Often listed as one of the primary reasons that led to World War I, Militarism refers to the desire of a government or people of a state to have a strong military capability and use it aggressively to further the interests of their nation or group. Militarism was not a novel concept. The belief in military force had always been an accepted, and sometimes preferred, modus operandi of imperialist or expansionist ideologies of several empires and nations. But Europe in the late 19th century was at a clash point of ambitious colonial empires, political turmoil, economic power play and distrust among its populace after centuries of conflict. This led to a race to rapidly militarize among nations of Europe and consequently to a point that they were so deeply invested in war machinery that a conflict became inevitable. Here is a detailed analysis of Militarism as a cause of World War I.

 

Constant Strife In Europe

For many centuries, the continent of Europe was embroiled in constant strife between feudal people of various ethnic diversity. By the mid-19th century the outcomes of these battles had resulted in forming a perception of ethnic hierarchy among the people of Europe. On one end of the spectrum were resentful subjugated groups like the Polish, Irish, Czechs and Croatians; while on the other end were dominant states and conquering nations like Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Also there were states like Greece, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria who were reestablishing themselves after setbacks; and longing for expansion and redemption of lost glory. The political uncertainty, the ambition to expand and the fear of losing out led to the formation of various alliances among nations and ignited the need for military strength.

World War 1 Army Strength of Major Nations
Army Strength of Major Nations in the years leading to the First World War

 

The Challenger And The Challenged

Riding on its early colonial success and reaping the benefits of the First Industrial Revolution, Great Britain was the foremost imperial power in the world for several decades heading towards the 20th century. A new ambitious, organized and dexterous challenger would however emerge after the Franco-Prussian War. Fought in 1870–1871, the war resulted in a catastrophic defeat for France, a major European power, at the hands of a German Federation, led by the Kingdom of Prussia. It further resulted in France forfeiting vital territories of Alsace and Lorraine and the unification of the German Empire under Kingdom of Prussia; making it a new force to recon within the continent. In the following years, Germany would be an industrial, economic and military power disturbing the accepted power equation in Europe. The rise of a new and ambitious power meant uncertainty and threat leading to rapid militarization of all major powers like Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

Map of Unification of Germany
Map of Unification of Germany, 1815-1871

 

The Arms Race

The political situation was tense with each powerful nation wrestling for room to further its own ambition. All major powers were thus entangled in a race to build the biggest, the best and the most effective armed forces. Enormous resources and finances were spent to stockpile arms, build up war infrastructure and to train armed forces. Most countries in this time had a conscript army (compulsory enlistment), which meant that they had a large number of trained soldiers, who could be called up very quickly in the event of war. The quantity of weapons increased drastically and new and improved weapons were invented, with perhaps the most significant improvements being made to the caliber, range, accuracy and portability of heavy artillery. Machine guns became faster, lighter, smaller and more accurate, some capable of firing almost 600 rounds per minute. In the period between 1870 and 1914, the combined annual military expenditure of the major powers like Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Austria Hungary and Italy had more than quadrupled.

World War I Militarism chart
Military Spending by the Great Powers in the years leading to World War I

 

Anglo German Naval Arms Race

Britain, an island nation, had always relied on its navy to maintain her defense and later to build and rule its vast empire. It had almost a quarter of the world’s land mass under its colonial control with the Royal Navy as a vital force that ensured the protection of its interests. Germany had entered the colonial race late only to find that the vital territories and strategic sea highways were controlled by Britain. In 1890, Germany under the leadership of its new Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm II and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz decided to build the Kaiserliche Marine or Imperial German Navy to compete with Britain’s Royal Navy.

“In my view, Germany will, in the coming century, rapidly drop from her position as a great power unless we begin to develop our maritime interests energetically, systematically and without delay.” – German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, 1895

HMS Dreadnought (1906)
HMS Dreadnought (1906) – a Royal Navy battleship that revolutionised naval power

In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II announced his ambitious plan of building 41 battleships and 61 cruisers. This was seen by Britain as a threat and challenge to their own supremacy. Hence they started building their own fleet after talks aimed at limiting the size of both navies failed. The stakes were further raised after Britain launched its first Dreadnought in 1906. This battleship displaced almost 18,000 tons, was capable of speeds of 21 knots and had ten 12 inch rifles. It was so powerful that it made all competing vessels look obsolete and forced other nations, especially Germany, into a desperate race to catch up. The naval race became intense. Between 1906 and 1914 Germany built 17 Dreadnoughts while Britain built 29. However, towards the end, Germany had adopted a secret policy of building submarines instead of new dreadnoughts and destroyers.

WW1 Naval Arms Race Graph
Dreadnoughts built by Germany and Great Britain during the Naval Arms Race

 

War As A Necessity

“War is the continuation of politics by other means.” – Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz

Europe had been embroiled in conflict for many centuries prior to the First World War. In the late 19th century, war was not looked down upon. It was accepted by most as more of a necessity than something that could be totally avoided. The most powerful nations had subjugated other lands with force and built up their large colonial empires. These colonies, being a source of enormous wealth, were vital and needed to be protected, and expanded if possible. The success of the imperial powers meant that soldiers were now viewed as noble men, serving one’s country. They were men of honor and were glorified and romanticized in press and in popular culture. It was believed that a powerful state needed a powerful military to protect its interests and support its policies. Strong armies and navies were needed to defend the homeland; to protect imperial and trade interests abroad; and to deter threats and rivals. Most governments were strongly influenced, if not dominated, by military leaders and their interests and priorities. This further increased the chance of a conflict.

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