The Blame Game: Part One

by I.A. Isherwood

Today we looked at ways Europeans conceptualized war in the decades before WWI.  War was and acceptable way for achieving political/state goals in the nineteenth century, and in some cases, led to the emergence of new and powerful states.  Europe had a certain war consciousness at the turn of the century: many Europeans believed in the inevitability of a major war and that war could be, in some cases, good for society and the nation state.  These ideas were deeply tied to cultural movements such as new nationalisms or Social Darwinist thinking. At the same time, Europeans were fearful of the next war, which could upset the existing political and social order.  War not only could make states, it could destroy them, as was proved the case during the First World War.

We spent a good part of our discussion looking at some of the long-term causes and trying to get past the idea that any one cause determined the war’s outbreak.  We discussed the ‘alliance system’ in this light, emphasizing that alliances themselves do not make wars, though, they certainly contributed to increased tensions before 1914 and fears of German encirclement. We also discussed notions of nationalism and imperial rivalry as being not only politically important, but important to the way Europeans conceptualized war and their own national/imperial survival.

The conversation was pretty sophisticated. This group has a really good head on their shoulders and were interested in breaking down some stereotypes (short war illusion, never such innocence again, etc) and getting into the mindset of European leaders in 1914.  I had rather modest goals – to work the material and to see if we could weave a web of causality with many strands – and I think this was accomplished.  The class definitely was thought provoking.

On Monday we will examine some of the short term causes of the war: the first decade of the 20th century, the Balkan wars, the July Crisis, etc. It’s my hope that we can build on things from today and see if we can tie together the long term and short term causes. Or at least have a good discussion . .  .