Go to The Time Traveller homepage

Age of Realism

Social Darwinism
& the Great War

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

It is with great sadness that we have to announce that the creator of Knowledge4Africa, Dr T., has passed away. Helping people through his website gave him no end of pleasure. If you had contact with him and would like to leave a message, please send us an e-mail here.


The events and conditions which led up to the Great War were so complicated that to unravel them fully is virtually impossible. To place the blame on any one country or group of countries would be to oversimplify the conditions and causes. The truth of the matter is that the whole of Europe was, in David Thomson's words, "a sick man" and all the powers had a strong hand in causing the war.

Although somewhat of an oversimplification, the war can be generally ascribed to the following conditions: the Austro-Serb conflict in the Balkans as the immediate cause. The system of armed alliances which brought the whole world into conflict. The massive naval and armaments build-up which made the war almost inevitable. The diplomatic tension which occurred so regularly, especially after 1908. Nationalism and national pride, linked to the implicit belief in Social Darwinism.

The immediate cause of the war lay with the Austro-Serb conflict in the Balkan Peninsula. The Slav national movement was steadily gaining ground, with Serbia as its centre. Success in that movement would have spelt the death of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire.

For Austria it was therefore a matter of life and death and the administration would therefore use any opportunity to disrupt the Slav national movement. In 1908, when the Young Turk revolution broke out, Austria used the general confusion which followed to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, thereby forestalling Slav unity. That in turn fed the fires of hatred that already existed in Serbia and among many of the Slavs.

The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 proved to be a turning point in that conflict because they led to the removal of Turkey from the Balkan scene. As far as Austria was concerned, Turkey had been the scapegoat for all the tension within the Slav states. With Turkey removed, however, the growing national spirit would be increasingly directed against Austria.

A direct confrontation was inevitable, even more so with the renewed Russian interest in the Balkans on the side of Serbia in 1913. The question had to be decided once and for all one way or the other. It was merely a matter of when. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Serajevo in 1914 decided that question.

Who was responsible for the outbreak of the war? All three: Austria, Serbia and Russia. So was Germany. Britain also added a great deal of support and Italy lent some weight. So did a host of other countries, including lowly little South Africa.

Serbia was responsible in as much as it was seeking a united Slav state at the expense of Austria. When the assassination took place, Serbia failed to assist Austria even though the plot had been known at least three weeks in advance. Serbia had in fact taken no steps to prevent the murder and had failed to warn Austria.

Austria was the immediate cause of the war for it was that state which issued the ultimatum and attacked Serbia. It desired to see the destruction of Serbia as a defence of its own national interests.

Russia was also directly responsible because its alliance with Serbia caused that country to become reckless in its attitude to Austria. It was also Russia which called for total mobilization at a time when Germany was trying to prevent the war by calling Austria to a settlement. Russian mobilization in turn brought Germany into the conflict because of its alliance with Austria.

Germany was also responsible because it could have applied pressure on Austria to secure peace yet it actually encouraged the attack on Serbia to finish that state off completely while it and Russia were still weak. German support for Austria perhaps made the latter reckless and the former made little effort to check its ally except when it was realised that an international war was in the offing.

One can of course lay the blame at the feet of the statesmen. Berchtold of Austria became determined to crush Serbia. Sazonov of Russia supported Serbia through partial militarization. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany supported Austria's hard line. Poincar‚ of France assured Russia of support during the crisis. Grey of Britain failed to restrain Russia or warn Germany that Britain would support Russia.

The fact that the local dispute between Austria and Serbia came to involve the whole of Europe must be sought elsewhere, in the other underlying causes of the war. One major reason was the system of armed alliances which caused the Great Powers to take sides in minor conflicts even when they themselves were not involved.

It is true that these alliances were aimed at peace and self-preservation but they also caused extreme tension and a large degree of recklessness: Serbia because of Russian support; Russia because of French support; Austria because of German support. Each power felt compelled to support its ally even if there was no mutual interest because failure to do so would weaken the alliance and so lead to insecurity.

To some extent it must be admitted that Germany was responsible for the formation of the alliance system because it was Germany, under Bismarck, which had first ventured into such a strategy. As soon as possible, the other nations would follow suit so as not to be left out.

It is also true that German interference in Morocco in 1905 caused military discussion to begin between France and Britain which resulted in the colonial agreements of the Entente Cordialle. Nevertheless, it is hardly true that an alliance signed in 1879 could be held as the cause of a war which broke out 35 years later. Moreover, the formation of the various alliances was due to other causes than simple German interference.

Throughout the 19th Century, emphasis had been placed on the balance of power. The fact that Germany's remarkable growth had upset the scales meant that a new balance had to be found. In the absence of any form of international government, the only means to restore the balance was through alliances.

Bismarck was aware of that reality and noted that if any three nations were allied, the other two would be afraid to declare war. Peace would thereby be secure. By 1914 the balance achieved had become so fine that any upset would plunge the whole of Europe into war.

Another major cause of the war was the dramatic arms and naval build-up among the Great Powers which served to cause suspicion and fear among the nations. If one country increased its armaments, the others would do the same. The whole process then became a vicious circle. The blame there cannot be placed on the shoulders of one country alone as there was so much tension that each felt compelled to keep ahead of the other for the sake of self-preservation.

In practice there is only a fine distinction between self-preservation and war. We find therefore that France encouraged Russia to build up its armaments so as to strengthen their alliance. Germany thereupon built up its armaments as a protection against Russia which in turn caused France to expand militarily as a protection against Germany.

Such a massive arms build-up could not go on indefinitely. Eventually it would have to end, either through agreement at an international conference, or through war. When the former failed, the only alternative was war. Conflict therefore began to be seen as inevitable, and that view in itself did little to help. On the contrary, it did everything to encourage war.

Then there was the danger of the military strategists who spent their lives formulating plans of attack. Such men, with immense power due to the armaments build-up, needed very little provocation to test their life's work. Since the best form of defence was always attack into enemy territory, the peace became extremely tenuous.

Whenever a crisis arose, the military leaders demanded immediate mobilization to gain the maximum advantage. When Austria moved in against Serbia, war had to follow swiftly. All countries were guilty in that regard. The carefully formulated German Schlieffen Plan for invasion through Belgium merely indicated greater German ingenuity rather than greater guilt.

Yet the Schlieffen Plan itself presented problems for Germany. It required a larger army for a war on two fronts. But the Chiefs-of-Staff continually feared a revolution in Germany and had no desire to expand the army to allow for socialist troops and liberal officers. By 1900 therefore there was already a freeze on the growth of the army.

Germany therefore became increasingly more reliant on Austrian and Italian support, together with British neutrality in a war. Furthermore, to ensure British neutrality, Germany had to have a navy strong enough to hold the British navy at bay.

One of the great sources of tension, especially between Britain and Germany, was the German naval build-up. Successive Navy Acts led to a mushroom growth of German naval power but the policy was not aimed at war. Indeed, Admiral von Tirpitz also viewed Germany as part of the "three" and aimed at being capable of sinking enough British ships as to allow the other two nations to finish her off in a war.

His aim was not equality with the British navy. Yet Britain and France did not understand that and naturally surmised that Germany, already dominant on land, wanted to be dominant at sea as well. For Britain, naval supremacy was essential and hence the German naval build-up led to a rapid race to maintain supremacy. It was merely a matter of time before a test of naval strength came about.

Apart from the spirit of nationalism which existed in the Balkans and which threatened the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, each country of Europe was guilty of national pride or jingoism. Each felt superior to the other country In that way the British believed it to be their God-ordained duty to rule over Africa because, if they didn't, the French or the Germans would and that would mean inferior rule for the African people.

Such a spirit also led to the rise of French and German imperialistic policies, inspired moreover by Social Darwinism and the "survival of the fittest" theory. It also led to suspicion and fear on the part of the other nations. It would not take very much incentive for each of these countries to declare war so as to teach the other who was really superior!


Social Darwinism is seen increasingly as a major factor in the outbreak of the Great War. The Age of Realism had produced a number of related philosophical systems which were the logical evolution of the Age of the Enlightenment but moulded by the increasing amount of statistical information put out by the modern governments. One such was Marxism, another sociology with its High Priest in August Comte. The third was Darwinism.

Charles Darwin had made a five year voyage around the world, starting in 1831, in which he collected a variety of plant and animal specimens. His book On the Origin of Species by the Means of Natural Selection (1859) cast doubt on previous beliefs that each species was a Divine Creation. Instead he proposed the idea of evolution from common ancestors. He insisted that the whole struggle for survival led to the survival of the fittest, in which some dominant species survive while the weak perish.

His theory would translate in Social Darwinism, in which his concept of survival of the fittest would be applied to states and societies. War became glorified as the only means to prove a nation to be fit. Furthermore, it no longer came to be seen as immoral to suppress or even exterminate the "inferior" and "unfit" peoples. Examples of Social Darwinist thought best illustrates this.

Walter Bagehot, British economist: "The strongest nation has always been conquering the weakest ... and the strongest tend to be the best."

Karl Pearson, British Professor of Mathematics (1905): "History shows one only one way, and one way only in which a higher state of civilization has been produced, namely the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race - the path of progress is strewn with the wrecks of nations; traces are everywhere to be seen of the hecatombs of inferior races, and of victims who found not the narrow way to perfection. Yet these dead people are, in very truth, the stepping stones on which mankind has arisen to the higher intellectual and deeper emotional life of today."

Albert Beveridge, United States Senator: "We are a conquering race. We must obey our blood and occupy new markets."

Alfred Wallace, British naturalist (1864): "The intellectual and moral, as well as the physical qualities of the European are superior; the same power and capacities which have made him rise in a few centuries from the condition of the wandering savage ... to his present state of culture and advancement ... enable him when in contact with savage man, to conquer in the struggle for existence and to increase at his expense."

Ernst Haeckel, German Professor of Biology: condoning the extermination of the American Indians and Australian Aborigines: "Even if these races were to propagate more abundantly than the Europeans, yet they would sooner or later succumb to the latter in the struggle for existence."

Heinrich Ziegler, German biologist (1893): "War has constantly been of the greatest importance for the general progress of the human race, in that the physically weaker, the less intelligent, the morally inferior or morally degenerate peoples must clear out and make room the stronger and better developed."

Max Weber, German Professor of Economics (1895): "It is not peace and human happiness that we have to pass along to our descendants, but rather the eternal struggle for the preservation and cultivation of our national species ... Our descendants will not hold us responsible primarily for the kind of economic organization that we pass on to them, but rather for the extent of elbow-room that we obtain through struggle and leave behind."

Otto Amon, German economist (1895): "In its full effect war is a blessing for humanity, since it offers the only means to measure the strengths of one nation to another and to grant the victory to the fittest. War is the highest and more majestic form of the struggle for existence and cannot be disposed of and therefore also cannot be abolished."

The road to war, however, was paved by a number of crises. Each country had a hand and so no greater blame can be placed on one country than on another. Germany was a cause of the Great War but so were many other nations. Each in a certain situation could be viewed as more culpable than another but, seen as a whole, they were all to blame.

Why did the war actually occur? Not because of the Alliance System which was unreliable to say the least. When war did occur, Italy failed to join and indeed was so distrusted by the Dual Alliance partners that they kept Italy in the dark over major decisions. Britain was not linked to any alliance and, at the time that war broke out, no-one knew what British reaction would be.

An important issue was that by 1914 each of the Great Powers had vital interests at stake that they were willing to risk all, even face defeat, dismemberment, impoverishment and social revolution. Had they anticipated the length of the war, the extent of the carnage, and the political and social chaos it would cause, they might have decided otherwise.

But the people who decided on war were from the traditional ruling classes who believed it better to die honourably than survive in disgrace, a concept they applied both to themselves and to their states.

It was generally believed that the crisis of July 1914 was worth a war whereas previous crises were not. For Austria it was easy to convince the population of the need to use the assassination as an excuse to crush Slav nationalism.

For Russia, a successful Austrian campaign would have allowed that country to gain dominance in the Balkans at Russia's expense, making Russia's defence very difficult and strangling her trade into the Mediterranean. Russian Pan-Slavism was also an important philosophy, tying together the influential elements of the Russian population.

The war was essentially an Austro-Russian one, converted into a world war because of German action. When Russia entered the war, Germany had the option of forcing Austria to back down. But, in doing so, Germany herself would suffer diplomatic failure. Her other option was to go forward and threaten Russia with war.

There were many in the German government who believed that a war with Russia was inevitable. If it didn't happen soon, they argued, it would allow Russia such advantage economically and industrially that it would allow that country to dominate European affairs in the decades to come, and so surround Germany with a most formidable Russo-Franco.

The belief was still prevalent that the socialist classes in Germany, arising out of industrialisation, could be held in loyal obedience merely by victory on the battlefield.

Germany's attitude, together with the Schlieffen Plan, meant that France would be attacked no matter what. Germany also believed that the knock-out blow could be given to France even before the British could mobilize, which would effectively keep the latter out of the war.

See also:

Contact: The Project Coordinator