To What Extent Did Imperialism Cause Wwi?

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History Standard Level

To what extent was imperialism a cause of the First World War?

The extent to which the First World War was caused by imperialism is

debatable, but it is certain that it played an important role in the outcome of events that

led to the war. In 1914 Europe was dominated by the Great Powers all of whom had

imperial ambitions. However, imperialism was only one of the factors that lead to the

outbreak of war.

Europe at that time was divided into two “armed camps” that wanted to extend

their empires’ power by gaining control over a large number of colonies. This caused

tension and friction between the nations as they become even more competitive for the

acquisition of land. A good example of this is “the Scramble for Africa” where the great

powers found themselves in competition to colonize as much of Africa as possible. For

the main part, the colonies were not in Europe, apart from the case of the Austro-

Hungarian Empire, whose territories consisted in land in Eastern Europe.

The two alliance systems into which Europe had been divided were the Triple

Alliance, which consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary and later on Italy, and the Triple

Entente that comprised Britain, France and Russia. The Ottoman Empire that was

referred to as “The Sick Man of Europe” also played a role. Both the Ottoman and

Austro-Hungarian Empires were in decline, which had effects on the positions of their

friends and enemies, such as Serbia and Germany.

Why was imperialism so important in Europe at this time? “The idea behind it

was mainly to get control of new markets and new sources of raw materials.” A colony

had to be protected from other competitive empires, which could be done by the navy.

An example of naval power was when the Germans sent the gunboat Panther to Agadir

as a threat to the French in the Second Moroccan Crisis; this could be referred to as

“Gunboat diplomacy”. The Germans had created a great naval power that was a threat

to the British naval power, as the safety of the empire depended on it. This was a cause

of great tension between the two powers. The navy also guaranteed trade routes for the

goods coming from the colonies. Another way to protect their empire was by the

alliances that interconnected all the nations, as they had to become involved when their

ally needed help. Allies created the sense of protection but similarly caused a lot of

enemies. It was a combination of many elements that caused these relationships to

become dangerous in the years before the war.

Given the situation, “Although there had certainly been disputes [in Africa], they

had always been settled without war”(p12); the two Balkan Wars (1912-1914) also did

not lead directly to the wider conflict, solely imperialism could not have been the reason

for an outbreak of such a war. Other factors that derived from imperialism caused the

trouble. In other words, nobody wanted to start a major conflict in Europe because it

was too dangerous for them, possibly. War is a last resort, unless victory is easy. With

the power of the Alliances, victory was not certain for anyone. Nobody wanted to

‘conquer’ Europe as a colony, but the tensions were so great that the countries

eventually felt compelled to go to war.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire used the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a

Serbian nationalist called Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo as a pretext to declare war on

Serbia. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly the Austrians felt threatened by Serbia as

the decline of the Ottoman Empire made the Serbians even stronger and the Austro-

Hungarian Empire became less powerful; secondly, the Austrians wanted to restore

some of their pride by beating Serbia in the war. The Austrians could have been

motivated under a misjudgment concerning...
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