The main causes of the First World War

The First World War was the first world war of the 20th century, which took place between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918.

The causes of the war are complicated. Although Germany has been accused for the beginning of the war, some historians claim collective responsibility among the warring parties. The main short and long term causes of the war are described below.

Short-term causes

Franz Ferdinand Assassination

On Sunday, 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, by Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Yugoslav nationalist and member of a terrorist organization called the Black Hand. The motivation behind the attack was to break the Austro-Hungarian occupation of the Balkan states to form a united Yugoslavia.

Gavrilo Princip is arrested in Sarajevo.

In the aftermath of the attack, Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia and declared war. Austria-Hungary did not do it alone, however – they knew they had to seek help from their ally, Germany.

Unable to take care of itself, Serbia turned to Russia for help. However, at the same time, Germany declared war on Russia. Germany also saw this time as an opportunity to finally break what they called the Schlieffen Plan . The Schlieffen plan referred to Germany’s plans to invade Belgium and France to gather soldiers and improve their chances of winning a war against Russia. At that time, Germany had no army anywhere near the size of their Russian counterparts. However, the plan ultimately failed, when Britain brought their troops to protect neutral Belgium, which caused a disastrous clash between Britain and Germany.

Because of these events mentioned above, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is generally considered the main catalyst of the First World War. However, there are many other reasons why the war broke out, some of which are more difficult to identify.

Long-term causes

The long-term causes of the First World War can be remembered using a simple acronym: MAIN

M: Militarism

The 20th century saw a great increase in training and equipment for the army. Most countries in Europe have tried to increase their power and military reserves with the conscription of young men in the army and the training of more soldiers. Countries have developed new and more capable weapons, each competing to outdo each other. The arms race is linked to the emergence of the First World War. At the time of the war, the countries had collected stacks of weapons and other military resources, indicating that the countries were ready for a bigger war.

A: Alliances

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European countries formed mutual defense alliances that would require the parties involved to support one of the members in the event of a war. In the case of attacks on a member, those in the alliances rise in their defense. The alliances formed before the First World War include the alliance between Russia, Britain and France Triple Entente , and the alliance between Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany, called the Triple Alliance . The war began after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia grew in defense of Serbia and Germany in defense of Austria-Hungary which pushed Great Britain and France into war. The United States, Italy and Japan joined the war later.

A map showing the alliances of the First World War.

I: Imperialism

Imperialism is the expansion of the power of a government through the conquest of new territories. The European powers in the 19th century had occupied territories in Asia and Africa. The English and the French had the largest areas. Germany had very few territories as it had to deal with political problems at home and joined the fight for colonies much later. The struggle has led to conflicts and tensions have increased between the powers. When the war between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Serbia began, the colonies recruited their subjects into the war, transforming the whole world into war.

N: nationalism

Nationalism is a political ideology in which individuals identify with a particular national identity. In Europe, different groups have identified themselves as belonging to a particular national entity, each trying to prove their domination over the other. Nationalism increased the desire of important economic powers to establish themselves as economic and military powers within Europe. This has led to rivalry between ethnic communities such as the Slavs and the Germans. The Slavs identified themselves as Serbs, not as Hungarian-Hungarians who led to a conflict that later turned into a world war.

Consequences of the First World War

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 saw the end of the war. However, the lasting effects of the First World War changed the world forever. Not only did the war cause the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire dissolved. Many countries have lost an impressive number of human victims. It is estimated that an astonishing 37 million people lost their lives due to the First World War.

Even if the peacetime brought with it the “Roaring 20s”, it would never again be a matter of conflicts. In the years following the war, the worst economic depression the world had ever experienced would have felt. Even more, it would not be long before the world experienced another devastating war, rightly called World War II, a war for which some of the causes had already been planted.

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