How valid is the claim that in 1914 states went to war due to fear rather than for motives of gain?

From the November 2004 markscheme:

The question requires candidates to consider the motives of the various states in Europe (and their respective empires) for entry into the First World War. A popular question no doubt, which could produce an avalanche of pre-learned or pre-planned responses on the Origins of World War One: such responses are unlikely to score well.
The question indicates two areas/issues for particular consideration i.e. “fear” and “gain” and both areas should be addressed. The “How valid” invitation permits candidates not just to consider the relative merits of “fear” and “gain” but allows for identification of other motives which they may feel to be significant. Stronger responses will no doubt produce such an approach. Belgium, for example, had little time to worry about either issue in 1914 and found itself at war for quite simple reasons.
“Fear” could be linked to individual states – e.g. German fear of encirclement, Russian fear of diplomatic failure/humiliation, Vienna’s fear of Pan-Slavism/Serb Nationalism and anxiety over imperial disintegration, British fears of naval/economic challenges. “Gain” could be linked to desires (overt or covert) of various states by 1914 which, it was believed, might be achievable through military means/war. Such gains might be territorial, economic, diplomatic, irredentist, etc.
N.B. The First World War provides much opportunity for investigation and examination of other motives and the problem will not be a lack of detail in responses, but a plethora of indiscriminately selected and deployed material.

[8 to 10 marks] for answers which are largely descriptive but which do touch upon the issues of “fear/gain” albeit in little convincing depth before moving on to other areas. Responses may in some cases give the impression of a learned response approach.

[11 to 13 marks] will consider the issues of “fear “ and “gain” explicitly, though specific examples of each may be limited and/or unbalanced. The “How valid” element will be identified and tackled though the level of analysis and provision of alternative motives may not be well developed.

[14 to 16 marks] may be awarded for responses that deal effectively with both issues of “fear” and “gain”, provide convincing, accurate, substantiation of each and address the issue of “How valid” effectively. Investigation of other possible motives of the powers involved (individually or collectively) may be apparent and once more, specific examples provided as evidence.

[17+ marks] as above but candidates will provide accurate detailed knowledge and reveal evidence of wide reading and/or different interpretations concerning motives/motivation of the warring states.


How valid is the claim that in 1914 states went to war due to fear rather than for motives of gain?

 World War in George Kennan words was “the great seminal catastrophe of this century (20th century)”; but what were the motives behind starting this great catastrophe if it was not in fact just sleepwalkers muddling into an unwanted war. In this essay I will explore Germany's motives in going to war in 1914, which pulled the war from the a third Balkan war to a greater European war. Moreover I will explore Britain’s motives in entering the building war in Europe solidifying its place as truly global war. I will limit my scope to these two questions and in so doing try to establish the motives for the two predominate powers in Europe.

Germany being surrounded France and Russia is often one of the main reasons sighted in senior schools textbooks as a cause of the First World War, and if this is to be believed it point to fear as a Germany motivation for war. It is true that Germany watched the rise of Russia warily; Bismarck himself touted the importance of remaining on good terms with Russia to German security. Even before Russia’s world leading economic growth in the late 19th to the early 20th century, Von Schlieffen and much of his general staff had pushed for war with Russia sooner rather than later when Russia massive resources and population could overwhelm Germany. This would appear to be a position of fear but this fear in fact masked a greater motivation of gain, Germany held against. Lebensraum was not an idea conjured up in the mind of Hitler but existed far earlier in great German migrations east in the middle ages. Some, and it is important to not all, German leaders saw the great plains of eastern Europe from Estonia in the north to the Ukraine in the south as Germany's very own manifest destiny to rule. The support for this idea behind German motivations is seen in the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in 1918 where Germany seized the Baltic states, Poland and most of modern day Belarus and Ukraine. This massive seizure of land may however have been decided upon after the war had started and millions had died, with German leader needing to give some spoils of victory to it’s people, to legitimize the war. It cannot be ignored and seeing as there is no other better insight into the intentions of Germany entering the war it seems logical to concede that this was the motivation behind the German war.

Britain in 1914 was at the zenith of its power holding 11,400,000 square miles of territory, the largest empire in the history of the world. It held an unchallenged position at the helm of global power politics with the Pax Britannica. At the very least Britain had the most to lose of any great power that joined the war in 1914, and although it could potentially gain from a war it risked the most joining. On the other hand however it had a great to lose if it did not join the war. Britain in many ways feared it’s friends more than it is enemies. Britain feared Russian economic, territorial and diplomatic growth, colliding with British interests and saw an alliance as a way of achieving a similar entente that Britain had an achieved with the similarly placed US in 1846 at the treaty of Webster-Ashburton treaty. It is important to note that Russian economic growth in 1914 was around the same rate of between 10 and 15 percent achieved by China in the years leading up to the great recession, and in the same way pundits claim that China will surpass the USA as the pre-eminent superpower of the 21st century, many Britain’s feared that the same fate would befall them in the 20th. If Britain did not honour the friendship established at the triple entente Russia may turn against Britain and challenge the status quo that had been established between Britain and Russia in Asia, potentially culminating in a threat to the Raj. By the same measure France might also renew a challenge to British imperial dominance beyond Asia, had Britain not joined the Great War on the ententes side. Both Russia and France angry at Britain and vying for revenge would not have been a advantageous situation no matter the outcome of the great war, and because Britain had so much to lose staying and France’s and Russia’s good side was vital, to British power.  

British policy since the defeat of the Spanish armada had dictated that no continental European power would dominate Europe. Germany was no different and if she had won a war against Russia and France, she would be so powerful that Britain may not have been able to defeat Germany in a future war for dominance, especially in light of the fact that Germany economic output had supposed Britain’s in 1910. No matter the result of a potential great European war excluding Britain, Britain after the conclusion would be in a weaker global position. If Germany had won, not only would Britain have an angered France and Russia resulting in a threat British Empire, but Germany would be established as the hegemony in Europe and in her victorious hubris may attend to extend her global control at the expense of Britain. If the result is switched Russia and France would have sour feeling towards Britain but would also be feeling the same sense of victorious hubris. Despite this as Nial Ferguson argued in his book “war of the worlds”, World War One demonstrated the crushing power a modern war could have on a nation as shown by the Russian revolution or the economic devastation left in it’s aftermath to most nations involved. This would mean that Britain would actually be strong position relative to all other great powers after a European war in which it did not fight, and that Britain would not have to worry about other potential power threatening the British order, because of the cost bore by the war. If this view was shared by Britain’s leaders this may mean that Britain was going to war for gain and not fear, but this seems unlikely due to the lack hindsight they had and seems to be more of a counter factual situation abstracted by Niall Ferguson.  Both fear and gain played into the motivations for nations entering the war and to say one played more a role that another would be naive.

How valid is the claim that in 1914 states went to war due to fear rather than for motives or gain?

            Norman Angell wrote in his seminal work The Great Illusion that conflict between the industrialized nations of the world would be an impossibility due to their economic interdependence on each other.  This was written in 1909. Five years into the future would prove Angell to be tragically inaccurate in his assertion. Fear, it would seem that day, won over economic imperative. Fear that encirclement by the major powers of the militarily advanced France and the monolithic Russia would put an end to the relatively young German Empire. Fear that it will be left behind and starved of that most vital lifeblood for nations of that age; oil. Fear that the caretaker of its backyard, Austria, would be defeated and fragmented resulting in a cornucopia of young, backwards and disorderly nation states. This essay will argue that it was not some starry-eyed ambition to further the goals of their respective countries that led these heads of state to declare war but was rather a mutual fear of one another. 


            Germany was surrounded by two of the most powerful countries in Europe. On the Western boarders you had France with the most advanced military in the world backed up with the additional money and manpower, which its colonies provided. On the Easter boarders you had Russia with the largest army in Europe and rapidly starting to industrialize. Germany was rightfully uneasy about the treaty between these two countries, which stated that if one of them comes under attack then the other would intervene to assist. Despite the foreseen challenges, however, there were those in the military who insisted that Germany needed to go on the offensive such as General von Molke who said that they needed to war with Russia as soon as possible else they let them grow to powerful. Germany wanted to cull its neighbour to assure that it does not pose a significant threat to the country.

            Germany also had reason to be concerned regarding resources, specifically oil.  While countries like France and Britain had access to it through their colonies and the nations of America and Russia were fortunate enough to have ample supply of it in their native boarders, Germany had no access to oil except through the markets.  This put them at an incredible disadvantage both economically, as oil was needed for machines and trucks and was a valuable commodity, and militarily as dreadnoughts and other modern ships needed oil to operate. Therefore, Germany saw it as imperative to establish a “railway from Constantinople to Basra” in order to gain access to the precious liquid and to break up the unfair monopoly held by Britain.  Otherwise Germany would be left as the only major nation on earth without the ability to produce its own oil, which was both a significant industrial and strategic weakness.

            After Russia mobilized against Austria for invading Serbia, Germany mobilized their troops and declared war on Russia in the summer of 1914.  The primary reason for this brash action was because of Germany’s fears that should Austria be invaded it would bring along the destruction in the state and Germany’s backyard would become Balkanized by a series of small, disorderly countries run which would deprive Germany of a key ally and sow disorder along its southern boarders.  It might even work to inspire similar move towards independence among the diverse denominations of Germany such as Bavaria or Bohemia.  This is why Germany chose to issue Austria the ‘blank check’ when dealing with Serbia; to make sure without a doubt that Austria was kept stable and safe from the so called “terror state” and to demonstrate how Germany would not tolerate the same attempts at destabilization by its minorities. 

            Germany's economy had surpassed that of even Great Britain before World War I broke out. They had nothing to gain from going to war with the most powerful countries in Europe simultaneously and were in fact looking for an alliance with Great Britain before the war. What made Germany feel like it had to take action was the fear of encirclement from powerful nations, its exclusion from the oil trade and its need for stability at home and in their neighbours.

How valid is the claim that in 1914 states went to war due to fear rather than for motives of gain?

Fear and gain are common emotions within the life of every human being, just as they arrive in lives of countries. As an eighteen year old having studied only two years of history covering a century of seminal events, it is pointless for me to tell you that this essay will give you the answers to why fear and gain within any and all causes of the war, be they militaristic, nationalistic, imperialistic or due to alliances resulted in Germany declaring war on Russia August 1st, France August 3rd and Britain August 4th, thus officially beginning “the war that ended peace” (Margaret MacMillan). Therefore, this essay will focus on one single aspect to explain the nature of fear and gain in the causing of the first world war, in order to weigh one against the other, and this theme is: colonialism.

On the 18.09.1898 Britain and France were seconds away from starting a war in a situation known as the Fashoda incident, a result of aggressive gain motives aiming for a railway from Cape to Cairo for the British and a total reign of Africa from West to East for the French. Though this motive of gain drove them so close to a battle, yet there was one common fear which held them back from taking the deciding step: Germany. Ever since Bismark’s redundancy in 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II had taken on an expansionist policy, striving for “a place in the sun”. This threatened both Britain and France who were in a “scramble for Africa” and sought to protect their colonies. Such protection was especially important to the British as their colonies ranged all over the globe and Germany was building naval fleets, which would enable them to reach them. Thus six years after the diplomatic victory in the Fashoda Incident for Britain, in 1904, Britain and France signed the entente cordiale. This agreement added to the Franco-Russian agreement of 1894, which George Kennan argues was the cause of the First World War as it encircled Germany. Entangling Britain in the alliance between France and Russia, first indirectly through the Entente Cordiale of 1904 and then official through the Triple Entente of 1907 caused for Germany to feel directly threatened. In fact by 1912 Moltke the Chief of the German General Staff and Bethmann Hollweg the Foreign Minister both agreed that due to this complete encirclement of Germany as well as the lack of Britain’s support, which they had recognized through the first 1905 and confirmed through the second 1911 Moroccan crisis, “war was unavoidable the sooner the better”. Fritz Fischer blames this attitude for the cause of the First World War. Thus an incident beginning through a motive of gain sparked a wave of fear, which culminated in one of the decisions blamed for the causing of the First World War.

Another colonial motive of gain that Christopher Clark argues in his recently published book ‘Sleepwalkers” caused the First World War was Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1911. This time, a motive of gain occurred initialized by fear, the fear of a nation falling apart. Being a young country made up of several culturally disconnected regions, Italy was striving to uphold some sense of nationalism in order to avoid their country breaking apart. Thus, in an attempt to increase nationalism, fuelled by the fear of their country falling apart, Italy invaded Libya. The reason this attack was appeased can also be traced back to fear, because the British and French were desperate to keep Italy on their side such that Germany would not benefit from additional allies. The fear of losing Italy to Germany forced the British and French to allow an invasion that they knew much too well would cause the Sick Man of Europe (Ottoman Empire) to collapse. And so it did, leaving behind a chaotic, unstable Balkan region. As a result of this instability in the East the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 began. Christopher Clark argues, as do many other historians, that this instability caused the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th of June 1914, proving Bismarck right as he claimed “the next time we go to war it will be over some…incident in the Balkans”. Indeed this event pulled the trigger on Austro-Hungary’s shelling of Sarajevo, causing Russia to fully mobilize on Germany’s border by August 31st 1914 such that Germany declared war on August 1st. Hence in this case the roles between fear and gain were reversed, such that the fear in Italy of falling apart and the fear of Britain and France in angering them caused a motive of gain that led to the starting of the war.

Finally, there were the motives of gain of Germany that established fear in the British. Searching for “a place in the sun” in order to increase Germany’s power, resources and global influence, Kaiser Wilhelm began to construct a navy. The German historian Fritz Fischer opines that it was this expansionist policy of the German government, which led to the First World War. This build up of the German navy initiated the naval race between Germany and Britain, as Britain felt threatened by Germany’s motives of gain, with the already unstable, widespread empire they could not afford an expanding power with a large navy to share their territory with. In fact, this naval race continued to the point that by 1914 the dreadnaught ratio between the two was 29:17 for Britain and Germany respectively. Many argue that alone this naval race made was inevitable, as a country must have some aggressive intentions when spending so much money on ships that are meant for war. For this reason the naval race, a result of fear sparked by motives of gain, is seen as “an essential element in the conjecture that led to disaster”(Stevenson). Such it happened that once again the mixing of fear and gain created a tension to strong to ignore, adding to the many tensions that caused Britain to get involved in the First World War, making it a real world war through the use of their international colonies.

In conclusion, it is close to impossible to distinguish between motives of gain and fear as instigators of the war, simply because they are both causes and consequences for one another. Such interdependence between the action and the emotion caused for many tense situations between countries, whether their fear led to dangerous motives of gain such as Italy’s invasion of Libya, or if their motives of gain led to fear as happened between Germany, France and Britain. Keeping in mind how intertwined fear and gain can be in a time so confusing and tense as that in the first decade of the twentieth century, it can be determined that more often than not countries did go to war for fear rather than gain; nonetheless, this fear might have been inspired by motives of gain, and when this is the case it is hardly justifiable to claim one or the other was a more valid reason for which nations went to war in 1914.
The desk in the Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl at which, on 28 July 1914, Franz Joseph signed the declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia, thus signalling the start of World War I.
The Declaration itself