There were a number of causes for the start of World War I, including Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. The Berlin Conference of 1884 contributed to each of these causes and, therefore, was also a contributor to the start of World War I.
In the latter half of the 18th century, European nations became rivals seeking the vast resources of undeveloped Africa as they sought to find sources of raw materials and trade to grow their economies (www.wysinger.homestead.com/berlinconference, “Berlin West Africa Conference carves Africa into spheres of control”). Some of these rivalries were settled by force. For example, in the 1800’s Great Britain took control of South Africa away from the Dutch (“South Africans in Austin”, www.sa-austin.com/about_South_Africa). This led to the first Anglo-Boer war in 1881 (Wikipedia.com, “First Boer War”). Later discoveries of metals and precious stones led to further expansion by the British (ibid).The Berlin Conference heightened these rivalries by creating the so-called “Scramble for Africa”, especially due to the Principle of Effectivity, which required more than just a simple claim to a territory (www. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Conference_(1884), “Principal of Effectivity”). Still further expansion by the British, led by Dr. Jameson in 1896 (www.Wikipedia.com, “Jameson Raid”), proved to Germany, which sought to assist the Dutch in this conflict but lacked any naval power, that a stronger military was needed to protect their interests in Africa (www.the corner.org/hist/wwi/colonial, “World War I- Colonial Rivalries”). Despite the agreed upon “Spheres of Influence” at Berlin, it became increasingly clear that a buildup of military forces (militarism) would provide defense against aggressive European powers seeking to undermine the Berlin Conference agreements, as well as provide an offensive means to secure control themselves. Thus, the Berlin Conference sowed the seeds of militarism and eventually an “arms race”, which later contributed to the start of World War I.
Many alliances between European countries were signed beginning in 1879 with the German-Austrian Treaty known as the Dual Alliance (which had started as a Triple Alliance, but later Russia dropped out) (www.historyonthenet.com/WWI/causes, “Causes of World War One”). Italy joined this alliance in 1882 mainly due to the French annexation of Tunisia in Northern Africa (www.thecorner.org/hist/wwi/alliance.htm#dual_alliance, Alliance System, “Triple Alliance”). Portugal agreed to alliance with the United Kingdom to block access to the Atlantic from the Congo in early 1884 (www. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Conference_(1884), “Early history of the conference”). It was against this backdrop of increasing rivalry and growing alliances that the Berlin Conference was called by Otto Von Bismarck, the German chancellor (www.wysinger.homestead.com/berlinconference, “The Scramble for Africa”). Bismarck hoped not only to expand Germany’s African ownership of colonies but also wished to set different countries up against each (ibid), in effect to both destroy existing alliances and create new ones. The alliances that developed after the Berlin Conference were often related to the common economic goals of nations operating African colonies under the Berlin Conference agreements or developed in order to settle existing differences between two countries so as to offset a greater threat from some third country. The participants of the Berlin Conference sought to secure their Spheres of Influence and natural rivalries intensified when neighboring areas of Africa were controlled by a perceived threat. Due to this influence, as well as the even stronger concerns of sovereignty in Europe, alliances proliferated after the 1884-85 Berlin Conference (www.thecorner.org/hist/wwi/alliance.htm ), including the Reinsurance Treaty, the Franco-Prussian Treaty, the Entente Cordiale and others. Therefore, since the Berlin Conference was a contributor to the increase of varying alliances in Europe and the tangled web of these alliances led to a domino effect, pulling various nations into World War I in defense of these alliances (www.firstworldwar.com/origins/causes, “The Tangle of Alliances”), the Berlin Conference was also a contributor to the start of World War I.
Organized Imperialism was the principal reason for the Berlin Conference, which sought to reach agreement on which of the European participants would have the rights to certain areas of Africa, including control of raw materials, labor and trade. It essentially divided up all of Africa into imperial colonies of various European nations. France controlled much of West Africa, Britain controlled East and Southern Africa, while the Belgians received vast control of interior areas that became known as the Congo (www.wysinger.homestead.com/berlinconfernce, “The Scramble for Africa”). The Germans got four areas, one in each of the four major regions, while the Portuguese received some land in West Africa and Southern Africa (ibid). Since the chief reason for the Berlin Conference was to organize the imperialistic colonization of Africa and since the result of the conference was increased rivalry between the participating nations over Africa’s spoils, it can be concluded that the Berlin Conference helped precipitate World War I.
Nationalism is usually the result of strong ethnic identity and support of a state comprised of individuals of similar ethnicity (www.wikipedia/wiki/Nationalism). It is often accompanied with the belief that the state is of utmost importance and that it is superior to other states (ibid). Nationalism can often lead to racism and a sense that one’s ethnicity is “better” than another. Nationalism can also lead to efforts to gain greater advantage over other states. The growing sense of Nationalism in the late 1800’s was a crucible for furtherance of hatred and contempt for all ethnic differences. When one examines the motivations of the participants of the Berlin Conference, three important underlying themes are exposed: (1) participants were induced to the Conference to assure that other rival states would not gain advantages; (2) Caucasian Europeans believed they that they were superior to the “black” Africans and (3) the benefits to the individual European states were of greater importance than the “rights” of uncivilized Africans. Thus, Nationalism played a strong role in the motivations to participate in the Berlin Conference and Nationalism was further stoked by the racist tendencies of the Berlin Conference. Therefore, since the Berlin Conference helped incite greater Nationalism and Nationalism was a contributor to the start of World War I, the Berlin Conference was also a contributor to the start of World War I.
In conclusion, the Berlin Conference contributed to each of the underlying causes of World War I: Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. Therefore, the Berlin Conference was likewise a contributor to the start of World War I.