As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Causes and Consequences of World War I

Leviathon Map

Today, we begin the second part of our story with our first discussion in Unit II - Responding to International and Domestic Crises. In this unit, we will continue our story line - how the power of the federal government grows as the United States responds to a series of crises both inside and outside our boundaries - two world wars, the crash of the stock market, and the Great Depression.

So, think about these ideas - the romance and glamour of war, why it might be good for the U.S. economically, and how the war might involve us in a new discussion of freedom - as our discussion proceeds.

Discussion Goals:
  1. To understand the geopolitical realities of Europe in the 19th Century and how five organic weaknesses in Europe led to the first large-scale global war - World War I.
  2. To gain a chronological understanding of the progression of WWI.
  3. To study the reasons for American entrance into the war to "make the world safe for democracy."
  4. To examine the domestic and international consequences of WWI

Goal #1: To understand the geopolitical realities of Europe in the 19th Century and how five organic weaknesses in Europe led to the first large-scale global war - World War I

By the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, Europe was plagued by what the late Dr. Joachim Remak called "five organic weaknesses" - weaknesses that led to the outbreak of World War I - as well as a final "precipating event."

  1. Unprecedented imperialism
  2. Historical and contemporary grievances
  3. Shifting and entangling alliances
  4. An unrestrained press
  5. Unrestrained nationalism

#1 Organic Weakness - Unprecedented Imperialism

As we have already learned, many historians refer to the 19th Century as the golden age of European imperialism - an age during which Europeans owned or controlled most of Africa and Asia and all or part of every other continent. Wealth and power was defined by one’s colonial possessions and each country's prosperity hinged on its ability to maintain and expand its colonial empire. As the map below indicates - European colonization in 1900 - the quest for empire drove the foreign policies of most European nations during the 19th Century.

World Map of colonies 1900

This scramble for empire created competition among various imperial empires. By 1900:

By 1900, any territorial gain by one power meant the loss of territory by another. Britain was the strongest of all the empires - British Map of British Empire in 1900colonial territory was over 100 times the size of its own territory at home, thus giving rise to the phrase "the sun never sets on the British empire."

How did this happen? This animated map of the "Political Borders of Europe, 1519-2006" at should provide some clues.

The bottom line is that during the 19th Century, some empires and sovereign nations grew and increased their geopolitical strength at the expense of others. This shift in the balance of power will fester as those nations that lost their territory and sovereignty try to regain it, while the larger powers continue their quest for even more territory. To understand this Balance of Power in the important regions, go to

Conclusions about Organic Weakness #1 - how unprecedented imperialism led to war: The rapidly expanding empires seemed to have no understanding about the bitterness that reckless imperialism brought between competing empires, nor did they seem to understand how imperialism influenced the politics of previously-sovereign nations that came under colonial control. Consequently, unprecedented imperialism highlighted a second organic weakness - historical and contemporary grievances among the European powers.

#2 Organic Weakness - Historical and Contemporary Grievances

At the time war broke out, at least four major areas of historical friction existed in Europe:Map of Europe 1900

Conclusions about Organic Weakness #2 - how historical and contemporary grievances led to war: These grievances were all about expansion and contraction of empires. As one empire expanded, another contracted - leaving those nations, ethnic groups, regions with bitter attitudes about colonization as well as hopes for regaining political sovereignty. Consequently, these historical and contemporary grievances became clearly expressed through the third organic weakness - the series of shifting and entangling alliances that arose toward the end of the 19th Century.

#3 Organic Weakness - Shifting and Entangling Alliances

Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans, and Russia became entangled in a series of alliances - agreements between two or more countries that pledged to fight with each other in times of war and to support each other in a variety of ways during times of peace. Alliances, then, are agreements of mutual advantage made between nations with common enemies; they are not treaties of friendship or support for common beliefs. Following are a few of these alliances from this period:

And if we look at these alliances, it is clear that Britain avoided them prior to the turn of the 20th Century. Since the British had the strongest navy in the world, it assumed that by continuing to grow its naval power, it could protect its colonial powers against any other European power. But by 1900, the Germans were building a navy to compete with and eventually supercede the British navy. At that time, Britain entered two alliances - one with France and another with Russia.

Thus, by 1907, Europe was divided into two hostile camps: the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and the Allies, or the Triple Entente, of Britain, France, and Russia.

Map  of European alliances on eve of WWI

Conclusions about Organic Weakness #3 - how shifting and entangling alliances led to war: The consequence of these alliances was the division of two divided and armed camps that existed in Europe by 1914. Thus, one offense against any Euroean nations might ultimately draw in that nation's ally, and that ally's ally, or allies. The alliances gave smaller powers - like those in the Balkans - an opportunity to begin a crisis that could become a world war.

#4 Organic Weakness - An Unrestrained Press

Yellow journalism was rampant thoughout the late 19th Century world. For the first time, more people were literate than illiterate - which encouraged the growth of mass-circulation newspapers. In Europe and the United States, journalists learned that bad news, crises, alliances, and wars stimulated and sometimes even created circulation. According to W. Scripps, a turn of the century American entrepreneur and founder of a $50 million newspaper conglomerate: German Newspaper headlines assassination of Franz Ferninand

"Our business is to get an audience. Whatever else it is, our newspaper must be excessively interesting, not to the good, wise men and pure in spirit, but to the great mass of sordid, squalid humanity. Humanity is vulgar, so we must be vulgar. It is coarse, so we must not be refined. It is passionate; therefore the blood that flows through our newspapers must be warm."

Conclusions about Organic Weakness #4 - how an unrestrained press led to war: A European and American press more concerned with sellling newspapers than with telling the impartial story of the grievances and shifting alliances brought about by imperialism added to the already fragile environment in Europe in 1914. Consequently, the unrestrained presses of Europe helped to publicize the final organic weakness - unrestrained nationalism.

#5 Organic Weakness - Unrestrained Nationalism

The frictions caused by the first four organic weaknesses contributed to excessive and blind patriotism. This led to unrestrained nationalist impulses in which one nation or empire glorified its existence among all others. This was especially evident in the Balkans where Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia had been sovereign nations during their early histories. However, by the end of the 19th Century, each had been integrated into a larger empire and had lost its sovereignty.

Conclusions about Organic Weakness #5 - how unrestrained nationalism led to war: By 1914, Bulgaria and Serbia were weak new nations while Bosnia-Herzgovina and Croatia had unwillingly become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Retaining national identity became the rallying cry for Bulgaria and Serbia, while regaining their national identity became the goal of Bosnia-Herzgovina and Croatia.

But these Five Organic Weaknesses were not enough to bring about war. Something else was needed - a Precipitating Event. This needed to be an event that would move Europe out of a period of intense competition and uneasiness and into one of intense crisis. That event took place in Sarajevo, a major city in Bosnia.

Sarajevo - The Precipitating Event

On June 28, 1914 - the anniversary of the 14th Century Battle of Kosovo that ended Serbian independence and placed Serbs under Ottoman rule - the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated.Photo of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie

And how did this murder of an unpopular man lead to war?

And what were the goals of these great powers at the beginning of the war?

Goal #2: To gain a chronological understanding of the progression of WWI

Map of the World at War - WWI


1915 1916 1917 1917 marks a turning point in European history. First, for the first time an outside power stepped in to help Europe settle its affairs.  Thereafter, the US would have a large say in the future of Europe.  Second, the Russian Revolution marked the ascension of a socialist nation committed to the destruction of the pre-European order. 1918 1919

map of Europe before 1914map of Europe after WWI

Goal #3: To study the reasons for American entrance into the war to "make the world safe for democracy"

  1. Wilson understood that if we did not enter they war, we would not be able to help shape the peace that he envisioned - making the world "safe for democracy" and creating a new world order that would change the balance of power in Europe. This new world order would replace the traditional great power politics that brought Europe into the war and would instead emphasize the need for collective security, democracy, and self-determination in countries throughout the world. These ideas were embedded in his famous "Fourteen Points." Photo of Woodrow Wilson 1919
  2. Americans had increased their economic ties with the Allies.  England, especially, becomes a huge market for American goods and for loans at interest.
  3. English and German violations of America's neutral rights on the high seas increased the incidents of submarine warfare and led to the January 1917 announcement that Germany would begin sinking all ships in the waters around England and France.
  4. The Zimmerman telegram intercepted from the German foreign minister to the German ambassador in Mexico proposed an alliance with Mexico in case of war with the US and offered financial support and recovery of Mexico's "lost territory" in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.

 Goal #4: To examine the domestic and international consequences of WWI

Map of Europe 1922

1. Europe was dramatically transformed.

2. The human and economic costs were enormous. 3. Germany lost valuable territory and was forced to accept the role as the real aggressor in WWI when, in actuality, all the powers had a shared responsibility. Map of German territory lost after WWI 4. Old grievances were exacerbated rather than alleviated. 5. Although Americans had escaped widespread damage to our homeland during the 19 months of our involvement, the economic, social, and political consequences upon our people were profound.
 Causes and Consequences of WWI
  1. From the 1870s through 1914, both the U.S. and the major European powers embarked upon an unprecedented era of expansionist and imperialist foreign policy.  Such policies were predictable given the fact that these nations had filled out their own national boundaries and were capitalizing on new technology - especially transportation and communication - to expand their influence into areas that previously had been difficult if not impossible to penetrate.
  2. Expansionism, imperialism, and nationalism were not enough to cause the war in Europe.  At least two other factors were needed:  a precipitating event and a premeditated desire for war.   By 1914, all these factors existed.
  3. The world had not been made "safe for democracy."  In fact, the costs of the vindictive "peace" at Versailles made the world less safe for democracy:
  4. The consequences for Europe were enormous. America's entrance into the war marked the beginning of new era for Europeans - thereafter, the United States would have a large say in the political and economic activities of European nations.
  5. The consequences for the world were enormous:
  6. The consequences for the United States were also enormous.
  7. And what have been the long-term consequences of World War I? We visited this topic on the first day of class. Let's see if we can summarize it.