Introduction: Historians, political scientists, and the causes of the first world war

Jack S. Levy, John A. Vasquez

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


It has been 100 years since the Great War, as it was called at the time, scorched the earth and psyches of the West, transforming our lives and world forever. As George Kennan remarked, the First World War was “the great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century. The war destroyed empires and it led to political and social upheavals across Europe, the emergence of new national states, and a redrawing of the map of the Continent. It set the stage for the rise of Hitler and the Second World War and, indirectly, for the Cold War. It also triggered a significant shift in attitudes toward war, from one in which war was seen as acceptable and natural to one in which war was seen as abhorrent, if not irrational, and to be avoided. In military terms, the First World War also marked a shift away from the limited wars of the mid-nineteenth century to total war with extensive social mobilization. The experiences of the war also produced a substantial body of work in literature and film that continues to shape images of war generations later. The impact of the war was all the greater because it became a political and emotional issue after the inclusion of the war guilt clause in the Versailles Treaty. Historians have now debated the origins of the First World War for a century. These debates have been motivated in part by the complexity of the processes leading to the war, and by the fact that the war provides some evidence to support a large number of different interpretations. As Paul Kennedy remarked, “the First World War offers so much data that conclusions can be drawn from it to suit any a priori hypothesis which contemporary strategists wish to advance.” Those clinging to a version of the “slide to war” hypothesis have been further motivated by the gap between what they regard as the relatively limited aims of most of the participants, and the enormity of the destruction of the war and of its political and social consequences. Many others have been motivated by the politicized nature of interpretations of the war, affecting conceptions of national identity and having implications for government policies years later.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Outbreak of the First World War
Subtitle of host publicationStructure, Politics, and Decision-Making
EditorsJack S Levy, John A Vasquez
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781107336995
ISBN (Print)9781107042452
StatePublished - 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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