Domestic Causes of the First World War


 Arno J. Mayer taught at Princeton University. His books, which have shown how foreign and domestic policies are necessarily intertwined, reveal an interest in the peacemaking process and in the diplomacy practiced after World War I.  This excerpt is from an essay on the domestic tensions which may have affected diplomatic decision making in 1914. 

When analyzing the origins of the Great War, diplomatic historians continue to focus on two sets of underlying and precipitant causes: those rooted in the dysfunctions of the international system and those rooted in the mistakes, miscalculations, and vagaries of the principal foreign policy actors. These historians assume that in a multiple-state system the balancing of power is a natural and essential method of control, notwithstanding its inherent uncertainties. In other words, they do not question or criticize the balancing-of-power system or process as such. Instead, they tilt their lances at four developments that complicated, if not obstructed, its smooth operation: 1. the alliance system, which became increasingly polarized and rigidified, thereby threatening to transform any limited, local conflict into an unlimited, general war; 2. the attendant armaments race, which exacerbated mutual hostility, fear, and distrust; 3. the new military metaphysics, which inclined civilian foreign-policy actors to become increasingly responsive to the military leaders and their ironclad timetables; and 4. public opinion, expressed and mobilized through the daily press, notably the yellow and jingoist dailies, which were impatient with accommodation. 

In addition to diagnosing these four dysfunctions in the balancing-of-power system or process, diplomatic historians also probe into the personal attitudes, motives, and objectives of the principal foreign-policy actors- heads of state, chief executives, foreign ministers, permanent foreign office officials, ambassadors, and military and naval officers. Not surprisingly, each major historian tends to have his favorite villain. Rather than indict entire nations, scholars tend to return verdicts against individual actors of a given nation or alliance. Three categories of charges are most commonly preferred 1. that they made grave mistakes in diplomatic tactics; 2. that they miscalculated the responses of potential enemies; and 3. that they pursued objectives that were incompatible with the maintenance of the European equilibrium. But whatever the charge, in the last analysis their actions and judgments are said to have been warped by personal ambition, caprice, pique, or lack of backbone in the face of ruthless warmongers. 

Admittedly, this framework of orthodox diplomatic history, tempered by amateur psychology, has been used to good advantage. It has served to un-cover a great deal about the origins of the First World War in particular, and about the causes of international conflict in general. 

Just the same, this time-honored approach has some rather grave limitations. In particular, it slides over 1. the proclivity of key foreign-policy actors to risk war in general, and preventive war in particular; 2. the degree to which they realized that any localized conflict was likely to develop into a major all-European or even world war; and 3. the extent to which they entertained recourse to external war for internal political purposes.

 This third limitation stems very largely from the diplomatic historian's disposition to detach foreign policy hermetically from domestic politics; and to disconnect foreign-policy and diplomatic actors rigorously from the political and social context from which they originate and in which they operate.

Admittedly, this twofold dissociation, for analytic purposes, may not fatally handicap the study of the international politics of the relatively calm and elitist mid-eighteenth century. There seems little doubt, however, that this dual disjunction hinders the examination and understanding of foreign policy and diplomacy in such revolutionary eras as 1789 to 1815 and in such brief revolutionary spasms as 1848-50.

 This interconnection of domestic politics and foreign policy is exceptionally intense under prerevolutionary and revolutionary conditions. Characteristically, in the prewar years domestic tensions rose sharply at the same time that the international system became increasingly strained. Moreover, this symbiotic growth of domestic and international tensions occurred in that part of the world in which, for the first time in recorded history, government policies, including foreign policies, were shaped in the crucible of organized party, pressure, and interest politics.

 In other words, on the eve of war the major European politics were far from quiescent; and both the making and the conduct of foreign policy had ceased to be the private preserve of an encapsulated elite free of political pressures and neutral in the explosive domestic controversies of their respective societies. Accordingly, the 50 percent increase in military spending in the five prewar years may not have been exclusively a function of mounting international distrust, insecurity, and hostility. In some measure it may also have been a by-product of the resolve by conservatives and ultraconservatives to foster their political position by rallying the citizenry around the flag; and to reduce the politically unsettling cyclical fluctuations of the capitalist economies by raising armaments expenditures. In this same connection it should be stressed that the chief villains of July-August 1914-those foreign-policy actors whom diplomatic historians identify as having practiced reckless brinkmanship-were intimately tied in with those social, economic, and political strata that were battling either to maintain the domestic status quo or to steer an outright reactionary course. 

To attenuate if not overcome the limitations of diplomatic history's conventional approach to the causes of war its analytic framework should be recast to accommodate three aspects of the historical and immediate crisis that conditioned and precipitated hostilities in July-August 1914: 1. the dysfunctions in the international system; 2. the domestic dysfunctions in the would-be belligerent nations; and 3. the inextricable interplay between these two sets of dysfunctions.

 Whereas the dysfunctions in the international system and the diplomatic rivalries among the major powers have been studied exhaustively and are well-known, the same cannot be said about the prewar domestic dysfunctions, notably about their all-European scope. 

During the decade, including the weeks immediately preceding July-August 1914, the European nations experienced more than routine political and social disturbances. Even Britain, that paradigm of ordered change and constitutionalism, was approaching the threshold of civil war. Judging by the Curragh incident, Carson and the Ulster volunteers had the sympathy if not outright cooperation of influential civil and military leaders in their defiance of Parliament; and the Triple Alliance of railwaymen, miners, and transport workers, among whom militant syndicalists were ascendant, threatened a paralyzing general strike in case their minimum demands were not met by the fall of 1914. Whereas Ulster became the rallying issue and symbol for an influential conglomeration of conservatives and reactionaries, the strike project of the Triple Alliance roused extensive support throughout the restless Labour movement. The resulting polarization, along with the shift from de-bate in Westminster to direct action in the streets, eroded the vital center so essential for the politics of compromise and accommodation. Indeed, historians have wondered whether if external war had not come in 1914 England might not have become caught up in civil strife, with fatal damage to her time-honored parliamentary system.

 In France, meanwhile, the struggle between the right and the left raged with unabated intensity around the twin issues of the three-year draft and the progressive income tax. As in England, the center of the political spectrum, which in France was multiparty in nature, was being eroded in favor of the two opposing extremes. In particular, the left's strident antimilitarism, which the right construed as a pressing social threat, frightened not only moderate republicans but also radicals into a common political front with the right. In turn, the enrages of the left made it increasingly difficult for the socialists to cooperate with the center-left, which stood accused of buckling to antirepublicanism. And, indeed, the right and center joined forces in support of the three-year draft, capitalizing on the appeals of nationalism to impugn the patriotism of the socialists, who advocated a two-year draft. This reordering of political partnerships was reflected in acute cabinet instability and in the antirepublican and protofascist right becoming the backstop for a conservative-leaning regime putting order and defense ahead of reform. 

In Italy prewar political and labor disturbances culminated in the explosive Red Week of early June 1914. Especially once this strike wave subsided, and as usually happens in the wake of misfired rebellions, the Italian middle-class nationalists assumed a position of intransigent hostility to the left- including the moderate left-which in 1915 took the form of taking Italy into the war against the will of the vast majority of the Italian nation.

 As for Germany's semi-parliamentary system, which was the privileged preserve of conservative nationalists, it was heavily besieged by those parties-the Social Democrats, the Zenmlm, the Progressives, and the moderate wing of the National Liberals-that denounced Prussia's three-class franchise and clamored for the cabinet's subordination to the Reichstag. Paradoxically, the mounting militancy in certain key trade unions scared off potential converts to political reform. In any case, according to Arthur Rosenberg, the political and social tensions in prewar Germany were "typical of a pre-revolutionary period," and if Germany had not gone to war in 1914 "the conflict between the Imperial Government and the majority of the German nation would have continued to intensify to a point at which a revolutionary situation would have been created." 

The power elites in both halves of the Dual Monarchy faced increasingly explosive nationalistic unrest which, in itself, was an expression of spiraling political, economic, and social dysfunctions. Both Otto Bauerand Victor Bibl have argued convincingly that fear of southern Slav insurgency and of intensifying Austro-Czech tensions drove Vienna's political class into trying to overcome its permanent internal crisis by recourse to external war. 

Simultaneously the Russian government, firmly controlled by unbending conservatives, confronted rising labor unrest in the major industrial centers alongside heightened restlessness among the peripheral national minorities. It was a sign of the times that during the first seven months of 1914 industrial unrest reached unparalleled scope and intensity, much of it politically and socially rather than economically motivated. 

Great care must be taken to distinguish between, on the one hand, the actual scope and intensity of these internal tensions and disturbances, and, on the other hand, their perception, evaluation, and exploitation by the political contestants of the time. It is characteristic of prerevolutionary situations that hardened conservatives and counterrevolutionaries deliberately exaggerate all disorders, including the imminence of their transmutation into full-scale insurrection, in order to press and justify energetic precautionary measures. In rum, advanced reformers and revolutionaries similarly distort and distrust the intentions and actions of their domestic antagonists, charging them with pre-emptive counterrevolutionary designs. But this mutual misrepresentation itself contributed to the polarization between the intransigent forces of order and the revolutionary forces of change, at the expense of the moderate, compromise-seeking center. 

In Britain, France, and Italy parliamentary liberalism-the locus of this vital center-was heavily besieged, if not on the verge of collapse. The moderately reformist administrations of all three countries found it increasingly difficult to secure governing majorities. They were buffeted constantly by the parliamentary as well as extraparliamentary pressures of the militant counterrevolutionary right and the militant revolutionary left. In Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, where the ruling power elite considered even the advocates of integral parliamentarism dangerous revolutionaries, the vital center was almost completely emasculated. 

It would seem that in these as in other prerevolutionary eras, the specter of revolution precipitated an active counterrevolutionary response among vulnerable status groups-the landed aristocracy, the petty nobility, the petite-bourgeoisie, the artisans, and the bypassed entrepreneurs. In fact, there may well be a certain parallelism between the attitudes and actions of such crisis strata in domestic politics and the attitudes and actions of foreign-policy actors who consider their nation's international power and prestige to be declining. In both instances the threatened parties are particularly prone to force a pre-emptive showdown-armed repression or insurrection at home or preventive war abroad-with the resolve of thereby arresting or reversing the course of history, which they claim to be fuming against them. 

Admittedly, much has been written about the antiwar agitation that was such a prominent aspect of the prewar thunder on the left. Considerably less is known about the superpatriotic agitation that was so central to the corresponding thunder on the right. To be sure, conventional diplomatic historians have noted the upsurge of nationalism before the war, and its further inflammation during and immediately following the July crisis. Few, however, have bothered to examine systematically the social, economic, and political background of the political organizers and social carriers of this nationalist revival. Surely it is not without significance that nearly all the superpatriots who clamored for preparedness and foreign-policy pugnacity held reactionary, ultraconservative, or protofascist views on domestic affairs. Before the war there were few if any liberal conservatives or reformers in the Navy League, the Tariff Reform League, and the pro-Entente wing of the Unionist and Liberal parties in England; in the Action franchise, the Ligue des patriotes, and the Federation des gauches in France; in the Nationalist Parr, and the fasci in Italy; in the Pan-German League and the Conservative Party in Germany; in the war party centering around the Archduke in Austria-Hungary; and in the Assembly of the Russian People and the Black Hundreds in Russia. 

Evidently foreign-policy issues became highly politicized, since notwithstanding governmental appeals, the primacy of foreign policy is inoperative under prerevolutionary conditions. Whereas the campaign against the arms race was an integral part of the struggle against the forces of order, the campaign for preparedness was a central feature of the struggle against the forces of change. All along the superpatriots of the two opposing camps did each other's bidding in that they exploited and fomented the mutual suspicion, fear, hostility and insecurity that quickened the European arms race. The Pan-German League and the Action franacaise unwittingly helped each other at the expense of heightening international tensions. Domestically, meanwhile, they were instrumental in frightening liberal conservatives and reformists into supporting national preparedness, thereby eroding the vital center. In the parliamentary nations of Western Europe as well as in the autocratic empires of Central and Eastern Europe the prewar governments were particularly responsive to superpatriotic blandishments whenever moderate and advanced reformists threatened a united front, as was the case when Caillaux and Jaures explored the basis for cooperation. In brief, the center increasingly relied on the right as a backstop, with the powerful encouragement of the upper echelons of the army, the foreign offices, the diplomatic corps, the ministry of the interior, and-in most cases-the church. Almost without exception these time-honored institutions were strongholds of the threatened and intransigent crisis strata rather than of the self-confident and supple business and banking grande-bourgeoisie. 

To a not inconsiderable degree, then, throughout Europe the rising international tensions were accompanied by rising internal tensions-by mounting social, political, and economic struggles that radicalized the extremes, eroded the center, and inclined the governments to push prepared-ness and diplomatic obduracy as part of their efforts to maintain a precarious domestic status quo.

"Domestic Causes of the First World War" by Arno J. Mayer from The Responsibility of Power by Leonard Krieger and Fritz Stern (1967)