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Nationalism World War 1 Essay Question

This collection of World War I essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. These questions can also be used for short answer responses, research tasks, homework and revision activities. If you would like to suggest a question for this page, please contact Alpha History.

The world before 1914

1. Explain why nationalism was a significant force in 19th century Germany.

2. How did the leadership of Otto von Bismarck shape the future of Germany to 1914?

3. What were the outcomes of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71? How did these outcomes shape late 19th and early 20th century European relations?

4. Explain how the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ethnic, cultural and language diversity created problems for the ruling Hapsburg dynasty.

5. Why was the Ottoman Empire considered the ‘sick man of Europe’? How did its problems affect or concern major European powers?

6. Compare and contrast the British, French and German Empires at the beginning of the 20th century.

7. Explain how militarism shaped and affected politics, economics and society in Germany to 1914. How democratic and representative was German government during this period?

8. How did imperialism and imperial rivalry contribute to European tensions between 1871 and 1914?

9. Discuss three alliances of the 19th and early 20th centuries, describing how each alliance affected European relations.

10. Bismarck famously said that a European war would start from “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans”. What “foolish things” happened in this region in the decade before World War I – and how did they affect European relations?

The road to war

1. Identify and discuss the three most significant factors leading to the outbreak of World War I.

2. Investigate and discuss the ‘war readiness’ and military strengths and weaknesses of Europe’s major powers in 1914.

3. What was Weltpolitik and how did it contribute to European tensions to 1914?

4. “Kaiser Wilhelm II was more responsible for the outbreak of World War I than any other individual leader.” To what extent is this statement true?

5. In the early 1900s many believed England and Germany had much in common and should have been allies, not antagonists. What were the sources or reasons for Anglo-German tension prior to 1914?

6. Investigate the relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the years prior to 1914. Why was Serbian nationalism worrying for Austro-Hungarian leaders?

7. Austria considered Serbia wholly responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. To what extent was the Serbian government truly responsible?

8. It is often said that the alliance system made a major war inevitable. Did alliances alone compel European nations to war after June 1914 – or were other factors involved?

9. Many historians suggest that the ‘failure of diplomacy’ led to war in 1914. What attempts did European diplomats make to negotiate and avoid war, and why did these attempts fail?

10. What do the ‘Nicky and Willy telegrams’ (between the Russian tsar and German kaiser) reveal about the character and leadership of both men?

11. Were the Kaiser and his advisors anticipating a European war that involved Britain? Explain how Britain became entangled in the road to war in mid 1914.

12. Focusing on three different countries, describe how the press and the public responded to declarations of war in August 1914.

13. Investigate anti-war sentiment in 1914. Which groups and individuals wrote, spoke or campaigned against war? What arguments did they put forward?

14. Explain why the small nation of Belgium became so crucial, both in July and August 1914.

15. Why did the Ottoman Empire enter World War I? What were its objectives and how prepared was it for a major war?

Battles and battle fronts

1. Why did the Schlieffen Plan fail in its objectives? Could Schlieffen’s strategy have been made to work?

2. What were the outcomes of the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in 1914? What did these battles reveal about the Russian military?

3. What happened at the first Battle of the Marne in 1914? What were the outcomes of this battle and what influence did it have on the rest of the war?

4. Compare the Western Front and Eastern Front as theatres of war. What were the similarities and differences in warfare on these two fronts?

5. How did naval power and the war on the seas shape the course of World War I? Refer to at least three major battles or incidents in your answer.

6. Why did the Allies consider the Dardanelles of strategic importance? Explain why the Dardanelles campaign of 1915 was a failure for the Allies.

7. What were the main objectives of the war in the Middle East? Discuss at least three significant locations or battles in your answer.

8. Why did Italy enter World War I in 1915? Where did most Italian troops fight and what impact did the war have on Italy?

9. Explain why the Battle of the Somme was such a significant operation, particularly for British forces.

10. Germany’s strategy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ was largely responsible for bringing the United States into the war. Was it a reasonable or justifiable policy? Why was it adopted?

Methods of warfare

1. “World War I generals used 19th century battlefield strategies against 20th century equipment.” Discuss and evaluate this claim.

2. It is often said that British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”. To what extent was this really true?

3. Explain why trench warfare became the dominant form of warfare on the Western Front.

4. What was life like for the average trench soldier? What were the duties, routines and rotations for those who served in the trenches?

5. Evaluate the use and impact of chemical weapons in World War I. Were they an important weapon of war – or were they used for terror and shock value?

6. Prior to 1914 cavalry (horse-mounted soldiers) were an important feature of most armies. Did cavalry regiments play any significant role in World War I?

7. Using evidence and referring to specific battles or events, explain which three weapons had the greatest impact on the battlefields of the Western Front.

8. How were aircraft like planes and airships used in World War I? Did these machines have any impact on the war and its outcomes – or were they a sideshow to the real fighting on the ground?

9. Tanks are one of the most significant weapons to emerge from World War I. Investigate and discuss the development, early use and effectiveness of tanks in the war.

10. The Hague Convention outlined the ‘rules of war’ that were in place during World War I. Referring to specific examples, discuss where and how these ‘rules of war’ were breached.

Total war

1. How did the public in Britain and other nations respond to the outbreak of war in August 1914? Was there unanimous support for the war?

2. What impact did Kaiser Wilhelm II have on military strategy and domestic policy after August 1914? How effective was the Kaiser as a wartime leader?

3. What powers did the Defence of the Realm Act give the British government? How did the Act affect life and work in wartime Britain?

4. Referring to either Britain, France or Germany, discuss how one national government managed and coordinated the war effort.

5. Investigate voluntary enlistment figures in one nation after August 1914. When and why did voluntary enlistment fall? What steps did the government take to encourage volunteers to enlist?

6. Focusing on three different nations, discuss when and why conscription was introduced – and whether this attracted any criticism or opposition.

7. What was the Shell Crisis of 1915? What impact did this crisis have on the British government and its wartime strategy?

8. Using specific examples, explain how wartime governments used censorship and propaganda to strengthen the war effort.

9. Why was there a change of wartime government in Britain in late 1916?

10. What was the ‘Silent Dictatorship’ in wartime Germany? How effective was this regime in managing both the war effort and the domestic situation?

Towards a conclusion

1. Explain why casualties and loss of life were so high in 1916, particularly at Verdun and the Somme.

2. How did the leadership of Lloyd George (Britain) and Clemenceau (France) invigorate the war effort in their countries?

3. Discuss the issues and problems raised by conscription in Australia and Canada. Why was compulsory military service accepted in Europe but not in those two countries?

4. Why did the government of Tsar Nicholas II collapse in February and March 1917? How did the war help bring about revolution in Russia?

5. To what extent was the United States able to honour its pledge of neutrality in 1914-16?

6. Was the entry of the United States into World War I inevitable? Or was it a consequence of unforeseen factors?

7. What happened in the German Reichstag in July 1917? What did this reveal about German attitudes to the war?

8. What impact did the Allied naval blockade have on German society and the German war effort?

9. Explain the terms and effects of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918. What implications did this treaty have, both for Russia and the war in general?

10. What did German commanders hope to achieve by launching the Spring Offensive? What problems or obstacles did they face?

Treaties and post-war Europe

1. Compare and contrast the objectives and approaches of the ‘Big Three’ (Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau) at the Paris peace talks.

2. Describe how the map of Europe was changed as a consequence of World War I and post-war treaties. What grievances might have arisen from these changes?

3. Explain the fate of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the conclusion of World War I.

4. What happened to the Ottoman Empire and its territories after World War I? Describe its transition from a 19th century empire to the modern nation-state of Turkey.

5. A French general said of the Treaty of Versailles that was not a peace but a “20 year armistice”. Was he correct and, if so, why?

6. Why was Article 231 included in the Treaty of Versailles? What was the response to this particular clause, both in Germany and around the world?

7. Discuss what happened to European colonial possessions after World War I. Were colonies retained, seized by other nations or liberated?

8. How did the United States respond to the Treaty of Versailles? What were the global implications of this American response?

9. How effective was the newly formed League of Nations at resolving conflict and securing world peace?

10. Investigate and discuss the social effects of World War I in at least two countries. How did ordinary people live, during and after the war?

11. How did World War I affect the social, political and economic status of women?


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Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism or loyalty to one’s country. Nationalists place the interests of their own country above those of other countries. Nationalism was prevalent in early 20th century Europe and became a significant cause of World War I. Most pre-war Europeans believed in the cultural, economic and military supremacy of their nation. Their attitudes and over-confidence were fuelled by things like provocative speeches or press reports. The pages of newspapers were often packed with nationalist rhetoric and inflammatory stories, such as rumours about rival nations and their evil intentions. Nationalism was also present in other aspects of popular culture, including literature, music and theatre. Royals, politicians and diplomats did little to deflate nationalism – and some actively contributed to it with provocative remarks and rhetoric.

Nationalism also gave citizens inflated confidence in their nation, their governments and their military strength. It assured them that their country was fair, righteous and without blame. In contrast, nationalist ideas demonised rival nations, caricaturing them as aggressive, scheming, deceitful, backward or uncivilised. Nationalist reporting convinced many that their country was being threatened by the plotting, scheming and hungry imperialism of its rivals. Nationalist and militarist rhetoric assured them that if war erupted, their nation was bound to emerge victorious. In concert with its dangerous brothers imperialism and militarism, nationalism contributed to a continental delusion where a European war seemed both necessary and winnable.

Europe’s apathy about the dangers of war can be explained. Aside from the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the 19th century was one of comparative peace in Europe. Citizens of England, France and Germany had grown accustomed to colonial wars: conflicts fought against undeveloped and underequipped opponents in far away places, that were usually brief and victorious. With the exception of France, which was defeated by the Prussians in 1871, none of Europe’s Great Powers had experienced a significant military defeat for more than half a century. Along with rising militarism and the burgeoning arms race, this fostered a growing delusion of invincibility. The British, for example, believed their naval power and the economic might of the Empire would give them the upper hand in any war.

The Germans placed great faith in Prussian military efficiency, their growing industrial base, new armaments and an expanding fleet of battleships and U-boats (submarines). In the event of war, the German high command had supreme confidence in the Schlieffen Plan, a preemptive military strategy for defeating Germany’s eastern and western neighbours: Russia and France. In Russia, the tsar believed his throne and empire were protected by God – not to mention Russia’s massive standing army of 1.5 million men, the largest peacetime land force in Europe. Russian commanders believed the empire’s enormous population gave it the upper hand over the smaller nations of western Europe. The French placed their faith in a wall of concrete fortresses and defences, running the length of their eastern border, capable of withstanding any German attack.

By the late 1800s, some European powers had grown almost drunk with patriotism and nationalism. Britain, to focus on one example, had enjoyed two centuries of imperial, commercial and naval dominance. Britain’s empire spanned one quarter of the globe and the lyrics of a popular patriotic song, Rule, Britannia!, trumpeted that “Britons never never will be slaves”. London had spent the 19th century advancing her imperial and commercial interests and avoiding wars – however the unification of Germany, the speed of German armament and the bellicosity of Kaiser Wilhelm II caused concern among British nationalists. England’s ‘penny press’ – cheap serialised novels, essays and short stories – fuelled foreign rivalries by publishing incredible fictions about foreign intrigues, espionage, future war and invasion. The Battle of Dorking (1871), one of the best known examples of ‘invasion literature’, was a wild tale about an invasion of England by German forces. By 1910 a Londoner could buy dozens of tawdry novellas, each gamely warning of German, Russian or French aggression, perpetrated against England or her interests. This invasion literature often employed racial stereotyping or innuendo: the German was painted as cold, cruel and calculating, the Russian was an uncultured barbarian, the Frenchman was a leisure-seeking layabout, the Chinese were a race of murderous opium-smoking savages. Penny novelists, cartoonists and satirists mocked the rulers of these countries. Two of the most popular targets were the German kaiser and the Russian tsar, who were both ridiculed for their arrogance, excessive ambition or megalomania.

German nationalism and xenophobia was no less intense, though it came from different origins. Unlike Britain, Germany was a comparatively young nation, formed in 1871 through the unification of 26 German-speaking states and territories. German nationalism or ‘Pan-Germanism’ was the political glue that bound these states together. The leaders of post-1871 Germany relied on nationalist sentiment to consolidate and strengthen the new nation and to gain public support. German culture – from the poetry of Goethe to the music of Richard Wagner – was promoted and celebrated. German nationalism was backed by German militarism; the state of the nation was defined and reflected by the strength of its military forces. The new kaiser, Wilhelm II, was the personification of this new Germany. Both the kaiser and his nation were young, nationalistic, obsessed with military power and imperial expansion. The kaiser was proud of Germany’s achievements but nervous about its future; he was envious of other powers and desperate for national success. In the kaiser’s mind, the main obstacle to German expansion was Britain. Wilhelm envied Britain’s vast empire and enormous naval power – but he thought the British avaricious and hypocritical. The British government oversaw the world’s largest empire yet maneuvered against German colonial expansion in Africa and Asia. The British became a popular target in the pre-war German press, where Britain was painted as expansionist, selfish, greedy and obsessed with money. Anti-British sentiment intensified during the Boer War of 1899-1902, Britain’s war against farmer-settlers for control of South Africa.

As the Great Powers beat their chests and filled their people with a sense of righteousness and superiority, another form of nationalism was on the rise in southern Europe. This nationalism was not about supremacy or military power – but the right of ethnic groups to independence, autonomy and self government. With the world divided into large empires and spheres of influence, many different regions, races and religious groups wanted freedom from their imperial masters. In Russia, more than 80 ethnic groups in eastern Europe and Asia were forced to speak the Russian language, worship the Russian tsar and practice the Russian Orthodox religion. For much of the 19th century China had been ‘carved up’ and economically exploited by European powers; resentful Chinese formed secret and exiled nationalist groups to rid their country of foreign influence. Nationalist groups contributed to the weakening of the Ottoman Empire in eastern Europe, by seeking to throw off Muslim rule.

No nationalist movement had a greater impact in the outbreak of war than Slavic groups in the Balkans. Pan-Slavism, the belief that the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe should have their own nation, was a powerful force in the region. Slavic nationalism was strongest in Serbia, where it had risen significantly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pan-Slavism was particularly opposed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its control and influence over the region. Aggravated by Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, young Serbs joined radical nationalist groups like the ‘Black Hand’ (Crna Ruka). These groups hoped to drive Austria-Hungary from the Balkans and establish a ‘Greater Serbia’, a unified state for all Slavic people. It was this pan-Slavic nationalism that inspired the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, an event that led directly to the outbreak of World War I.

1. Nationalism was an intense form of patriotism. Those with nationalist tendencies celebrated the culture and achievements of their own country and placed its interests above those of other nations.

2. Pre-war nationalism was fuelled by wars, imperial conquests and rivalry, political rhetoric, newspapers and popular culture, such as ‘invasion literature’ written by penny press novelists.

3. British nationalism was fuelled by a century of comparative peace and prosperity. The British Empire had flourished and expanded, its naval strength had grown and Britons had known only colonial wars.

4. German nationalism was a new phenomenon, emerging from the unification of Germany in 1871. It became fascinated with German imperial expansion (securing Germany’s ‘place in the sun’) and resentful of the British and their empire.

5. Rising nationalism was also a factor in the Balkans, where Slavic Serbs and others sought independence and autonomy from the political domination of Austria-Hungary.


© Alpha History 2017. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Nationalism as a cause of World War I” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/nationalism/, 2017, accessed [date of last access].

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