The First World War can be viewed as a war within a balance-of-power state system. In such a state system, wars are usually limited and contained by the balance of power itself. A Great Power bidding for hegemony is liable to find itself confronting a coalition of its peer rivals, the other Great Powers. Over time, however, some Great Powers experience secular decline, while emerging states, formerly of lesser rank, aspire for Great Powers status. The balance of power may then break down, resulting in a general coalition war.
Additional circumstances, however, contributed to the outbreak of the First World War; in particular, nationalism and imperialism. Nationalism undermined some Great Powers, notably Austro-Hungary. In others it contributed to an atmosphere of war fever that made it difficult for policymakers to step back from the brink. At the same time, imperialism created a new field of competition among the Great Powers. In particular, Germans came to feel that overseas colonies and a powerful navy were necessary elements of Great Power status. Nationalist sentiment then led to sentiment that Germany was being denied its place in the sun.
The following discussion will explore the role of nationalism in creating a crisis of survival for Austro-Hungary, and the combined effect of imperialism and nationalism in leading Germany into antagonism toward Britain -- each of which played a crucial role in the sequence of events in 1914 that led Europe into the First World War.
The tendency of people to distinguish between fellow-countrymen and foreigners, and to distrust the latter, is widespread if not universal. The doctrine of nationalism, which emerged in mature form in the 19th century, elevated this tendency to a matter of principle. A nation, a geographical region whose people had a shared language and (supposedly) a shared culture, came to be viewed as the proper and natural condition of life and the...