Armed Hostilities

Pan-Slavism and Nationalism as Causes of World War I

Both nationalism and imperialism were major forces that drove the alliances toward the war. The Pan-Slavic movement itself was not created specifically by Russia to achieve its political goals. It was originally coined by various Slavic intellectuals, and at the beginning of the XX century, František Palacký invited various historians and other scientists to visit a congress in Prague dedicated to Pan-Slavism (Livezeanu & von Klimó, 2017). In this case, supporters of Pan-Slavism wanted to transform the monarchy into a federation so that minorities (such as Slovaks, for example) could feel protected and create a counterweight to nationalism that was rising in Germany. During that time, Pan-Slavism received not so much support. However, it was used by Russia to support Slavic nationalists who demanded independence from Austro-Hungarian Empire or even rooted for the union between Southern Slavs (including Balkan Slavs).

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It should be noted, however, that Russia used this nationalistic wave to support its plans of gaining control over the Turkish Straits, and in case of Serbia’s actions threatened Russia’s national interests, it was ready to abandon its Pan-Slavic rhetoric (McMeekin, 2011). The German-speaking states, such as Germany and Austro-Hungary, presented a counterpart to Russia; furthermore, these states also heavily relied on nationalism to achieve economic, military, and technological power. German nationalism was built upon Prussian authoritarianism and could be characterized as highly conservative and even anti-liberal (Vermeiren, 2016).

Austria-Hungary had more difficulties with nationalistic movements as it was multiethnic, which could result in revolution and riots rather than unification as it happened in Germany. Austria-Hungary’s primary aims were to counter the nationalism that arose in Serbia and was supported by Russia, as well as ensure that it has colonies or lands in the Balkan (this aim later led to the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). At the same time, as the Pan-Slavic movement and nationalism grew rapidly in Serbia, Austria-Hungary realized that it was becoming a major threat to the Empire. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serb was a perfect excuse for Austria-Hungary to start a war on Serbia and prevent the Slavic nationalism from spreading (McMeekin, 2011).

As Vermeiren (2016) points out, the alliance system itself also played an important role in starting the First World War. The Triple Alliance that consisted of Italy, Germany, and Austro-Hungary was created in 1882 to counter potential attacks of Russia and Great Britain. At the same time, Russia concerns were the same about Germany, but it would not be able to fight the Triple Alliance alone (McMeekin, 2011). In 1902, the Triple Entente (Russia, France, Great Britain) were created as a counterforce to the Alliance. After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Serbia turned to Russia for support, which eventually dragged its alliances into the war, as well as those of Austria-Hungary, since by forming the alliances countries formally agreed they would support each other in military actions (Vermeiren, 2016).

The United States and World War I

The decision of the United States to stay neutral between 1914-1917 could be explained by the fact that the American nation is a nation of immigrants. Since it largely consisted of immigrants from various European countries, Woodrow Wilson feared that in their support of native countries, immigrants could spark a partisan war in the USA. However, many of the immigrants still supported their lands in the war, and some even wanted to return to their native countries to serve in the military (Rauchensteiner, 2014). Since the USA has always been a “melting pot” of ethnicities, it was risky for the country to enter the war since its population consisted of individuals who once were citizens of both alliances. Wilson continued trading relationships with the Alliance and the Entente, but these relationships began to worsen rapidly as Germany tried to isolate Great Britain from deliveries and mined territories in the sea, which sunk or damaged several American ships.

One of the most famous cases that led to increased tension between Germany and the USA was the destruction of Lusitania, a ship owned by Great Britain that was destroyed (without any warning) by a German U-boat. There were 128 Americans on the board of this ship, which seriously affected the foreign relations between America and Germany. However, at this point, the USA had not yet entered the war as Germany apologized for the attack (Rauchensteiner, 2014). Despite this apology, Germany continued to sink American ships that traveled to Europe, which ultimately resulted in Wilson’s decision to enter the war. It was supported by the Senate.

The war was actively “advertised” to American citizens; the Committee on Public Information (CPI) established by the President was responsible for spreading propaganda and waking interest and patriotic feelings in Americans so that they would decide to be recruited (State of Delaware, 2018). The Selective Service Act was passed in 1917, on May 18; more than 2 million men were recruited by the end of the WWI (State of Delaware, 2018). An important contribution by the USA was the establishment of the Red Cross, which helped European and American soldiers in the field. Americans were asked and encouraged to volunteer in and donate money to the Red Cross. Furthermore, the Red Cross also helped civilians who suffered from the war.

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The American role in the First World War was important as the USA helped counter Germany in the battles of Chateau‐Thierry and Belleau Wood, as well as the Second Battle of the Marne (all of them occurred in 1918) (Rauchensteiner, 2014). The Meuse‐Argonne offensive is considered to be one of the most important battles in the First World War as it had paved the path to the war’s end. Furthermore, in 1918 Wilson crafted his famous Fourteen Points that he suggested to use to prevent other major wars like the First World War. Although Germany supported these points, the forces of the Entente were barely interested in them as their main aim was to regain the lands and resources they had lost; the Entente agreed to accept them if Germany would pay reparations (which severely exhausted the country’s economic and finances).

The Treaty of Versailles was ineffective because of the following reasons: it did not consider Germany’s opinion and the country itself almost did not contribute to it; France was interested in dividing Germany so that it would not be able to attack France; the USA and the UK did not support France’s aims as they understood the threat of a new war that French occupation of Germany could spark. The USA also did not agree to ratify the treaty, and the treaty itself raised right-wing movements in Germany. Wilson’s suggestion to create an organization that would prevent large-scale wars from happening again was the basis for the creation of the League of Nations. Ironically, as the Senate refused to adopt the Treaty, the USA never became a part of the League of Nations (Our Documents, 2018). During the 1920s and 1930s, the country was focused mostly on its domestic issues and problems (the 1920s are characterized as the years of prosperity), which prevented it from noticing that a new power (the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) was rising in Europe. Wilson believed that the USA should have been a member of the League of Nations because it could prevent or at least mitigate the threat that Germany soon became to other nations.


Livezeanu, I., & von Klimó, Á. (2017). The Routledge history of East Central Europe since 1700. London, England: Taylor & Francis.

McMeekin, S. (2011). The Russian origins of the First World War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Our Documents. (2018). President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points (1918).

Rauchensteiner, M. (2014). The First World War and the end of the Habsburg monarchy, 1914-1918. Vienna, Austria: Böhlau Verlag Wien.

State of Delaware. (2018). The U.S. during World War I. Web.

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Vermeiren, J. (2016). The First World War and German national identity: The dual alliance at war. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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