Imperialism as a Cause of World War I Facts & Worksheets

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Key Facts & Summary

  • Imperialism as an ideology of a country extending its rule over another area outside of its territory for its own benefit has existed for centuries. Examples include ancient China, Greece and Rome. It reached unmatched heights with European powers in the 19th century.
  • European imperialism played a significant role in sparking WWI.
  • Territories claimed by imperialists nations was often by force and subjugation, although there are examples of peaceful colonization. These colonies were governed either directly by the imperial power, by a puppet government, or a local government of strategic individuals linked to the colonizers.
  • Prior to WWI, the naval superpower of Britain had amassed the largest empire in the world, spanning one quarter of the world. It also had rivals, including Germany, Italy, and France, which led to a number of diplomatic crises, especially during the Scramble for Africa.

Imperialism defined

Imperialism can be simply defined as the act of extending the power of a nation through acquisition. This can be through direct territorial claims, or by gaining political and economic control of a region for the benefit of the motherland. Profits can be achieved through the supply of valuable raw materials and foodstuffs, precious minerals, and cheap labour. Because of the element of power and control, imperialism is associated with conquest, war, subjugation, and exploitation. This is exemplified in history through Britain’s dominance in South Africa through military action to subdue the Zulu nation in the Anglo-Zulu war (1879), and the Afrikaner Boers (Dutch farmers) in the Anglo-Boer wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) when they resisted Britain’s imperialist ambitions.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, European powers held significant territories across the globe. The largest empire was Britain, which had control over Canada in the Americas, colonies in Africa spanning South Africa to Egypt, India and modern-day Sri Lanka and Burma on the Asian continent, the islands of Hong Kong, parts of the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, as well as the Oceanic nations of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, to name just some.

Other imperial nations of the 19th century included Russia, which held territories in Eastern Europe, France, which held territories primarily in South East Asia, the newly unified Germany, which maintained control over countries in primarily in Africa, Austria-Hungary which ruled over significant regions in Europe itself, and to a lesser extent Spain, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Belgium, Holland and Italy.

Imperialism as a cause of WWI

Along with a heightened sense of nationalism that occurred with the above mentioned nation states, imperialism and its associated rivalries is considered to be a primary contributing factor to the outbreak of WWI. Nationalism can be defined as attitudes and beliefs held by an individual identifying with and supporting their own nation. The attitude of superiority is proliferated through propaganda and it is often to the detriment of other nations.

Britain had been building its empire since the 17th century. Come the 19th century, industrial Britain sought to maintain and expand its colonies in order to increase the importation of raw materials such as timber, rubber and cotton, and expand manufacturing and exportation of finished products. The increase in trade and enforcement of imperial power was facilitated by Britain’s navy, which was considered the finest in the world. Other nations emerged as imperialistic newcomers in the mid-19th century and leading up to WWI.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Congress of Vienna 1814-1815), empire building and international relations between the major powers (the Austrian Empire, France, Prussia, Russia and Britain) were increasingly put to the test. Imperialist competition for power, influence and prestige grew and is most famously exemplified in the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1870, only 10 per cent of Africa fell under European control. By 1914, however, as much as 90 per cent was formally under the control of various European powers. Motivations for claiming territories in Africa included resources, establishing infrastructure such as ports for improved trade and strategic military control, prestige, Christian missionary zeal, attitudes of superiority and civilisation, and exploitation of internal African politics. Such territorial claims were also facilitated by the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

Tensions between Major Powers over Imperialism

As Italy and Germany were newly unified nations in the early 19th century, they quickly developed imperialist ambitions to meet the demand for land and resource, and economic limitations at home. In the late 19th century, German organizations such as the Colonial League proliferated ideas of imperial expansion, which the Kaiser also supported. Germany’s focus lay on Africa and it quickly acquired Togoland, Cameroon and modern-day Namibia.

Territorial acquisitions strained international relations particularly between rivals Germany and Britain: When Germany claimed the territory of Tanganyika, it caused tension as it interfered with Britain’s ambitions to build a railway line the length of Africa (from Cape to Cairo). Other diplomatic incidents that were sparked included Morocco, which was not a French colony but fell under its sphere of influence. France was unable to secure the territory as a protectorate as Germany’s Kaiser had stoked ideas of Moroccan independence when he visited Tangiers in 1905. A diplomatic crisis ensued, which was exacerbated in 1911 when a Moroccan rebellion broke out. While the French were attempting to subdue the uprising, the Germans landed an uninvited armed vessel (the Panther) at the Moroccan port of Agadir. This action brought France and Germany to the brink of war, but also strengthened the alliance between Britain and France, who were becoming increasingly critical of Germany’s foreign policy of Weltpolitik (Germany’s break from the Bismarck era and its ambition to be transformed into a world power).

Adding further to the tensions between the Major Powers and political instability in Eastern Europe was the steady decline of the Ottoman Empire. Described as the ‘sick man of Europe’ from the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire was embattled by the Crimean Wars (1853-1856), the First Balkans War (1912-1913), the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), and rising attitudes of nationalism and revolution. The Ottoman Empire’s loss of territories resulted in heightened competition between Austria-Hungary, which intended to expand into the Balkans; Russia, that sought to expand to gain access to the Black Sea; and Germany, what had designs to complete a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. This all came on top of Britain and France having colonial and trade interests in the region too.

Later in the 19th century, Japan and the United States also began imperialist expansion. Below is a list of Major Powers and some (but not all) of the territories under them in the 19th and 20th centuries:

The British Empire: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Hong Kong, regions in North Africa, islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, parts of China.
Russia: Finland, Estonia, Poland, Latvia, Georgia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and also East Asia.
France: Indochina - modern-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, areas of West Africa and India, small South American stakes, Caribbean and Pacific islands.
Germany: Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania that neighboured British territories), Namibia (that neighboured British South Africa), Cameroon, New Guinea, Pacific islands, and Shandong in China.
Austria-Hungary: Presided over several language and culture groups in Europe including Bohemia, Moravia, Transylvania, Silesia, Galicia the Tyrol, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Spain: Historically, the Philippines, Cuba, and extensive parts of South America. By the 20th century, its take had diminished to small colonies in the Americas and north-west Africa.
The United States: A newcomer, 20th-century claims included American Samoa, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Pacific islands.
The Ottoman Empire: A significant empire spanning Eastern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa. In decline, it retained modern-day Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Armenia and Macedonia.
Portugal: Modern-day Angola, Mozambique, Goa, and East Timor.
Belgium: Stakes in Africa including Belgian Congo, and a small concession in China.
Holland: South America, Dutch Guyana in Africa, Batavia (modern-day Indonesia), and Pacific islands.
Italy: Modern-day Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, and a small concession in China.

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/topic/imperialism
https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/imperialism/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperialism#Britain
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Empire
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_relations_of_the_Great_Powers_(1814%E2%80%931919)