In the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, tensions in Europe had been escalating to such an extent and complexity that many have argued that the cumulative tension had to eventually result in war. One major cause for tensions and the scramble to establish and maintain alliances has been established as the fear of diplomatic isolation; but as a cause of the war itself, historians have often cited the fact that each power was ready for war, having formed their own detailed plans for fighting war, and almost felt obliged to follow them. Personally, however, I do not believe that either factor was the major, overall reason why the European powers went to war; nor do I believe there was any other overall factor, common to every power and equally significant , in driving them all to war.
Germany, perhaps, stands the most accused for initiating the war in 1914, and the most guilty of desiring domination of the European continent as a cause for going to war. Nevertheless, it certainly had one of the most highly developed and offense-based battle plans prior to the outbreak of war, which was arguably a contributory factor towards Germany’s entry into it. This was the German General Staff’s Schlieffen Plan, developed in the early 20th Century and modified by Helmuth Von Moltke in 1906. The plan envisaged a rapid mobilisation of German forces and the defeat of France within 42 days of the plan’s initiation; a manoeuvre which would require the disregard of the neutrality of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. German forces would sweep through Belgium and into Northern France, before encircling and capturing Paris, forcing a French surrender. German troops would then charge eastwards and defeat Russia in turn, before it had the chance to properly gather and mobilise its forces over such a large terrain. This plan was crucial to German strategy, as it would negate Germany’s greatest fear in the event of conflict; fighting a war on two fronts, by swiftly eliminating one enemy, then the next before either had a chance to prepare; moreover, it was crucial to the military mind-set of a quick and decisive victory in the event of war. This can be seen in the attitudes of Germany’s commanders at having a decisive plan of action, exemplified in von Moltke’s comment in 1914; ‘we are ready, and the sooner the better for us’.
However, this plan was but a means to an end; which, for Germany, is its ultimate aim of European domination, reflecting its expansive Foreign Policy rhetoric of Weltpolitik. Here it can be seen that A.J.P Taylor’s view holds the greatest significance, ‘The German bid for continental supremacy was certainly decisive in bringing on the European war’. This desire of Germany to expand across Europe is reflected in its entry into a naval arms race with Britain for domination of the seas; a race which it seemed apparent that Germany could not win. Germany’s own Empire outside of Europe was a pitiful conglomeration, forged from ‘the scraps off Britain’s Imperial plate, unwanted and discarded’. There seems little doubt that this base fact was one that embarrassed and infuriated the Kaiser, who had had such glorious imaginings of the great German realm; his pitiful ‘Empire’ (or lack of) robbed his country of a pivotal asset in determining who was the strongest European power. Inclusive here is another factor that both contributed to and was caused by Germany’s desire for European dominance; the attitude and desires of the Kaiser himself. His deep-routed militarism, insecurity and desire for greater power are almost perfectly reflected in Germany’s attitude upon entering the war in 1914. As R.J Unstead put it, ‘The German Emperor, who had neither brains nor manners, seemed to go out of his way to give and to take offense’, and