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Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism or loyalty to one’s country. Nationalists place the interests of their own country above those of other countries. Nationalism was prevalent in early 20th century Europe and became a significant cause of World War I. Most pre-war Europeans believed in the cultural, economic and military supremacy of their nation. Their attitudes and over-confidence were fuelled by things like provocative speeches or press reports. The pages of newspapers were often packed with nationalist rhetoric and inflammatory stories, such as rumours about rival nations and their evil intentions. Nationalism was also present in other aspects of popular culture, including literature, music and theatre. Royals, politicians and diplomats did little to deflate nationalism – and some actively contributed to it with provocative remarks and rhetoric.

Nationalism also gave citizens inflated confidence in their nation, their governments and their military strength. It assured them that their country was fair, righteous and without blame. In contrast, nationalist ideas demonised rival nations, caricaturing them as aggressive, scheming, deceitful, backward or uncivilised. Nationalist reporting convinced many that their country was being threatened by the plotting, scheming and hungry imperialism of its rivals. Nationalist and militarist rhetoric assured them that if war erupted, their nation was bound to emerge victorious. In concert with its dangerous brothers imperialism and militarism, nationalism contributed to a continental delusion where a European war seemed both necessary and winnable.

Europe’s apathy about the dangers of war can be explained. Aside from the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the 19th century was one of comparative peace in Europe. Citizens of England, France and Germany had grown accustomed to colonial wars: conflicts fought against undeveloped and underequipped opponents in far away places, that were usually brief and victorious. With the exception of France, which was defeated by the Prussians in 1871, none of Europe’s Great Powers had experienced a significant military defeat for more than half a century. Along with rising militarism and the burgeoning arms race, this fostered a growing delusion of invincibility. The British, for example, believed their naval power and the economic might of the Empire would give them the upper hand in any war.

The Germans placed great faith in Prussian military efficiency, their growing industrial base, new armaments and an expanding fleet of battleships and U-boats (submarines). In the event of war, the German high command had supreme confidence in the Schlieffen Plan, a preemptive military strategy for defeating Germany’s eastern and western neighbours: Russia and France. In Russia, the tsar believed his throne and empire were protected by God – not to mention Russia’s massive standing army of 1.5 million men, the largest peacetime land force in Europe. Russian commanders believed the empire’s enormous population gave it the upper hand over the smaller nations of western Europe. The French placed their faith in a wall of concrete fortresses and defences, running the length of their eastern border, capable of withstanding any German attack.

By the late 1800s, some European powers had grown almost drunk with patriotism and nationalism. Britain, to focus on one example, had enjoyed two centuries of imperial, commercial and naval dominance. Britain’s empire spanned one quarter of the globe and the lyrics of a popular patriotic song, Rule, Britannia!, trumpeted that “Britons never never will be slaves”. London had spent the 19th century advancing her imperial and commercial interests and avoiding wars – however the unification of Germany, the speed of German armament and the bellicosity of Kaiser Wilhelm II caused concern among British nationalists. England’s ‘penny press’ – cheap serialised novels, essays and short stories – fuelled foreign rivalries by publishing incredible fictions about foreign intrigues, espionage, future war and invasion. The Battle of Dorking (1871), one of the best known examples of ‘invasion literature’, was a wild tale about an invasion of England by German forces. By 1910 a Londoner could buy dozens of tawdry novellas, each gamely warning of German, Russian or French aggression, perpetrated against England or her interests. This invasion literature often employed racial stereotyping or innuendo: the German was painted as cold, cruel and calculating, the Russian was an uncultured barbarian, the Frenchman was a leisure-seeking layabout, the Chinese were a race of murderous opium-smoking savages. Penny novelists, cartoonists and satirists mocked the rulers of these countries. Two of the most popular targets were the German kaiser and the Russian tsar, who were both ridiculed for their arrogance, excessive ambition or megalomania.

German nationalism and xenophobia was no less intense, though it came from different origins. Unlike Britain, Germany was a comparatively young nation, formed in 1871 through the unification of 26 German-speaking states and territories. German nationalism or ‘Pan-Germanism’ was the political glue that bound these states together. The leaders of post-1871 Germany relied on nationalist sentiment to consolidate and strengthen the new nation and to gain public support. German culture – from the poetry of Goethe to the music of Richard Wagner – was promoted and celebrated. German nationalism was backed by German militarism; the state of the nation was defined and reflected by the strength of its military forces. The new kaiser, Wilhelm II, was the personification of this new Germany. Both the kaiser and his nation were young, nationalistic, obsessed with military power and imperial expansion. The kaiser was proud of Germany’s achievements but nervous about its future; he was envious of other powers and desperate for national success. In the kaiser’s mind, the main obstacle to German expansion was Britain. Wilhelm envied Britain’s vast empire and enormous naval power – but he thought the British avaricious and hypocritical. The British government oversaw the world’s largest empire yet maneuvered against German colonial expansion in Africa and Asia. The British became a popular target in the pre-war German press, where Britain was painted as expansionist, selfish, greedy and obsessed with money. Anti-British sentiment intensified during the Boer War of 1899-1902, Britain’s war against farmer-settlers for control of South Africa.

As the Great Powers beat their chests and filled their people with a sense of righteousness and superiority, another form of nationalism was on the rise in southern Europe. This nationalism was not about supremacy or military power – but the right of ethnic groups to independence, autonomy and self government. With the world divided into large empires and spheres of influence, many different regions, races and religious groups wanted freedom from their imperial masters. In Russia, more than 80 ethnic groups in eastern Europe and Asia were forced to speak the Russian language, worship the Russian tsar and practice the Russian Orthodox religion. For much of the 19th century China had been ‘carved up’ and economically exploited by European powers; resentful Chinese formed secret and exiled nationalist groups to rid their country of foreign influence. Nationalist groups contributed to the weakening of the Ottoman Empire in eastern Europe, by seeking to throw off Muslim rule.

No nationalist movement had a greater impact in the outbreak of war than Slavic groups in the Balkans. Pan-Slavism, the belief that the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe should have their own nation, was a powerful force in the region. Slavic nationalism was strongest in Serbia, where it had risen significantly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pan-Slavism was particularly opposed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its control and influence over the region. Aggravated by Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, young Serbs joined radical nationalist groups like the ‘Black Hand’ (Crna Ruka). These groups hoped to drive Austria-Hungary from the Balkans and establish a ‘Greater Serbia’, a unified state for all Slavic people. It was this pan-Slavic nationalism that inspired the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, an event that led directly to the outbreak of World War I.

1. Nationalism was an intense form of patriotism. Those with nationalist tendencies celebrated the culture and achievements of their own country and placed its interests above those of other nations.

2. Pre-war nationalism was fuelled by wars, imperial conquests and rivalry, political rhetoric, newspapers and popular culture, such as ‘invasion literature’ written by penny press novelists.

3. British nationalism was fuelled by a century of comparative peace and prosperity. The British Empire had flourished and expanded, its naval strength had grown and Britons had known only colonial wars.

4. German nationalism was a new phenomenon, emerging from the unification of Germany in 1871. It became fascinated with German imperial expansion (securing Germany’s ‘place in the sun’) and resentful of the British and their empire.

5. Rising nationalism was also a factor in the Balkans, where Slavic Serbs and others sought independence and autonomy from the political domination of Austria-Hungary.


© Alpha History 2017. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Nationalism as a cause of World War I” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/nationalism/, 2017, accessed [date of last access].

Militarism is a philosophy or system that places great importance on military power. Alfred Vagts, a German historian who served in World War I, defined militarism as the “domination of the military man over the civilian, an undue preponderance of military demands, an emphasis on military considerations”. Militarism was a significant force in several European nations in the years prior to World War I. Their governments were strongly influenced, if not dominated, by military leaders, their interests and priorities. Generals and admirals sometimes acted as de facto government ministers, advising political leaders, influencing domestic policy and demanding increases in defence and arms spending. This militarism fathered a dangerous child, the arms race, which gave rise to new military technologies and increased defence spending. Militarism affected more than policy; it also shaped culture, the media and public opinion. The press held up military leaders as heroes, painted rival nations as aggressive and regularly engaged in ‘war talk’. Militarism alone did not start World War I – that first required a flashpoint and a political crisis – but it created an environment where war, rather than negotiation or diplomacy, was considered the best way of resolving international disputes.

Militarism, nationalism and imperialism were all intrinsically connected. In the 19th and early 20th centuries military power was considered a measure of national and imperial strength. A powerful state needed a powerful military to protect its interests and support its policies. Strong armies and navies were needed to defend the homeland; to protect imperial and trade interests abroad; and to deter threats and rivals. War was avoided where possible – but it could also be used to advance a nation’s political or economic interests (as the famous Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in 1832, war was “a continuation of policy by other means”). In the 19th century European mind, politics and military power became inseparable, in much the same way that politics and economic management have become inseparable in the modern world. Governments and leaders who failed to maintain armies and navies capable of enforcing the national will were considered weak or incompetent.

The north German kingdom of Prussia is considered the wellspring of European militarism. Germany’s government and armed forces were both based on the Prussian model and many German politicians and generals were Junkers (land-owning Prussian nobles). Prior to the unification of Germany in 1871, Prussia was the most powerful of the German states. The Prussian army was reformed and modernised in the 1850s by Field Marshal von Moltke the Elder. Under von Moltke’s leadership Prussia’s army implemented new strategies, improved training for its officers, introduced advanced weaponry and adopted more efficient means of command and communication. Prussia’s crushing military defeat of France in 1871 revealed its army as the most dangerous and effective military force in Europe. This victory also secured German unification, allowing Prussian militarism and German nationalism to become closely intertwined. Prussian commanders, personnel and methodology became the nucleus of the new German imperial army. The German kaiser was its supreme commander; he relied on a military council and chief of general staff, made up of Junker aristocrats and career officers. When it came to military matters, the Reichstag (Germany’s elected civilian parliament) had no more than an advisory role.

Elsewhere in Europe militarism took on a different flavour, yet it was an important political and cultural force. British militarism, though more subdued than its German counterpart, was considered essential for maintaining the nation’s imperial and trade interests. The Royal Navy, by far the world’s largest naval force, protected shipping, trade routes and colonial ports. British land forces kept order and imposed imperial policies in India, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. British attitudes to the military underwent a stark transformation. During the 18th century Britons had considered armies and navies a necessary evil, their ranks filled with the dregs of the lower classes, most of their officers failed aristocrats and ne’er-do-wells. But in 19th century Britain soldiering was increasingly depicted as a noble vocation, a selfless act of service to one’s country. As in Germany, British soldiers were glorified and romanticised, both in the press and popular culture. Whether serving in Crimea or the distant colonies, British officers were hailed as gentlemen and sterling leaders, while enlisted men were well drilled, resolute and ready to make the ultimate sacrifice ‘for King and Country’. The concept of soldiers as heroes was epitomised by Tennyson’s 1854 poem The Charge of the Light Brigade and reflected in cheap ‘derring-do’ novels about wars, both real and imagined.

The arms race

Military victories, whether in colonial wars or major conflicts like the Crimean War (1853-56) or the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), only increased the prestige of the military and intensified nationalism. In contrast, a military defeat (such as Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905) or even a costly victory (like Britain in the Boer War, 1899-1902) might expose problems and heighten calls for military reform or increased spending. Virtually every major European nation engaged in some form of military renewal in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Germany, military expansion and modernisation was heartily endorsed by the newly crowned kaiser, Wilhelm II, who wanted to retain his country’s “place in the sun”. In Britain the arms race was driven not by the monarchy but by public interest and the press. In 1884 the prominent newspaperman W. T. Stead published a series of articles suggesting that Britain was unprepared for war, particularly in its naval defences. Pressure groups like the British Navy League (formed 1894) agitated for more ships and personnel. By the early 1900s the Navy League and the press were calling on the government to commission more Dreadnoughts (battleships), one popular slogan being “We want eight and we won’t wait!”

As a consequence of this pressure and other factors, European military expenditure between 1900 and 1914 sky-rocketed. In 1870 the combined military spending of the six great powers (Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy) totalled 94 million pounds. By 1914 it had quadrupled to 398 million pounds. German defence spending during this period increased by a massive 73 per cent, dwarfing the increases in France (10 per cent) and Britain (13 per cent). Russian defence spending also grew by more than one third. Russia’s embarrassing defeat by the Japanese (1905) prompted the tsar to order a massive rearmament program. By the 1910s around 45 per cent of Russian government spending was allocated to the armed forces, in comparison to just five per cent on education. Every major European power, Britain excluded, introduced or increased conscription to expand their armies. Germany added 170,000 full-time soldiers to its army in 1913-14, while dramatically increasing its navy. In 1898 the German government ordered the construction of 17 new vessels. Berlin also led the way in the construction of military submarines; by 1914 the German navy had 29 operational U-boats. This rapid growth in German naval power triggered a press frenzy and some alarm in Britain. London responded to German naval expansion by commissioning 29 new ships for the Royal Navy.

The following table lists estimated defence and military spending in seven major nations between 1908 and 1913 (figures shown in United States dollars):

Nation190819091910191119121913
Great Britain$286.7m$306.2m$330.4m$345.1m$349.9m$374.2m
Germany$286.7m$306.8m$301.5m$303.9m$331.5m$463.6m
France$216m$236.4m$248m$277.9m$307.8m$363.8m
Russia$291.6m$315.5m$324m$334.5m$387m$435m
Italy$87.5m$115.8m$124.9m$133.7m$158.4m$142.2m
United States$189.5m$199m$197m$197m$227m$244.6m
Japan$93.7m$95.7m$100.2m$110.7m$107.7m$104.6m
Source: Jacobson’s World Armament Expenditure, 1935

This period saw significant changes to the quality of military weapons and equipment, as well as their quantity. Having studied the lessons of the Crimean War and other 19th century conflicts, military industrialists developed hundreds of improvements and rushed them to patent. Perhaps the most significant improvements were made to the calibre, range, accuracy and portability of heavy artillery. During the American Civil War (1861-65) heavy artillery could fire up to 2,500 metres at best; by the early 1900s this range had almost tripled. The development of explosive shells was also significant, giving a single artillery round greater killing power wherever it landed. These advances allowed artillery shelling and bombardments to become standard practice along the Western Front during World War I. First developed in 1881, machine guns also became smaller, lighter, more accurate, more reliable and much faster, some capable of firing up to 600 rounds per minute. Small arms also improved significantly. The effective range of a rifle in the 1860s was around 400 metres; in contrast the British issue Lee-Enfield .303 could hit a target more than 2,000 metres away. Barbed wire, an invention of the 1860s, was also embraced by military strategists as an anti-personnel device. While historians often disagree on the reasons for the arms race, there is no doubt that the development of new weaponry changed the face of modern warfare. Sir Edward Grey, reflecting on his service as British foreign secretary in July 1914, said it thus:

“A great European war under modern conditions would be a catastrophe for which previous wars afforded no precedent. In old days, nations could collect only portions of their men and resources at a time and dribble them out by degrees. Under modern conditions, whole nations could be mobilised at once and their whole life blood and resources poured out in a torrent. Instead of a few hundreds of thousands of men meeting each other in war, millions would now meet – and modern weapons would multiply manifold the power of destruction. The financial strain and the expenditure of wealth would be incredible.”

1. Militarism is the incorporation of military personnel and ideas into civilian government – and the belief that military power is essential for national strength.
2. Militarism was strongest in Germany, where the kaiser relied heavily on his military commanders and the civilian legislature (Reichstag) exerted little or no control over the military.
3. Militarists were also driven by experiences and failures in previous wars, such as the Crimean War, Boer War and Russo-Japanese War.
4. Militarism, combined with new weapons, emerging technologies and developments in industrial production, fuelled a European arms race in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
5. Influenced by nationalism and advice from military commanders, European governments ramped up military spending, purchasing new weaponry and increasing the size of armies and navies.


© Alpha History 2014. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Militarism as a cause of World War I” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/militarism/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].

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