Imperialism’s Contribution To World War I
It wasn’t just a fight between states in World War I; it was also a war between empires. Western European empires, such as the United Kingdom and France, possessed foreign colonies all over the world, whereas eastern empires, such as Austria-Hungary and Russia, dominated European and North Asian regions that were linked by land. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on July 28, 1914, was planned by members of Young Bosnia, who were enraged by Austria-acquisition Hungary’s of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
European struggle for imperial territory aided in the development of rivalries that erupted during World War I, and the war had a significant impact on the balance of imperial power. The Russian, German, Austrian-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires all fell apart during or soon after the war, which ended with a treaty that gave the victorious powers Germany’s overseas territories.
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The African Scramble
Around 1900, French soldiers patrolled the streets of Senegal. In 1895, Senegal became a French colony.
Almost the whole African continent was colonized by Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, or Portugal by the time World War I broke out. The majority of this colonization took place after 1880, during the so-called “Scramble for Africa” or “Partition of Africa,” in which European empires contended for control of African lands.
European empires had invaded African coastal nations to capture and enslave people in the centuries before the Scramble for Africa, but they had mostly failed to invade further inland due to navigational difficulties and the threat of diseases like malaria. Following the legal abolition of slavery, new technology such as steamboats and quinine enabled Europeans to conquer a far larger portion of the continent.
European empires that invaded Africa saw colonization as a way to take use of forced labor, harvest resources, and gain a competitive advantage over other European empires. Although African colonialism was not a direct cause of World War I, it contributed to the creation of a climate in which European empires saw themselves as competitors who could only flourish at the expense of others. For example, in the decade leading up to World War I, France and Germany, two of the war’s primary adversaries, battled for control of Morocco.
Richard Fogarty, a history professor at the University of Albany and co-editor of Empires in World War I: Shifting Frontiers and Imperial Dynamics in a Global Conflict, states, “France and Germany did not go to war over Morocco.”
“What occurred was that they were conditioned to see each other as competitors, and to see the world as this zero-sum game in which the French pursuit of empire could only come at the expense of the German pursuit of empire,” he adds.
Germany’s ambition to develop a navy that could compete with Britain’s was also a source of concern. “The British couldn’t even tolerate the concept of a danger to their naval superiority, since they had an empire to secure,” Fogarty adds, despite the fact that Germany was nothing near achieving this. As a result, they became hypersensitive to any form of competition.”
Fears about Germany’s empire-building prompted European nations to forge alliances and informal agreements in the decades preceding up to World War I, effectively splitting Europe into two camps.
Unlike the majority of western European empires, the Austrian-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires were continuous, with provinces connected by land. The three empires’ borders intersected at the Balkans on the eve of World War I, a region in southeastern Europe that the empires saw as strategically significant and played a key role in the outbreak of the Great War.
The Ottoman Empire once ruled much of the Balkans, but it lost the majority of its territory in the 19th century. Taking advantage of the Ottoman Empire’s retreat, Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Balkan area that the empire had conquered in 1908.
When the revolutionary group Young Bosnia killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the prospective successor to the Austria-Hungarian monarchy, it was resisting this occupation and annexation. Following the assassination, Austria-Hungary accused Serbia, a Balkan country, of helping Young Bosnia, and declared war on Serbia.
Although Russia ostensibly agreed to support Serbia against Austria-Hungary because it was a fellow Slavic state, Andrew Jarboe, a history professor at Berklee College of Music and co-editor of Empires in World War I with Fogarty, believes Russia was also motivated by imperial interests in the Balkans.
“I believe Russia’s calculation is that if they don’t respond militarily, they would become obsolete in this region,” he argues.
Following World War I, Wmpires Were Dismantled.
Russia fought alongside the Allies in World War I, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Japan, but exited the conflict in 1917 when revolution and civil war erupted in its own empire. This resulted in the Russian Empire’s demise and the formation of the Soviet Union.
The Central Powers, on the other hand, were responsible for the majority of the other imperial collapses. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, ended the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in Europe and the German Empire in both Europe and the rest of the world. The majority of Germany’s African possessions were divided among the British, French, and Belgian colonies, while Japan took over Germany’s colonies in China and the North Pacific.
The treaty also put sanctions on the Ottoman Empire, which culminated to its demise in 1922.
When Adolf Hitler came to power, he utilized the existence of a previous German Empire to support his “Third Reich,” or “Third Empire,” which he claimed would take control of Europe (the Holy Roman Empire, in his eyes, was the “First Reich”). Part of his justification for invading Poland in 1939, which sparked World War II, was that he was taking territory that rightfully belonged to Germany—an explanation that many imperialists had used before and would employ again.