Militarism as a Cause of Word War 1

The four main causes of World War One are often cited using the MAIN acronym – Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, and Nationalism. Of these, the one most important to the people of today is Militarism.

Militarism is the concept that the military should be a priority for a country’s resources and governance and that military superiority is essential to being a powerful and prosperous country.

Evidence of militarism can be found when generals advise on domestic policy and defense spending outstrips all others by a government. 

Militarism and Imperialism

During the 19th century, militarism was closely aligned with the concept of imperialism – that system in which a country is expected to control (and exploit) weaker countries. If Britain controlled India, then it could exploit India’s resources, including its people, for the betterment of its citizens.

To maintain an empire, however, one must have a military that isn’t just strong enough to conquer the colonies but to keep them against other empires. At the beginning of the 20th century, the world constantly changed hands between the major European powers. 

Most importantly, the Balkan Crisis saw many small countries change control multiple times between Austria-Hungary (and their allies Germany) and Serbia (and their ally Russia). The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand was a direct result of fighting over the area known as Bosnia. It would eventually draw all powers into a fight over who had the “right” to conquer the weak. 

The Industrial Revolution and An Arms Race

Another important element of the militarism of the early 20th century is the close connection it had to the New Industrial Age. The Industrial Revolution caused a sharp increase in engineering and scientific experimentation.

As countries attempted to exploit new skills, knowledge, and tools, the temptation came to find more powerful weapons to have total military superiority over other powers. After all, their ability to create colonies came from the technological advancement of their weapons more than the number of soldiers or their fitness level.

By 1910, the world superpowers were spending millions of dollars on developing new guns, vehicles, chemicals, and other weapons to become mightier than others. While much of this technology was shared between each other, thanks to diplomatic relations and knowledge sharing between engineers and scientists, there was still the question of which force would win against the other on the battlefield. That could only be answered one way.  

Britain’s Militarism

For the United Kingdom, much of its military might was found in its Navy. This was not just a natural consequence of it being an Island as much as it was a consequence of maintaining many resourceful colonies worldwide, which required controlling from afar.

The British public was a driving force behind the government’s militarism. The people were proud of “the British Empire” and the control of the seas that it had maintained for several centuries.

However, England also understood that more than a strong Navy was needed to have power over the control of the many countries of Europe. It was essential to maintain a strong land force that could help its allies and ward off ideas of imperialism from the other large powers.

British militarism also came in another form – that of the “gentleman soldier”. Unlike most of Europe, Britain’s military was made entirely of volunteers, and a sense of pride was involved with being a part of the defence force.

A soldier in England was seen as someone of high importance, intelligent, and a leader. Any question about the weakness of England’s military was, therefore, a personal attack on the identity of the Englishman.

Russia’s Militarism

Russia’s militarism was driven from the top rather than by the people, who only accepted the control because they likely had one or more family members in the military.

Russia had over a million professional soldiers in its army before the start of the war and added another half a million within a year of it starting.

While Russia had no technological advantage, overwhelming numbers still made a significant difference in battle.

Germany’s Militarism

Despite being a younger country, Germany retained much of the militarism of the countries it formed from. Known also as “Prussianism”, it relied on a government system in which the aristocracy, the landowners and princes, were also its generals.

This meant the government didn’t control the military, it was the military, and the strength of the military was the strength of the country. This model of governance was considered at the time the primary reason for Prussia’s devastating blow against France in 1871, and nearly fifty years later, Kaiser Wilhelm found it necessary to show not just his people but the world that this system would still be superior, whether it was against technological advances or simply overwhelming numbers.

Militarism Post-WW1

While Militarism was a major factor at the beginning of the first world war, unfortunately, it is a system that only grows stronger after the war.

While treaties were made to prevent the use of devastating weapons like chemical warfare, countries continued to push for faster and more advanced military technologies. They stockpiled those they promised never to use. 

It would not be long before a far more advanced war was fought in Europe, culminating in dropping nuclear weapons, killing over two hundred thousand people, mostly civilians, in only two bombings.

Militarism still plays a significant role in global politics today, with 877 billion dollars being spent by the US defence force in 2022, with Russia spending a full 4% of its GDP on military expenditure.

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Thomas Gregory, “Militarism as a Cause of Word War 1”, History Hippo, May 6, 2023, Accessed June 18, 2024

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