O. Potiekhin On the Causes of the First World War: Polemical Notes

DOI: 10.20535/2307-5244.52.2021.236158

Sumy State Pedagogical University named by A. S. Makarenko

In the early twentieth century, among the European ruling elites, military circles
and imperial non-governmental organizations dominated a forceful approach
to resolving international conflicts. The focus was on the irreconcilable struggle
for so-called «national interests», on the need to change the world in their favor,
on the undoubted advantage of interstate competition over cooperation, and on
the use of force, above all, military. The absolute state priority was the capability
to mobilize national resources to defend their «interests». The WWI for the
realization of geopolitical dreams was a senseless waste of available resources.
Its initiators, most notably, Germany, were guided by ideological rather than
pragmatic considerations and obtained results that were in straight contrast to
the calculations of their grand strategies. There were no rational foundations,
such as solving basic economic, security, social, or any other problem among
the causes of the war. Some prospered from preparing for the war. But it is futile
to tempt the «conspiracy» of gunsmiths, who sought the lucrative orders responsible
for the war.
The decisive factor that caused the war was the commitment to myths: about
real but exaggerated or fictional «national resentment»; on the «inconsistency of
the share of colonial possessions to the weight of the Empire in the world economy
and politics»; «backward peoples incapable to contribute to civilizational
progress, their destructive nationalism»; «cultural superiority, which must be
extended if necessary by force»; «security windows that should be closed immediately
»; «calls of blood, will and destiny», etc.
The process of defining the national interests of states ignored economic factors
that would determine their country’s development, prosperity, and power.
The so-called «features of bipolarity» in the structure of the international system
and the creation of two military-political blocs did not become a crucial factor.
Unions were poorly institutionalized, so the behavior of their members was
ambivalent. The facts show that the Alliances’ obligations could not have forced
the state to act on one or the other side. The authorities of each country, at their
discretion, approved the decision to join WWI. Italy, for example, betrayed its
allies Germany and Austria-Hungary at the very time of the declaration of war.
The roots of the war should be found in the views of the rulers, representatives,
or servants of the old regime of the dynastic aristocracy. Their picture of
the world somewhat corresponded to the realities of the nineteenth century and
the historical epoch that preceded it with the dominance of geopolitical (spatial) ideas. At that time, such ideas had not yet completely lost their roots. But
they fundamentally distorted the new world — the one to be set in the summer
of 1914. The ruling imperial class was in crisis and was threatened by social
and national upheavals. It was inclined to seek its salvation in a small victorious
war at «a small price».
How could it be that both sides were hoping for a quick victory? Regardless
of the type of regime — absolute or constitutional monarchy, democratic or authoritarian
state — it seems that too often their top leadership had been grossly
mistaken. Such mistakes led to catastrophic decisions about entering the war,
choosing allies and forms, methods, and the extent of interaction with them. States
had made considerable efforts to obtain clear sensitive information about their
enemies. But the problem was in interpreting all these messages and in responding
to them. In most cases, the heads of state ignored the intelligence or their
realistic interpretation.
Power holders were guided by a variety of factors, including groundless calculations,
ideology, political expediency, personal prejudice, racial or ethnic stereotypes,
and preferred to turn a blind eye to proven facts.
WWI could have started before 1914. The states constantly threatened each
other with their actions. Repeated attempts to strike the threat of aggression, although,
in reality, its leadership was not planning to use military force at the moment,
have undermined international stability. The efforts of the European leaders
were not aimed at creating a sustainable military allied capability, united by
a common strategy to achieve agreed goals.
Diplomatic game prevailed: the parties bluffed, tried to play trumps, which they
did not have, etc. Initial stakes, including colonial and/or territorial encroachment
on players, were negligible compared to the payout, which in many orders
of magnitude exceeded them. As a result, the collapse of four empires took place:
the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German and Ottoman and two of the greatest totalitarian
revolutions in Europe of the twentieth century — Russian (Bolshevik)
and German (Nazi) had happened.
The article is devoted to polemics with a wide range of scholars who adhere
to other concepts of the roots of WWI.

Keywords: WWI, 1914, national interests, economic factors, colonies, geopolitics,
empire, military-political alliances.


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