(Not finance) Why the First World War Broke Out

Written by Searching Finance Wednesday, 30 July 2014 08:31
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Nineteen fourteen. Not even Orwell’s nineteen eighty-four can quite match it for evoking a sense of foreboding and doom.   A century after it broke out, the First World War’s hold on our collective imagination is as strong as ever. 

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 Published, August 2014

(Roughly) 120 pages 

WW1 Fr-Cover


Yet, familiar though it seems in many ways, we are much less clear about what the Great War was actually about


It stands in sharp contrast to the Second World War, which we usually think of (not, let it be said, entirely accurately) as a war to stop the spread of Nazism.  Since most people see Nazism as a uniquely evil creed, the Second World War, for all its many moral compromises and double standards, remains for most people a Just War: we know which sides were the ‘Good Guys’ and which the ‘Bad’.  No such certainty holds good for the First World War. 


Beyond a vague awareness that the Germans invaded Belgium (and even this is eclipsed in popular consciousness by the 1939 German invasion of Poland) few people nowadays could pinpoint exactly why Britain entered the war, and fewer still could say why the war needed to go on as long as it did.  


The manner in which the First World War broke out has long been the subject of satirical comment.  Oh! What a Lovely War!, Joan Littlewood’s celebrated 1964 Theatre Workshop production, later filmed by Richard Attenborough and still regularly performed in amateur productions, presented the outbreak of war in scathingly comic terms, as a falling-out among heavily caricatured national stereotypes.  In the BBC TV satirical show Blackadder Goes Forth, Captain Blackadder gives a fairly accurate overview of the alliance system designed to prevent war breaking out in Europe but adds that this plan contained just one tiny flaw: ‘It was bollocks’.  Since satire has a way of settling in the memory more securely than the truth ever can, it is perhaps worth getting clear at the outset a rather more accurate outline of the events that resulted in a general European war breaking out in August 1914.


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Outline of Events 
  3. Was it inevitable? 
  4. The Great Powers
  5. The Great Powers in Arms
  6. Was it a Militaristic Age?
  7. The Paralysing Fear of Defeat 
  8. Was 1914 a Failure of International Relations?
  9. Dangerous Colonial Conflicts 
  10. The Anglo-German Naval Race
  11. Conflict in the Balkans
  12. New Regime in Serbia
  13. Turkey: the Sick Man gets out of bed
  14. The Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina 
  15. The Balkan Wars 
  16. The Assassination 
  17. The July Crisis 
  18. Berlin’s role 
  19. Russia acts
  20. France’s role 
  21. The Failure of Containment 
  22. Britain’s proposals
  23. Who Was to Blame?
  24. The ‘War Guilt Clause’ 
  25. The Fischer Thesis 
  26. Were the Alliances to Blame? 
  27. Was the War Caused by Domestic Policy?
  28. Conclusion

About the author



Dr Seán Lang is Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in the history of the British Empire. 

Seán's career spans different sectors of education. After graduating from Oxford University, he worked for many years in schools and colleges in Cambridge, including nine years as Head of History at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. He was also Lecturer in Education at Exeter University for four years. He served twice as Honorary Secretary of the Historical Association and has acted as adviser both to Government and to Opposition, as well as the Council of Europe, on issues related to history and history education. In 2005 he chaired the group that produced the Historical Association's important report on 'History 14-19'. He has spoken on matters relating to history on Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live and about the First World War on Al Jazeera and Sky News. He features regularly on local television and radio. He has written textbooks and is joint editor of Twentieth Century History Review for which he writes regularly. He has written four works of popular history in the 'for Dummies' series, including 'First World War for Dummies'. 



Last modified on Saturday, 06 September 2014 15:00

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