Causes of WWI: Was it just an accident?


The first page of the edition of the Domenica del Corriere, an Italian paper, with a drawing of Achille Beltrame depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. Source: Wikimedia commons.

It might seem odd that after 100 years of research, reflection, discussion and debate the causes and origins of WWI are still a hotly contested issue among historians. The standard four contributors cited—the dynamic intersection of the forces of global imperialism, strategic militarism, patriotic nationalism and the alliances between various European nations and dynasties—have not adequately addressed the question of why Europe slid into war in 1914, and why that war escalated into a world-wide conflict that lasted for four years with devastating consequence. What is not in dispute is that WWI was a watershed moment that changed the world irrevocably. Multiple accounts and perspectives need to be considered to build a comprehensive and objective analysis. A whole range of historical skills are required in the study of the causes of WWI, and in the interpretation of different perspectives.

The dominant view is that there was no single cause of the First World War but rather that its origins lay in the ‘seismic shifts in the balance of power’ * in Europe over the previous 50 years. Some historians argue that no one nation, leader or event was to blame, but that Europe simply slid into war as a result of entrenched rivalries, suspicions and mistrust. In the course of my research over the last few days I have found Geraldine Doogue’s ABC podcast on the topic to be highly illuminating.

While the podcast format might not be ideal for the average Year 9 history student, it does provide an excellent insight into the complexities of historical analysis and the sophisticated nuances of different perspectives. The program is certainly worth a listen for teachers interested in teaching critical historical skills.

There were also a number of slideshare presentations I came across that might be useful in the classroom.

An examination of the causes of the war is a useful starting point for raising the big issues around how wars begin and escalate, particularly the dangers of military strategy and brinkmanship. We want our students to better understand the value of learning from history the mistakes that may have been made. If WWI was, as some historians argue, ‘an accident’, then we need to understand how that occurred and the consequences that ensued. This issue will be further discussed at War’s end when other decisions were made that had unforeseen consequences.

How are you handling the causes of WWI with your students?


*Reference: Heywood, S. & Steel, N. The WWI Centenary Exhibition, Imperial War Museum, London, 2015) Chapter 2, p 47

Navigating complexities in the study of war

The world-wide centenary commemorations of WWl are providing teachers with an unprecedented number of authentic resources from around the world with which to develop a study of that war. The inaugural Remember, Research, Reflect professional learning day that was held in December 2014 in collaboration with the Shrine of Remembrance, State Library of Victoria, HTAV and Museum Victoria was a great way to start the conversation about how one might study an event that had such a wide ranging impact and such devastating consequences.

A pencil sketch of Gallipoli with a boat in the foreground
This sketch was made by Herbert Hillier from an observation balloon above Anzac Cove on the morning after the first landings at Gallipoli. The image will appear in the WW1 Centenary Exhibition at Melbourne Museum. Source: Imperial War Museum

I have been asked to provide teachers in Victoria with an introduction to the WWl Centenary Exhibition which will be on show at Melbourne Museum from early April to late October 2015, and collate suitable resources to facilitate study in the classroom. Curated by researchers at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) of London, the WWl Centenary Exhibition will provide a comprehensive overview of the war and the many nations that were drawn into the battle. The content fits well with the AusVELS learning outcomes for the study of WWl in general. The IWM exhibition will also provide a good introduction to the Love & Sorrow exhibition, produced by Melbourne Museum, which focuses on the impact of the war through eight poignant stories from Australian families.

I am hoping this blog might generate a lively discussion and new perspectives from readers of this blog. Over the next few weeks I intend to pose some of the questions that come to mind in the course of my research. I am mapping internet research with diigo, to capture and order websites visited, so I will provide links to these sites as well.

The big question I am trying to understand this week is:

What were the causes of WWl and was it an inevitable clash of colonial powers?

Wars are a difficult topic of study, however, as they can challenge the widely held desire for peace and harmony in the world, and indeed my own inherent pacifism. Nevertheless, as the daughter of post-World War 11 migrants and the sister of a Vietnam War conscript, I am keenly aware of the lingering aftermath of these momentous destructive events and the consequences that ensue. While it is important to commemorate those who sacrificed their health and/or lives to bravely face the horror of war, it’s important to provide a critical and balanced view of the political dynamics that lead to war—a cause and effect account that is not completely one-sided and which tries to critically examine the available evidence. A critical analysis might, for example, analyse the use of language that seeks to valorise and/or demonize the participants of war.

I’m also interested in  how other teachers approach critical readings of historical events and texts:

 How do we navigate the complexities of studying war stories with our students?

It would be great to have a conversation about some of those things here. Feel free to post a comment.