Chapter Summary with Learning Objectives

Chapter 2

Although the causes of World War I have been studied extensively, and although we know most – if not all – of the facts surrounding it, scholars still do not agree on a single explanation for the conflict. Different explanations use perspectives, levels of analysis, and causal arrows to emphasize certain facts over others and to show which of those facts caused others, leading to war.

The realist perspective points to changes in European power politics as leading to war. A major development was German unification in 1871; the buffer zone separating Britain and France in the west and Prussia, Austria, and Russia in the east disappeared and Germany’s geographic position left it insecure and surrounded. These developments complicated the balance of power and the security dilemma in Europe, leading to the formation of rival alliances and the strengthening of German power. Although realist explanations agree that Germany’s rise was important, they diverge on how that fact led to war. Some (from the power balancing school) point to rigid alliance systems increasing the chance of preemptive war; others (from the power transition school) think either Germany’s fear of being eclipsed by Russia led to preventive war or Britain’s decline led to hegemonic war; still others (focusing on domestic factors) see Germany’s cartelized domestic politics as leading to aggression.

The liberal perspective focuses on flawed diplomacy and on institutional deficiencies (both in the international system and in the domestic politics of the great powers). The major change in the mid-nineteenth century was the decline of the Concert of Europe system, which had been established at the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. A key role in this change was played by Germany, which pursued secret diplomacy under Bismarck and clumsy diplomacy under Kaiser Wilhelm II. These flawed interactions – possibly exacerbated by weak interdependence and misperceptions – led to a breakdown in interaction and war. Liberal explanations also point out that several of the great powers had weak or divided domestic institutions; German politics were deeply divided and the parliament had little control over military policy, while the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires faced growing internal challenges to imperial rule.

The identity perspective emphasizes the conflictual and divergent ideas and norms that prevailed in Europe. Several forms of nationalist ideology contributed to the aggressiveness of states. Militant nationalism emphasized cultural and racial distinctions and led to a continent-wide cult of the offensive. Liberal nationalism and socialist nationalism similarly focused on cultural and military struggle, but emphasized issues of equality – either political (for liberal nationalists) or social and economic (for socialist nationalists). While different states and movements embraced different forms of nationalism, the worldview of Social Darwinism – which saw international politics as a struggle among nations for the survival of the fittest – influenced the thought of key statesmen.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter students should be able to understand:

  • What key historical facts in the lead-up to World War I are emphasized by each perspective.
  • What changes in those facts made war more likely, according to each perspective.
  • What the consequences of the unification of Germany were for the balance of power and the security dilemma.
  • How the power balancing and power transition schools view the causes of war differently.
  • What role diplomatic failures and misperception played in the build-up to war.
  • What role the internal weaknesses of certain states played in making war possible.
  • How different forms of nationalism and international norms (like Social Darwinism and the cult of the offensive) made war more likely.