The Significance of Impersonal Factors in Determining the Origins of the First World War

When analyzing the origins of the First World War[1], there is a consistent divide in perspectives of international politics on whether the war was determined by individuals or by impersonal factors. This paper argues that while individuals are the decision-making figures that are the easiest to identify as leading forces in war diplomacy due to their physicality (because they are the physically-bodied authorities with the most agency for defining the course of the war), their decisions and reasoning were conditioned by broader socio-political and economic trends such as the strong nationalism that spread through Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the economic and political rivalry between different nations, the process of militarization and arms race, and the creation of a bipolar alliance system. This implies that the decision-making process of leaders was limited by these bigger structural transformations and thus, that impersonal factors were more important than individuals in determining the origins of the First World War.

World War I resulted from an unsettlement in the international system that began in the 1870s, when the German Empire was created after France lost the Franco-Prussian War. The power that Germany achieved was sustained through a series of alliances (whose goal was to isolate France and neutralize Russia to secure German strength [49]), and through Otto von Bismarck’s “Realpolitik” diplomacy. Bismarck is often pointed as a key individual in determining the origins of WWI because of the influence he had on the methods used for conducting international relations. While it is true that as a leader he dominated policy making, rather than pointing at him as an individual force, one must look at his methods of diplomacy as an expression of a broader rising “raison d’état” (50) ideology that prioritized national interests and that was a response to the rise of nationalism in the 1850s. 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, nationalism was a new and powerful source of tension since it clashed with the interests of the dominant European imperial powers. Before the establishment of the Concert of Europe in 1815, nationalist ideologies started to spread because of the philosophies brought by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars[2]. There started to be a growing popular political support towards the principle that each nation had the right to form its own independent state to fulfill the socio-economic and cultural objectives of people united by common origins, language and interests.

Conversely, the project of the Concert of Europe opposed to this call for state self-determination and suppressed nationalist revolutions while institutionalizing conservative territorial outlines in the Congress of Vienna. This suppressed the political aspirations of various nations and fueled the frustration of nationalist movements that later became ‘unification wars’, namely, in the Germanic Confederation and Italy. The successful outcomes of these wars challenged core structures set by the Concert of Europe (mainly political-territorial configurations) and thus, influenced the readjustment of balance of power and contributed to the further challenging of political structures that until then were “unquestionable”. Nevertheless, while in Germany and Italy the unification wars were successful, in other European countries nationalist struggles remained unsolved, contributing to the escalation of tensions. Later in the 1860s and 1870s, nationalism started to be influenced by supremacist ideas of Social-Darwinism, favoring imperial and military pursuits under the belief that war was good for nations (27). Under these conditions, nationalism created new areas of interest over which leaders of nations could compete,ppromoting methods of diplomacy like Bismarck’s Realpolitik (49-50), and making movements such as Pan-Slavism fundamental to the development of the events that preceded the First World War (56).

In addition to nationalism, European imperialism should also be considered a major impersonal origin of WWI because the commercial colonization of Africa and Asia allowed European states to develop economically and industrially through the massive extraction of foreign raw materials, but in very unequal and competitive terms: England and France had the monopoly of industrial development, which generated discord and revived nationalist arguments. Because of the Industrial Revolution, imperialism promoted and facilitated significant technological advancements and industrial expansion in Europe, which fueled arms development and the construction of all types of maritime, air and terrestrial armaments and transportations specialized for war. This turned the late 19th century into an era of military competition and contributed to the anxiety that war could unleash soon. Europe lived an arms race: a power’s announcement of an increase in their defense expenses was interpreted by their rivals as a direct threat, which created a climate of distrust and mutual fears, especially between Germany and Britain (because hegemonic British imperialism was concerned about the German will to become a naval power and extend its dominance outside of Europe). Moreover, the effects of militarization started to be translated to political life, for instance in Germany and Russia, where the military became more involved in the government, influencing the decision-making of state leaders (26) and embracing the militarist-imperialist-nationalist notion that nationhood could be achieved through conquest and war. Hence, imperialism, industrialization and militarization worked together in bringing the origins of the WWI to be, overpassing the agency of the individual leaders that had to cope with the implications of these political-economic transformations.

Since the armaments race implied that each state’s military plans were judged relative to that of their neighbors, the culture of military paranoia heightened the leaders search for alliances to guarantee the security of their states. The alliance system came about because after 1870, Germany –through Bismarck’s Realpolitik– set a precedent by playing its neighbors imperial endeavors off one another in order to maintain balance of power.  When Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck after the German unification, it upset the political balance between Russia, France, and Germany. European geostrategic alliances changed, not because of the fall of Bismarck as a single individual, but mainly due to a new alliance between France and Russia – which served as a counterbalance to the Triple Alliance and led to the formation of a bipolar bloc of allied countries. This system of two rival alliances is the key to explain the relevance of impersonal factors in the triggering of WWI because the decision to make war was the response of the alliances’ leaders in their ‘struggle’ to secure the balance of world power. The significance of bipolar division in creating the war is that polarization reflected corresponding interests as well as conflictive ones. Due to the “power vacuum” that the breakup of the Concert of Europe could pose, the same forces that were supposed to serve to “keep the peace” automatically transformed the war into a general conflict once it erupted. Additionally, the presence of secret alliances and the absence of an informal arbitrator revealed cracks in the international anarchic system that increased the probability of magnitude, duration and severity of the war.

While it can be argued that the alliance system did not make war inevitable, it is impossible to explain the development of the war if it is not considered as an origin. In this regard, it could also be argued that no state leader intervened primarily to defend the claims of their ally but that they mobilized for the own interests of their nations, scared by the risks that not helping their partners could pose to their own decline. For instance, Britain could not allow France to be razed and to destroy the balance of power with a German hegemony in the continent. Diplomacy, national interests and war plans explain the breaking of hostilities.


The impersonal factors reviewed in this paper (nationalism, militarism, imperialism, the alliance system and “the old diplomacy”) would be the major contributors to the decisions taken in the immediately preceding context of the outbreak of WWI during the July Crisis of 1914 where at first, as exposed by James Joll and Gordon Martel, the majority of the main political leaders of the time did not believe in an imminent danger of war but the logic of the events guided by the discussed structural transformations that took place led to the inexorable start of the contest (18).

While it cannot be refuted that individuals had a crucial impact on war due to the role of representative diplomacy, and that impersonal causes did not bodily “decide” the war in the ways individual leaders did, without impersonal factors the war is inexplicable. The leaders acted under the constraint of the network of social ideas and political-economic realities on which their decisions depended, individuals reflected the instincts of their domestic institutions, militaries or ruling classes. Namely, the ultimate decision of Tsar Nicholas to help Nikola Pasic and intervene in the Austro-Serbian conflict was not only guided by the leader’s Pan-Slavic idealism, but significantly by the broader need to maintain Russia’s “great power” status through extending its influence in the Balkans and ensuring the country’s own protection from Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Finally, it must also be recognized that individuals cannot be redeemed as single major causes in explaining the WWI, because while it is true that state-led military recruitment was coercive, the must have been a conjuration of political support and socio-cultural mobilization of masses for the maintenance of the war – which cannot be naively traced back to the wishes of few determined leaders, but rather to bigger socio-economic and political transformations that society experienced in all its levels.


  • Joll, James and Gordon Martel. The Origins of the First World War. Routledge, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central. March 2020. .
  • Yuen, Amy. “Lecture Political Science 0109B: World War I .” Political Science 0109B: International Politics. Ed. Middlebury College. Middlebury, 2020. Lecture. 24 February 2020.

[1] This paper will use the abbreviation “WWI” to make further reference of the First World War.

[2] This reference was extracted from my personal class notes on Yuen, Amy. “Lecture Political Science 0109B: World War I .” Political Science 0109B: International Politics. Ed. Middlebury College. Middlebury, 2020. Lecture. 24 February 2020.


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