Militarism as a cause of World War I


A British poster depicting the ‘mad brute’ of German militarism

Militarism and the European arms race were contributing factors to the outbreak of World War I. The decades before 1914 saw the development and production of frightful new weapons, capable of killing on an industrial scale. Utilising new mass-production techniques, Western nations churned out these weapons and munitions in large quantities and at a rapid pace. But the descent into war was not just driven by new weapons and the arms race: it was also fuelled by the pervasive culture of militarism that reigned in many parts of Europe. The governments and aristocracies of the Great Powers were strongly influenced and in some cases dominated by military elites. Rather than working as servants of civilian governments, generals and admirals became de facto government ministers. These men fuelled the arms race by demanding increases in defence spending; they also contributed to the mood for war by drawing up war plans and promoting military solutions to political and diplomatic problems. As the former German army officer Alfred Vagts would later write, militarism was “a domination of the military man over the civilian, an undue preponderance of military demands [and] an emphasis on military considerations.”

This militaristic culture was strongest in Germany. The German army was formed from the old Prussian army and was therefore dominated by the Junkers, a small but powerful group of Prussian aristocrats. Prussia had been the most powerful of the Germanic states prior to unification, both in political and military terms. The Prussian army had been reformed and modernised by Field Marshal von Moltke in the 1850s. Under von Moltke’s command the Prussians developed a rigorous training regime for officers; they also incorporated new weaponry and communication technologies into their military strategy. After 1871 the Prussian army formed the core of the new German imperial army. The kaiser was the supreme commander of the army; he relied on a military council and chief of general staff, made up of Junker aristocrats and career officers. The Reichstag, Germany’s elected civilian parliament, exercised very little say in military matters. In many respects the Germany military existed as a part of the government, rather than being a servant of the government.

The arms race

It is natural for military leaders to be obsessed with modernising their forces and equipping them with new technology, and the decades prior to 1914 saw no shortage of this. One of the most significant developments were marked improvements in the calibre, range, accuracy and portability of heavy artillery. This would allow artillery shelling and bombardments to become standard practice, particularly after the emergence of trench warfare. Machine-guns, first developed in 1881, became smaller, lighter, more accurate, more reliable and much faster (some were capable of firing up to 600 rounds per minute). Millions of metres of barbed wire, an invention of the 1860s, would be mass produced and installed around trenches to halt charging infantry. Various types of poison gas – chlorine, phosgene and mustard – were developed. On the oceans, the development of the dreadnought – a large battleship, the first of which was launched in 1906 – prompted a flurry of ship-building and naval rearmament.

“The belief in war as a test of national power and a proof of national superiority added a scientific base to the cult of patriotism… In Britain, a real effort was made to teach boys that success in war depended upon the patriotism and military spirit of the nation, and that preparation for war would strengthen ‘manly virtue’ and ‘patriotic ardour’.”
Zara Steiner, historian

European military expenditure skyrocketed between 1900 and 1914. In 1870 the combined military spending of the six great powers (Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy) totalled 94 million pounds. By 1914 this had quadrupled to 398 million pounds. German defence spending during this period increased by a massive 73 per cent, dwarfing the increases in France (10 per cent) and Britain (13 per cent). Russian defence spending also grew by more than one-third. Its embarrassing defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) prompted the tsar to order a massive rearmament program. By the 1910s, 45 per cent of Russian government spending was allocated to the armed forces, while just five per cent went on education. Every European power but Britain increased conscription levels to bolster the size of their armies. Germany alone added 170,000 full-time soldiers to its army in 1913-14. Germany also dramatically increased its navy: in 1898 the German government, largely at the kaiser’s behest, ordered the construction of 17 new vessels. The Germans also pioneered the construction of military submarines: by 1914 the Kaiser’s navy had 29 operational U-boats. These developments caused alarm in Britain, and London responded by commissioning 29 new ships for the Royal Navy.




1. Militarism was the dominant idea that a nation’s power was largely based on its ability to wage war.
2. It was strongest in Germany, where its generals were also accustomed to exercising political influence.
3. Emerging technologies in the late 1800s gave rise to new types of weapon and military machinery.
4. Governments responded by increasing military spending, fueling an escalating tit-for-tat arms race.
5. By the early 1900s the European powers, driven by nationalist rivalry and militarism, had modernised and equipped their armies and navies, bringing the continent closer to war.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Militarism as a cause of World War I”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date],