To What Extent Did the Great Power Rivalries Cause the First World War

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How important were the great power rivalries as a cause of the First World War? There has been much debate amongst historians about what the decisive factors leading to the First World War were. In early 1914 relations across Europe appeared stable: Anglo-German naval tensions looked to be improving and countries seemed to want to avoid war as it was expensive and would damage trade routes. For example, Austria-Hungary and Russia avoided war in 1912 and 1913. Within this essay I am going to weigh up the importance of the rivalry between the great powers against other factors and discuss which the most important factors were. According to Ferguson and Kennedy, there are effectively four eras of historians and therefore four schools of thought surrounding the Great War. There is “the Great War Generation”, the people with direct knowledge of the war through military service or through alternative services to their country during the war. They wrote history from the ‘top down’ through first-hand experience of the events that they describe. As hindsight lengthens we are able to detach ourselves from the devastation caused and look at the series of events in an analytical manner, which contrasts to these early writers who wrote as if to justify their own actions. Secondly, the generation “fifty years on” wrote in the 1950s and 1960s and therefore had new materials that their predecessors did not. They focussed on the history of society as well as the history of politics. They looked at the world and saw something different to the scene of 1914: the British Empire no longer existed and most German territories had been given to Poland after 1945. Therefore much of the ugliness of the First World War was concealed from the younger members of society, causing this generation of historians to feel as though they had a duty to uncover the horror of the war. The third generation, the so called “Vietnam Generation” began writing in the 1970s and 1980s and displayed a different view to the previous two generations. They looked at the First World War as a waste of lives and saw war in general as a “catastrophe to both winners and losers alike”. The present and fourth generation of writers, the “Transnational Generation” benefitted hugely from the works of all three previous generations. They look at the war from more than one perspective and are ‘committed to escaping from the national confines of the history of the war’. One can argue that the rivalries between the great powers resulted in the First World War. European leaders saw global developments as a threat. Advancement in one country would shift the balance of power and make other nations feel uneasy and sceptical about the aims of that country. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw many crises which only narrowly avoided war; people began to think the only resolution which would finally put an end to the continual disputes was war itself because it would establish one power as being supreme. The outcome of the Franco-Prussian war and the creation of a new German empire altered the dynamics not just in the European community but worldwide. Other European powers became alarmed at German ambitions across the globe. This made them feel uneasy and as though they should assess their own relationship with Germany. Countries were finding it more difficult to negotiate as there was a rising sense of nationalism across the globe and therefore they had to be loyal to their people and not to peace. This inability to cooperate created tensions as all nations refused to make concessions, this can arguably have made war more likely because all countries were concerned only with their self-interests and began to see war as a means to and end. In the period after 1871 one can see the international situation in Europe begin to worsen. Bismarck was so concerned with the prospect of another war, a war which he neither wanted nor could afford, that he constructed a complex alliance system. His...
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