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Imperialist agenda absent from WWI outbreak account

The Outbreak Of The First World War 

Edited by Jack S Levy and John A Vasquez

(Cambridge University Press, £ 19.99)

THE immediate origins of the first world war lay in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914 and the subsequent decisions taken by politicians, events which explain how the war started rather than why.

The essays in this book focus on what is perceived as the mismanagement by political leaders in the July crisis days before the war began but its style does the book no favours to the genreal reader because the editors make clear its target readership is academic.

A central issue is whether the main responsibility for the slide into war lay with Germany — which perceived itself in relative decline compared with Britain and Russia — or whether Austria-Hungary, Russia and France shared the blame. The argument is advanced that after Sarajevo, Vienna decided to punish Serbia and was backed by its ally Germany in the belief that Russia would not respond militarily to a short war. 

France and Russia determined not to allow punishment of Belgrade, while Britain decided to join in “as much for economic as strategic reasons.” 

While the contributors’ consensus seems to be that no single country can be blamed for the spark that lit the gunpowder, the more absorbing question is where the gunpowder barrel came from. 

The most penetrating answer is imperialism, with rival great powers seizing colonies on behalf of their powerful finance-capital monopolists. Overseas territories gave not only secure markets and raw materials but outlets for the export of capital and compensation for the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in domestic industry. 

Loans were made by the financiers at very high rates of interest for railways, mining and other investments, with construction materials sourced from the industries to which they were linked. 

Ninety per cent of Africa was divided amongst the European great powers by 1900 and their division of the world reached completion. They could only expand further by large-scale wars between themselves, preceded by arms races and alliances. That was the cause of war and German finance-capital followed a similar course under the nazis a generation later.

These contexts have to be considered along with the finer points of how war broke out provided by this book.

John Moore


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