How Did Militarism Lead To WW1?

Militarism is the basic belief that a country should develop and maintain a strong military force, and aggressively use it where necessary, in order to defend or expand the nation’s interests. Indeed, the building of a strong military presence becomes the overriding policy of the state, subordinating all other national interests.

While militarism was not the sole cause of World War One, it undoubtedly played its part, and is now considered to be one of four longterm causes for WW1, along with alliances, imperialism and nationalism.

In this article, we shall attempt to define what is militarism, in the context of early twentieth century Europe, and have a look at how militarism played a role in sparking World War I.

What is Militarism?

the imposition of heavy burdens on a people for military purposes, to the neglect of welfare and culture, and the waste of the nation’s best manpower in unproductive army service.
Alfred Vagts

In his book, A History of Militarism – Civilian and Military, the German historian, Alfred Vagts, defined Militarism as a “domination of the military man over the civilian” and then went on to talk about “the imposition of heavy burdens on a people for military purposes, to the neglect of welfare and culture, and the waste of the nation’s best manpower in unproductive army service”.

In other words, militarism is not just about the expanding of a nation’s army and/or navy, but rather a total focus on the developing and maintaining of a strong military force, at the expense of all other aspects of society. Thus militarism, by its very nature, has a frightening inevitablity about it. Why put all of your resources into a strong military, at the detriment of society in other aspects of life, if you do not one day plan to take advantage of your superior military force?

Prussian Militarism

It is widely believed by historians that the concept of European militarism first originated from the German kingdom of Prussia. Indeed, Prussia’s military heritage goes back as far as the seventeenth century, when it first realised that in order for it to become a powerful state in Central Europe, it needed to have a permanent army of paid soldiers.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, with Frederick the Great now ruling Prussia, this standing army had reached a total of 150,000 men and had won a number of key battles in the region. The army’s officers were made up from wealthy land owners, called the Junkers, and by the nineteenth century, the officer corps was considered to be among the most privileged social classes in Prussia.

However, it wasn’t until the second half of the nineteenth century that the Germanic state really came to the fore, following the appointment of Otto von Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, in 1862.

An Example of Prussian Militarism
A Painting by Carl Steffeck showing Otto von Bismarck (a civilian) in Military Dress
A Portrait of Bismarck again wearing a Military Uniform

Bismark was the embodiment of Prussian Militarism and, following decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France, he was instrumental in the unification of Germany in 1871, serving as its first chancellor until 1890.

Even after the unification of Germany, Prussian militarism very much remained at the fore. The Kaiser, who was the German military supreme commander, relied on senior officers made up of Junker aristocrats and his infamous chancellor, who was frequently seen in military dress.

Prussian militarism even had its own ‘ism’, namely Prussianism, which was considered to be the practices and doctrines of the Prussians; and specifically the militarism associated with the Junkers, the Prussian ruling class.

Prussian Militarism WWI Propaganda Posters
Anti Prussian Militarism WWI Propaganda Posters (Canadian + USA)

Please note that the first of the posters above is a Canadian WWI propaganda poster, attempting to raise money for the Canadian Patriotic Fund, which compares Prussian Militarism to what it considered to be the opposite end of the spectrum, namely British Freedom. 

Meanwhile, the second of the posters reads, “Beat Germany. Support EVERY FLAG that opposes Prussianism”. This is an American WW1 Propaganda Poster, commissioned by the United States Food Administration, imploring Americans to eat less of the foodstuffs that the brave fighters abroad need and to “Waste Nothing”.  This poster even refers to opposing Prussianism.

Although Prussian Militarism and Prussianism have become synonymous when defining WWI militarism, there is of course the danger today of history seeing militarism in World War 1 as a mostly German phenomenon, which was simply not the case. In truth, both militarism and jingoism had become rife throughout Europe in the lead up to the the Great War—especially among the other major European powers.

Other Militarism Examples in Europe

While perhaps not as obvious as in Prussia, and then in a unified Germany, militarism had still become a key political policy throughout Europe in the years leading up to the war.

Austria-Hungarian Militarism Before WW1

Neighbouring Austria-Hungary’s own attempts at modernising their empire’s military had been rather subdued, thanks in part to the complexities of the Dual Monarchy’s political system. However, the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, saw a shift in thinking within Vienna and Budapest, as it became clear that more troops and better weapons might be prudent in order to defend the empire from an increasing threat from the south.

Russian Militarism Before WW1

The Russian empire already boasted the largest peacetime army in Europe, numbering approximately one and a half million men; and between 1910 and 1914, Russia had significantly increased its military expenditure, resulting in an increase in both soldiers and weapons. At the same time, the Russian government had also increased the length of national service required by their young men.

But perhaps the two nations, outside of Germany, who had the most dominant policy of militarism in Europe, were Great Britain and France.

French Militarism Before WW1

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Revanchism (literally, “revenge-ism”) and the fear of a German invasion were the two driving force behind French militarism—in both its government and its people. Defeat in the Franco-Prussian War had led to a deep hatred towards Germany and a need for revenge against the enemy, but there was also the real fear that their country might be invaded by the superior German army.

The foundation of the New Republican Army in the 1870’s was seen as the answer, coming about as a response to the costly defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the fall of the Second Empire. It was decided that the new army should mirror Germany’s general staff system, as well as its model of conscription.

The eighteen-eighties then saw a more high brow modernisation of the French military, resulting in a reform of strategies, tactics, logistics and technology. There was also the securing of the eastern border with Germany, through a more modern defence system. However, it is important to note that although Revanchism in France was rife during this period, it had faded by the turn of the century, and so is not considered to be a direct cause of WW1.

British Militarism Before WW1

Although Great Britain’s militarism was perhaps not so in your face and obvious as Germany’s, certainly not at home in any case, it was still very much present. For a start, Britain boasted the largest and most powerful navy in the world, a fact Germany was extremely envious of, and which led to the great naval race between the two countries, from 1898 to 1912.

Royal Navy Recruitment Posters
Royal Navy Recruitment Posters from 1915

However, it was not only in her intention to remain ruling the waves, where Britain demonstrated these militaristic ideals. In fact, an entire culture of militarism had slowly grown in Britain during the nineteenth century. The soldier, which in Britain had once been seen as a lesser profession for gentlemen, was now considered to be a truly noble profession, where national heroes were awarded the Victorian Cross and various other medals for their bravery and derring do overseas, while chivalrously protecting the Empire.

And it was not only service men who embraced the concept of militarism, the general public did likewise, in the form of popular militarism. Indeed, quite a number of military styled youth organisations began springing up within Great Britain, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, to celebrate this new found jingoism spreading through the country; societies such as the Boys’ Brigade and the Navy League, and culminating in 1908, in the most famous youth organisation of them all, the Boy Scouts.

Scouting for Boys by Baden Powell
Scouting for Boys by Baden Powell, 1908

We have established, therefore, that the policy of militarism was widespread throughout Europe by the beginning of the twentieth century, but how did militarism directly contribute to World War 1?

How Did Militarism Lead To WWI?

Due to growing nationalism throughout Europe, the major European governments began to increase spending on their armies and navies, building new weapons and heralding in a new modern era of warfare. Most of these governments also introduced or increased conscription, thus expanding the number of soldiers in their armies.

In effect, militarism had created an environment where war on a grand scale could now occur.

The Arms Race

By the turn of the century, nationalism, imperialism and militarism had all led to an unprecedented arms race taking place in Europe. And nowhere was this more evident than in the Anglo-German naval arms race, which ran from 1897 up to the beginning of the First World War.

In 1897, the German Admiral, Alfred von Tirpitz, devised a plan to create a “fleet in being”, not to defeat the Royal Navy, but rather to force Britain into making diplomatic concessions.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was enthusiastic about the idea and put his weight behind the first (of five) German Fleet Acts, in 1898, which would fund the building of eleven battleships over the next seven years.

To begin with, Britain was not too concerned with the First Naval Act, but the expansion planned by Tirpitz in the Second Naval Act eventually sent the alarm bells ringing in the admiralty, resulting in the Royal Navy’s own plan to design a new super battleship.

The result was HMS Dreadnought, first launched in February 1906, which was considered to be the equivalent of two or three normal battleships. Germany’s reaction was to raise the money to build its own dreadnoughts, and despite fierce opposition from across the political spectrum, due to the huge costs involved, the increasing German national sentiment against both Britain and France at the time, ensured that a Third Naval Act was passed, in 1906.

How Did Militarism Lead to WW1 - The Naval Arms Race
[Left] King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm II meeting in Berlin, circa 1908
[Right] A satirical cartoon from Puck, in 1909, shows the nations engaged in a naval race poker game.
“NO LIMIT. Japan—I see your Cruisers and raise you a Dreadnought.”

Up until the Fourth Naval Bill, Britain had largely ignored the buildup, but following the 1908 bill, there was rising alarm both in the government and among the public.

In August of that year, King Edward VII visited his nephew Wilhelm, where British concern at the German naval buildup was raised. Wilhelm made assurances that Germany was Britain’s good friend and that the naval buildup was actually directed at Japan.

Despite these assurances, later that year the British admiralty proposed the building of six more dreadnoughts. The huge costs involved resulted in opposition by senior figures in the government. However, they had support from both King Edward VII, who wanted eight more dreadnoughts built, and the general public; so much so that ‘We want eight and we won’t wait!’ became a popular slogan in Britain.

It is important to note that the Anglo-German naval arms race might have been the highest profile arms race in Europe at this time, but it certainly wasn’t the only one.

In 1870, the combined military spending of the major European powers had been the equivalent of just under 100 million pounds sterling. By 1914, the spending had increased to approximately 400 million.

New Technology and Modern Weapons

The half century leading up to the start of WWI had seen the invention and development of a range of modernised weapons and other technology used in war, multiplying the power of destruction immeasurably.

Some of the modern weapons and technology used during world war one can trace their way back to the key inventions and developments shown on the timeline below:

Modern Barbed Wire

Joseph F. Glidden received a patent for the modern invention of barbed wire, after making his own modifications to previous versions.

Maxim Gun

Invented by American-British inventor, Sir Hiram Maxim, it was the first ever recoil-operated machine gun.

High-explosive Shells

The French chemist, Eugène Turpin, patented the use of pressed and cast picric acid in artillery shells.

Lebel Model 1886 Rifle

The Lebel Rifle, used by the French during WWI, was the first military firearm to use smokeless powder ammunition.


Such was the impact HMS Dreadnought had when launched in 1906, that battleships built after her were simply referred to as dreadnoughts.

SM U-1 U-boat

The first U-boat class of military submarines produced for the German Navy, although by 1914 it was only used for training purposes.


A class of short range mortars used by the Germans in WW1 to clear obstacles such as bunkers and barbed wire.

Big Bertha

A siege howitzer used by the German army, it was one of the largest artillery pieces to ever see battle.

Vickers Machine Gun

Famed for its reliability, the British army used the Vickers machine gun from WWI right up until the 1960s.

Mustard Gas (Meyer-Clarke)

The English chemist, Hans Clarke, replaced the phosphorus trichloride, used in Viktor Meyer’s formulation, with hydrochloric acid, resulting in the mustard gas used by Germany in WW1.

Fokker Eindecker

The first purpose-built German fighter aircraft, designed by the Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker.

Mark I Tank

Designed to cross the wide trenches of the Western Front, the British made Mark I was the world’s first ever tank to enter combat in WWI.


It is important to note that the devastating effect modern technology had on WWI was not purely down to new weapons, but also because of the innovative manufacturing methods that were employed to mass-produce these weapons on such an unprecedented scale.


Along with imperialism and nationalism, there is no doubt that militarism can also be considered as one of the four main causes of WW1.

Public opinion throughout the continent began to lean towards the need to maintain a strong military presence and, as a result, governments who failed to do so, were considered to be weak and not acting in the country’s best interests.

This resulted in a domino effect, with more and more countries turning to a policy of militarism, as the need for a more powerful military to defend the nation’s interests, both at home and abroad, became more and more apparent.

However, militarism alone would likely not have led to a world war, and if anything, many politicians in the governments involved may have even considered the building of more and more powerful armies and navies as a strong deterrent against a major war starting within Europe.

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

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