Main Cause of World War 1

Main Cause of World War 1



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Many countries and leaders were not prepared for World War 1 perhaps because they could not predict its causes. World War 1 took place between 1914 and 1918 and was triggered by Europe’s political leadership. Interestingly, they believed that they could take control of the situation before it got worse. World War 1was directly triggered by the assassination of Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand and his wife in June 1914 but the actual causes of the war are more complicated and are still debatable by historians to date. Nevertheless, some of the main causes are believed to be alliances, imperialism, militarism, nationalism and crises.

World War 1 was a military involved all the strongest powers of the world particularly the two opposing alliances that were the Allies and the Central powers after the assassination of Austrian archduke by Serbian terrorist groups that took place in Sarajevo. Countries of Allies were Russia, British, France, Italy, Serbia, Belgium, Japan, U.S, Portugal and Montenegro while the Central powers included Germany, Austria,-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. These mesh of alliances made between countries with an intention to maintain the balance of power in Europe largely increased the scale of conflict amidst countries attempt to build military forces, arms and battleships so that they could regain their lost territories from previous conflicts and build empires. There were also crises such as the Bosnian crisis where Austria-Hungary took over former Turkish province of Bosnia in 1909 thus angering Serbia and the Moroccan crisis where Germans were protesting in 1911 against the French possession of Morocco (Eder &Seth 2010, 248-250).

The outcome of the war was really great and it involved numerous leaders such as Kaiser Wilhem II, Tsar Nicholas II, Prince Alexander of Serbia, President Wilson and Edward Grey as well as involvement of certain events such as use of chemical weapons and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915which bought US into the war. US is believed to have entered the war on April 6, 1917 and some of the major facts about the war was mobilization of 65 million troops where 8 million of them died while 21 million were wounded.

Reaction to Assassination

The assassination was a great shock to the world and Austrian-Hungarian monarchy received support from many parts of Europe and therefore it was apparent that an action aimed at punishing the Serbian was going to take place. The Austrian-Hungarian government took their time before reacting to the assassination. The Austrians initially consulted Germany about what they wanted to do and the situation in Balkans region so that they could know the possible response from them and fortunately, Germany promised to support any actions, including war that Austrians would take. It was not looking good diplomatically for the Germans to support the Austrians or assure them of support regardless of action taken by them (Eder &Seth 2010, 248-250).

On 23 July 1914, Austria-Hungary gave her ultimatum to the Serbian government by warning Serbians that they would lose independence and become their servants if they did not submit to the ultimatum. Failure to submit to the ultimatum which was only 48 hours would lead to a state of war or a full blown war. Although most countries did not like what was done by Serbia, the ultimatum given to them brought a great shock particularly the long delay in the Austrian Hungary response greatly changed the opinions of many European countries. For instance, Russia who were also supportive to any response by the Austria-Hungary and had even talked to Serbians to give in to any demand were not impressed by the ultimatum just like England and France who were also shocked by the harsh terms. The Serbians promised to give in to the response but with condition of negotiating a few details. However, the Austria-Hungary did not agree to that and their ambassador stated that it is either all or nothing resulting into declaration of war by the Austria-Hungary administration upon Serbia on 28 July, 1914.

It is obvious that the crisis was not properly managed by European countries and it is debatable by many historians whether the responsibility of the war rests in berlin and Vienna and may be St. Petersburg particularly the advice by German that Vienna should ensure that they settle the issue of assassination with Serbia. It is therefore clear that German took the first step in escalating the crisis amongst the groups who had earlier regrouped into two large alliances. The war was approaching because of failure of German to curb the crisis effectively and diplomatically.

The Outcome of The Reaction

Some historians argue that involvement of German in this war was probably a way of making themselves powerful by testing and overcoming other European powers. This war was just an opportunity for the Germans to become superpower by weakening the Slav nationalism and Serb expansionism in the Balkans and therefore their strategy was very limited. Russia and her ally France was not going to support Serbia on this but after the failure of the strategy set by Germans because Russia did not join them, the Germans targeted France through the North thus violating the Belgian’s neutrality and prompting Britain into war. Every nation through the alliances drugged each other into war unwillingly making it known that the formal alliances somehow guaranteed support and cooperation in all circumstances. Nations that involved in the war on both sides were not supported by their people who even suggested that going to war was supposed to be a necessity and this was very essential since every war requires approval. War in itself was very risking and this can be seen from the effects of the World War 1 which destabilized most countries’ economic interdependence. However, in 1913 just before the war, Europe desired war even when there was peace simply because war could be used in defining a country and identity as well as breaking out from peace boredom (Bickerton 2011, 118-124).

In the July 1914 crisis, the Russian empire was unwilling to allow Austria-Hungary to eliminate its influence in the Balkans and therefore ordered a partial mobilization a day later whereas the German empire mobilized and planned a quick, massive invasion of France to do away with French army and later turn east against Russia. French however, resisted military pressure and therefore withdrew their troops as a way of avoiding any incident but later mobilized them in August when German attacked French troops. On 2 august 1914, Germany also declared war on Russia and later Britain declared war on Germany after two days.

Causes of the World War 1

It is clear that there was more to the World War 1 than just murdering of the Austrian prince in Serbia but the assassination only triggered the war in real sense. The effects of this war were felt even after the post war era and it widespread to many generations after its end. As much as many people argue that the war was caused by assassination, the truth of the matter was that there were many causes that resulted into this war but it also marked the end of Austria and Serbia dealings. For sure, World War 1 was as a result of aggressions among different countries in Europe due to rise of nationalism and also imperial competition accompanied fear of war prompting military alliances and an arms race. All these led to the rising tensions that caused the war.

Bismarck, with an intention of isolating France formed three emperors in 1872 between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary and later took advantage of Italian resentment toward France thus forming triple alliance between Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary. However, the dismissal of Bismarck from his office made France to take advantage to gain ally thus forming Franco-Russian Entente and later joins Britain to form Entente Cordiale in 1904 after putting aside their conflicts making Europe to be divided into two armed camps.

Nationalism played a great role in creating tensions in Europe due to its dissatisfaction hence peace was preferred which led to division of Germany and Italy but they later unified. Having lost their land in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 to Germany, the French were committed to getting their land back and also the issue of Austria-Hungary controlling many lands that their neighbors felt belonged to them therefore making countries such as Czechs and Slovaks want to be independent. Russia also had many people from different country who wanted independence thus leading to many challenges and issues around Russian borders.

Arms race was also blamed as another cause of World War 1 which demanded the expansion of armies and navies and the fact that great powers copied the German’s military organization and efficiency. This led to universal registration of military duty, huge reserves and good planning and even effort was made for universal disarmament, the international rivalry made the arms race to continue to succeed. In Africa, there were to crises in morocco was the support of Morocco’s call for independence from France and the second crisis which was the protest to French supremacy in Morocco. Although the Germans gave a free hand in Morocco, they demanded an exchange of a portion of the French Congo.

The Alliances Role in World War 1

As stated earlier, World War I was fought by two alliances, the Central Powers and the Allies who were called the Triple Entente where the core of the Central Powers was the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria with the central principal of Bismarckian diplomacy was to maintain an alliance with Tsarist Russia and Austria. Kaiser Wilhelm II upon rising to the throne saw Chancellor Bismarck as someone of the past and not up to the job of guiding Germany into the future hence dismissed Bismarck and allowed the treaty with Russia to lapse. The Kaiser turned rather to Austria and Italy for its alliance system but after the War began, the Ottoman Turks and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers. The core of the Allies was the treaty between France and Russia and once the Kaiser allowed the treaty with Russia lapse, the French immediately took the opportunity and negotiated a treaty with the Russia despite the unlikeliness of the Republican France and Russia since the French had learned their lessons from the Franco-Prussian War. France knew that they would not face the Germans without allies such as Russia. The question on how Europe moved towards the war was how Britain reacted when the Germans invaded neutral Belgium .Even though Italy was allied with Germany and Austria, the Allies managed to convince them to enter the War on the Allied side and the only major power not engaged in the War by 1917 was America. Although Britain understood the importance of America in war, the Germany did not and the Kaiser’s Government engaged in reckless policies that eventually brought America into the war on the Allied side (Eder &Seth 2010, 248-250).

The opposing groups that fought in World War I were the central powers and the Allies, an alliance that grew from the three members of the Triple Entente to incorporate other 27 Allied and Associated powers, including Italy and later the USA but the hostilities were precipitated by the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, by a Serbian nationalist. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy formed the Triple Alliance in 1882, where they signed a document that promised they would give each other military support in case of a war and that it was ‘essentially defensive and conservative’ with the aim of stopping anyone who ‘might threaten’ the three nations (Hamilton 2004, 15-19).

The alliance formed between Germany and Austria-Hungary had strong ethnic ties since they shared borders in several regions thus making them learn German language, as well as a desire to increase their territories. Austria-Hungary specifically wanted the Balkans and the German Empire had an upper hand in gaining great influence over the fading Austro-Hungarian territory. By co-operating rather than competing, land could be taken over by either empire without conflict of interest and Italy wanted more territory in parts of her neighbors such as Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. Italy also wanted protection from attacks from its northern neighbor, France but it still had disputed land with Austria-Hungary. An alliance could turn out to be more effective in negotiating this land back but Italy still did not entirely trust Austria-Hungary thus making to form a secret treaty with France after joining triple Alliance. According to the treaty, a conflict involving any one of the Triple Alliance countries could bring in the other two and therefore instead of acting as a deterrent, the Treaty could be used as a way of bullying (Hamilton 2004, 15-19).

The great European powers were building up their military strength and the only European rival of Germany for the greatest navy was Britain. The German armed forces were large and well-trained because they required every man to serve sometime in the military and they had been developing a plan for a European war since 1905 when Count von Schlieffen began work on a strategy to deal with the two fronts created by France and Russia. Russia’s enormous size and poor railroads made it difficult to quickly mobilize armies to the German border although they supported many countries against Austria, partly because they were all Slavic and partly because it wanted to rule the territory, too. In fact, the Balkans was the area where European war would start because the small nations such as Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Herzegovina wanted independence from the larger countries like Turkey, Greece and Austria.

Tensions in the Balkan states were high, especially those between Serbia and Austria-Hungary making Serbia to strongly object the Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 due to fear of attack. Organizations’ were formed to stir public opposition to Germanic rule in Slavic state thus prompting someone to shoot the heir to the Austrian throne. Austria consulted Germany because they knew Russia supported the Balkan states and due to the Triple Alliance agreement, any Austrian action against Serbia would force Russia into a major war with Germany, or to abandon its loyalty to Serbia. German backed Austria-Hungary and they could take their pick of the European empires and their colonies through this but the terms were more severe than Serbia could possibly accept, and Austria-Hungary must have known this (Lemons 2005, 16-20).

After seeking Russian advice, Serbia refused to accept the parts of the ultimatum that allowed Austrian troops or police into Serbia and asked other powers like France and Germany to help resolve this disagreement. Disagreement between Serbia and Austria-Hungary led to declaration of war by Austria-Hungary against Serbia. In the meantime, Italy declared itself neutral, effectively breaking its treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary since it was convinced that joining the Allies in 1915 they would acquire land as per the Treaty of London which promised them land if they fought for the Allies (Lemons 2005, 16-20).

Britain and France overcame imperialistic conflicts because of the increasingly aggressive Germany and signed the Entente Cordiale (1904) but Russia formed an Entente with Britain (1907). This required Russia to reach an understanding with Britain’s Asian ally Japan whom they had fought the Russo-Japanese War a few years earlier. Although it was not clear if Britain would enter a continental ground war with Germany, Germany attacked France through neutral Belgium and this activated the treaty between those two countries. Austrian invasion of Serbia brought that country into the Allied sphere while the British treaties were loosely written; there were no doubt about Britain’s treaty obligations to Belgium (Bickerton 2011, 118-124). The British declaration of war automatically brought the Empire and Dominions into the war into the War and these countries made a very substantial contribution to the Allied cause. The lure of territorial gains brought Italy and Greece into the War on the Allied side making the joint strength of Russia and France a formidable challenge despite Germany’s strength in Europe. Although the Britain had only a small army, the powerful Royal Navy meant that the Allies could enact a naval blockade and the only major power not engaged in the War by 1917 was America. Britain understood the importance of America despite Germany’s failure to recognize this, Kaiser’s Government engaged in reckless policies which brought America into the war on the Allied side (April 1917).

How Alliances Caused the War

The alliance systems caused the First World War because they were made in secret and so produced much distrust and suspicion among the European powers thus preventing diplomats from devising a suitable solution to many of the crises preceding the war. Alliances were made on a war-footing and so heightened the war tension leading to an arms race among the European powers such as within four years after the formation of the Triple Entente in 1907, Germany built nine dreadnoughts (battleships) and consequently Britain built eighteen. This made almost all the European powers to be ready for war in 1914 thus causing First World War European powers joined alliances with one another such as the Allies and the central power thus making a small dispute touching one power to lead to a war linking all powers (Hamilton 2004, 15-19).

Alliances were originally strictly defensive but by 1910, many alliances had changed their character and had become aggressive to give military aid to and therefore they became instruments of national aggression hence doubling the chances of war. After the formation of the Triple Entente, Germany felt the threat to her security and loudly talked about the fact they were being surrounded by enemies on all sides. This made the aggressive William II to pursue a more vigorous foreign policy in an attempt to break the unity of the Entente power thus resulting in a series of international crises from 1905 to 1914 (Lemons 2005, 16-20). In November 1918, the Allies had many soldiers, material and weapons to invade Germany and even if they had crossed the German frontline away from Berlin, the Kaiser’s soldiers had withdrawn from the combat zone in good order. These issues made Hindenburg and other senior German leaders to say that their armies had not actually been conquered and this largely led to defeat of Germany particularly because of the public failure to back them up.


Bickerton, Ian. The Illusion Of Victory: The True Costs Of War. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 2011.

Eder, James M., and Seth A. Roberts. Barron’s AP European History. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 2010.

Hamilton, Richard F. The Origins Of World War I. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Lemons, Everette O. The Third Reich: A Revolution Of Ideological Inhumanity. United States: Lulu Press, 2005.

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