Revolution, Liberalism, and Nationalism in Europe, 1789-1914

 The Origins of World War I

During the final classes of this semester, we will be studying late nineteenth-century Europe and the origins of World War I.  Your contribution will be an interpretation based upon a reading of selected primary sources of the war's origins.  In formulating this interpretation, you will be joining a substantial body of scholars and other thinkers who have argued about its causes almost since it broke out.  In fact, it can be argued that the first major interpretation of the origins of World War I was written into the Versailles Treaty of 1919.  According to Article 232:  "The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governmentsand their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies."  Other interpretations followed in rapid succession; so many have appeared that there are summaries of the interpretations of the origins of World War I.

To make this task one of manageable proportions, we will focus our attention on the period between 28 June 1914 and 4 August 1914, the period between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the British declaration of war on Germany.  The latter decision meant that five of the six European Great Powers were at war.  The purpose of the assignment is to encourage you to analyze primary sources and to think and write like a historian.

Your essays will be graded according to the following criteria:

1. Your interpretation of the origins of World War I; the specific evidence (especially primary sources) cited to support your interpretation is of fundamental importance.

2. Your setting of your interpretation of the origins of World War I in the context of such long-range factors as European Imperialism or the arms race.

3. Your citations from appropriate primary and secondary sources (if you need help with the proper format for citations, consult Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing History or a similar guide).

4. Your clarity of thought and organization and your usage of correct grammar and spelling.

The essay should be at least five typed pages in length, and it is due on 26 April 2005.

Historians who study controversial events like the origins of World War I frequently begin by asking specific questions they want answered.  Below is a list of standard questions asked about the origins of the war.  Most can be answered by a close reading of Chapter 22 and related material in the Merriman text, the narrative and selection of primary sources from Frank McDonough, The Origins of the First and Second World Wars (Cambridge, 1997), or the essay by Ruth Henig, "The Origins of the War".  Also consult the major web sites on World War I (including the Internet Modern History Sourcebook and [especially good for primary sources] the World War I Document Archive); below are links to these sites. Your essay should address and answer most if not all of the following questions.

1. Identify the major alliance systems negotiated between 1871 and 1914, their membership, and the length of time they lasted.

2. What did each of the Great Powers fear?  What did they want?  What issues would they fight over?

3. Identify the long-range trends, such as nationalism,  imperialism, the armaments race, or movements of ideas, that created an atmosphere inwhich the possibility became more likely.

4. The years 1905-1907 are often considered a turning point in the series of events that led to the outbreak of war. Why?

5. Many historians have considered the discussions that took place in Berlin, Potsdam and in Vienna on 5-7 July 1914 as decisive for an understanding of the war's origins.  What was the "blank check" and why was it important?  Why, in other words, did the crisis that began with the assassination of the Archduke on 28 June 1914 end in war when a number of previous crises did not?  What was the role of Austria-Hungary's ultimatum to Serbia?

6. What role did the military plans of the Great Powers, especially the Schlieffen Plan, have in the sequences of events that led to war?

7. What limitations restricted the freedom of action of the various statesmen who led the Great Powers into a world war in 1914?

8. Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty held Germany and her allies responsible for causing the war and for its destructive consequences.  Do you agree with this judgment?  Why or why not?  If not, which of the Great Powers, if any, must share the responsibility for causing the war?  Or, can it be said that one or more of the Great Powerswas responsible for not stopping the war from taking place?

9. Was the outbreak of war in August 1914 inevitable?  Why  or why not?

Internet Links for Primary Sources on the Origins of World War

The First World

World War I (The Great War Society)
World War I (Trenches on the Web)  

The World War I Document Archive

The Great War

This Page is maintained by Robert W. Brown

Last Update:  12.IV.2005

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