World War I

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How did the arms race contribute to the onset of World War I?

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The unification of Germany in 1870 and its stunning victory in the Franco-Prussian war destabilized the balance of power in Europe. As the other answer indicated, Germany wanted to become a colonial power, feeling it had "missed out" because it became a nation-state so late in the game. One way to do this was to challenge Great Britain's undisputed rule of the seas. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had been the world's superpower, and much of this was based on its strong, superior, unrivaled navy.

The Germans began a naval buildup in the 1890s. This naturally made Great Britain nervous. Germany was vying to become a world power, if not the world power, and Britain had no intention of being knocked off its pedestal. Therefore, to secure their naval advantage, the British developed a steam-powered warship called the dreadnought that was equipped with bigger cannons and greater firepower than any other warships existing at the time. Germany and the other powerful nations soon followed suit.

England rightly guessed that Germany was building up its army and navy because it wanted to start a war. England therefore built up its arms to be ready to smash any attempt the Germans might make to seize power. It is just one step from having a huge military buildup to using it.

By 1914, tensions had risen to a high point, and nations were lined up in such a tangled complex of treaties and alliances that any match thrown on the fire could start a conflagration. When the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, that was the match; both the Germans and the British already had big arsenals due to the arms race they had been engaged in, and both were ready to test them.

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There were many factors that led to the start of World War I. One of those factors was militarism, the building up the military. King Wilhelm II of Germany wanted to have a strong military. As a result, he began to build up Germany’s army and navy.

Germany was interested in gaining colonies. Since there were few colonies available, other European countries feared Germany would use its military to attack them in order to take their colonies. This led these countries to build up their army and navy to provide more protection in case of attack. As other events unfolded in Europe prior to the start of World War I, the presence of larger and improved militaries in many European countries provided some comfort that each country could hold its own if a war did occur. With countries having their military power in place, there was less hesitancy to declare war.

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Was the arms race the most important reason for World War I?  If yes, why was it?

There were several reasons why World War I began. I will explain some of these so you can decide if the arms race was the most important factor.

Militarism, the building up of the military, was definitely a cause of World War I. Countries began to build up their army, navy, and supply of weapons because they sensed they might be involved in a future conflict. Germany wanted colonies. Since Germany recently became a united country in 1871, they didn’t have colonies. Since most lands were already colonized, Germany believed they would have to fight to get these colonies. Thus, they built up their military. France and Great Britain watched this occur, and they also built up their military to protect the colonies they already had. Militarism was a factor in the outbreak of World War I.

Another factor was entangling alliances. There were two, competing alliances prior to World War I. The Triple Alliance included Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. The Triple Entente included the Soviet Union (Russia), Great Britain, and France. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, it set off a response similar to falling dominoes.  The Soviet Union was allied with Serbia, so they declared war on Austria-Hungary. Now one member of each alliance was fighting each other. This caused other nations to join the war to honor and protect their alliance members.

A third cause of World War I was a growing sense of nationalism. Countries believed their way of life was superior and should be spread. These countries also believed they were better than any other country. Therefore, nobody could tell them what to do, and if a country tried to do this, they would be defeated in war. Thus, countries felt uninhibited about the actions they took.

Based on these causes, you can now make an informed decision about what you feel was the main cause of World War I.

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