While there was a chain of events that directly led to the fighting, the actual root causes are much deeper. The Causes of World War One were Alliances, Imperialism, Militarism, and Nationalism. I will be going into the detail of these matters to explain the events that triggered the World War.
Countries throughout Europe made defence agreements that would pull them into battle, meaning, if one country was attacked, allied countries were bound to defend them. This was called Alliances. At the start of World War One, Germany and Austria-Hungary allied and became the Triple Alliance or Central Powers Alliance, when Italy joined in 1882. Fearful of that Alliance; in 1894, France made an alliance with Russia, and In 1904 France also made an agreement with Britain called the Entente: not a formal alliance, but a promise to work together. In 1907, Britain made an entente with Russia, forming the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Britain). Unfortunately, back then, the Governments and Politicians thought that the build-up of armed forces or alliances would keep the peace by acting as a warning to any nation thinking of attacking them, but nowadays we know different.
Alliances helped cause World War One because The Triple Entente alarmed Germany, and she felt surrounded by the alliance; this made a worried, uneasy atmosphere. For example, when Britain joined The Triple Entente and France and Russia formed an alliance (against Germany), she was fearful and wanted to be ready for an attack, so Germany started building up her Empire and Navy. I think this is a valid reason for triggering World War One because each country wanted to be one step ahead of the other, and there is always an end to that, in this case- war. Militarism and Alliances are linked because when Germany built up her Empire and Navy, she also developed her Militarism.
Another cause was Imperialism. European nations ruled smaller countries called colonies, and competed with each other to collect more colonies, gathering colonies became known as Imperialism. Both France and Britain had many colonies in Africa and Asia; then Germany decided she wanted a colonial empire too.
Imperialism helped cause World War One because Germany was jealous of the countries that had other places where they could gather raw materials and cheap labour. Because of Germany building her Empire so quickly, Britain got worried about power and improved their Empire as well. A benefit of Germany’s fast increasing Empire, was that most countries thought they were to win, so made an alliance with them. For example, Italy had no part in the war, but when they saw Germany’s rising Empire, she thought they were bound to win; she only joined the Alliance to be a part of winning the war.
I think this affected the build-up to World War One because each country wanted more than the other, and in the end, the most likely thing that would happen, is that Britain and Germany wanted the same country, and would end up in a fight or, war. Imperialism is linked to militarism because militarism creates the weapons used to conquer new territory.
Militarism was a cause of World War One because increased military rivalry led not only to the belief that war was coming and when Britain made the HMS Dreadnought in 1906, Germany made a similar battle ship, increasing tension and nerves. For example, colonial rivalry had led to a naval arms race between Britain and Germany; this had worsened relations between both countries. This rivalry no doubt turned to jealously and possibly hate, making it a prime time to start a war. I think that this is a good reason to start war because the competition between the powers led to a building up of weapons and an increase in distrust. Militarism is linked to Nationalism because each country were nationalist about themselves and thought that they were superior, and therefore should have a better army.
Nationalism is a cause of World War One because a nationalist Serbian terrorist group called the Black Hand assassinated the arch duke Franz Ferdinand 28th June 1914.
The Serbians only assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian’s because they had recently made an alliance with the Russians, they were feeling very secure and confident, but Austria, having a strong alliance with Germany, declared war.
Russia began to mobilize due to its alliance with Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia. Thus began the expansion of the war to include all those involved in the mutual defence alliances.
Conclusively, I think the main cause of World War One was Alliances because after the assassination of the arch duke Franz Ferdinand, Austria/Hungry declared war, because of the alliances; other countries were tied into the war. An example of an alliance today is France and Britain. This caused the war because they should have felt secure and safe with an alliance, but as we know today, it just made the tension rise- especially when enemies made alliances. Most had backup and were confident to start a war.
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It’s possibly the single most pondered question in history – what caused the unbound, senseless slaughter that was the First World War? It wasn’t, like in World War Two, a case of a single belligerent pushing others to take a military stand. It didn’t have the moral vindication of a resisting a tyrant. Rather, a delicate but toxic balance of structural forces created a dry tinder that was lit by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That event precipitated the July Crisis, which saw the major European powers hurtle toward open conflict.
Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Vienna on June 28th 1914
The M-A-I-N acronym is often used to analyse the war – militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism. It’s simplistic but provides a useful framework.
The late nineteenth century was an era of military competition, particularly between the major European powers. The policy of building a stronger military was judged relative to neighbours, creating a culture of paranoia that heightened the search for alliances. It was fed by the cultural belief that war is good for nations.
A British dreadnought – the building of these ships was a source of tension between Great Britain and Germany.
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Germany in particular looked to expand its navy. However, the ‘naval race’ was never a real contest – the British always s maintained naval superiority. But the British obsession with naval dominance was strong. Government rhetoric exaggerated military expansionism. A simple naivety in the potential scale and bloodshed of a European war prevented several governments from checking their aggression.
A web of alliances developed in Europe between 1870 and 1914, effectively creating two camps bound by commitments to maintain sovereignty or intervene militarily – The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance.
- The Triple Alliance of 1882 linked Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
- The Triple Entente of 1907 linked France, Britain and Russia.
A historic point of conflict between Austria Hungary and Russia was over their incompatible Balkan interests, and France had a deep suspicion of Germany rooted in their defeat in the 1870 war.
A British cartoon of Europe in 1914
The alliance system primarily came about because after 1870 Germany, under Bismarck, set a precedent by playing its neighbours’ imperial endeavours off one another, in order to maintain a balance of power within Europe
Imperial Competition also pushed the countries towards adopting alliances. Colonies were units of exchange that could be bargained without significantly affecting the metro-pole. They also brought nations who would otherwise not interact into conflict and agreement. For example, the Russo-Japanese War (1905) over aspirations in China, helped bring the Triple Entente into being.
The Russo-Japanese War was fought over colonial aspirations in China – with the Russians suffering a heavy defeat.
It has been suggested that Germany was motivated by imperial ambitions to invade Belgium and France. Certainly the expansion of the British and French empires, fired by the rise of industrialism and the pursuit of new markets, caused some resentment in Germany, and the pursuit of a short, aborted imperial policy in the late nineteenth century. However the suggestion that Germany wanted to create a European empire in 1914 is not supported by the pre-war rhetoric and strategy.
Nationalism was also a new and powerful source of tension in Europe. It was tied to militarism, and clashed with the interests of the imperial powers in Europe. Nationalism created new areas of interest over which nations could compete.
Austria Hungary was really a conglomerate of countries under a dual monarchy.
For example, The Habsburg empire was tottering agglomeration of 11 different nationalities, with large slavic populations in Galicia and the Balkans whose nationalist aspirations ran counter to imperial cohesion. Nationalism in the Balkan’s also piqued Russia’s historic interest in the region. Indeed, Serbian nationalism created the trigger cause of the conflict – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The Spark: The Assassination
Ferdinand and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Bosnian Serbian nationalist terrorist organization the ‘Black Hand Gang.’ Ferdinand’s death, which was interpreted as a product of official Serbian policy, created the July Crisis – a month of diplomatic and governmental miscalculations that saw a domino effect of war declarations initiated.
The historical dialogue on this issue is vast and distorted by substantial biases. Vague and undefined schemes of reckless expansion were imputed to the German leadership in the immediate aftermath of the war with the ‘war-guilt’ clause. The notion that Germany was bursting with newfound strength, proud of her abilities and eager to showcase them, was overplayed.
The almost laughable rationalization of British imperial power as ‘necessary’ or ‘civilizing’ didn’t translate to German imperialism, which was ‘aggressive’ and ‘expansionist.’ There is an on-going historical discussion on who if anyone was most culpable. Blame has been directed at every single combatant at one point or another, and some have said that all the major governments considered a golden opportunity for increasing popularity at home.
The Schlieffen plan could be blamed for bringing Britain into the war, the scale of the war could be blamed on Russia as the first big country to mobilise, inherent rivalries between imperialism and capitalism could be blamed for polarising the combatants. AJP Taylor’s ‘timetable theory’ emphasises the delicate, highly complex plans involved in mobilization which prompted ostensibly aggressive military preparations.
The German Schlieffen Plan required Germany to defeat France quickly to avoid a two front war.
Every point has some merit, but in the end what proved most devastating was the combination of an alliance network with the widespread, misguided belief that war is good for nations, and that the best way to fight a modern war was to attack. That the war was inevitable is questionable, but certainly the notion of glorious war, of war as a good for nation-building, was strong pre-1914. By the end of the war, it was dead.
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Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.