What caused World War 1? Was it the fault of an individual country or was it caused by underlying structural factors?

The causes of World War 1 are a highly debated topic within world politics and international relations. Amongst this debate, many evaluate the causes of the war as either being towards the individual fault of a specific country or through the structural factors that existed within the European nations.

This essay will argue that the main cause for WW1 was due to the underlying structural factors that permeated from a distinct culture of the ‘cult of the offensive’ that existed within nations. The main argument for this viewpoint is put forward in The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War (Van Evera, 1984). This existed within two main sections. Firstly, the growth of the cult of the offensive within European Military Structures and the collective rise of offensive realism. Secondly, the consequences which this ‘cult’ produced in 1914, this being the increased possibility of conflict existing.

From this, the cult of the offensive is defined by Van Evera as the phenomenon that “militaries glorified the offensive and adopted offensive military doctrines” (Van Evera, 1984). What he means is that this idea/worldview in the realm of warfare is built upon the idea that being aggressive and striking first while building up nation’s arsenals is the best method. This was a structural problem that existed within the continental nations, with it being argued that Europeans, as quoted by German Chancellor Hollweg in 1912, “increasingly believed that attackers would hold the advantage on the battlefield, and that wars would be short and decisive” (Farrar, 1972), thus showing that this underlying culture existed, which in turn led to WW1. This is in direct contrast to the argument that an individual nation was directly responsible, having largely overlooked “the lessons of the American Civil War, Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the Boer War” (Luvaas, 1959) during the period 1892-1913.

The existence of this cultural structure of offensive realism is shown within the German Empire. Evidence to support this argument exists within the Schlieffen Plan. General Alfred von Schlieffen (author of the 1914 German war plan of which he is the namesake) had explained that “attack is the best defense” (Van Evera, 1984) regarding the policies around how Germany should approach the military dealings with other European states. Alongside this, German Chief of Staff General Helmuth von Moltke had endorsed the principle that “the offensive is the only way of insuring victory” (Geiss, 1967) for Germany if it were to go to war.

The values provided show the basis for the formulation of the Schlieffen Plan. The plan “outlined a strategy for Germany to avoid fighting at its eastern and western fronts simultaneously” (Onion, 2018) and envisaged the decisive attacks on Belgium, France and Russia, with the planning for it being drawn up “between 1897 and 1905” (Onion, 2018). What this presents is the physical embodiment of the cult of the offensive taking place within Germany.

Alongside this, we see a similar culture emerge within fellow European nations. An example of this cult of the offensive spreading is to that of the French Third Republic. The French Armed Forces had become “obsessed with the virtues of the offensive” (Van Evera, 1984), with the Chief of Staff Joseph Joffre stating that France “no longer knows any other law than the offensive” and that “any other conception ought to be rejected as contrary to the very nature of war” (Ellis, 1975). This supports the view that the main military figures within the major European nations had fallen for this cultural idea of offensive realism exerting itself via militarism pre-WW1. The argument for this is backed by the military doctrines that had been adopted, which, according to General Foch, was “a single formula for success, a single combat doctrine, namely, the decisive power of offensive action” (Challener, 1955). What this resulted in was another major European power falling for such behaviour. Overall, this supports the view that the European nations had developed a culture amongst themselves of offensive military power being needed to secure themselves, rather than it being possessed by one nation alone.

In a similar fashion, Van Evera argues that this form of structural realism had spread towards Britain and Russia. Evidence to suggest this was the case for Britain was that its military rejected defensive strategies despite their usefulness in the Boer Wars in the previous decade, as shown when in both 1913 and 1914 General Knox had wrote that “the defensive is never an acceptable role to the Briton” (Van Evera, 1984). This supports the belief that the upper echelons of military power had absorbed this overarching narrative of offensive realism.

The same can be said for the Russian Empire’s military, with the Russian Minister of War General Sukhomlinov stating in 1909 that their enemies’ armies were directing their forces “towards guaranteeing the possibility of dealing rapid and decisive blows, we must follow this example” (Lieven, 1983). It is because of these views that led to the expansion of the cult of the offensive that had engulfed the European powers pre-WW1.

However, it can be additionally argued that WW1 was caused by the actions of individual nations, Germany’s Weltpolitik and Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia being examples. What these two examples show is that of individual nations pushing towards policies that led towards increased chances of conflict emerging. This is especially relevant to the heightened tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, which ultimately resulted in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. In conclusion, what this suggests is two arguments to be clearly made to describe the causes of WW1. Firstly, that these were not due to the actions of an individual nation, but rather a collective culture that had developed within the military structures of each nation. Secondly, that the cult of the offensive unintentionally magnified its influence on a wide range of secondary dangers which helped pull the world into war. This is because it meant nations would have to adopt more aggressive policies, “both to exploit new opportunities and to avert new dangers which appear when the offense is strong” (Van Evera, 1984). With both key conclusions in place, it resulted in a state of affairs where European nations had geared up for war amongst themselves and had put in place aggressive policies that aimed to exploit the weaknesses each nation suffered from. It was therefore inevitable for a multi-faceted conflict to emerge between the great powers.

Featured image credit: G Bauer/Pexels


  • Van Evera, S., 1984. The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War. International Security, [online] 9 (1), pp. 58-107. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2538636 [Accessed 7 April 2020].
  • Farrar, L., 1972. The Short War Illusion: The Syndrome of German Strategy, August-December 1914. Militaergeschictliche Mitteilungen, 2, p.40.
  • Luvaas, J., 1959. The Military Legacy Of The Civil War: The European Inheritance. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Geiss, I., 1967. July 1914: The Outbreak Of The First World War: Selected Documents. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, p.357.
  • Onion, A., 2018. Was Germany Doomed In World War I By The Schlieffen Plan?. [online] HISTORY. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/was-germany-doomed-in-world-war-i-by-the-schlieffen-plan [Accessed 7 April 2020].
  • Ellis, J., 1975. The Social History Of The Machine Gun. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon, pp.53-54.
  • Challener, R., 1955. The French Theory Of The Nation In Arms, 1866-1939. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University, p.81.
  • Lieven, D., 1983. Russia And The Origins Of The First World War. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, p.113.