14 Reasons WWI Happened (And Four Things That Could Have Stopped It)

Ypres via Wikimedia
Ypres via Wikimedia

For the past few years, Erik Sass has been covering the events that led to World War I exactly 100 years later. Here's a look back at how we got here.

In mid-June 1914, Europeans were preparing for a beautiful summer. In the mansions of the mighty, servants covered the furniture and packed heaps of luggage for a season at country retreats, while ordinary folks looked forward to holidays at the seaside, hiking in the mountains, and long afternoons at beer gardens or bistros. Behind the scenes, however, on June 16, 1914, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg wrote to the German ambassador to Britain, Prince Lichnowsky, warning “any insignificant conflict of interests between Russia and Austria-Hungary may set the torch of war alight.” Within a matter of weeks his prediction came true. But was the Great War inevitable?

Well, the final answer to that depends on questions like whether free will exists. But here are a bunch of reasons the First World War happened—and a few reasons it didn’t have to.

1. Nationalism

Outline of History

In the medieval period, Christianity united Europeans across language and culture—but then the Reformation fractured the “universal” Catholic Church and the Enlightenment undermined religion’s hold on the collective imagination. Nationalism emerged to fill the spiritual void with an idea of community based (loosely) on shared language and ethnicity. By the 19th century Europeans took it for granted each nation had a distinct “character” and inhabited sacred, inviolable territory. So when Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, it injured French national pride and provoked “revanchism” (desire for revenge). At the same time, nationalism threatened Austria-Hungary, an old-fashioned medieval empire with a dozen nationalities who wanted out.

2. Racism and Social Darwinism

Wikimedia Commons

Nationalism was never particularly rational, but any contradictions could be papered over with racism and Social Darwinism. Racism, another product of the Enlightenment, linked human cultural differences to variations in appearance that supposedly corresponded to fundamental biological traits, like intelligence. In the 19th century, racism got a more scientific gloss from Social Darwinism, which applied the theory of natural selection to human races locked in a “struggle for survival.” Front and center was the rivalry between the Slavs and Germans.

3. Imperialism

Wikimedia Commons

Technological progress during the Renaissance and Enlightenment gave Europeans a big advantage over less advanced societies, enabling conquest and colonization around the world. By the 19th century, European nations were competing to amass global empires—but Britain, France, and Russia had a head start on latecomers like Germany, whose desire for a “place in the sun” was yet another source of conflict.

4. German Growth

While Germany lagged behind in colonies, its incredible growth at home scared France and Britain. From 1870 to 1910, Germany’s population soared 58 percent to 65 million, while France edged up just 11 percent to 40 million, and from 1890 to 1913 German steel production increased nine-fold to 18.9 million tons—more than Britain (7.7 million) and France (4.6 million) combined. Germany also had the best rail network in Europe, enabling more mobility and growth. With all this the Germans understandably felt they deserved a bigger role in world affairs … but they went about it all wrong.

5. Naval Arms Race

Wikimedia Commons

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pet project was the German Imperial Navy, created in collaboration with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, a sailor who happened to be Germany’s most skilled politician. But their naval obsession alienated Britain, an island nation that simply couldn’t afford to yield control of the seas. In the first years of the 20th century, Britain responded by building more ships and entering an informal alliance with its traditional rival, France—the entente cordiale (friendly understanding).

6. German Fear of Encirclement

uchicago.edu

Even though it was Germany’s own stupidity that caused Britain and France to pull closer together, the entente cordiale (on top of the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892) inspired German fear of a conspiracy to “encircle” Germany. This triggered more German belligerence, which—like any good self-fulfilling prophecy—just made Britain, France, and Russia pull closer together, forming the “Triple Entente.”

7. Arms Race on Land

German paranoia about encirclement triggered an even bigger arms race on land, pitting Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Russia, and Britain (later, Italy got sucked in too). From 1910 to 1913, total military expenditures by Europe’s Great Powers increased from $1.67 billion to $2.15 billion per year in contemporary U.S. dollars. And more increases were on the way, prompting both sides to wonder: would it be better to just fight now before their enemies grew even stronger?

8. Russian Growth

Wikimedia Commons

Just as Germany’s economic expansion scared Britain and France, a few years later Russia’s rapid growth terrified Germany and Austria-Hungary. From 1900 to 1913, industrialization sent Russia’s gross national product rocketing 55 percent to $388 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. Over the same period its population soared 26 percent to 168 million—more than Germany and Austria-Hungary combined. In July 1914, the German philosopher Kurt Riezler, a close friend of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, wrote gloomily, “The future belongs to Russia…”

9. Turkish Decline

As Germany and Russia grew more powerful, the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, creating instability across the Balkans and Middle East. In the First Balkan War, 1912-1913, the Balkan League (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro) carved up most of the empire’s remaining European territories. Serbia’s conquest of Albania put it on a collision course with Austria-Hungary, which didn’t want Serbia to gain access to the sea. Meanwhile, Russia was plotting to conquer Armenia, Britain and France were eyeing Syria and Iraq … and Germany feared it would be left out yet again.

10. Secret Treaties

Wikimedia Commons

Europe’s complex alliance system was even more confusing because many of the agreements were secret, which prevented key players from making informed decisions. For example, if Britain had announced its promises to France it might have deterred Germany from going to war, and Italy had a secret non-aggression pact with France which even Italy’s top generals didn’t know about. The treaties didn’t even have to exist to cause trouble: German fear of a possible secret Anglo-Russian Naval Convention fueled paranoia about encirclement, even though no agreement was reached.

11. International Law? No Such Thing

vredespaleis.nl

Despite the development of a truly global economy in the 19th century, there was no real system of international law that might be used to restrain one state from using violence against another state. There were institutions, like the Peace Palace (above), which were intended to serve as forums for arbitration of international disputes, but these had no power to enforce their decisions, so they were basically a joke. Not much has changed. 

12. Trouble at Home

morgenpost.de

WWI wasn’t just the result of international conflict; domestic tensions played an important role too. In Germany, the conservative elite was frightened by the steady political gains of socialists opposed to militarism (above), and tried to use foreign policy to drum up patriotism and distract ordinary Germans from problems on the home front. In Russia, the Tsarist government embraced Pan-Slavism to shore up its own legitimacy and draw attention away from its own failure to institute democratic reforms.

13. No Going Back

In the 19th century, it became common practice for Europe’s Great Powers to draw up detailed war plans in order to avoid getting caught unprepared—and hopefully get the jump on their enemies. These plans focused on logistics, especially the use of railroads to deploy armies rapidly. This, in turn, required elaborate schedules coordinating the movements of thousands of trains; Germany’s Schlieffen Plan (above) is the classic example. As result, war plans became so complicated it was impossible to modify them or improvise new ones “on the fly.” It also meant there was no going back: Once mobilization began, your enemies were bound to respond in kind, so there was no way to stop the cycle of escalation without leaving yourself vulnerable.

14. Don’t Fear the Reaper

Wikimedia Commons

This one’s a little out there, but worth thinking about. After WWI, Sigmund Freud theorized the existence of a “death drive” pushing humans to annihilate themselves and others. It exists alongside other drives that may hold it in check, like the desire for pleasure, but the death drive is always there in the subconscious, guiding our actions at least some of the time. Destruction is also linked to creation; it’s worth noting how many young people welcomed the war as the “dawn of a new era,” sweeping away Europe’s “old,” “stale,” “stagnant” civilization and laying the foundations for a new, better world (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

Four Things That Could Have Stopped WWI (Maybe)

1. Nobody Wanted It

The greatest irony of WWI was that none of the key decision-makers wanted it to happen (and death wish or no, neither did most ordinary people). Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II prided himself on his reputation as peacekeeper and frantically tried to avert WWI at the last minute. Previously Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef went to extraordinary lengths to keep the peace, and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II was known for his peaceful nature. Although this obviously wasn’t enough to stop the war on its own, it shows the will for peace was there, if only circumstances would allow.

2. Better Instructions

One of the most foolish moves Germany made in July 1914 was giving Austria-Hungary a “blank check,” promising unconditional support for whatever measures Vienna proposed to take against Serbia. The Germans could have benefited themselves (and everyone else) by being a little more, well, German—for example by dictating exactly when, where, and how Austria-Hungary could chastise Serbia; how far to go in trying to call Russia’s bluff; and what their fallback plan should be in case they encountered real resistance from Russia, France, and Britain. Instead Germany just kind of said “go for it!” Very un-German.

3. A Word to the Wise

In July 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary faced off with Russia and France over Serbia, while Europe’s other Great Powers—Britain and Italy—mostly remained on the sidelines. If Britain’s Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and Italy’s Foreign Minister San Giuliano intervened earlier and more forcefully by warning that they would fight, it might have persuaded Germany and Austria-Hungary to back down (San Giuliano had already warned Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia in 1913, and Grey could have informed the Germans of Britain’s commitment to protect France).

4. What If…?

Gavrilo Princip could have missed. But he didn’t.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Amazon

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5 World War I-Era Tips for Celebrating Thanksgiving in Strange Times

Thanksgiving Day menu from November 1917 at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Thanksgiving Day menu from November 1917 at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
National World War I Museum and Memorial

The year 2020 has been one of hardships, sacrifices, and reimagined traditions. As the United States enters the holiday season with COVID-19 cases at a record high, this reality is more undeniable than ever.

Thanksgiving may look different for many people this year, but it won’t be totally unprecedented. Whether you’re connecting with people remotely, entertaining a smaller group, or trying out a new menu, you can find guidance in the records of Thanksgivings past.

As a 1918 newspaper article from the National World War I Museum and Memorial’s archives reads, “The thanks of the Yanks may differ this year from that of peace-time Novembers, but [...] the spirit of the day is always the same, however much the surroundings may differ."

Americans celebrating Thanksgiving at home and abroad during World War I had to deal with food shortages, being away from family, and, in 1918, a global pandemic. Mental Floss spoke with Lora Vogt, the World War I Museum’s curator of education, about what people making the best of this year’s holiday can learn form wartime Thanksgiving celebrations.

1. Mail Treats to Loved Ones.

Thanksgiving postcard from 1918.National World War I Museum and Memorial

Even when separated by great distances, families found ways to share food on Thanksgiving a century ago. “We have all of these letters from service members saying thanks for the candy, thanks for the cakes, thank you for the donuts—all of these foods they were sent from their loved ones when they couldn't be together,” Vogt tells Mental Floss.

If you're spending Thanksgiving apart from the people you love this year, sending them a treat in the mail can be a great way to connect from a distance. Just remember that not everything people mailed to each other during World War I belongs in a modern care package. “I would suggest you forgo the live chickens,” Vogt says. “The USPS has been through so much this year already.”

2. Try a New Recipe.

Food shortages made ingredients like sugar, wheat, and red meat hard to come by during World War I. In 1918, the U.S. government released a cookbook titled Win the War in the Kitchen, which featured ration-friendly recipes. Americans aren’t dealing with the same food shortages they saw during World War I (or even March 2020) this Thanksgiving, but an unconventional celebration could be the perfect excuse to recreate a dish from history. Some recipes from Win the War in the Kitchen that could fit into your Thanksgiving menu include corn fritters, lentil casserole, carrot pudding, Puritan turkey stuffing, and maple syrup cake with maple syrup frosting. You can find the full digitized version of the book at the National World War I Museum’s online exhibit.

3. Depart From Tradition.

This year is the perfect opportunity to break the rules on Thanksgiving. That means instead of sitting down to a stuffy dinner at a set time, you could enjoy a relaxed day of eating, drinking, and binge-watching. This excerpt from a 1918 letter written by serviceman James C. Ryan to his mother may provide some inspiration:

"Had Thanksgiven [sic] dinner at Huber's over in Newark. Collins was in Cleveland on a furlough and Huber and his wife was alone with me [...] Started off with a little champagne and I certainly did put away an awfull [sic] feed. Had several cold bottles during the day and after coming back from a movie we had a few and some turkey sandwiches."

“Starting off with a little champagne does not sound like a bad plan,” Vogt tells Mental Floss. “And it was very much a small pod. They have their variation of Netflix, and then turkey sandwiches at the end of the day. Certainly some similarities and some inspiration there.”

Thanksgiving festivities were also unconventional for soldiers serving overseas in World War I. While stationed "somewhere in France" on November 29, 1918, Hebert Naylor wrote to his mother describing a Thanksgiving with two big meals—and not a turkey in sight:

“We came back and had breakfast at 10 o’clock. It consisted of pancakes, syrup, bacon and coffee. We had the big dinner at 4:30 PM and I tell you it was quite a dinner to be served to so many men. It consisted of baked chicken, creamed corn, french fried potatoes, lettuce, pie, cake and coffee. This was the first pie and cake I had since I left home and believe me it tasted good.”

4. Find Normalcy Where You Can.

Thanksgiving 1918 for the 79th Aero Squadron at Taliaferro Field, Hicks, Texas.National World War I Museum and Memorial

No matter what your Thanksgiving looks like in 2020, making room for a couple of traditions can provide much-needed comfort in a year of uncertainty. Even people celebrating during wartime 100 years ago were able to incorporate some normalcy into their festivities. On November 29, 1917, serviceman Thomas Shook wrote about seeing a football game while at army training camp: “In the afternoon several of us went to the Army vs. Ill. U. football game. There sure was some crowd. Army lost the game first they have lost.”

Keeping some classic items on the menu is another way make the day feel more traditional. Army trainee Charles Stevenson wrote to his grandmother on Thanksgiving 1917: “We had about the best dinner I ever ate today—turkey, cranberry sauce and cranberries, fruit salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, tea and mine [sic] pie. Pretty fine eating for the soldier bosy [sic].”

5. Share What You’re Thankful For.

During the Great War’s darkest moments, some service members were still inspired to express gratitude when Thanksgiving rolled around. Thomas Shook wrote in a letter to his parents dated November 28, 1918 that after surviving the war, he had now escaped the Spanish Flu that was infecting many of the men he served with. Despite the hardships he endured, he was thankful to have been spared by the virus and be on his way home.

Wherever you are this Thanksgiving, sharing what you’re grateful for with loved ones—even if it’s by phone, Zoom, or a handwritten letter—is a simple way to celebrate the holiday.