Compare and contrast the long-term causes of two wars.

World War I and World War II, both catastrophic events of the 20th century, significantly shaped the course of modern history. While the two wars were distinct in their immediate causes and courses of action, they share interconnected roots in their long-term causes. This essay will critically analyse and compare the long-term causes of both wars, drawing on insights from prominent historians.

 Among the profound causes of World War I was the complex system of alliances that had developed among the major European powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Historian Margaret MacMillan, in her book "The War That Ended Peace," explores how the creation of these alliances, intended to preserve peace, ironically set the stage for a large-scale conflict. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed the Triple Alliance, while France, Russia, and Britain constituted the Triple Entente. These alliances were designed for mutual protection, but they also created a web of commitments and counter-commitments that escalated a regional conflict into a global war following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914. 

 On the other hand, World War II, although also rooted in international tensions and alliances, was significantly influenced by the economic instability and political fallout from the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. The treaty imposed severe reparations and territorial losses on Germany, leading to economic hardship and feelings of national humiliation. Many historians, like Ian Kershaw in "To Hell and Back," assert that these conditions provided fertile ground for the rise of Adolf Hitler and his aggressive, expansionist policies. Indeed, the appeasement of Hitler's territorial ambitions by Britain and France, in the hope of avoiding another war, was a crucial factor in the lead up to World War II. 

Nationalism, another long-term cause, played a significant role in both wars. In the case of World War I, nationalism led to competitive rivalries among Europe's leading powers. For instance, Germany's desire for "a place in the sun," a term coined by German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow to reflect Germany's ambition for colonial possessions and a global status matching Britain and France, exacerbated tensions. For World War II, Hitler's extreme form of nationalism, combined with racial ideology, sought to establish German hegemony in Europe, culminating in territorial expansion that violated the Treaty of Versailles. 

Imperialism, too, was a shared cause, although its role differed between the wars. In the lead-up to World War I, the scramble for colonies created discord, especially the crises in Morocco in 1905 and 1911 that nearly led to war between Germany and France. By contrast, in the years preceding World War II, it was the dismantling of empires — particularly Hitler's desire to overturn the Versailles order and build a German empire in Eastern Europe — that contributed to the conflict. 

Both World Wars were undoubtedly complex events with multiple long-term causes. However, it is critical to note that while these underlying causes created a volatile international environment, the descent into global conflict was not inevitable. As historian Christopher Clark highlights in "The Sleepwalkers," even amidst the tense environment preceding World War I, the war was not viewed as an inescapable outcome. Similarly, for World War II, A.J.P. Taylor, in "The Origins of the Second World War," emphasises the role of individual decision-making, asserting that key choices, not just impersonal forces, led to the outbreak of war. 

In conclusion, while World War I and World War II had distinct immediate triggers, their long-term causes reveal shared themes of alliances, nationalism, and imperialism. However, the context of these themes differed significantly between the wars, with the aftermath of the first war heavily influencing the causes of the second. Furthermore, the role of individual decisions amidst these larger forces is a crucial factor, underscoring that the path to war, even under conditions of tension and rivalry, is shaped by human agency. The complexity of these causes, and the catastrophic outcomes of both wars, emphasises the importance of diplomatic engagement and international cooperation in managing global tensions and conflicts.