Causes of the First World War

Causes of World War One

The First World War was one of the most immense conflicts of European History. As Woodrow Wilson said, World War 1 would be “the war to end all wars.” “Between 1914 – 1918, over 100 countries from Africa, America, Asia, Australasia and Europe were part of the conflict.” (Wilde) The reasons for the declaration of war were varied and related back to the uprising of different ideologies before 1914. Some historians, like Joachim Remak, say that WW1 was simply “the Third Balkan War that got out of hand”. (Wuzumi, 2011) Remak was born in Berlin and thus sympathized with the German plight. The five prominent causes that brought about large-scale war in the early 20th century were militarism, imperialism, common defense alliances, nationalism, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The turn of the century marked the beginning of an arms race. Countries were battling to become the most superior military power. This rise in militarism was one of the long-term effects of WW1. “This (militarism) is not just an arms race, but also a government’s attitude of mind, seeing war as a valid means of foreign policy.” (Claire, 2004) In 1914 Germany had established the greatest military stronghold. Great Britain, in response, vastly increased the size and capability of its navy. “Further, in Germany and Russia particularly, the military establishment began to have a greater influence on public policy.” (Kelly, 2007) Militarism controlled politics and social outlooks. The battle for supreme military power and the arms race drew the nations of Europe and around the world into conflict.

Imperialism was another important cause of the First World War. “Countries who believed that they were superior thought it was alright to conquer and rule others ‘” particularly if they were inhabited by races they thought were inferior. This is why countries like Britain, France, Belgium and Italy thought it was acceptable to colonize vast areas of Africa in the 19 th century. In 1900, the British Empire covered a fifth of land-area of the earth.” (Claire, 2004) Countries, for many years, look to control foreign lands to decrease competition for resources. Areas in the Middle East, Africa, and eastern parts of Asia were all in contention during this time period. The British Empire, as it was often referred to at this time period, stretched over five different continents, while France was in control of large portions of Africa. The need for these resources, especially with the increase of industrialization, augmented even more tension between the rivaling nations. “While Britain had grown an extensive colonial empire, Germany was catching up and was not going to be denied a share of the colonial world. If anything, it was expected that the fight for colonies would be the pretext for war between the two, not an incident in the Balkans.” (Cupp) The author is a high school history teacher, so his view on German imperialism is most likely an unbiased statement. Germany showed desire to take land in Africa, which had already been in control by France and Britiain. “The more Germans go out upon the waters, whether it be in journeys across the ocean, or in the service of the battle flag, so much the better it will be for us.” (Wilhelm, 1901) Kaiser Willhelm said this in a speech to the North German Regatta Association in 1901. As a German imperialist, he believed that expansion of German rule was best for his country. Mistrust and growing opposition between the expansion and imperialism of the nations would soon become a large cause of World War One.

Nationalism can be strongly attributed to the outbreak of war in the early part of the century. Germany was looking grow in nationalistic feelings, and the belief of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor, was that in order to create unity a war must be waged. As German nationalism began to grow, and unification was achieved well before the 20th century, the people desired more glory for their homeland. They wanted to expand and dominate. This was the aspiration of many of the powerful nations in Europe. Soon all the countries were strongly competing for the “top” position. Armed forces grew, nations expanded, and disputes were amplified. The attempt to prove their capability was not the only factor of nationalism that caused the war. More directly the Slavic peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina wanted to break away from Austria Hungary and to be assimilated into Serbia. The desire of these people created many uprisings and internal conflicts. A.P.J. Taylor said this concerning WW1, “the people of Europe leapt willingly into war.” (Tonge, 2003) As a British historian A.P.J. Taylor often sympathizes with enemies of the central powers, including the Slavs. The importance of this quote is that Taylor is exemplifying that although the reasons for war were not directly related to the people, their sense of nationalism helped thrust the continent into war. All sides of the war welcomed it because, influenced by strong nationalism, they believed their “vastly superior” armies and navies would bring a quick victory.

War was inevitable based on many different conflicts, but the expansion of war was a result of the defense alliances created among countries around the continent. The Triple Alliance agreement was secretly made in 1882 between Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. With this alliance came the destruction of the Three Emperor’s League between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. In need of a new power to ally themselves with, Russia made a Dual Alliance with France in 1864. After Edward VII ascended to the throne of Great Britain, which was popular among the French, the Triple Entente was formed between France, Russia, and Great Britain. In addition to those alliances, Britain and Japan, Russia and Serbia, along with Belgium, France and Great Britain all made separate alliances. As the entanglement of these defense alliances grew deeper and drew in more countries the conflict to be known as World War One was sure to be a major world affair. When fighting began each power directly involved invoked their allies to join the war, arguing that it was their duty bound by their common defense agreements. It seemed that as one country slipped into war, at least one more was to follow. “Although these alliances were defensive in nature, they meant that any conflict between one country from each alliance was bound to involve the other countries.” (Tonge, 2003) This is how the number of countries involved in some way in the First World War was over one hundred. Without the extensive alliance system, the war could have possibly been a smaller-scale European conflict, instead of one of the most devastating world events of all time.

The most direct, immediate cause of World War One was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Slavs had grown increasingly nationalistic, aspiring to break away from the Austria-Hungary Empire. “The trickiest of these problems was the desire of the Slavic people to have their own independent country.” (Cupp) The ruler of the Empire was Franz Joseph, who throughout his reign struggled with keeping his nation together. While visiting Sarajevo, Bosnia (which was part of the Austria-Hungary Empire at this time) the nephew of the leader of the Empire, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, the duchess of Hohenburg, were assassinated. General Oskar Potiorek, the current Governor of the Austrian provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, invited the Archduke to witness some troop maneuvers that he had set up. Ferdinand knew this was risky, considering that many of the people in this province were dissatisfied with the rule of the Austria-Hungary Empire and favored joining with Serbia. While fleeing an attempted bombing of his car, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were shot and killed by Gavrilo Princip. Princip was supposedly a member of The Black Hand, which allegedly had ties with the Serbian government. The disunions of the Austria-Hungary Empire and the increasing nationalism of the minority groups sparked conflict. As this conflict started, and sudden aggression shown by Germany, all of Europe soon got involved.

The First World War was essentially the result of the nations of Europe competing for supremacy. All the powers wanted to boast their country’s military power, while smaller groups sought to be freed from their ruling nations. When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered, all of the contributing factors came into play. Nationalism sparked the need to prove strength and ability, imperialism and colonial tensions caused suspicion and hostilities, militarism sparked the need to show their country’s force in a heated arms race, and the alliance system drew all the other nations in. While there are other disagreements, issues, and conflicts in Europe that caused World War One, these are the indispensable contributors to the widespread conflict. Scholars and historians to this date still argue what truly ignited the war in Europe, but it is clear that it is more than just the death of the Archduke. There were too many ideologies, concepts of individual liberty, and desire to establish military prowess to focus on only one reason for the start of World War One.

Works Cited

Claire, J. (2004). Background to The War. Retrieved May 2011, from John D. Claire Web Site:

Cupp, J. (n.d.). Causes of World War One. Retrieved May 2011, from :

Kelly, M. (2007). Causes of World War 1. Retrieved May 2011, from

Tonge, S. (2003). Causes of the First World War. Retrieved May 2011, from History Home:

Wilde, R. (n.d.). The Countries Involved in World War 1. Retrieved May 2011, from

Wilhelm, K. (1901). Speech to the North German Regatta Association. Germany.

Wuzumi. (2011). The Orgins of War World One. Retrieved May 2011, from Hub Pages: