World War I saw tensions between Europe’s “Great Powers” erupting into all-out conflict. To what extent did nationalism lead to the war?
The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, led directly to the outbreak of World War I. Nationalist sentiment and tensions had been growing between Europe’s “Great Powers” for decades and the incident provided an excuse for military action.
For more on the outbreak of World War I and the part that nationalism played, read on.
Nationalism has long been a powerful force in the world but this was perhaps never truer than during the 1800s and early 1900s. Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism where an individual or group believes that their nation is somehow superior to others. This attitude can lead a person to think that their country is thus more important, while also downplaying other nations.
This became increasingly prominent during the age of imperialism and colonization. As the “Great Powers” in Europe of Britain, France, and Germany expanded their reach around the globe, they encountered numerous peoples and cultures. This resulted in a sort of tribalism, where those outside a particular nation were viewed as inferior or as the enemy.
National pride was encouraged by the leaders of countries to ensure that the people remained loyal to them and the state. This wasn’t always to their benefit, however, as nationalists could be loyal to the country, rather than its leaders.
Militarism and nationalism have long been intertwined. If a country believed that it had a stronger military than its rivals, its leaders would be more willing to enter into a war.
For the Great Powers of World War I, this belief took different forms. Britain believed it had an advantage in naval power and that the vast British Empire was the mightiest in the world. It also believed that being an island nation would protect it from invasion; while this was true in both World Wars, it did not lessen the human cost.
France had advanced rapidly during the Industrial Revolution and had fortified its eastern border to prevent invasions. Germany had a proud military history, inherited from Prussia, and had an increasingly powerful navy of ships and submarines. Russia had the largest standing army in Europe and believed it would win a war by sheer manpower.
Each of the Great Powers had faith that, if a war were to break out, they would be victorious. Despite European nations engaging in various smaller conflicts around the world, France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871 was the only major military defeat suffered by any of the Great Powers for more than 50 years.
The formation of Germany in 1871 alarmed the other Great Powers. Pan-Germanism, the belief that all the German-speaking people of Europe should be unified, was used to stoke the fires of nationalism in its population.
Germany was a new and growing power with ambitions of becoming larger via colonialism. This made it an immediate rival of the British Empire, which was the largest in the world yet tried to stand in the way of German expansion.
At the same time, another form of nationalism was on the rise. There was also increasing resistance against imperial rule. In the Balkans, Slavic nationalism led directly to the outbreak of World War I.
Much of the Balkan region was under the control of Austria-Hungary. When Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, Slavic nationalists in Serbia were outraged and joined nationalist groups such as the “Black Hand”.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was on a tour of Sarajevo, Bosnia. Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb, shot and killed the Archduke and his wife, Duchess Sophie.
Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government, but Serbia had the support of Russia. Austria, however, had the assurance of German assistance if war broke out.
A month after the assassination, on July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia and Germany honored their alliances, and England and France entered the war on the side of Serbia and Russia.
Within a month of the initial declaration of war, Europe had become embroiled in what became the deadliest war to that point in human history.
Until his death in 1918, Gavrilo Princip maintained that he felt the World War had been inevitable. He said he could not feel responsible for the catastrophic events that followed the assassination.