The First World War, 1914–18

  • William D. Rubinstein


It might be that more has been written on the origins of the First World War than on any event in modern history apart from those connected with the Nazis and their regime. While it is seemingly possible to arrive at any number of different views as to how the conflict began, the reasons for Britain’s entry into hostilities seem fairly straightforward. From the 1890s onwards, Germany appeared to challenge, in an increasingly provocative way, two of the cardinal principles on which British foreign policy had rested for the previous century. Germany appeared to desire continental hegemony in Europe and her policy appeared to be to build up a navy to rival Britain’s. As well, Germany’s rulers seemed to wish to make trouble for Britain wherever they could, anywhere in the world, especially in the Ottoman Empire. The most important area of dispute between Britain and Germany was their naval rivalry: freedom of the seas, guaranteed by the Royal Navy, had been the very foundation of British foreign policy since Trafalgar if not since the Armada; Germany’s very threatening and unnecessary programme of naval building appeared to be chiefly designed to undermine Britain’s superiority at sea. Probably no other single factor did more to alienate British opinion from Germany, or to confirm that the understandings entered into between Britain, France, and Russia would determine British policy if war broke out. There were many other factors as well which caused Britain to be increasingly suspicious of Germany, from long-standing economic rivalry to the popular spy and adventure novels of the day, which often centred on what would happen in a war between Britain and Germany. These were sufficient to outweigh the important commonalities and links between Britain and Germany — the close relationship of the two reigning families, important cultural and financial linkages, and the widespread sense (discussed in a previous chapter) that the governance of the world in the twentieth century would be divided among the Protestant great powers of Britain, Germany, and the United States. Had the German ruling elite showed any cleverness at all, their country might well have formed an alliance with Britain rather than against her, with incalculable consequences for the world. Yet, time and again, Germany chose to oppose Britain; German elites often viewed her as an ageing but formidable power which obstinately stood in the way of Germany taking its rightful place in the world.


Prime Minister Labour Party Military Historian Cabinet Minister British Army 
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© William D. Rubinstein 2003

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  • William D. Rubinstein

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