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.
What was the most significant cause of World War One? (WW1)
World War one started on the 28th of July 1914 between two sides; triple alliance and the triple entente. It ended on the 11th of November 1918. Difference in policies were to blame, although the immediate cause of World War one was the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The war started mainly because of four aspects: Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. This is because big armies become potential threats to other countries, other countries started forcing alliances in order to secure land. Imperialism was a cause because building an empire needs manpower such as an army and a navy to conquer and keep the land that they colonised. The alliances system meant that a local conflict could easily result into an intimidating global one. The overall cause of World War was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Nationalism was a great cause of World War one because of countries being greedy and not negotiating. Nationalism shows you are proud of your country and want it to be the best. A lot of causes all linked back to countries all wanted to be better than each other. Nationalist groups in Austria-Hungary and Serbia wanted independence. France wanted Alsace Lorraine back from Germany who was lost in 1871 Franco-Prussian war. The use of Nationalism gave nations false hope and aggressive to win the war. Even if they weren’t able to win a war due to their strength and understanding of plans and leaders. This leads to Imperialism. As you can see Nationalism had made a big dent in Countries understanding and strength of war. Also how different countries wanted land to help their plan succeed in winning the war.
One of the most significant causes of World War one was Imperialism, which is where a system where powerful nation rules and exploits one or more colonies. There are two main crisis’s that occurred in Morocco in 1905 and 1911. In 1905, Kaiser visited Morocco in North Africa, where Germany was building up its own Empire. An international conference was held in 1906. At the conference Kaiser was humiliated, this made him fill with rage because he wanted to be seen as Major power in Africa. Instead, he was treated as if he had no right in speaking at the conference that was made global news. In 1911 France tried to take over Morocco again. Britain feared that Kaiser wanted to set up a naval base in Agadir. Another conference was held and the British and French stood up against Germany once again. France took control of Morocco and Germany was given land in central Africa as an act of compensation. These two events lead directly to Militarism. This was a significant cause of World War one because Kaiser was humiliated and could have felt determined to fight Britain and France earlier as an act of Revenge. Also, at the time he would have been more hostile.
Militarism could have cause the war due to the naval and arms race. The main event of Militarism causing World War one was the naval rivalry which was made after 1900. Britain had the most powerful navy in the world. The new Keiser Wilhelm announced his intention to build a bigger German navy than Britain. Britain felt very threatened by this. Germany’s navy was much smaller than Britain’s navy but the British army was put all over its colonies so they can be protected. Germany didn’t have a big Empire like Britain but most people agreed, at the time, they were the best trained and the most powerful. The Kaiser felt he needed a bigger navy than Britain to protect its country.
While Britain and Germany built up their navies, the major powers on mainland Europe were also building up their armies. The problem for Germany was that if the war broke out they would have to fight both Russia and France at the same time. The Germans then came up with the Schlieffen Plan.
On the other hand, Russia could put millions onto the fields and France had a plan of attack which was to change across the frontier and attack deep into Germany, forcing surrender. Britain and France were working closely together with commanders which meant their military plans were designed to achieve quick victory. The British navy knew the cost of the war would lead to an economic collapse on the enemy. Overall, if countries have a big army, enough resources and a great navy they would be ready for conflict. By Germany, Britain and France participating in the naval and army race, they were able to build their navies to their top standard, this lead to the next stage which was Alliances, also their navy’s strength, significance in the war and how it would help them win the war.
Alliances showed a great dent in World War one. In 1914 the six most powerful countries in Europe divided into two opposing Alliances (sides/teams). The Triple Alliance consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy which was formed in 1882. The Triple Entente included Britain, France and Russia which was formed in 1907. Each country was heavily armed and each one had reasons for distrusting each other’s countries in Europe. In the nineteenth century, Britain had tried to not get involved in European Politics. It’s attitude towards this decision became known as ‘splendid isolation’ as it concentrated on its huge oversea colonies.
Britain had regarded France and Russia as its most dangerous rivals at the time. Meanwhile, Britain’s real ally was Japan at the time. Britain was very worried about Germany to have an Empire and a strong navy, which Britain saw as a serious threat to its own Empire and Navy. The central powers alliance was a collection of small independent states of which Prussia was the most powerful. In 1870 the Prussian statesman Bismarck won a war against France, after which he united the many German states into a new and powerful German empire. This all leads to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This shows how the use of creating Alliances was an advantaged and disadvantaged idea between the global nations.
The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife was critical in setting off the chain of events that led to the First World War. Not only was it a bad day for the Archduke and his family, but also a bad day for Europe. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. He was inspecting the army in Sarajevo with his wife Sophie. The royal couple arrived by train at 9.28am. Seven young Bosnian Serbs planned to assassinate Franz Ferdinand as he drove along the main road in Sarajevo, the Appel Quay. The first conspirator who tried to kill Franz Ferdinand threw a bomb at his car. He missed and was arrested. The Archduke escaped unhurt. He decided to abandon the visit and return home via a different route to the one planned. No one had told the driver the route had changed. On the way back, therefore, the driver turned into Franz Josef Street, following the published route and, when told of his error, stopped the car to turn around. Unfortunately, the car stopped in front of Gavrilo Princip, one of the conspirators, who was on his way home thinking he had failed. Princip pulled out a gun and shot at Franz Ferdinand, hitting him in the jugular vein. There was a tussle, during which Princip shot and killed Sophie. By 11.30am, Franz Ferdinand had bled to death.
This then led to the cold-blooded World War one. It caused the war because Austria blamed Serbia for the killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Then Austria declared war on Serbia, the Russian army got ready to help Serbia defend itself against the attack and Germany sends a demand to Russia ordering it to hold back from helping Serbia. Then Germany declared war on Russia. The French army is put on a war footing getting ready to fight a German invasion. After all of that Germany declares war on France and invades Belgium, Britain orders Germany to withdraw from Belgium and the Germans did not listen. As you can see the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the cause of different events which then led to the war indirectly.
I think the most significant cause of World War one was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The other causes of the war was Imperliasm, Militarism, Nationalism and Alliances that were formed. These were the causes of World War One. Also, everyone wanted to be the best country, which links back to all four causes and aspects of the events.
Thanks for reading and please comment below on any further improvements or even just any more opinions.