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One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,”1

Otto von Bismarck, the first German Chancellor, famously predicted the beginning of the First World War. The Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination in Sarajevo in the Balkans on June 28, 1914, catapulted the world into an international conflict. The latter was the first global war that utilized new technologies of the Industrial Revolution and was supported by the ideology of militarism.

Militarism, Australian infantry wearing gas masks (Small Box Respirators, SBR), 45th Battalion, Australian 4th Division at Garter Point near Zonnebeke, Ypres sector, September 27, 1917, photo by Captain Frank Hurley. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

Fig. 1 - Australian infantry wearing gas masks (Small Box Respirators, SBR), 45th Battalion, Australian 4th Division at Garter Point near Zonnebeke, Ypres sector, September 27, 1917, photo by Captain Frank Hurley. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Militarism: Facts

The technological developments of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to militarist thinking in Europe and, later, Japan. Militarism advocates using the military to attain the set goals in foreign policy. At times, militarism also includes the domination of a government by the armed forces in its decision-making, glorifying militaristic themes, and even aesthetic and fashion choices. This type of thinking contributed to the total wars of the 20th century.

Total war refers to the type of military conflict that involves not only a country's armed forces but also civilians and all available resources.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) was a time qualified by the mass production of cheaper goods at factories rather than handmade crafts in workshops. The Industrial Revolution was accompanied by population growth and urbanization, as people relocated to live and work in the cities. At the same time, the working conditions were relatively poor.

Militarism, A 19th-century train, St. Gilgen station, Austria, 1895. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

Fig. 2 - A 19th-century train, St. Gilgen station, Austria, 1895. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

The Second Industrial Revolution occurred toward the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. At this time, manufacturing improved steel and petroleum production, accompanied by electricity and other scientific discoveries, helping push the industries forward.

  • The two Industrial Revolutions made advancements in infrastructure, from constructing railroads to improving the sewage system and its sanitation. There were also significant developments in weapons manufacturing.

Military Technology

The first self-powered heavy machine gun called Maxim was invented in 1884. This weapon was used in colonial conquest and both world wars. The First World War also saw the introduction of armored vehicles that eventually became tanks. Tanks, an integral part of World War II, gave armies mobility, firepower, and protection. Both world wars also used explosives. On the water, military submarines, such as the German U-boats, were first effectively introduced during World War I.

Militarism, British Vickers machine gun crew with anti-gas helmets, near Ovillers, the Battle of the Somme, by John Warwick Brooke, July 1916. Source: Wikipedia Commons: (public domain), StudySmarter.

Fig. 3 - British Vickers machine gun crew with anti-gas helmets, near Ovillers, the Battle of the Somme, by John Warwick Brooke, July 1916. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Perhaps, one of the worst aspects of World War I was the large-scale use of chemical weapons.

  • Some chemical weapons, such as tear gas, were meant to disable the target. Others sought to cause irreparable harm like mustard gas and chlorine. In addition to tens of thousands of fatalities, the overall casualties, including those with chronic health effects, exceeded a million combatants.

Effectively, technological innovation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made killing machines more effective and deadly. By the end of Second World II, technological development led to the invention of the atomic bomb's most destructive weapon.

Militarism: History

The history of militarism goes back to ancient times. Each society adapted militarist thinking to its immediate circumstances and foreign-policy goals.

Militarism: Examples

There have been many cases of militarism throughout history. For example, the ancient Greek city of Sparta was a society focused on incorporating military training into various institutions and daily life. Sparta was also a successful and dominant military power in ancient Greece around 650 BCE.

For example, virtually from birth, a child was brought to the Council of Spartan elders, who decided whether they were to live or die based on their physical characteristics. Babies deemed unfit were said to be thrown off a mountain.

Militarism, The Selection of Children in Sparta, Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, 1785. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

Fig. 4 -The Selection of Children in Sparta, Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, 1785. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

In modern Europe, Napoleonic France can also be considered a militarist society in light of its attempts at imperial expansion throughout the continent between 1805 and 1812. After its 1871 unification by Otto von Bismarck and Japan ruled by Emperor Hirohito during World War II, Germany was also militarist.

The technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution allowed different countries to develop innovative weapons, including machine guns, tanks, military submarines, and chemical and atomic weapons.

German Militarism

Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, nicknamed the Iron Chancellor, unified that country in 1871. He preferred to wear the Prussian spiked helmet called Pickelhaube even though he was a civilian leader.

Some historians trace modern German militarism to 18th-century Prussia (East Germany). Others find it earlier—in the Medieval order of the Teutonic Knights. The Teutonic Knights took part in the Crusades—the military campaigns to conquer the Middle East—and attacked neighboring lands such as Russia.

Militarism, Otto von Bismarck, civilian German Chancellor, with a spiked helmet called Pickelhaube, 19th century. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.Fig. 5 - Otto von Bismarck, German civilian Chancellor, with a spiked helmet called Pickelhaube, 19th century. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

German militarism was a key factor during the First World War. However, historians debate whether Germany was the primary aggressor. Indeed, it was punished by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) at that time. The misguided terms of that postwar settlement were a key contributor to the rise of Nazism in Germany after that conflict. Weimar Germany (1918–1933) already saw an increase in militarist thinking through such organizations as the militias like the Freikorps.

  • One of the essential aspects of Nazi Germany (1933-1945) was the militarist trajectory of its ideology. Militarism permeated many parts of German society at that time: from the requirement of physical strength for its youth organization, Hitler Youth, and the introduction of conscription in 1935 to stockpiling weapons and its expansionist concept of Lebensraum, living space, at the expense of the Soviet Union.

After the Second World War—and its total death toll of 70-85 million—Germany underwent a process of demilitarization.

Japanese Militarism

Modern Japanese militarism first arose during the Meiji era (1868-1912). It became integral to the Japanese government and society in the 1920s and until 1945. At this time, the country was led by Emperor Hirohito. Militarism was linked to the concepts of honor and the patriotic idea that the military served as the backbone of Japan. As in ancient Sparta, militarism was part of every aspect of Japanese society in a modern context. For example, Japanese school children repeated the Imperial Rescript of Education daily:

Should any emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State.”2

Militarism, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito riding his favorite white horse Shirayuki, 1935. Source: Osaka Asahi Shimbun, Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.Fig. 6 - Japan’s Emperor Hirohito is riding his favorite white horse Shirayuki, in 1935. Source: Osaka Asahi Shimbun, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

In addition to ideology, Japanese militarism was also rooted in practical concerns.

For example, Japan experienced economic problems, especially during the Great Depression. At the same time, Japan's population surged in this period.

As a result, Japan, an island country, was forced to increase its imports which tariffs made expensive. Japan used militarism and imperialism to expand into the rest of Asia to improve its economic conditions.

Japan referred to its colonies as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The country's leaders argued that their conquest would usher in an era of abundance and peace.

However, the exact opposite occurred. After the annexation of Korea in 1910, Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria in 1931 and the rest of China in 1937. Then came:

  • Laos,
  • Cambodia,
  • Thailand,
  • Vietnam,
  • Burma (Myanmar)

from 1940 through 1942.

In 1945, it was clear that Japan was a losing party in the Second World War. Yet it was its militarist ideology that made surrendering tricky. Processing surrender, which took place in September 1945, was a psychological challenge. Indeed, the American occupation forces engaged in what they called democratizing and demilitarizing Japan, not unlike the Allied demilitarization of Germany. This initiative meant the destruction of arms and a political transformation.

After the war, Emperor Hirohito avoided the war crime trials, the Tokyo Tribunal, with the help of General MacArthur and the rest of the American occupation forces. The occupiers sought to prevent social unrest after 1945 and transformed Hirohito from a militarist leader to a pacific. At the same time, Japanese society was tired of almost two decades of war. The Japanese were also devastated by the American bombing campaigns, which often targeted civilians. As a result, Japan abandoned its militarist ideology after the Second World War.

Militarism - Key Takeaways

  • Militarism is thinking that assigns a vital position to the armed forces, permeating every aspect of society and its institutions. It seeks military means to achieve its goals, especially in international relations.
  • Militarist societies have existed since ancient times and into the modern period. They include ancient Greek Sparta, Napoleonic France, Germany, and Japan roughly in the first half of the 20th century (until 1945).
  • The technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution translated into manufacturing innovative and deadly weapons used in global conflicts like the two world wars.


  1. Anastasakis, Othon et al, Balkan Legacies of the Great War: the Past is Never Dead, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016, p. v.
  2. Dower, John, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999, p. 33.

Frequently Asked Questions about Militarism

Militarism is the type of thinking that advocates using military means to achieve specific goals, especially in foreign policy and international relations. This thinking often permeates other parts of society and culture.

Militarist thinking prioritizes the military means to solving international conflicts while relying upon the technological advancements in weapons manufacturing.

One example of militarism is Japan's imperialist expansion into the rest of Asia during the period of 1931 to 1945. This expansion was buttressed by Japan's belief that the military served as the backbone of Japan as well as its inclusion of militarist themes in its social and cultural institutions.

Militarism was one of the contributing factors to the start of the First World War. Its causes are complex. However, the reliance on the newest weapons produced by the Second Industrial Revolution and the desire to solve international conflicts militarily played an important role.

Final Militarism Quiz

Militarism Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What is the name of the major transformation that Europe and the U.S. underwent between 1760 and 1840?

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Industrial Revolution

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Which ancient Greek society was militarist?

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When were chemical weapons used on a large scale for the first time?

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World War I

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Which militarist ruler led Japan in the Second World War?

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Emperor Hirohito 

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Which European leader was nicknamed the Iron Chancellor?

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Otto von Bismarck

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What was the name of Japan's empire in the 1930s and early 1940s?

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Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

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Which Medieval crusading order was the source of German militarism, according to some historians?

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Teutonic Knights

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Which Nazi German youth organization subscribed to militarist thinking?

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Hitler Youth

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What was Germany called between 1919 and 1933?

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Weimar Republic

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When were tanks first used in war?

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