In 1917 Russia suffered two revolutions, which resulted in a drastic change of leadership. Tsarist Russia became Lenin’s Soviet Russia and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed shortly thereafter in March 1918 with Germany. The treaty gave Germany much: over a million square millions and 60 million people — a third of Russia’s population — were annexed. Russia lost railroads, factories, the majority of its coal and iron — but Germany was in no position to immediately profit from the treaty. The Western Front was calling. Russia gained some peace from the treaty, and could now focus on its internal problems resulting from the recent overthrow and the war effort. Leading up to the treaty, Imperial Russia had suffered devastating casualties and food shortages. The Bolsheviks called for an end to the war on the Eastern Front, and Germany supported this call, allowing Lenin himself to return to Russia from his exile in Switzerland. A Soviet force called the Red Guards — a paramilitary outfit opposed to Russia’s provisional government — formed and overtook the Winter Palace in October 1917. Peace talks led by Joffe on the Bolshevik side stalled when Germany demanded territorial concessions. Trotsky replaced Joffe and Lenin urged a quick signing, certain that peace would help to establish Bolshevik control on the homefront. But Trotsky also refused to make territorial concessions and walked away from talks. The Central Powers resumed hostilities against Russia, taking the Baltic States and Ukraine by force. They now threatened Petrograd, but opened the door to a renewed peace before striking. Lenin again urged the signing of a treaty. This time he won majority support from the Soviets. Russia gave up Finland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. The acquisitions did not help Germany, however, as now it had to spread troops far and wide in foreign territories, which considered the military presence an occupation. Germany needed troops on the Western Front and now instead of war on the Eastern Front, it now had to “govern” its booty. Lenin consolidated his power with the treaty and all it cost Russia was a few territories that it could hope to take back when the time was right. Under Nicholas II, the cost to fight the war had been great — deprivations and deaths on the homefront — and millions of soldiers dead on the Eastern Front. Lenin got his peace, but he also changed the face of internal Russia in the process — a step that, under Stalin, would prove to be as costly as any war.
Protests and workers’ strikes were increasing on the German homefront as war continued into 1918. The Hundred Days Offensive had resulted in sound beating of German military forces on the Western Front. A mutiny by the Imperial German Navy ignited the German Revolution. Germany sued for peace, expressing a desire to accept Wilson’s 14 Points, which touted free trade and self-determination as ideals to be guaranteed should all sides agree to end the war. Wilson’s 14 Points were idealistic and not what Clemenceau nor Lloyd George nor Orlando had in mind. Just as Germany had demanded territorial concessions of Russia, the Allied Powers wanted to carve up Europe and limit German hegemony. On November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed that gave Germany two weeks to pull out of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. It also called for the Allies to occupy Germany. Germany (and the UK) were dependent on imports from America. Previously, an Allied blockade had been in effect to starve the Germans, and it is estimated that between half and three-quarters of a million civilians died as a result of it (Grebler, 1940). Germany was demilitarized (a demand of France, since it was not allowed to expand its borders to the Rhine). John Maynard Keynes observed that France wanted to “set back the clock” and return Germany to its mid-19th century, pre-Industrialization state. This too was wishful thinking and an insult to German ingenuity to think that it could be stymied. Gustav Bauer signed the Treaty of Versailles after attempting to have a number of articles removed, which the Allies refused to allow. Terms were not particularly favorable to Germany: it was forced to abandon its claims won by the treaty with Russia. It also had to cede territory to an independent Poland. On top of that, it had to accept a “guilt clause” which placed responsibility for the war on Germany’s shoulders. Protests erupted. Bauer suggested that if the military could resist an invasion, he would not sign the treaty, but Field Marshal Hindenburg assured him that the military would not hold out. Keynes called it “a Carthaginian Peace,” meaning a peace crafted to destroy Germany, which he said would come about because of reparations Germany was forced to pay. However, a strident nationalism resulted in Germany, paving the way for a future conflict with the Allied Powers, which sought to limit German influence in the Middle East.
The causes of the war are interrelated and cannot wholly be separated one from the other. However, there are arguments for why one is more noteworthy than another. The first argument is that the war was mainly a war of economy.
High tariffs, war profiteering, steel industry, mines, access to natural resources — all of this played a part in the breakout of war. For example, Austria attempted to curb Serbian influence by cutting off its exports; Serbia in turn reduced its dependence on Austria. Britain’s monopoly on trade was dwindling as American and Germany industry rose. Tariffs on imports were the subject of much political debate in the UK, but ultimately these tariffs did little to stymie relations. The global economy was underway. Tariffs were only one way to extract a pound of flesh. War profiteering also played a part, as Gen. Smedley Bulter later illustrated in his public speeches after the war (Stone, Kuznick, 2012). The steel industry stood to gain from war by pumping out weapons of war. The acquisition of mines in Africa and access to natural resources in the Middle East were also economic reasons for war. The World War offered world powers an opportunity to “land grab” and limit marketplace competition. The war was as much about business as it was about “democracy” and “self-determination.”
The second argument maintains that the war was historically inevitable. Europe had always been on the brink of civil war, or at war, since Charlemagne (and even before). The desires of kings, emperors, statesmen, pontiffs, counselors, cabinets, committees, and congresses truly made certain that there would never be such a thing as a lasting peace this side of eternity. More immediate historical causes were found in the Austro-Hungarian dispute with Serbia, and the Serbian-Bosnian dispute, into which the Russians were now figuring, as supporters of Serbia. Germany felt compelled to back its Austrian ally. The French wanted to restrain the Russians in the Balkans and the British wanted to keep a lid on everything altogether. Germany was feeling encircled by hostile nations and threw its weight behind Austria-Hungary. However, it was still a surprise when the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand led to international war. The murder of royalty was nothing new and had certainly never been a cause for international conflict, so it is somewhat mystifying to argue that Ferdinand’s death is what prompted the war. There were far greater historical causes, which were tied primarily to the world powers’ industrialized economies and centralized banking systems. War could be vastly profitable to some and it could be used by others in order to reshape international geopolitics.
A third argument points to an increase in militarism. The British Navy had dominated the seas and German industry was attempting to challenge this position. Russia wanted to rebuild its fleet following its losses in its Asian conflict. It had also developed a railroad which could help to move troops, just as Germany had done. The world powers were accruing arms and means just as fast as they could. This was an arms race, as each world power attempted to match the other in terms of army and naval might. Were war to break out, the UK felt confident that it could blockade Germany with its superior navy. The Germans on the other hand were confident that their submarines could destroy such a blockade. In the end, the submarines failed to do so, but the militarism of all countries certainly paved the way for an open door to open conflict.
Grebler, L. (1940). The Cost of the World War to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Yale Keynes, J.M. (1920). The Economic Consequences of the Peace. NY: Harcourt Brace.
Stone, O., Kuznick, P. (2012). The Untold History of the United States. NY: Gallery