The Most Significant Causes of the First World War (1914-1918)

Updated February 5, 2022

First World War (World War I) is considered as one of the largest wars in history. The world’s great powers assembled in two opposing alliances: The Allies (British Empire, France and the Russian Empire) versus the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). The Great war was not started from a single, rather various activities or wars among the European nations had become the causes of the First World War. The duration of the First World War is one of the drastic moments that changes the political, geographical status quo of the world. It was the global war originating in Europe from 28th July 1914 and end on 11th November 1918. Moreover, this was the deadliest war in the history that causes the death of millions of combatants and civilian of the countries.

It makes one of the largest wars in the world’s history between the two major coalitions of the Great Powers. First World War is known as “the war to end all wars”. The various war culminated into the Great of 1914 (First World War)

Causes of the First World War

Before the First World War came into the peak, there were many conflicts between European nations. Many European nations grouped among themselves to form military alliances as there were tension and suspicion among them. The causes of the First World War were:

(1) The Conflict Between Imperialist Countries:

Imperialism is one of the main causes of the First World War. Imperialism is simply defined as the act of extending the power of the nation through acquisition. During the 19th century, various European imperial powers gain control over the other nations and exploit the nations for the benefits of their motherland. Once they gained control over the other nations, this nation is claimed as a colony of the dominant nation.

Imperial powers occupy the nations through direct territorial claims, or by gaining political and economical control of a region. They got benefitted through the supply of valuable raw materials and foodstuffs, precious minerals and cheap labour. Because of the power and control, imperialism is associated with conquest, war, subjugation, and exploitation. This is exemplified in history through Britain’s dominance in South Africa through military action to subdue the Zulu nation in the Anglo-Zulu war (1879, Afrikaners Boers (Dutch farmers) in the Anglo-Boer wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) when they resisted Britain’s imperialist ambitions.

Other imperial nations of the 19th century included Russia, which held territories in Eastern Europe; France, which held territories primarily in South East Asia; the newly unified Germany, which maintained control over the countries primarily in Africa; Austria-Hungary which ruled over significant regions in Europe itself; and to a lesser extent Spain, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Belgium, Holland and Italy. This increase in the imperial rivalry and competition of occupying new territories fuelled the tensions and became a factor of an outbreak of the First world war.

The conflict between old imperialist countries (France) vs new imperialist countries (Eg: Germany): It can be illustrated through the Moroccan Crises, Morocco was not the colony of France, but it was under the influence of France. And France wanted to establish a protectorate in Morocco, but it was intervened by Germany. Tensions between Germany and France was fuelled when the Wilhelm II travelled to the Moroccan city and delivered a speech supporting the idea of Moroccan independence. This antagonised the French government.

The tension went on high when the German sent an armed vessel, the Panther without permission or prior warning. This incident had triggered an even stronger reaction and brought France and Germany to the brink of war.

(2) Ultra Nationalism:

Nationalism was the significant causes responsible for the First World War. Nationalism is an intense form of patriotism or loyalty to one’s country. Nationalist exaggerates the value or importance of your own country, and it would put the interest of one’s country over the other nations. Nationalist groups in Austria-Hungary and Serbia wanted independence. The French government wanted Alsace Lorraine back from Germany who had lost in 1871 at Franco-Prussian war. Nationalism plays a very crucial role in strengthening the integrity and unity of the country.

Pan Slav movement – Pan Slav movement was also responsible for the outbreak of the First World War. Panslavism was a movement based on the conviction that all speakers of Slavic languages belong to one nation. It triggered many Pan Slav nationalist movements that aimed at bringing the Slavic cultures and Languages closer. Slav nationalism caused to increase the tension among the Balkan countries. The increase of Serbian Slav nationalism had seen to be the cause of Ferdinand assassination and the incident led the July crisis.

(3) Web of Alliance (Military Alliance)

European countries signed various treaties among themselves so that they could get or provide defence security at the time of attack from other countries. In simple they made binding alliances with countries for their mutual interest. Although the alliances were beneficial for them, it was complex in nature. It means when two countries came into a brawl, it would drag the rest of the European countries. Before the world war-I, most of the European countries were got bounded with their neighbouring countries for their mutual interest i.e.

(a) Russia and Serbia were aligned to protect one another.

(b) Concert of Europe, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Belgium- Treaty of London in 1839

(c) Germany and Austria-Hungary– Dual Alliance in 1879,

(d) Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary—Triple alliance in 1882

(e) Franco and Russian alliance,

(f) Britain, Russia and Belgium.

(g) Japan and Britain

(h) Britain and France– Entente Cordiale in 1905

(i) Britain, France and Russia—Triple Entente in 1907

You can conclude that treaties were very necessary for the countries of the Great Powers. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia drew himself into the battle to protect Serbia. And, after the intervened of Russia in the battle between Austria and Serbia, Germany came in support of Austria and fought against Russia. Contemporaneously, France also pulls itself into the battle of Austria and Serbia, after the involvement of Germany. This chain of events led to World War-I.

Note: Although Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary, it did not join the Central Powers, as Austria-Hungary had taken the offensive, against the terms of the alliance. These alliances were reorganised and expanded as more nations entered the war: Italy, Japan and the United States joined the Allies, while the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers.

(4) International Anarchy: 

The 1St World War or Great War of 1914 was partly caused by the existence of international anarchy. Many scholars said that since then there was not any barrier or constraints over the nation, so they did what it pleased, or what it dared. No state was ready to submit its dispute with another to any arbitration or to seek any method of a peaceful settlement. Thus, the war was inevitable because all the situation favours it.

(5) Balkan Wars: One of the Causes of the First World War

Balkans referred to a union of nations in Eastern Europe. This region was politically unstable because there were different ethnicities. Even, there was seen a sharp increase in the nationalism and the nationalism had ramped up the tensions among the different nations of the Balkan. It can be said that nationalism was responsible for the Balkan Wars. So, Instability in Balkan nations was one of the causes of the outbreak of the First World War.

Balkan nations were sandwiched by the four seas namely the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, Adriatic Sea and Aegean. Although the Balkan nations had scarce natural resources and were not an economic powerhouse, most European nations were desired to control them because of its strategic geographical location. Its geographical location present between the three major European nations that include the Ottoman Empire, Russia and Austria- Hungarian empire. For centuries it had acted as a passageway between the East and West as cultural and mercantile exchange.

In the 19th century, most of the Balkan nations were part of the Ottoman Empire. Things got worse when the Ottoman Empire was started crumbling. When the Ottoman Empire was, many European nations showed its strong interest in the Balkan nations. It led to confront the many European nations to one another. Finally, various Balkan nations came into a brawl and led culminated into the Great War of 1914.

(6) Alsace-Loraine was one of the Causes of the First World War

There were national rivalries between Germany and Britain, between Japan and America and also between Germany and Russia. This led to World War I. The German Kaiser William II declared that Germany was determined to become a world power and this would arouse rivalry with Britain. Owing to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, France lost Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia. It had to recover these provinces. There was also a crisis in the Balkans, leading to the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, because of the rivalry between Germany and Russia.

During the German unification, Germany got Alsace-Loraine from France. France wanted to capture Alsace-Loraine back from Germany.

(7) Immediate Cause: Assassination of Francis Ferdinand

Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist, assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The Nationalist organization in Serbia supported the Gavrilo Princip’s action of killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand. The reason to get support for the assassination was the action of annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria. This assassination led the event of 23rd July Crisis. And, the July crisis was the interrelated diplomatic and military escalations among the major powers of Europe in the summer of 1914. It became the major cause of the First World War. It triggered the war against Serbia. Contemporaneously, Austria-Hungary and Serbia declaring war on each other, led to the beginning of World War-I.

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