At the turn of the Twentieth century, the British Empire had long reign supreme as the world’s first super power. The Empire covered about 12.7 million square miles which is about 25 percent of the world’s land surface, and three times as large as the French or German Empire. Some 444 million people lived under British rule in an Empire that stretched from North America, Africa, India, and Australia. Yet in the following century the British Empire would fall from her former glory, and this could hardly have happened without the subsequent world wars. British Imperialism attributed to the outbreak of world war not only because it had a quarter of the world under its control, but because imperial competition with other European powers created a need for war. Old imperial powers such as Great Britain and France were threatened by the rise of new powers around the world such as Germany, Russia, Japan, and the United States. These new powers imitated the imperialism of Britain and the balance of power in Europe increasingly relied on imperial possessions for weight.
Competition between Britain and Germany took on national significance to British and German populations while leaders such as Bismarck sought to use imperial competition to their own advantage on the world stage. While British imperialism is not the sole cause of World War I, it would be hard to imagine the origins of the war without the effect British imperialism had on world events in the late nineteenth century.
Bismarck and the Scramble for Africa
From 1880 to 1914 European powers carved up the African continent which was the only habitable part of the world left for imperialists to conquer. British historian Niall Ferguson describes this transformation in where, “ten thousand African tribal kingdoms were transformed into just forty states, of which thirty-six were under direct European control.” By the outbreak of the Great War the entire continent was under European control, and about a third of Africa belonged to the British.
The ‘Scramble for Africa’ fits Hobson’s view of imperialism whereby wealthy capitalists conquer undeveloped lands on their own initiative indirectly forcing the British government and military to protect their imperial endeavors. In the case of Africa, the imperialist Cecil Rhodes invaded Matabeleland based on the belief that it was full of reserves of gold. At the same time, George Goldie was attempting to conquer every mile of land from Niger to the Nile, and the British as well had inserted themselves into Egypt and the Suez Canal and had begun expanding their imperial possessions south of Cairo.
The British were descending upon Africa from all sides and, as Ferguson says, “They were doing so in large measure because they feared that if they did not, someone else would.” This sentiment of the British was shared by other rising European powers who all raced to stake claims to parts of Africa not already under the protection of the British. The Kingdom of Belgium, Italy, and the German Empire joined the British and French in the ‘Scramble for Africa’.
Colonial possessions would be used as bargaining chips in the struggle between the great powers of Europe giving them strategic as well as economic value. The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, famously said that his map of Africa was a map of Europe, meaning that he saw Africa as an opportunity of exacerbating tensions between Britain and France, as well as distract German voters from domestic issues. In 1885, Bismarck called a conference between the major powers to settle disputes over Africa to “obviate the misunderstanding and disputes which might in future arise from new acts of occupation on the coast of Africa.”
However, the significance of the Berlin Conference is that Germany at once assume the power as an arbiter of imperial disputes, and that Bismarck was successful in turning France and Britain against each other. over the next decade, the Britain and France would disagree over imperial sovereignty in Egypt, Nigeria, Uganda, and the Sudan. Ferguson says that, “the British were doubly duped by the German Chancellor; for their initial reaction to his triumph at Berlin was to give him everything he wanted (or seemed to want) in Africa, and more.” Despite the bickering between France and Britain the subsequent decades would find the British growing increasingly nervous over the growing power of Germany who desired to imitate the British to become a world power in their own right.
Britain’s competition with Germany perhaps illustrates best the relationship between imperial competition and the outbreak of war. The emergence of a unified Germany and its victory over France in 1871 brought Germany onto the stage of world powers. While Germany could not match Britain’s wealth or manpower, its growing agency in global politics and industrializing economy gave Britain cause to fear the future of a continental Europe dominated by Germany.
Lenin recognized Germany’s potential writing that while Britain still outproduced Germany by 100,000 kilometers of railway track, Germany had access to an abundance of natural resources that Britain did not. He writes, “In 1892, Germany produced 4,900,000 tons of pig-iron and Great Britain produced 6,800,000 tons; in 1912, Germany produced 17,600,000 tons and Great Britain, 9,000,000 tons. Germany, therefore, had an overwhelming superiority over Britain in this respect.”
German imperial policy, Weltpolitik, had full national support by 1897 which the intention to transform Germany into a global power. The ousting of Bismarck from power in Germany was partly due to his resistance to imperialist attitudes. Proponents of social Imperialist theories argue that German politicians used ideas of imperial grandeur and nationalist pride to distract the public from domestic concerns. Bernhard von Bülow, who would become Chancellor of the German Empire in 1900, argued that the German bid for empire was driven by a need “to direct the gave from petty Party disputes and subordinate internal affairs on to the world-shaking and decisive problems of foreign policy.” By the outbreak of World War I, Germany held colonies in West Africa, South-West Africa, New Guinea, and East Africa.
British and German Naval Race
Competition between the British and German manifested itself into a naval arms race between the two powers in the years leading up to the Great War. Instigated in part by Britain’s new class of Dreadnought battleships, Germany laid out the course for its naval expansion by passing Navy Bills in 1898 and 1900. Germany wanted to have a naval that was capable of defending against the British with a 2 to 3 ratio of ships in mind. German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz believed that a sizable German fleet would force Britain to recognize Germany as an equal power.
While Britain was aware of Germany’s naval intentions, it did not seem to see it as an immediate threat for several years. However, by 1909 both sides held a mutual suspicion for the other. Germans came to fear an imminent attack and Britons feared the grow danger of a German navy. Historian Dirk Bönker says, “With broad national support, the British political and military leadership forcefully responded to the German program and displayed a relentless determination to protect British naval mastery. After 1908, massive British naval construction ensured the perpetuation of a favorable force ratio.” Britain raised new taxes to pay for new Dreadnoughts by passing the People’s Budget, and the Royal Navy created war plans for a naval blockage in case of war with Germany.
The British German naval race was not limited to a competition between militaries alone, as it became an open public issue in the two countries. The naval competition hardened political parties and garnered public attention with the development of mass media. Bönker says, “In each country, the pursuit of maritime force became a focal point of political mobilization, public debate, and nationalist identity politics.”
For the German and British people, having the strongest navy became a subject of national pride as well as a source of insecurity. The public appeal of the navy race was sustained by extravagant public events such as fleet reviews and ship launches, which were as Bönker describes, “performative displays of power and deterrence.” In a one-dimensional view, Britain won the naval race as it ended up with forty-five Dreadnought battleships on the eve of World War I while Germany only had twenty-six similar ships built, or in the process of being built, at that time.
However, the naval race had a fateful strategic consequence for the British. In 1912 Britain decided to concentrate its naval forces in the English Channel, while leaving the Mediterranean under the protection of the French. This made the British depend on a friendly France for secure access to India through the Suez Canal, as well as access to Middle Eastern oil which was now the preferred fuel for British Dreadnoughts. In the outbreak of war Britain was now inexplicably allied with France.
The traditional understanding of Germany’s role in the outbreak of the Great War argues that Germany counted on British neutrality in a continental conflict and that the outbreak of a major war was unintentional. However, recent research into the outbreak of World War I shows that Germany actively pushed for war with Great Britain. Historian Keir A. Lieber argues that by 1911, Chief of German General Staff Moltke concluded Germany needed to be prepared for a world war that included Great Britain and never journeyed from this belief. German leaders knew that Britain would support France if war came, and the Kaiser is reported to have said at a war council in 1912, “We have always reckoned on the English as our probable enemies.”
Lieber argues that prior to World War I Germany was less driven by a fear of encirclement by hostile powers and more driven by a desire to expand. By 1914, Britain depended on its alliance with France and Russia to counter an aggressive Germany which makes war seem inevitable. Imperial competition in the latter half of the nineteenth century saw rising world powers strive to imitate the superpower status of Britain as a world empire. From the ‘Scramble for Africa’ to spheres of influence in China, European powers set a precedent for using war to expand their imperial possessions. Competition between great powers attributed to the rise of tensions and old imperial powers, such as Great Britain, and rising powers such as Germany.
-  Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books. 2002), chapter 5.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ferguson, Empire, Chapter 5.
-  General Act of the Berlin conference 1885, Accessed on 4/22/2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/general-act-of-the-berlin-conference-4070667.
-  Ferguson, Empire, Chapter 5.
-  Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Location 22232.
-  Quoted in Rapport, Nineteenth Century Europe, 343.
-  Dirk Bönker, Naval Race between Germany and Great Britain, 1898-1912. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/naval_race_between_germany_and_great_britain_1898-1912.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Bönker, Naval Race between Germany and Great Britain, 1898.
-  Paxton, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 54.
-  Keir A. Lieber, “The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory.” International Security, vol. 32, No. 2. (Fall 2007): 185. Accessed April 2, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30133878., 185
-  Ibid, 191.