Underlying causes of world war 1 essay

Underlying causes of world war 1 essay

European History

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Causes of the First World War

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Europe Before 1914: the Main Powers

Triple Entente

Tsar Nicholas II (1894-1917)

Triple Alliance

The direct cause of WWI was the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. However historians feel that a number of factors contributed to the rivalry between the Great powers that allowed war on such a wide-scale to break out.

A major historical debate still rages about who has the ultimate responsibility for the outbreak of war. Germany and Austria are usually regarded as the main culprits. However unlike World War Two there is no one easily identifiable bad guy!

Below are some of the main long-term causes that are identified by historians:-

The System of Alliances

Before 1914 Europe’s main powers were divided into two armed camps by a series of alliances. These were

  • The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (1882)
  • The Triple Entente of Britain, Russia and France (1907)

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. The fact that Germany faced a war on two fronts greatly influenced her actions during the July Crisis.

By 1914 Italy was only a Nominal member of the Triple Alliance. She had concluded a secret treaty with France by which she promised to stay neutral if Germany attacked France and when war broke out she stayed out. This meant that Germany had only one dependable ally, Austria-Hungary.

The main rivalries between the powers were:

  • Germany and France over Alsace. This division made an alliance between both countries impossible.
  • Russia and Austria over the Balkans.
  • Britain and Germany over their navies and economic power.

“The alliances created an excessively rigid diplomatic framework, within which relatively small detonators could produce huge explosions” (A. J.P. Taylor)


In all of the Great powers, military spending increased greatly in the years prior to the war. All except Britain had conscription. Over 85% of men of military age in France and 50% in Germany had served in the army or navy. France had the highest proportion of its population in the army.

The armies of both France and Germany had more than doubled between 1870 and 1914. The rivalry between the powers led to a building up of weapons and an increase in distrust.

Colonial rivalry had led to a Naval arms race between Britain and Germany. This had seriously worsened relations between both countries. The British-German dispute also led to greater naval co-operation between Britain and France.

The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 made matters worse. This ship was fast, heavily armoured with powerful guns and it made all previous battleships obsolete.


Allied to this growing militarism was an intense nationalism in most of the Great powers. Weltpolitik or the desire for world power status was very popular in Germany. The French desire for revenge over Alsace and Lorraine was very strong. In Britain Imperialism and support for the Empire was very evident. This nationalism meant that there was little resistance to war in these countries. Many welcomed what they thought would be a short, victorious war. For example the outbreak of war was greeted by cheering crowds in Berlin, Vienna and Paris. As A P J Taylor wrote “the people of Europe leapt willingly into war.”

Because of the nature of the Alliances most countries had war plans that involved rapid movement of troops when war broke out. This made it very difficult to stop mobilisation of troops once it had begun and gave the military in each country a very important role in any decision-making. For example the Kaiser lost control of events and said to his generals when they made the decision to mobilise «Gentlemen, you will regret this.»

The Schlieffen Plan

The famous German war plan, the Schlieffen Plan, relied on the quick movement of troops and the assumption that once Germany found itself at war with Russia, it would also be at war with France.

  • Concentrating German forces on an attempt to take Paris and so defeat France.
  • When that was achieved troops would be transferred to attack Russia. This is the most famous plan as it came very close to success.

It also meant that once Germany declared war on Russia in August 1914, she would also have to attack France. However in invading France, Belgium’s neutrality was violated and this brought Britain into the war.

France had her own plan called Plan XVII (which Niall Ferguson described as “mad strategy”) and so also did Russia (Plan G) and Austria-Hungary (Plans R and B).

All of these plans assumed the co-operation of their respective allies.

Once the first steps towards mobilisation were taken, everyone assumed that it would be fatal to stand still while their potential enemies moved forward.

The Crises before 1914

Between 1900 and 1914 there had been three major crises between the great powers. These crises exposed the differences between the powers and reinforced the hostility between them.

Two were over Morocco (1905, 1911) and the other was over the Austrian annexation of Bosnia (1908).

In 1905 Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the Moroccan port of Tangier and denounced French influence in Morocco. The move was designed to test the strength of the recent Anglo-French entente. The visit provoked an international crisis, which was resolved in France’s favour at the Algeciras Conference, 1906.

The result was to bring France and Britain closer together. Edward VII called the German actions «the most mischievous and uncalled for event which the German Emperor has been engaged in since he came to the throne.»

This crisis erupted when the Germans sent the gunboat «Panther» to the Moroccan port of Agadir, to protect German citizens there. Germany claimed that the French had ignored the terms of the Algeciras Conference. This provoked a major war scare in Britain until the Germans agreed to leave Morocco to the French in return for rights in the Congo. Many Germans felt that they had been humiliated and that their government had backed down.

  1. The Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina

The two Turkish provinces had been administered by Austria since the Congress of Berlin. Austria Annexed Bosnia after tricking Russia during negotiations between their respective foreign ministers. The action outraged Serbia as there was a large Serbian population in Bosnia. There was a crisis among the Great powers and it brought Europe to the brink of war. Russia bowed to German pressure when they supported Austria and they agreed to the annexation. However she was determined not to be humiliated again.

The effects of these crises had been a hardening of attitudes and an increase in distrust between the different European powers. It led to a strengthening of the different alliances:

  • Britain and France during the Moroccan Crises
  • Austria and Germany during the Bosnian crisis.

The Eastern Question and The Balkans

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century the Ottoman Empire had lost land in the Balkans to the peoples who lived there.
The great powers were also interested in extending their influence in the region. Austrian and Russian relations were poor over their rivalry in the Balkans.

Both hoped to expand there at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Another important factor was the growth of Slav nationalism among the people who lived there, especially Serbia.

Russia encouraged Slav nationalism while Austria worried that this nationalism could undermine her empire. Russia supported Serbia which was very bitter at the annexation of Bosnia and saw herself as Serbia’s protector.

As a result of the Balkan Wars (1912 — 1913) Serbia had doubled in size and there was growing demands for the union of south Slavs (Yugoslavism) under the leadership of Serbia. Austria had a large south Slav population in the provinces of Slovenia, Croatia, the Banat and Bosnia. Austria was very alarmed at the growing power of Serbia. She felt Serbia could weaken her own Empire.

Domestic issues

Modern historians have drawn attention to the influence of internal politics on the actions of the Great Powers. Socialism had become a very popular political creed in Germany, Austria, Russia Italy and France.

The ruling class in some of these countries hoped that a short victorious war would put an end to class differences and reduce the support for socialism that threatened the existing order.

Other domestic issues that the war drew attention from were:

  • It defused the near civil war situation in Ireland “The one bright spot in this hateful war” (Asquith).
  • The crisis over income tax and the length of military service (France)
  • The unpopularity of the Tsar (Russia).

Underlying the assumptions of all the Great Powers during the July Crisis was the belief that if war did break out it would be a short one. Many in Britain felt that the war would be over by Christmas.

Few predicted the bloodiest war so far seen in history that would lead to:

  • The abdication of the Tsar and a Communist revolution in Russia
  • The fall of the Kaiser’s regime in Germany
  • The collapse of Austria-Hungary
  • The end of the Turkish Empire.

Main Events of «The July Crisis»

Mobilisation: preparing the army for war.

What was the underlying cause of World War I? Essay

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\\\There were many causes of World War I, but the three most important causes were militarism, imperialism, and alliances. World War I started in 1914, and it started off when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. This was a global war centered in Europe which started July 28, 1914 and ended November 11, 1918. After World War I ended more than 9 million soldiers had been killed and about 21 million soldiers were wounded. The two nations that were effected most in the war were Germany and France. Also World War I marked the end of the four imperial dynasties which were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey.

One underlying cause of World War I was militarism. Militarism is when nations invested heavily in their armed forces in order to remain stronger than one’s enemies. Well first Great Britain spent the most money on its navy so it could have a very strong military. Also Germany spent the most money on its army, to also have a very strong military. This evidence supports the claim that militarism was an underlying cause of the war because Germany had the strongest power on the continent. But the British navy was the strongest in the world. So obviously both countries, Germany and Great Britain, began to battle to see who had the strongest and most powerful military in the world.

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A second underlying cause of World War I was imperialism. Imperialism is the extension of one nation’s control over other people. First Great Britain had 12,740,000 square miles which means that they had the biggest population in their colonies, in which there population was 400,000,000. France had the second most square miles, in which they had 4,440,000 square miles and had the second biggest population, in which they had 56,000,000. This evidence supports the claim that imperialism was an underlying cause of the war because the more land and people they had the more easily the country could attack another nation. Then in turn, the big nation would gain control over more land and people and sooner or later that country will take control over every country surrounding them.

While militarism and imperialism were important, the most basis underlying cause of World War I was alliances. Alliances were nations that helped each other out and promised not to attack each other. One famous alliances were the Triple Entente, which consisted of France, Britain, and Russia. This famous alliance was probably one of the most powerful alliance there was in World War I. The three alliances did not have to worry about attacks on their nation because the three alliances were neighboring countries. So for instance if Austria-Hungary was getting attacked, both Germany and Italy could quickly help them because they are neighboring nations.

Alliances was the fundamental cause of the war because the more alliances you have the more you will not get attacked as much as other countries. But if you do not have any or little alliances you are likely to get attacked by other nations. Also other nations will help you with anything like for example if you need more weapons or soldiers. But again if you do not have any or little alliances you will not get help during an attack and a huge and powerful alliance like the Triple Entente could attack you at any point and they could gain control over you land. Also while getting attacked you cannot call an alliance to help you with help like getting more weapons and bringing in more soldiers.

Although there were other causes that contributed to World War I like nationalism which was behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the three important underlying causes were — militarism, imperialism, and alliances. In conclusion, the main underlying cause of World War I was alliances in my opinion because the more alliances you had, the more you could attack a nation and gain control over their land, which in turn would cause a line of battles.

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.