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The Morality of World War One

The Morality of World War One

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Published by Michael A. White
An essay from my junior year of high school on whether WWI was a just war.
An essay from my junior year of high school on whether WWI was a just war.

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Published by: Michael A. White on Aug 07, 2008
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01/15/2013

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Michael WhiteWorld War One Was UnjustIt is difficult to call an entire war just or unjust, according to the specific criteria of just wartheory. The first World War was a complicated series of events involving many countries, each of whichhad its own motives and acted to preserve its perceived best interests. As a whole, the intentions andactions of the countries involved were mostly unjust, especially those of the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire). Even the Allies' (Britain, France, Russia andlater Italy and the United States, among others) motives and conduct were sometimes questionable,though they have historically been regarded as having had the moral high ground. As people's historianHoward Zinn wrote, “no one since that day has been able to show that the war brought any gain forhumanity that would be worth one human life,”
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much less the 15 million soldier and civilian deathsthat occurred.
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The war was not a just war because it does not meet all the criteria of just war theory forthe justice of the start of the war, the conduct of the war, and the end of the war. Even though the Allies'actions were considerably more just, possibly even wholly just, when one examines the war as a whole,it does not meet every principle of just war theory, so it is not a just war.
 Jus ad bellum
, literally “the justice of war,” deals with the morality of the start of the war, andWorld War One fails its criteria. The most important part of 
 jus ad bellum
is just cause. The aggressorswho started the war, mainly Austria-Hungary and Germany, did so for unjust causes. When Austria-
1 Zinn, Howard.
 A People's History of the United States
. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. 359.2 White, Matthew. “Source List and Detailed Death Tolls for the Twentieth Century Hemoclysm.”<http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat1.htm>
 
Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, its main reason was to punish Serbia for theassassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Serbian nationalists. While an assassination of an heir to the throne could possibly be considered a just cause because it is a wrong received, it was nota just cause in this case because the assassination was carried out by the ultra-nationalist group theBlack Hand, not the Serbian government or people. Though there was speculation about the Serbiangovernment's role in the plot, there was never enough evidence to implicate the government, andcertainly not enough to be a just cause for war. Also, Austria-Hungary responded too quickly to be just;the government did not have sufficient evidence that Serbia was actually involved in the assassinationbefore declaring war. By the time the Black Hand, a radical Serbian nationalist group, had beenidentified as the culprit in the assassination weeks later,
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war had already been declared, with the blameunjustly placed on Serbia in general. Even when Austria-Hungary, in the July Ultimatum, madedemands of Serbia that were extreme and unfulfillable, and Serbia unexpectedly agreed to all but one,Austria-Hungary rejected anything but an unconditional acceptance of the ultimatum and attackedSerbia anyway. The ultimatum was merely an excuse to go to war.Regardless of whether the assassination might have been a just cause had the Serbiangovernment been involved, Austria-Hungary violated the
 jus ad bellum
criteria of right intention: astate must fight a war only for a just cause, not for ulterior motives, even if the declared cause is just,which in the case of Austria-Hungary it was not. Austria-Hungary took advantage of the impossibilityof the July Ultimatum and the general sympathy in their favor after the assassination to start an unjustwar. Austria-Hungary wanted both to punish Serbia and to stave off the threat to the Austro-Hungarian
3 Shackelford, Micheal. “The Black Hand.” <http://www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/wwi/comment/blk-hand.html>
 
empire from the pan-Slavist separatist movement that aimed to united ethnic Serbs and other Slavicpeoples in Balkan states that were part of its empire. The increasing size and power of Serbia after theBalkan Wars threatened Austria-Hungary.
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Austria-Hungary began with an air bombardment of Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and Austria-Hungary mobilized its troops for a ground attack, as did Russia, an ally of Serbia. Germany, havingpledged beforehand to militarily support Austria-Hungary's actions, responded by issuing an ultimatumto Russia that they stop mobilizing troops, which they did not do, so Germany declared war on Russia.So, within a matter of days, all the European powers except Italy had entered the conflict because of acomplex network of alliances.At the same time, Germany was beginning to implement its Schlieffen Plan for rapid victory onthe Western Front in France. Germany hoped to quickly defeat France so they could concentrate alltheir resources on Russia and avoid a difficult two-front war.
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The plan involved passing through neutralBelgium on the way to Paris. This caused Britain to enter the war because they were obligated to defenda neutral and independent Belgium under the 1839 Treaty of London.
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Britain also entered the war toaid its Triple Entente allies Russia and France, and because Britain and Germany had been in a navalarms race and Britain feared the affect of the German navy on its ports.To enter a war because of alliances and treaties is of questionable justification. It is not a justcause to attack a country from whom no wrong has been received. However, it is more justifiable todefend a country that has been attacked, as Russia and Britain did, than it is to help a country that is
4 “The Balkan Crises, 1903-1914.” <http://cnparm.home.texas.net/Wars/BalkanCrises/BalkanCrises00.htm>5 “Schlieffen Plan.” <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWschlieffenP.htm>6 “Primary Documents: Treaty of London, 1839.” <http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/london1839.htm>

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Sophia Shmyhlyk added this note
Excellent analysis! I read your thoughts for getting some help my history project)Thank you!
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