This article is an edited transcript of The Causes of the First World War with Margaret MacMillan on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 19 December 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Going into World War One, so many of the people in key positions within the foreign ministries and militaries of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Britain, came from an aristocratic background, which is why class cannot be ignored when considering the factors that led to World War One.
Did upper class values lead the world to war?
Anyone who emerged from the upper classes in those countries grew up with a certain set of values. Of course, one can rebel against such principles and end up being very different, but that doesn’t change the fact that they grew up with them. Things like being brave, being prepared to fight and having a strong sense of honour and national identity were all valued by the upper classes at the time.
The importance of honour was central to so much of the thinking that led to World War One.
In Russia, Nicholas II was weak but determined to hang on to the Romanov power. He saw any concession to the new democratic and constitutional forces in Russia as weakness – after having been forced to grant a constitution, he had spent the next 10 years trying to claw back his powers.
Nicholas II was weak but feared that if he didn’t look tough in 1914 then people would stop supporting him.
The Tsar decided on war partly because he was afraid of being weak, a criticism that might also be levelled at Kaiser Wilhelm.
Powerful aristocratic figures like Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm were part of an upper class establishment that was beginning to fear for its place at the top of society.
The world was changing around them; the value of agricultural land across Europe was falling and many of the big aristocratic and upper class fortunes were based on land. A huge amount of land was being sold off and transferred while families were going bankrupt because they were no longer as rich as they used to be.
A vanishing class
There was a fear among the upper classes that they were vanishing, an insecurity that is perfectly expressed in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a play about dispossession and an old family losing its place. The play ends with the sound of axes cutting down the cherry trees, because a new man has bought the estate and he’s going to turn it into a commercial property.
There was also a sense that the values of the old upper classes no longer had a place in the modern world.
The period preceding World War One was a time of tremendous growth and experimentation and change; amid such destabilising change there was perhaps a feeling that a “good war” might bring nations together.
This was certainly the case in Germany where, in certain circles around the Kaiser, war was regarded as an excuse to suspend the constitution, get rid of the Reichstag, close down the troublesome unions and dispose of the Social Democratic Party.
War represented a way back to some sort of idealised past where the aristocrats ruled with an iron fist and the lower classes knew their place.