World War I: Nationalism

Published 12 Sep 2017

There is a reason for every event that takes place. There is a cause or causes behind ever occurrence. For every significant moment in history, there is a reason or reasons for its existence. The First World War is one of the most devastating moments in world history. It involved the participation of many countries and was characterized by the loss of millions of lives. Historians have enumerated many reasons as to why the global conflict occurred. One of the identified causes was nationalism. Indeed, this claim is true. The First World War was caused by nationalism.

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Nationalism was the main cause of the First World War. Some sources indicate militarism as another cause of the war (Kelly; Perry 638). However, it is important to note that individuals would not willingly participate in war if they were not fueled with such fervent nationalistic passion (Dhillon). Weapons would not matter if the people were not driven to action by strong patriotic feelings. Citizens would only voluntarily participate in such conflict if it was their country’s power and reputation at stake (Dhillon).

Nationalism caused the First World War in two ways (Dhillon). The first way in which nationalism caused the war is through the power struggle which occurred between European nations. It was a power struggle in the sense that nations wanted to be the most dominant and powerful in the world. The power struggle originated long before the war happened, but it was the nationalist sentiment which erupted from this struggle that eventually resulted in the war. To begin with, there is the issue between France and Germany. The latter emerged triumphant in The Franco-Prussian War, which occurred from 1870 to 1871 (Perry 638; Ramsey 219f). Because of their loss, France was forced to surrender both provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. The loss of territory developed anti-German sentiments in France, and nationalists sought to get the two provinces back (Dhillon; Perry 639). On the other hand, Germany believed itself to be superior among the rest; as a result, nationalists wanted more power and territory. In fact, Germany wanted to build an empire similar to that of France and England during the colonial times (Dhillon). It is therefore no surprise that when Kaiser William II strengthened the navy, it was met with approval from German nationalists (Dhillon; Perry 638). This effort prompted strong nationalist feelings from Britain this time, who took pride in their navy (Dhillon).

Russia was also empowered with nationalism. In an effort to take advantage of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Russian nationalists wanted to expand their territory to the Balkans, which were situated in the periphery of Russian territory (Dhillon; Perry 639). Similarly, Austria-Hungary also wanted what Russia sought because they wanted more power and territory (Ramsey 219f). Austria-Hungary emerged victorious with its capture of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, which was a loss not only to Russia but also to Serbia (Dhillon). The conflict over Bosnia and Herzegovina would later cause Russia to side with Serbia when the war actually begins. This is because Russia needs Serbia to gain power of the Balkans (Dhillon).

The other way in which nationalism caused the war is through the efforts for unity of common peoples (Dhillon). The Balkan Wars, which happened from 1912 to 1913, were caused by the conflict over the Balkan territories of the former Ottoman Empire (Dhillon; Ramsey 222). Fresh from their victory from the Balkan Wars, Serbia directed their next efforts at uniting all Slavic peoples (Dhillon). Nationalists were not satisfied with Serbian independence; they wanted the unification of Slavs. The Serbians wanted to establish a “Greater Serbia” which was to include the Slavs located in the Austrian-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina (Perry 639). This proved problematic for Austria, which had been experiencing conflict among its minorities. In addition, the unification plans of Serbia threatened the plans of the German empire (Dhillon). Pan-Germanists wanted a unified German state, which includes part of Austria-Hungary. Obviously, this ran contrary to the wishes of the Slavs. Austria knew that a possible uprising of the South Slavs would be detrimental to the empire (Perry 639). Also, a South Slav revolt could result in the rebellion of other peoples, such as Poles and Hungarians (Dhillon).

It was a killing, fueled by nationalism, which immediately caused the war (Kelly; Perry 639). Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the throne (Ramsey 222). On June 28, 1914, he and his wife were in a vehicle traveling in Sarajevo in Bosnia (Dhillon; Perry 639; Ramsey 222). At 11:15 am, shots were fired; both the archduke and his wife died from the shooting. The suspect was Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist who wanted Bosnia to become part of Greater Serbia. Nationalists thought that the assassination would lead the way to the liberation of the South Slavs (Perry 639). On the contrary, the shooting justified Austria’s desire to fight Serbia (Perry 639).

The conflict between Serbia and Austria started the First World War. On July 23rd of the same year, Austria gave an ultimatum to Serbia; this ultimatum had to be answered within 48 hours (Perry 639). Serbia accepted all of Austria’s demands, except for Austrian investigation of the Sarajevo shooting. It was Serbia’s decision not to allow Austria to investigate that prompted the war to occur. Exactly one month to the Sarajevo shooting, Austria waged war against Serbia (Perry 639).

Generally, nationalism is a good thing. It is healthy for citizens to be proud of their mother countries. Nonetheless, an excess of nationalism can also prove problematic if not harmful. The countries involved in the war had desire for power, prestige and territorial expansion. These three eventually caused the global conflict which is now known as the First World War, and it all began with nationalism.

Works Cited

  • Dhillon, Mandeep. “The Corrosion They Called Nationalism” The Causes of World War One. 29 Oct. 1997. History Society of LaurenHill Academy. 25 Aug. 2008 ;
  • Kelly, Martin. “Top Five Causes of World War 1.” 2008. 25 Aug. 2008
  • Perry, Marvin. A History of the World. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1989
  • Ramsey, Robert D. III. “World War I.”; Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia. 21 vols. New York: Lexicon Publications, Inc., 1992

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