Many world history teachers are familiar with a handy acronym for teaching the causes of World War One: “MAIN.” Its letters stand for Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, Nationalism. But unfortunately for history teachers and students, the MAIN causes of World War One really aren’t: none of those things actually caused the war. We can demonstrate this with a little bit of 4QM Question Three thinking. Question Three asks, “Why then and there?,” and in answering it we learn to think like social scientists, who apply the scientific method to human affairs. The essence of the scientific method is the distinction between constants and variables: we try to isolate a single variable to see what effect it has on the outcome of our experiment. In social science we can’t run very many true experiments (pesky ethics considerations!), but we can make use of what natural experiments the world hands us. And World War One gives us a pretty good one.

Constants and Variables in 1914

The first challenge when working with Question Three is to define the “explicandum” (yes, that’s a real word!): the outcome that you wish to explain. In this case, we want to know why a minor spat between European neighbors who had been tiffing for decades (Austria-Hungary and Serbia) blew up into a global conflict in the summer of 1914. After all, since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Europe had experienced innumerable diplomatic crises like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, along with a few minor wars and some attempted revolutions. But nothing had led to the global conflagration that developed so rapidly after the assassination of  the Archduke. Why then and there?

Once you’ve defined your explicandum, the next step in answering Question Three is to start thinking scientifically. We teach students to approach Question Three with this formula: “Explain a change with a change, and a difference with a difference.” Let’s consider the European peace since 1815 as a long equilibrium, a steady pattern that held for a long period. Equilibrium doesn’t change by itself. There must have been some new variable injected into that steady state to cause it to change — we’re looking for a new factor or condition that explains why this minor Balkan dispute became a world war. When we think about it this way, it’s fairly easy to see why none of the “MAIN” things caused World War: neither Militarism, nor Alliances, nor Imperialism, nor Nationalism were new in 1914. Consider:

Militarism as a cultural phenomenon was present in Europe well before 1914. Popular and political culture in Napoleonic France was frankly militaristic, British popular culture during the Empire celebrated the military exploits of the British Tommy, and the conquistadors of Spain were national heroes. If militarism caused world wars, it should have done so well before 1914.

“Alliances” is the easiest element of the acronym to debunk. Alliances have been a constant presence in Europe throughout its history. In particular, the Congress of Vienna created a balance of power system within which shifting alliances kept peace in Europe for nearly an entire century before World War One. We should also note that not every European country that was in an alliance in 1914 honored their commitments (I’m looking at you, Italy). Clearly, “alliances” explain little or nothing about why this particular conflict went global.  

Similarly, if imperialism caused world wars, Europe should have been drawn into several before 1914. The Portuguese and Spanish established their imperial empires in the fifteenth century. Britain conquered India in the early and mid nineteenth century. The French, British, and Russians all had a series of imperial conflicts throughout the nineteenth century. If imperialism was a cause of world war, why did it wait until 1914 to manifest itself?

And nationalism had existed as a motivating force in England for centuries before 1914, in France since at least the eighteenth century, and in other European countries for similar time periods. Yet no world war resulted until 1914. Nationalism can’t be a cause of World War One.

So if all the “MAIN” causes of World War One are actually constants that were present for significant periods when there was not a world war, what variable does explain why the events of 1914 led to global conflict? What new condition made that outcome much more likely in 1914 than it had been even a decade or two earlier?

Strong Germany and the Thucydides Trap

The answer is strong Germany. The balance of power system established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was designed for a Europe without the nations of Germany or Italy. Germany, unified under Bismarck in the 1860s, was a new nation that began a rapid commercial, industrial, military, and imperial rise. (Italy was unified at about the same time, but it did not have Germany’s size, population, political strength, or economic power.) Europe had never had a strong Germany, and now it did. When in the late 1800s this new strong Germany began to demand its “place in the sun,” it came into repeated conflict with the established global power of that time, Britain. This conflict led to a situation that political scientists call the “Thucydides Trap:”  when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result. This new conflict between Britain and Germany provided the underlying context that made it much more likely that the assassination of an Austrian nobleman would lead to global conflagration.

Question Three thinking is difficult, and it takes practice. But the more accurate understanding of the human world it achieves is worth the effort, even if we have to abandon some misleading acronyms along the way.