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Why was there a major war in Europe in 1914 after years of relative peace?

The key to the answer of this question is in the analysis of the character of the 19th century's international system.

Why did Europe enjoy peace in the most part of the 19th century? The school of political realism insists that the international system is always anarchic. The international system is not a hierarchical structure like the domestic one, and it is not a subject of certain legal or predictable order. The liberal political thought does not contest directly this "realistic" approach. The 19th century international system was clearly an anarchic system distinguished with the levels of balance of power that the states in Europe achieved. This achievement was a result of the long period of insecurity and wars in the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. French revolutionary wars undermined the European status quo and after the defeat of Napoleon, the European powers felt urgent need for creation of more secure European order.

This order was forged at the Congress in Vienna in 1815 where Prince Metternich's ideas of "perpetual peace" through concert diplomacy were accepted by the European monarchs. At this time, the Concert of Europe was a novelty and it worked well for a number of years. However, this system had a serious flaw: it was a defensive system, and it served the interests only of the great powers. The goal of the system was not creation of peace, but managing already existing conflicts. The Concert was playing only after the begining of some conflict; it was not designed to prevent the conflicts before they start.


Political theorist Robert Jervis says that the Concert of Europe was an alliance system in which all countries worked only to prevent one state to dominate over the others. The war was unwanted because all knew that today's enemy might be tomorrow's ally and vice versa. This system was not a system of cooperation; it was rather a defensive system preventing dominance.

In summary, the long peace during the 19th century was due to the character of the international system - alliances against the domination of one state, conflict management, and well-learned lessons from the Napoleonic wars.

Of course, there were other factors that prevented aggressive foreign policy. The domestic issues were a great factor: the impending danger and fear of social revolutions (such as the Paris Commune) or the energy spent in nation building (Germany and Italy). The undisputed sea dominance of Britain was also a factor ensuring peace as well as the rise of the world trade, globalization, and the Industrial Revolution.

But why was this peace doomed to fail? The alliance system was a negative conception. It was a concerted action against already existing dangers. The war was neither eradicated, nor prevented, moreover it was considered as inevitable. Nobody in the Concert believed in the real possibility of sustainable peace. Everyone expected soon or later a war and the European powers were preparing for it. As Paul Kennedy noticed, there was a constant military race during the 19th century, and the speed of the militarization doubled after the 1900s. In addition, the initial commercial collaboration was fading and the Great Depression that started in the mid-1870s made the industrialized nations nervous and resolved to expand their imperial dominions.

Weltpolitik concept became popular in Germany; some historians argued that the conservative imperial government invented this conception in response to the challenges of Industrial revolution and to the rising influence of Social Democrats. Weltpolitik demanded a bigger German navy and stronger army. It demanded also an active imperial policy. Germans started to build a fleet and the British immediately recognized this as a danger for their sea superiority. German emperor Wilhelm II ceased the alliance with France, his boasting nationalism pushed Russia and France close to make them eventually allies. In the beginning of twentieth century, the balance of power in Europe was already violated. The cult of offensive became a foreign policy Gospel for the continental powers. There was a mistaken impression among European policymakers that the sole military power was enough to assure a world position and security. All governments were prepared for war and all were thinking that the advantage has the one who will strike first.

Paul Kennedy says that in the eve of the First World War, nobody expected a long conflict. None of European governments was able to realise the power of technological transition in military, and nobody counted the real economic price of a possible European conflict.

All these factors had worked up in an explosive matter that eventually blown up in 1914. Montreal Review







Related articles:

In Defence of Perpetual Peace

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First World War and Versailles - The Lessons


Read in depth:

Richard B. Elrod, The Concert of Europe: A Fresh Look at an International System , World Politics, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Jan., 1976), pp. 159-174. The Johns Hopkins University Press

Bernadotte E. Schmitt, The First World War, 1914-1918 , Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 3 (Jun. 15, 1959), pp. 321-331. American Philosophical Society

James R. Sofka Metternich's Theory of European Order: A Political Agenda for "Perpetual Peace", The Review of Politics, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), pp. 115-149. Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics

Paul M. Kennedy, The First World War and the International Power System, International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 7-40

Robert Jervis, From Balance to Concert: A Study of International Security Cooperation, World Politics, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Oct., 1985), pp. 58-79

Henry A. Kissinger, The Congress of Vienna: A Reappraisal, World Politics, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Jan., 1956), pp. 264-280

Richard Langhorne, Reflections on the Significance of the Congress of Vienna, Review of International Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1986), pp. 313-324

David E. Kaiser, Germany and the Origins of the First World War, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 442-474

David French, The Edwardian Crisis and the Origins of the First World War, The International History Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (May, 1982), pp. 207-221

Stephen Van Evera, The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War, International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 58-107

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