Militarism as a cause of World War I

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

Militarism is a philosophy or system that places excessive importance on military power. Alfred Vagts, a German historian who served in World War I, defined militarism as the “domination of the military man over the civilian, an undue preponderance of military demands, an emphasis on military considerations”. Europe’s Great Powers were, to varying degrees, afflicted by militarism in the decades prior to 1914. This was a contributing factor in the outbreak of World War I.

Contribution to war

Militarism was a significant force in Europe in the 1800s and early 1900s. Many European governments were strongly influenced, if not dominated, by military leaders, interests and priorities. Generals and admirals sometimes acted as de facto government ministers, advising political leaders, influencing domestic policy and demanding increases in defence and arms spending.

This rising militarism fathered a dangerous child, an arms race, which gave rise to new military technologies and increased defence spending. Militarism affected more than policy – it also shaped culture, the media and public opinion. The press held up military leaders as heroes, painted rival nations as aggressive and regularly engaged in ‘war talk’.

Militarism alone did not start World War I – that first required a flashpoint and a political crisis – but it created an environment where war, rather than negotiation or diplomacy, was considered the best way of dealing with foreign rivals and settling international disputes.

Links with nationalism and imperialism

Militarism, nationalism and imperialism were all intrinsically connected. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, military power was considered a measure of national and imperial strength. A powerful state needed a powerful military to protect its interests and support its policies. Strong armies and navies were needed to defend the homeland, to protect imperial and trade interests abroad, and to deter threats and rivals.

War was avoided where possible but it could also be used to advance a nation’s political or economic interests. As the famous Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in 1832, war was “a continuation of policy by other means”.

In the 19th century European mind, politics and military power became inseparable, in much the same way that politics and economic management have become inseparable in the modern world. Governments and leaders who failed to maintain armies and navies capable of enforcing the national will were considered weak or incompetent.

“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

Prussian militarism

The Kingdom of Prussia in northern Germany is considered the wellspring of European militarism. Germany’s government and armed forces were both based on the Prussian model and many German politicians and generals were Junkers (land-owning Prussian nobles).

Prior to the unification of Germany in 1871, Prussia was the most powerful of the German states. The Prussian army was reformed and modernised in the 1850s by Field Marshal von Moltke the Elder. Under von Moltke’s leadership Prussia’s army implemented new strategies, improved training for its officers, introduced advanced weaponry and adopted more efficient means of command and communication.

Prussia’s crushing military defeat of France in 1871 revealed its army as the most dangerous and effective military force in Europe. This victory also secured German unification, allowing Prussian militarism and German nationalism to become closely intertwined. Prussian commanders, personnel and methodology became the nucleus of the new German imperial army. The German Kaiser was its supreme commander but he relied on a military council and chief of general staff, made up of Junker aristocrats and career officers. When it came to military matters, the Reichstag (Germany’s elected civilian parliament) had no more than an advisory role.

Changing attitudes in Britain

Socialists like the German Karl Liebknecht opposed militarism as a regressive idea

Elsewhere in Europe militarism was less obvious and intense but remained an important political and cultural force. British militarism, while more subdued than its German counterpart, was considered essential for maintaining the nation’s imperial and trade interests. The Royal Navy, by far the world’s largest naval force, protected shipping, trade routes and colonial ports. British land forces kept order and imposed imperial policies in India, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

British attitudes to the military underwent a stark transformation during the 19th century. During the previous century, Britons had considered armies and navies a necessary evil. Their ranks were filled with the dregs of the lower classes, while most of their officers were failed aristocrats and ne’er-do-wells. During the 19th century, depictions of military service began to change.

Soldiering was increasingly depicted as a noble vocation, a selfless act of service to one’s country. As in Germany, British soldiers were glorified and romanticised, both in the press and popular culture. Whether serving in Crimea or the distant colonies, British officers were hailed as gentlemen and sterling leaders, while enlisted men were well drilled, resolute and ready to make the ultimate sacrifice ‘for King and Country’.

The concept of soldiers as heroes was epitomised by Tennyson’s 1854 poem The Charge of the Light Brigade and reflected in cheap ‘derring-do’ novels about wars, both real and imagined.

Evolution of the arms race

Military victories, whether in colonial wars or major conflicts like the Crimean War (1853-56) or the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), only increased the prestige of the military and intensified nationalism. In contrast, a military defeat (such as Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905) or even a costly victory (like Britain in the Boer War, 1899-1902) might expose problems and heighten calls for military reform or increased spending.

Virtually every major European nation engaged in some form of military renewal in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Germany, military expansion and modernisation was heartily endorsed by the newly crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II, who wanted to retain his country’s “place in the sun”.

In Britain, the arms race was driven not by the monarchy but by public interest and the press. In 1884 the prominent newspaperman W. T. Stead published a series of articles suggesting that Britain was unprepared for war, particularly in its naval defences. Pressure groups like the British Navy League (formed 1894) agitated for more ships and personnel. By the early 1900s, the Navy League and the press were calling on the government to commission more Dreadnoughts (battleships). One popular slogan of the time even specified a number: “We want eight and we won’t wait!”

Military expenditure booms

As a consequence, European military expenditure between 1900 and 1914 sky-rocketed. 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, it 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 during this period also grew by more than one third. Russia’s embarrassing defeat by the Japanese in 1905 prompted the tsar to order a massive rearmament program. By the 1910s, around 45 per cent of Russian government spending was allocated to the armed forces, in comparison to just five per cent on education.

Every major European power, Britain excluded, introduced or increased conscription to expand their armies. Germany added 170,000 full-time soldiers to its army in 1913-14, while also significantly increasing the size of its navy. In 1898, the German government ordered the construction of 17 new vessels. Berlin also led the way in the construction of military submarines, and by 1914, the German navy had 29 operational U-boats.

This rapid growth in German naval power triggered a press frenzy and some alarm in Britain. London responded to German naval expansion by commissioning 29 new ships for the Royal Navy.

The following table lists estimated defence and military spending in seven major nations between 1908 and 1913 (figures shown in United States dollars):

Nation 1908 1909 1910 1911 1912 1913
Great Britain $286.7m $306.2m $330.4m $345.1m $349.9m $374.2m
Germany $286.7m $306.8m $301.5m $303.9m $331.5m $463.6m
France $216m $236.4m $248m $277.9m $307.8m $363.8m
Russia $291.6m $315.5m $324m $334.5m $387m $435m
Italy $87.5m $115.8m $124.9m $133.7m $158.4m $142.2m
United States $189.5m $199m $197m $197m $227m $244.6m
Japan $93.7m $95.7m $100.2m $110.7m $107.7m $104.6m
Source: Jacobson’s World Armament Expenditure, 1935

Technological advances

This period saw significant changes to the quality of military weapons and equipment, as well as their quantity. Having studied the lessons of the Crimean War and other 19th-century conflicts, engineers, industrialists and inventors developed hundreds of improvements to military weapons and rushed them to patent.

Perhaps the most significant improvements were made to the calibre, range, accuracy and portability of heavy artillery. During the American Civil War (1861-65) heavy artillery could fire up to 2,500 metres at best. By the early 1900s, this range had almost tripled. The development of explosive shells was also significant, giving a single artillery round greater killing power wherever it landed. These advances allowed artillery shelling and bombardments to become the deadliest form of weaponry used in World War I.

First developed in 1881, machine guns also became smaller, lighter, more accurate, more reliable and much faster, some capable of firing up to 600 rounds per minute. Small arms also improved significantly. The effective range of a rifle in the 1860s was around 400 metres. In contrast, the British issue Lee-Enfield .303 could hit a target more than 2,000 metres away. Barbed wire, an invention of the 1860s, was also embraced by military strategists as an anti-personnel device.

While historians have formed different conclusions about the causes of the arms race, there is no doubt that the development of new weaponry changed the face of modern warfare. Sir Edward Grey, reflecting on his service as British foreign secretary in July 1914, said it thus:

“A great European war under modern conditions would be a catastrophe for which previous wars afforded no precedent. In old days, nations could collect only portions of their men and resources at a time and dribble them out by degrees. Under modern conditions, whole nations could be mobilised at once and their whole life blood and resources poured out in a torrent. Instead of a few hundreds of thousands of men meeting each other in war, millions would now meet – and modern weapons would multiply manifold the power of destruction. The financial strain and the expenditure of wealth would be incredible.”


1. Militarism is the incorporation of military personnel and ideas into civilian government – and the belief that military power is essential for national strength.

2. Militarism was strongest in Germany, where the kaiser relied heavily on his military commanders and the civilian legislature (Reichstag) exerted little or no control over the military.

3. Militarists were also driven by experiences and failures in previous wars, such as the Crimean War, Boer War and Russo-Japanese War.

4. Militarism, combined with new weapons, emerging technologies and developments in industrial production, fuelled a European arms race in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

5. Influenced by nationalism and advice from military commanders, European governments ramped up military spending, purchasing new weaponry and increasing the size of armies and navies.

Citation information
Title: ‘Militarism as a cause of World War I’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson and Jim Southey
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 14, 2018
Date updated: November 15, 2023
Date accessed: July 14, 2024
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