How Did Imperialism Lead to WW1?

The continued imperialistic aspirations of the major European powers in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, are often cited as one of the four longterm causes of World War One.

While it is true that imperial rivalries had improved somewhat in the couple of years immediately prior to the war, there is no doubting the role imperialism played in encouraging both the nationalism and militarism of all the countries involved.

In this article, we shall attempt to define what imperialism was, in the context of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe, and have a look at how imperialism contributed to the start of World War I.

What is Imperialism?

Imperialism is a nation’s policy or ideology for extending the country’s power and influence, either through gaining political and economic control of another territory or by direct territorial acquisition, whether that be through diplomatic means or by military force.

The Main European Imperial Powers

As you will see below, the reasons for imperialism by the major European powers varied from country to country; some started out very much from an economic perspective, while other nations’ expansions came more from political and even nationalistic objectives.

The British Empire

The Empire on which the sun never sets

By 1914, the British Empire was both the largest and the richest imperial power in the world. Although the famous saying, “The Empire on which the sun never sets”, might not have been totally accurate, it was still the largest empire the world had ever seen—at its height covering more than 22% of the earth’s landmass.

British imperialist ambitions date back as early as the sixteenth century, and over the next couple of centuries Britain established colonies in the Americas, the Caribbean and India.

The British Empire was originally based on mercantilism, although Britain’s nationalistic policy was also evident with the creation of a commonwealth of countries, such as Canada and Australia, who had a shared national identity and common language.

Following the American Revolution and the loss of the American colonies in 1776, Britain turned her attention to Asia, Africa and the Pacific, in the nineteenth century, and following the defeat of Napoleon, in 1815, enjoyed a century of almost unchallenged dominance, expanding her imperial territories around the globe.

How Did Imperialism Lead to WW1 - Map of the British Empire
Map of the British Empire

At the outbreak of World War One, the British Empire included India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, parts of North Africa, islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, Hong Kong and concessions in China.

The French Empire

By 1914, the French Empire was the second largest colonial empire in the world, behind only the British Empire.

France’s imperial ambitions in the nineteenth century began with the conquest over Algiers, in 1830, but it wasn’t until the second half of the century when she started making serious inroads into both North and West Africa.

Prior to World War One, in addition to her African colonies, France also maintained colonies in what is now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, parts of India, and islands in the Pacific and Caribbean.

France saw it as their moral duty to bring French civilisation and Catholicism to the world, but in return the country benefited from a supply of raw materials and important manpower during the war.

French Empire Expansion
A poster showing the colonisation of Madagascar, after the defeat over the Marina Kingdom in the Franco-Hova Wars.

The Russian Empire

Having expanded her empire southwards, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia turned her attention southwestwards towards the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the century.

Victory over the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), resulted in Russia successfully claiming provinces in the Caucasus, as well as helping to liberate new independent states in the Balkans.

By 1914, Russia also ruled over the Ukraine, Georgia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

The Ottoman Empire

Having once boasted the largest empire in the world, the Ottoman Empire had become a shadow of its formal self, following heavy defeats in a series of wars over the previous sixty years, most notably to Russia.

That said, at the outbreak of war, the Ottoman Empire still included most of its old empire, including Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

The German Empire

Having only been established as a new country, in 1871, Germany was naturally a latecomer to the building of empires abroad.

German Empire Expansion
Bismarck happy with other nations being busy down there.

And even after the unification of Germany, to begin with the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had been far more interested in establishing a power base in Europe, rather than the gathering of colonies in the far flung corners of the world.

However, this was not a view shared by many others in the government, nor the German people for that matter, who were all for German imperial expansion.

Bismarck reluctantly came round to the idea of colonial expansion from about 1884 onwards, when the government began to place the privately acquired properties of German colonisers under the protection of the German Empire.

However, following Wilhelm II’s ascension to the throne, and Bismarck’s resignation as chancellor shortly thereafter, a more aggressive policy towards imperialism was undertaken, called Weltpolitik.

The main objective of Weltpolitik (meaning world politics) was to transform Germany into a world power. In doing so, this aggressive imperial policy led to Germany treading on the toes of some of the more well-established imperial powers.

The Italian Empire

As a relatively new country (the Kingdom of Italy not being completed until 1871), Italy was late to the colonial game, and found herself relying on the bigger European powers to help in her efforts at empire-building.

The Italian Nationalist Association, which embodied the feeling of nationalism sweeping through the country at the beginning of the twentieth century, had pressed the government hard for the expansion of Italy’s empire. However, by 1914, the Italian Empire consisted of only a few territories in North Africa and a small concession in China.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire

Following the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and then the unification of Germany in 1871, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no longer the dominant power in Central Europe that it had once been.

Despite this, and despite owning no colonies outside of Europe, Austria-Hungary still ruled over several different nation-states prior to WWI, including Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Galicia, Silesia and Transylvania, as well as the newly acquired Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Other Imperial Powers

Other European nations with colonies abroad included Belgium, Holland, Portugal and Spain (albeit with an empire that was a fraction of the size it had once been).

Outside of Europe, the two nations with notable imperial ambitions were Japan and the United States, who by 1914 had managed to gain control over the Philippines, Puerto Rico and a number of islands in the Pacific.

How Did Imperialism Lead to WW1?

By the end of the nineteenth century, all of the major European powers had become imperialists, and had expanded their empires to colonies across the globe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the imperialistic policies the governments of these countries took sometimes led to fierce rivalries, as one nation’s ambitions came into direct conflict with another’s.

Imperial Rivalries

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the imperial policies of the major European powers go into overdrive, as each tried to obtain more land for economical, political and strategic reasons. This was intensified further towards the end of the century when Italy and especially Germany joined in the game of empire-building, fearful that they might have already missed out on the best opportunities.

This rush to acquire new lands abroad, naturally led to confrontations between the major powers, with Germany in particular standing on a few toes, as the Kaiser’s new policy of Weltpolitik got into full flow. And nowhere in the world were rivalries more fierce between the major European powers, in this era of ‘New Imperialism’ than on the continent of Africa.

The Scramble For Africa

The Scramble for Africa (also known as the Rape of Africa), was the name given to the occupation, division and colonisation of different African territories by the European powers at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1884, Otto von Bismarck organised the Berlin Conference, which in effect formalised the Scramble for Africa and was intended by him to provide a way for the European powers to expand in the face of the rising imperial ambitions of Russia, Japan and the United States. Bismarck also hoped that by engaging in constructive dialogue, it might limit any future potential hostilities between the European countries involved.

The Scramble for Africa
The Scramble for Africa

Things didn’t end up going quite as smoothly as Bismarck had planned, and in the years that followed, the Scramble for Africa saw a number of conflicts between the major European power, some of which almost led to war.

The Tangier Crisis

On March 31, 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany went to Tangier, Morocco, to talk with representatives of the Sultan Abdelaziz. While there, the Kaiser infamously toured the city on the back of a white horse, declaring he had come to support the sovereignty of the Sultan.

This statement was seen by the French as a provocative challenge to their influence in Morocco, where France sought to establish a protectorate, and led to the Tangier Crisis (also known as the First Moroccan Crisis).

The Tangier Crisis
The Tangier Crisis
[Left] The Dreaded Guest, [Right] There Is Always Trouble When I Travel

Germany wanted the French to be called into account over Morocco and sought a multilateral conference. At first, France refused such a conference, but finally agreed to attend one, which would end up taking place from January 1906.

Tensions between France and Germany continued in the half year leading up to the conference at Algeciras, with at one point Germany calling up reserve units and with France even mobilising troops to the German border.

In the end, France was given overwhelming support from the 13 nations present at the conference, with only Austria-Hungary supporting Germany. The events of the crisis also resulted in France and Britain growing closer in their alliance, eventually leading to the Triple Entente, in the following year.

The Agadir Crisis

A Satirical Look At The Agadir Crisis
A Satirical Look At The Agadir Crisis

In 1911, a second crisis erupted in Morocco. The Agadir Crisis (also known as the Second Moroccan Crisis), came about at a time when the French were attempting to suppress a rebellion against the Sultan, Abdelhafid.

Without any warning, or obvious reason, the German gunboat SMS Panther landed at the port of Agadir, supposedly under the pretext of protecting German trade interests.

France was outraged by this, and for a while it looked again that France and Germany might be on the brink of war.

Britain was also concerned, worried that Germany might be attempting to turn Agadir into a naval base on the Atlantic, for its ever strengthening navy.

In the end, the crisis was averted and in November of that year, the Franco-German Accord was signed, under which Germany accepted France’s position in Morocco, in exchange for territory in France’s colony of Middle Congo.

However, the Agadir Crisis once more led to the strengthening of ties between Britain and France, leaving Germany feeling even more vulnerable from their continuing entente cordiale.

The Berlin–Baghdad Railway

The Berlin–Baghdad Railway, which started being built in 1910, was a railway connecting Berlin with the then Ottoman city of Baghdad. It was thought that the railway would give Germany better access to her colonies from a port on the Persian Gulf.

Russia, France and Britain had all had their concerns about the railway since its conception, at the turn of the century, speculating that it might end up strengthening the Ottoman Empire, as well as its ties to Germany, which in turn might well have shifted the balance of power in the region. Britain was also concerned about her own interests further afield.

It was felt in England that if, as Napoleon is said to have remarked, Antwerp in the hands of a great continental power was a pistol levelled at the English coast, Baghdad and the Persian Gulf in the hands of Germany would be a 42-centimetre gun pointed at India.
Morris Jastrow Jr.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Berlin–Baghdad Railway was considered by many to be a major cause of WW1 in its own right, but we now know from diplomatic records, released by all the concerned parties in the nineteen twenties and thirties, that the main controversies regarding the railway had actually been resolved by the summer of 1914.

Imperial Instability

Back closer to home, the decay of a once great empire had started to set the alarm bells ringing amongst the major powers within Europe. Known as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, the Ottoman Empire had become a shadow of its former self, which in turn had resulted in a crisis situation in the Balkans.

Amongst the imperial instability, during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, former states sought and received international recognition as independent countries. Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary and Russia were closing in with the intention to expand their own empires at the Ottomans’ expense.

Britain and France also had their own trade interests in the area and Germany was hell-bent on completing her Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, which would run through the region.

The “Eastern Question”, concerning the issue of the political and economic instability of the Ottoman Empire, had intensified. More specifically, the trouble in the Balkans, which had threatened to boil over in the years leading up to the war, finally did just that.

Trouble In The Balkans
Trouble In The Balkans
The Boiling Point – Published in Punch, October 1912


While there is no doubt imperialism was one of the four main causes of war, especially in regard to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the resulting imperial aspirations within Europe of both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire, it is important not to exaggerate the role imperialism played.

After all, the overriding imperial rivalry of that period, between Britain and Germany, had cooled somewhat in the two years prior to the war, with both sides seemingly willing to compromise in order to ease tensions between the two countries.

Why not check out 4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1: IMPERIALISM – PowerPoint Lesson with Speaker Notes

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4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1 WebQuest
4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1


The 4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1 WebQuest (Student Version) – This 5 page teaching resource consists of a webquest that covers the four main longterm causes of World War One.

The webquest comprises of 5 worksheets, which contain 24 questions, as well as 4 jigsaw puzzles (with secret watermarks) and an online quiz (requiring a pass of 70% to reveal a secret phrase).