The First World War commenced in August 1914 and was directly caused by the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on the 28th June, 1914 by Gavrilo Princep, a revolutionary from Bosnia. Although this single event had triggered the First World War, the actual causes of the war are quite complicated and continue to be a matter of debate amongst historians. World War I was the result of rising tensions amongst European leaders due to the pattern of aggression that emerged against each other. This aggression received further support by way of the increasing nationalism that had spread into all countries in Europe. The fear arising from the high levels of economic and colonial competition and the increasing risk of war made most of the European countries to form military alliances that further led to an arms race. Consequently tensions kept escalating which ultimately led to the outbreak of World War I.
At the outset, the immediate cause of the First World War was an incident and not a specific reason that had been brewing or planned by opponents of the assassinated leader. Franz Ferdinand was the heir apparent to the Austrian-Hungary Empire and while visiting the city of Bosnia became a victim of the assassin. The taking over of Bosnia by Austria had been viewed as an infringement of the citizen’s independent rights in governing their country. Despite the unwillingness of Bosnia, its capital city was taken over by Austria-Hungary which generated a lot of antagonism amongst the Serbian people. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was viewed by Austria-Hungary as an insult and it felt intimidated by Serbia. Austria-Hungary immediately reacted by taking defensive measures and started preparing for the war that now became inevitable. Turkey united with Austria-Hungary and Germany while on the opposite side Italy and Japan united with Russia, Britain and France. This merger of nations came to be called the Triple Alliance (McKay p.889). While preparations for war were continuing, the United States chose to remain non committal for some time but eventually decided to unite with the Triple Alliance in view of its assessment of German strategies as being egocentric ambitions.
During the Congress of Vienna in 1815, nationalism was largely ignored and instead, nations decided to preserve peace. However Italy and Germany were not a part of such understanding and continued to be divided states. The revolutions and nationalist movements in Italy culminated in Italy’s unification in 1861 while unification of Germany happened in 1871. The Franco Prussian War of 1870-71 had left France much disgruntled due to the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and Revanche. There were complications within the Balkans and Austria-Hungary in regard to nationalism because of the presence of several nationalist groups in these countries. There was a clash and conflict between the Pan-slavism of Serbia and Pan-Germanism of Austria-Hungary (McKay p. 884).
The short term causes of World War I were the alliances and ententes that had become a practice with most European countries. As a result of the alliances there was tremendous pressure on leaders which led to rivalries on the international front as nations began to take sides and thus get ideologically divided on the basis of their political leanings. Imperialism was in the forefront from 1850 to 1914 and powerful nations competed with each other in colonialism. Nations used their military might in conquering weaker nations which began to be seen as an indication of power, wealth and high political status. Such a pattern encouraged more nations to adopt the practice of political expansion which resulted in more rivalry amongst nations.
Amongst the royals, the British Crown held the maximum countries under its control; as much as 25% of the world was ruled by it. France and Russia were the biggest challenge to the British prior to getting into alliance with them in 1904 and 1907 respectively. The alliance with France and Russia was formed primarily to check the aggression by Germany in different parts of Europe. Britain also became a strong ally of America while it was at war with Spain. This alliance became very crucial for both countries especially after the commencement of World War I (McKay p. 905).
Another short term reason for the war was commercial rivalry. The resentment between Austria and Serbia occurred by chance because of the economic issues relating to the piling up of huge arsenals. Britain was much ahead than other nations in terms of industrial and economic development and the competition was increasing rapidly to extract the maximum earnings from such activities. Although most European countries were in the race for industrial growth, Britain’s main economic rivals were Germany and America. The US had built massive infrastructure and attained immense wealth by 1914 because of its economic opulence, and after the commencement of the war, the US was best placed in supplying goods to Europe (McKay p. 883). This aspect of economic development had a deep meaning in being a cause for the outbreak of World War I. Britain and Russia were posing a grave threat to Germany in getting ahead economically, which made Germany to manipulate in forcing Russia to engage in war.
The arms race was a long term cause that had major implications in making the European nations to go to war against each other. As one country acquired some weapons other countries raced to get hold of better ones in order to have the upper edge in acquiring the means for protection and defense. It was not long before most countries were deeply involved in the arms race. After suffering defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870, France started acquiring more arms. Germany was not scared of France because of the armaments acquired, but because of the alliance France had with Russia. Germany would not be able to stand against the combined power of the two countries and hence decided to take them on individually. After the crisis in Morocco in 1906, more of military arsenal was acquired by most countries in Europe to meet threats arising from the training plans undertaken by the Russian armed forces. It was believed that Russia had acquired arms to such an extent that no country could stand against it in the event of a war. Under such circumstances Germany made plans of conducting defensive attacks in order to successfully combat the Triple Entente (McKay p. 885).
Most countries had begun to expand their armies and navies. The armies of France and Germany had doubled between 1870 and 1914. There was increasing competition between Germany and Britain to expand their respective navies. It was decided by the British in 1889 that the empire must have a navy that is at least two and a half times larger than the second largest navy. Such a decision inspired Britain to launch the Dreadnought which was conceived in 1906 by Admiral Sir Fisher. The effectiveness of such battle ships was amply demonstrated in the Russo Japanese War of 1905. Accordingly, Germany too increased production of battle ships. Despite efforts for disarmament during the Hague Conference of 1907, international rivalry led the arms race to pick up pace.
After the Morocco crisis in 1905, Germany declared its intention to support the cause of independent Morocco, which was given to France by Britain in 1904. France was defended by the British and a war was averted because of the 1906 international conference in Algeciras which permitted France to treat Morocco as a French protectorate. There was another conflict which happened because of the annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary in 1908. The Great Serbian Movement’s objective was to acquire Slavic Bosnia which made Serbia to give threats of war on Austria-Hungary. Russia had already sided with Serbia and thus began to mobilize its forces which made Germany to threaten Russia with war. In a way World War I was postponed after Russia backed out because of the threat, but at the same time relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary continued to deteriorate.
There was a crisis for the second time in Morocco in 1911 when warships were sent to Agadir by Germany in protest against French occupation of Morocco. This time also Britain supported France and warned Germany of serious consequences. But Germany agreed to allow France free access to Morocco only if a part of French Congo was given to it. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 saw the Turks being driven back to Constantinople while the Balkan States fought amongst themselves over control of territories.
The breaking point was reached in Europe on 28 June, 1914 when heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne was killed in Sarajevo by a Serb who belonged to Black Hand organization. Immediately Germany pledged full support to Austria-Hungary and pressurized them to declare war on Serbia. At the same time France reiterated full support to Russia. In being convinced that Serbia had conspired against the interests of Austria-Hungary, the country issued an ultimatum to Serbia, to which Serbia consented immediately.
War was declared on Serbia by Austria-Hungary on July 28, 1914, and on July 29 Russia started partially mobilizing its army in support of Serbia. Germany threatened war if Russia did not withdraw its forces while France also started to mobilize in anticipation of war between Russia and Germany. War was declared by Germany on Russia on August 1 and France entered the war after two days. Britain joined the war after Germany invaded Belgium in violation of Belgium’s officially declared neutrality. The World War I had commenced.
McKay J P, (2007). A History of Western Society: Volume 2. Bedford/St. Martins.