military’s chief of staff, Helmuth J.L. von Moltke. While the former managed the behind-the-scenes negotiations with Austro-Hungary and other European powers with an aim, the latter pushed for war in German political circles. Bethmann-Hollweg belatedly tried to stop events, but only shortly before war began and only after he realized that Britain would enter into the war against Germany.

Recently, Christopher Clark, in his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, has argued that blame for the beginning of World War I should be spread widely around the European powers. There is plenty of reason to contend that no participant country was faultless in the run-up to World War I, and Clark is surely correct in helping to rectify a narrative that places blame solely on the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. Nevertheless, if we must single out one cause, the actions of the German government and military do stand out.

Kamaal Haque is assistant professor of German. His research interests include German film, the literature and culture of the German-speaking Alps and the influence of the Middle East in German culture. He has published on such diverse topics as the German mountain film, the poetry of Goethe and Muslim minorities in Germany today. In addition to courses at all levels of German language and culture, he has taught recent courses such as The Mountain in the German Cultural Imagination, Minority Cultures in the German Context and Modern German Film.

Karl Qualls

As a historian, I’m never comfortable with monocausal explanations, or monocausal blame, in this case. But we can simply look to the Austro-Hungarians’ failure to run their own empire in any sort of humane way. In the east we have the Russian empire, trying to figure out what it’s going to do, trying to protect its Serbian brothers. And this whole cascading effect of secret diplomacy, which few people knew about, led to a much wider war that could have been contained. It was a failure of politicians but also of institutions and of the new paradigms that were being created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For me, the rise of global capitalism and of nationalism earlier in the 19th century is the root of the problem. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is a very confused and complicated multi-ethnic empire. To the east the Russian empire is even worse, and we have the decaying Ottoman Empire. Those three were dealing with their own problems of holding together these populations.

When you factor in globalization during the last decade of the 19th century, it gets even worse, because you bring in the major powers of Western Europe. Looking at a map of Africa in 1890, you have 90 percent autonomy, of Africans ruling themselves. Just 10 years later you flip that on its head; 10 percent of Africa actually rules itself, the rest being taken over by European powers: Belgium, the British, the French and the Dutch. And of course we have Southeast Asia, where this division is going on as well.

This is part of capitalism’s need to compete, to look for necessary resources and markets, but also the European “need to civilize.” All these things are coming together at the same moment: Empires are crumbling, and capitalism is bringing in competition among European countries trying to hold those markets, including new capacity on the seas to protect those markets. So you have an arms race, especially a naval arms race between Germany and Britain.

This explains a lot about the movement toward war in the decades preceding it, and then the tinderbox of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination begins to set all these things into motion. Had we not had such a hodgepodge of multi-ethnic empires, and had we not had such a fast burst of global capitalism at this time, we might have seen a very different world, and a very different war.

Professor of History Karl Qualls’ teaching interests include Russian and German history, comparative revolutions (political, social and cultural), dictators, urban history and more. His book From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol After World War II challenges notions of totalitarianism, investigates the creation of historical myths, and outlines the role of monuments and urban space in identity formation in a city torn between Ukraine and Russia. He is currently working on a new book about children who fled the Spanish Civil War and were raised in the Soviet Union.

Douglas T. Stuart

In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan’s fascinating study of the causes of World War I, she reminds readers that “Very little in history is inevitable.” True, but while the war was not inevitable, it certainly was “overdetermined”—a term that social scientists use to describe an event attributable to many overlapping and mutually reinforcing factors. Historians have been studying these factors since the end of the war. More recently, international-relations scholars have begun to look at the war’s causes to extract general theories of war causation and war avoidance.

The war’s causes can be studied at three levels: structural factors that made conflict likely, domestic factors that predisposed governments toward confrontational behavior and national leaders’ worldviews and policy decisions that made it difficult for these men (they were all men) to think imaginatively about alternatives to war.

At the structural level, several developments during the late 19th century contributed to an increasingly brittle Europe, but none was more important than the 1871 unification of Germany. With the second largest population in Europe (after Russia) and a central location on the continent, Germany was too powerful to be trusted by its neighbors. German leaders, meanwhile, mistrusted Russia, which was enjoying dynamic economic growth and harboring expansionist ambitions. Great Britain, helming the greatest empire in history at that point, hoped to work with Germany to sustain order and share prosperity. But it grew harder for London to remain optimistic as Berlin built up its navy to support a new doctrine of global assertiveness (Weltpolitik). European leaders also were witnessing the erosion of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the United States and Japan.

Domestic developments such as the growing influence of public opinion, unions and interest groups made it harder for leaders to sustain foreign policies. New forms of communication and transportation made it more difficult to manage events, and improvements in the instruments of war encouraged all governments to develop the capability to land the first punch.

The situation posed severe diplomatic challenges. Unfortunately, the individuals in charge, lulled into complacency by relative peace, simply were not up to the task: Time and again they had seen governments threaten war and then find ways to either avoid it or mitigate its consequences. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated on June 28, 1914, many of these leaders failed to give the event the attention it required. Some even sought ways to exploit the crisis for national advantage, on the assumption that others would back down.

The start of World War I provides no end of lessons for scholars and diplomats. But perhaps the most important lesson is that significant structural changes of an international order demand ambitious diplomacy rather than incremental adjustment. This is a lesson for Washington today, as it looks for ways to cope with the rise of China and Russia’s efforts to carve out a post-imperial sphere of influence.

Douglas T. Stuart is professor of political science and international studies; J. William Stuart and Helen D. Stuart Chair in International Studies, Business and Management; and adjunct research professor, U.S. Army War College. He has received the Ganoe Award for Inspirational Teaching (1990-91) and the Dickinson Award for Distinguished Teaching (1995-96). His teaching and research interests include American foreign policy, national security affairs and Asian and West European security.

David Commins

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I still casts a shadow over the region. Indeed, we can see the roots of today’s conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Iraq in the fallout from World War I.

At war’s end, British forces controlled the empire’s Arab provinces from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. A plan to divide those territories had been set when British and French diplomats signed the Sykes-Picot Accord of 1916. At the Paris Peace Conference, London and Paris rejected U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination for the Arabs because it would have thwarted Britain’s and France’s ambitions to expand their imperial spheres.

Instead, they carved up the Arab lands into three zones: Syria for France and Iraq and Palestine for Britain. France then further divided Syria when it established Lebanon as a haven for its Maronite Christian allies, and Britain split Palestine between an eastern zone that became Transjordan (today’s Jordan) and a western zone where London allowed Jewish colonization.

Redrawing the political map of the Middle East was bound to have enduring effects. Imperial divide-and-rule policies sowed the seeds for chronic political strife by deepening sectarianism. In Syria, the French pitted religious minorities such as the Alawis against the Sunni Arab majority, while in Lebanon, the French crafted political arrangements that privileged Christians at the expense of Muslims. In Iraq, Britain installed a monarchy that promoted the interests of Sunni Arab notables. Efforts to develop institutions that would represent Iraq’s Kurds and Arab Shiites never reached fruition, leaving a population riven by sectarian suspicion. When Britain established Palestine as a separate territory, it had a large Sunni Arab majority. London, however, was committed to the creation of a national home for Jews in Palestine, a project that put Jewish and Arab national aspirations on a collision course.

David Commins is professor of history and Benjamin Rush Chair in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, and his teaching interests are in modern Middle Eastern history with an emphasis on Islamic thought and political movements. His forthcoming book Islam in Saudi Arabia will be published in 2015. Other publications include The Gulf States: A Modern History, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, Historical Dictionary of Syria and Islamic Reform.

Dominique A. Laurent

It would be difficult to overestimate the consequences of World War I. Such vast portions of the world were radically affected by the conflict that one could argue that the 20th century actually began in June 1919 with the various treaties officially ending the war, rather than in January 1900.

Old imperial regimes such as the Romanovs in Russia, the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks disappeared, giving way to a myriad of new nations. The maps of Europe, the Middle East and Africa were transformed. The new ideologies of communism and fascism, which appeared as a consequence of the war, would dominate the world for most of the century. The tragic history of conflicts in the Middle East, which continue to rage today, is undeniably a result of the carving out of the region by Britain and France after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat.

In my opinion, however, the most important consequence of the war is the emergence of the United States as a world power. The rise of the U.S. began with the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the young nation swept away the last vestiges of the once mighty Spanish colonial empire, but it was with WWI that the process was completed. American participation in the war—economic and financial at first, and military after 1917—made the United States the most powerful country on earth. By 1919 the U.S. had trained, equipped and sent two million men to France. The AEF brought victory to the Allies by playing a crucial role in defeating Germany’s spring 1918 offensive and bringing the country to its knees. Even though those troops returned home, the U.S. remained the creditor of the main European nations and the dominant economic power.

Although America returned to isolationism in the 1920s and ’30s, the rising threat of Nazi Germany in Europe and, even more so, of Japan in the Pacific forced the U.S. to realize that it could no longer escape its destiny — a destiny that had been made manifest with the Great War. As David Fromkin argues in his 1995 book, In the Time of the Americans, WWII offered America a second chance to become engaged on the world stage and to transform itself first into “the arsenal of democracy” and then into its main warrior throughout the rest of the century. The mission of “making the world safe for democracy,” first coined by Woodrow Wilson in the 1917 declaration of war, became America’s mantra—at least officially—and has provided the rationale for U.S. world hegemony to the present day.

Associate Professor of French Dominique A. Laurent’s current research concentrates on Woodrow Wilson’s image in France during the Paris Peace Conference. He teaches French language and civilization classes and senior seminars such as America in French Eyes and France Between the Wars. He also has taught first-year seminars The Great War and America in the Eyes of the World.

Crystal M. Moten

World War I gave rise to many social, economic and political changes, both globally and in the United States. For African Americans, perhaps one of the most far-reaching consequences was World War I’s unfulfilled promise of democracy.

In a speech to Congress on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asserted, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” With this statement, Wilson made the case for declaring war on Germany. In addition to pledging the U.S. to join the fight for global democracy, President Wilson also defined the U.S. as “one of the champions for the rights of mankind.” At first skeptical about joining the war effort, many African American women and men pledged their support because they thought supporting the fight for democracy abroad would pave the way for equality at home.

Unfortunately, Wilson’s commitment abroad did not translate to equality in the United States. Despite the sacrifices African American men made in the military and African American women made on the home front, during and after the war they still faced racial discrimination, segregation and harassment—treatment that Congress and the Wilson administration did little to eradicate. Although several prominent African Americans met with President Wilson before and after the war, he refused to support civil rights, and he maintained segregationist policies in federal offices.  

Not only did African Americans continue to face racism and segregation in the highest branches of the federal government but they endured worse treatment in rural towns and urban areas across the United States. As African American servicemen returned home and demanded respect and recognition for their service, racial violence erupted across the United States. Lynch mobs brutally murdered African American veterans, some still wearing their uniforms. Those African American servicemen who managed to survive the war abroad and the lynch mobs at home found it difficult to translate their military service into tangible economic outcomes.

And although African American women served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, sold defense bonds and worked in the nation’s defense industries, after the war they, for the most part, returned to work in the domestic-service industry. Although the Great War had ended, the war against racial and economic inequality raged on, and Jim Crow would not be defeated easily.

For African Americans, the disappointing realization that patriotism and military service did not lead to first-class citizenship deepened their quest for justice and freedom, a quest that has continued into the 21st century. And it is this quest for global democracy—championing the rights of mankind—that is one of World War I’s most enduring legacies.

Assistant Professor of History Crystal M. Moten focuses on 20th-century U.S. history with specializations in women’s / gender history and African American history. Her research examines black women’s struggles for economic justice in the 20th-century urban north, and she teaches classes related to U.S. history, urban history, African American history and women’s and gender history.

Read more from the fall 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

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Published November 5, 2014