USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Origins of WWI: Introduction

World War One, or the First World War—also called The Great War—caused the military mobilization of over 65 million people around the world. Out of these 65 million, around 8.5 million were killed—a 13% death rate. In addition, over 21 million people were wounded and another 8 million were captured or went missing. All told, the total casualty rate in the war stands at around 58%. 65 million soldiers, four years of war, 8.5 million dead, a 58% casualty-rate—this was an unprecedented human-inflicted global apocalypse. Added to this brutality were the approximately 12 million civilian deaths, a number far exceeding those who died on the fields of battle. WWI’s sheer massiveness demands and demanded explanation, and for the past century historians, political scientists, psychologists, sociologist, writers, artists, and many others have attempted to answer the fundamental question: what caused the First World War?

This chapter is divided into three sections. In the first section, I break down various interpretations of the “cause” or “causes” or “origins” of WWI, focusing on both long-term developments (nationalism, imperialism, state-formation) and short-term developments (alliance-making, arms’ race, international conflicts, and the spiraling chaos in the Balkans). The section will address the run-running controversy about “German war-guilt,” a notion stamped into the historical record with the Versailles Treaty and then re-animated by the German historian Fritz Fischer in his ground-breaking and controversial masterpiece German War Aims in the First World War, published in West Germany in 1961 and in English six years later. Ultimately, the chapter will take what is a perhaps the easy way out of the labyrinth (or quagmire) of the “origins” debate—proposing what amounts to an all-of-the-above perspective.

Section two gives a brief outline of the military aspects of the war. It would be impossible to give a full account of the military side of this immense conflict. The chapter focuses on the German battle plan, the destructive stalemate, trench warfare, the entry of the United States into the conflict, and the divergent stories of the Eastern and Western fronts.

The third section looks at the immediate, short term results of the war, first and foremost the “fragile” peace established in Paris in 1919. The term “peace” is, of course, a misnomer—as the Paris treaties led to both immediate conflicts in various parts of Europe and, in the longer term, to global instability and eventually to the Second World War, though of course there is no straight line from Paris 1919 to the aggressive actions of Hitler’s Germany some two decades later.  Rather than seeing the end of WWI—or the terms of the peace—as causing WWII, we will come to see it as a continuation and exacerbation of longer-term tendencies and the creation of new international, national, social, economic, and cultural dynamics.

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