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 allies, as they were not sure that the
Russians would help Serbia. Russian mobilization triggered Germanys mobilization in
accordance with the system of alliances, which drew in France and Britain as well.
This sequence of miscalculation can be seen in the context of great tension and
after a long period of speculation about the war itself. The war was fought between
imperial powers and resulted in the collapse of two, and huge social changes in at least
two others, but it was not a war of colonization or occupation. The map of Europe was
redrawn afterwards, and some colonial possessions changed hands. The war was a
turning point for some Empires and a consolidation for others, and it started against a
background of imperial competition and tension, but it was not fought simply to extend