The Causes of the First World War

The main causes of World War I, which began in central Europe in late July 1914, included many factors, such as the conflicts and hostility between the great European powers of the four decades leading up to the war. Militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism played major roles in the conflict as well. The immediate origins of the war, however, lay in the decisions taken by statesmen and generals during the July Crisis of 1914 caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip, an irredentist Serb and member of the Serbian nationalist organization, the Black Hand.[1]

The crisis came after a long and difficult series of diplomatic clashes between the Great Powers (Italy, France, Germany, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia) over European and colonial issues in the decade before 1914 that had left tensions high. In turn these diplomatic clashes can be traced to changes in the balance of power in Europe since 1867.[2] The more immediate cause for the war was tensions over territory in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary competed with Serbia and Russia for territory and influence in the region and they pulled the rest of the Great Powers into the conflict through their various alliances and treaties.

Some of the most important long term or structural causes were the growth of nationalism across Europe, unresolved territorial disputes, an intricate system of alliances, the perceived breakdown of the balance of power in Europe,[3][4] convoluted and fragmented governance, the arms races of the previous decades, previous military planning,[5] imperial and colonial rivalry for wealth, power and prestige, and economic and military rivalry in industry and trade – e.g., the Pig War between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Other causes that came into play during the diplomatic crisis that preceded the war included misperceptions of intent (e.g., the German belief that Britain would remain neutral) and delays and misunderstandings in diplomatic communications.


That’s the official story. I’ve cut-n-pasted it from Wikipedia for convenience, but it is or used to be the first bit of formal history taught in British schools; earlier periods were gone over as younger children, but once old enough to be actually preparing for exams, the syllabus was 20th-century and started with this.

I’m going to put that aside for a moment, and talk about Ireland.

Ireland pre-WWI elected MPs to Westminster, and after the two close general elections of 1910, the MPs of the Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power. They used this position of influence to get the Home Rule act passed in 1914. This gave Ireland partial independence. However, Ulster was strongly opposed and formed the Ulster Volunteers to resist implementation of Home Rule. When the Army in Ireland appeared unlikely to go along with putting down the resistance, implementation was held up.

In response, supporters of Home Rule set up the Irish Volunteers, a paramilitary (but in practice unarmed) body that was formed “to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland.” That was envisaged to potentially include enforcing the Home Rule act against the (illegal) resistance of the Unionists.

Home Rule was overtaken by the start of the First World War, and a delaying act was passed postponing implementation until after the war. So, what did these Irish Volunteers, assembled to ensure Irish independence from Britain (to the extent that was politically possible at the time), do in response to the clash of nationalisms and empires that the blurb from Wikipedia discusses above?

They joined the British Army.


The problems with official history are not often that we are taught facts that we can later find out to be simply not true. They are rather that we are taught stories that, when we find out more, just don’t make any sense. This is one of those stories. How could it make sense for a body of Irish Nationalists, when the future of Ireland was in the balance, to go off to Europe and involve themselves in “the conflicts and hostility between the great European powers”?

Now it didn’t make sense to them for long: it was soon seen as a mistake, and cost John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, his influence. The 1916 Easter Rising replaced Home Rule as a nationalist ambition with a Republic and complete independence, and Redmond became completely irrelevant. But the question isn’t whether the call to fight in the War was good idea, it is how it could possibly ever have been thought of as a good idea. And it was—a small minority of the Volunteers objected and split off, but 90% supported Redmond’s policy.

My answer is that the official history of the “Causes of the First World War” is a lie, and that the war was actually a moral, ideological crusade fought against German expansionist imperialism, in favour of democratic systems and the principle of popular government. It makes more sense that democratic Irish nationalists would be willing to fight for these principles than that they would fight for Britain’s control of overseas colonies or national prestige.

The evidence in the Irish case falls frustratingly short of actually demonstrating that theory, rather than merely being consistent with it. The key event is Redmond’s speech at Woodenbridge. I can’t find a text, but the most quoted section is this:

The interests of Ireland—of the whole of Ireland—are at stake in this war. This war is undertaken in the defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right, and it would be a disgrace for ever to our country and a reproach to her manhood and a denial of the lessons of her history if young Ireland confined their efforts to remaining at home to defend the shores of Ireland from an unlikely invasion, and to shrinking from the duty of proving on the field of battle that gallantry and courage which has distinguished our race all through its history. I say to you, therefore, your duty is twofold. I am glad to see such magnificent material for soldiers around me, and I say to you: “Go on drilling and make yourself efficient for the Work, and then account yourselves as men, not only for Ireland itself, but wherever the fighting line extends, in defence of right, of freedom, and religion in this war”.

Source: University College Cork

“The highest principles of religion and morality and right”. That was the cause of the First World War, according to a serious statesman of the time who could perfectly well have said it was none of his business, if he did not believe what he was telling his Volunteers. I just wish I had his explanation of how religion and morality and right applied to the case.

The former Taoiseach John Bruton has written in defence of Redmond, but his position seems weak to me—is the neutrality of Belgium really of such concern to Ireland?

If I am right (and I admit that the case isn’t proved) then we are looking at a very deliberate shifting of the blame for the war, not from the Allies to Germany—the weakness of that attempt is now generally admitted—but from progressivism to conservatism. It is the nasty nationalists and imperialists who caused the war, not the nice democrats. Supporting “popular government” in any random corner of Europe can’t be expected to cause global catastrophe, so it’s perfectly OK to carry on doing it.


The point of this post is to do something very bad—to explain a joke.

It’s a very famous joke, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

King Arthur is traveling through the countryside, and he asks a peasant for information. The peasant asks him who he is, and he says:

The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.
That is why I’m your king.

The peasant objects, saying, as I’m sure most readers are aware,

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

That is very funny. But why?

It is not because the peasant is right and Arthur is wrong. That would be worth a snigger: the pompous King undone by a smart peasant, but this joke rings down through the decades. It is too funny to be just another anachronism gag, contrasting the beliefs of the period with modern beliefs.

What makes the joke is that the peasant is objecting to King Arthur’s claim on the wrong basis. The weakest part of his case is its reliance on an improbable supernatural event—the Lady of the Lake presenting Excalibur—actually having happened. He needs extraordinary proof that this extraordinary event really occurred.

The peasant asks for no such proof, and just accepts the event happened. However, he discounts its significance, reciting his anarchist-socialist dogma even in the face of divine or at least supernatural opposition, and describing the miraculous in casual, dismissive language. That’s the joke.

Because, really, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords would be an ideal basis of a system of government, if only it were to happen. It takes away dispute by providing a unique, unambiguous choice of leader whose legitimacy everyone can accept, and, on top of that, it provides whatever favours might be forthcoming from the supernatural agency that provided the magic sword or whatever in the first place.

The only reason we don’t use the gladiohydrocratic system is that, unlike the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python, whatever Gods might be around today are distressingly reticent as to who they would like us to have ruling us. We have to work it out for ourselves—a distinctly second-best arrangement.