The Causes of World War I

Overview | The Players | Act One | Much Ado | Crises | Curtain


World War I seems to have come about almost inevitably from the complex politics of the Europe of the late 1800s and early 1900s. But how inevitable was it? As we review the events and causes of the struggle we see a common thread. There is a constant tension between forces of nationalism and forces of empire.

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Nationalism was a kind of bottom-up movement that sprang from the people and was an outgrowth of the Age of Romanticism. Empires were the last vestige of feudalism, with emperors ruling over diverse groups of people. These people wished to rule themselves, while the bureaucracies naturally wished to expand or at least hold their grip on the reigns of power. It was a nationalist assassination of the heir to a throne that finally precipitated the war.

Another factor was the competition in which these empires engaged. By the time World War I began most of the territory that could be colonized had been taken by one or another of the great powers of Europe. Although none of the powers had truly consolidated its gains there was a feeling that the land rush was over, so tensions began to arise over small, insignificant (in the grand scheme of things) areas where boundaries had not been settled. It is interesting that this rapid colonization and attempted domination of other cultures should have occurred just as national sentiment in Europe was beginning to force the disintegration of multi-national states and the subsequent consolidation of national territories such as Germany and Italy.

The Great Powers of Europe: The Players

There were six great powers in Europe. These countries were constantly jockeying for position and territories, as well as aligning themselves with other powers to ensure their own security.

Great Britain, on her island fortress protected by the English Channel and the largest navy on the planet, tried to hold aloof from the squabbles occurring on the continent of Europe. She possessed the greatest over-seas empire the world had ever known, and it was her object to consolidate that empire. She had also long been the leading industrial nation of the world. Only toward the end of the 1800s were other nations beginning to catch up.

France in the 1870s had just lost the Franco-Prussian war and had been forced to give up Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. She was very bitter about this defeat, and it was her object to one day regain her lost provinces. She was also quite isolated on the continent due partly to the machinations of the Iron Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismark. Her over-seas empire in Africa was bringing her into some conflict with Britain.

Germany had just been unified in 1871. After having been a disparate force in European affairs, she was now the strongest nation on the continent. In Bismark, she also possessed the greatest diplomat of the age. Her people were highly disciplined and quickly industrializing. Her military was second to none.

Italy, too, had just undergone a process of unification. But the great leaders who had unified the country had already passed from the scene. Cavour was dead, and Garibaldi retired to his island retreat. Also, Italy's industrial base was not as powerful as that of most of the other great powers, and her military was limited. She did, however, have the luxury of very defensible borders along the alps and plenty of access to the sea.

Austria, of all the great powers, was the one least based on national power. Austria herself was really just a small German state which had grown up to dominate vast areas of Eastern Europe to include Hungary, Bohemia, and parts of the Balkans. Much of the country had been patched together from pieces of the Ottoman empire in the 1600s and 1700s. She was having difficulty even holding herself together, especially with the rise of nationalist sentiments among her diverse populations. She was butting heads with Russia over areas of the Balkans.

Russia was a lumbering power that had proven its ability to project power in the Napoleonic Wars, but took considerable trouble to mobilize. She had a huge military and a large navy, but she also had a giant empire to administer and protect - also with diverse populations. Her interests collided with those of Austria in the Balkans and Britain in Afghanistan. Though a giant, the difficulty in wielding her power was clearly illustrated in her loss of the Russo-Japanese war with Japan (1905). Her imperial power was also being challenged from within by ideologues, liberals, and democrats.

Act One: The Play Begins

The Russo-Turkish (1877-78) was another of those wars of imperial expansion for a Russia seeking access to the Mediterranean for her merchants and naval fleet in the Black Sea. It was a brief struggle, as the Ottoman Empire, often referred to as the "Sick old man of Europe" was unable to resist Russian power. The war ended with the treaty of San Stefano which created an independent Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, and Bulgaria, largely to be under the influence of Russia, which also annexed some of the Caucasus for herself.

This Russian accretion of power much alarmed Bismark in Germany and especially the Hapsburgs in Austria. The British, too, saw problems with a vastly expanded Russia and were making rumblings about war. However, Bismark, who had unified Germany only a few years before, wished to avoid a continent-wide conflict. He believed peace was the best way to consolidate the German state. He called a conference in Berlin, which resulted in the Treaty of Berlin. This scaled back some of the gains of Russia. It also ended up giving Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austria, an event with long range repercussions eventually setting off the explosion which would rock Europe for four long years.

Much Ado: Alliance and Entente

In the wake of the Treaty of Berlin there was much jockeying for power. Alliances were forged, broken and reforged. It began with the Dual Alliance (1879) which was a defensive treaty between Germany and Austria. If either were attacked the other would come to her aid. This was mainly directed against the possibility of further Russian expansion into eastern Europe. Another state, Italy, was added into what now came to be called the Triple Alliance. The architect of this system of treaties was Bismark, whose aim now was to isolate France. He knew of the grumblings about Alsace and Lorraine. France also had a reputation for military adventurism earned during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

To further his ambition to isolate the French, Bismark concluded the Reinsurance Treaty (1887) between Germany and Russia. This treaty was yet another defensive alliance which stipulated that each country would come to the aid of the other unless Germany attacked France, or Russia attacked Austria. The French were now out in the cold.

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The German emperor, died in 1888 and his impetuous son took his place. Kaiser Wilhelm II, or William II, did not like Bismark's dominating the state. He wished to put his own mark on things. He dismissed Bismark and proceeded, in the course of the next decade and a half, to allow the position of Germany to deteriorate and the continent of Europe to slowly edge toward conflict. His first mistake was to allow the Reinsurance Treaty to lapse without renewal. The Germans believed that Russia could do nothing in the face of the Triple Alliance, and that she would not join with France because the French Republic was too far away both geographically and ideologically.

Kaiser Wilhelm and his foreign service proved mistaken. France and Russia sought each other out and concluded the Franco-Russian Alliance in a process called rapprochement (pronounced: ra-prosh-ma).

Until the 1890s Germany's relations with Britain had been good. This had partly been due to the fact that she had maintained the balance of power in central Europe, and had not sought to compete with Britain at sea or by expanding colonization. However, Wilhelm, reversed Bismark's policy of refraining from Imperial growth in Africa. In the 1890s she began to expand her colonial possessions, many on the border of English efforts. Wilhelm also did not shy away from using a bit of military force when he felt it was warranted. He began building up the German fleet and began to engage in what became known as gunboat diplomacy.

With Anglo-German relations deteriorating, the French government saw an opportunity. French diplomats made overtures to Britain. They made concessions to the British in Africa, ironing out rough details and coming to an amicable settlement that very much smoothed over relations between the hereditary enemies. This arrangement became known as the Entente Cordiale (1904). Near the same time, the French made a secret agreement to support Italian colonial claims in Eritrea if Italy would support France in Morocco. This move began the process of cutting Italy out of the Triple Alliance.

Since Wilhelm II had removed Bismark the diplomatic situation in Europe had completely reversed itself. Instead of Germany being at the center of an alliance with France in isolation. France now possessed the allies, and Germany retained only Austria.

Second Act: Crises Arise

With France's new diplomatic position, she felt bold enough to make moves to take over Morocco. Kaiser Wilhelm became highly irate. He actually went to Tangier itself to demand that Germany be allowed free trade in Morocco, bringing on the First Moroccan Crisis. A conference was called in Algiers where Germany intended to humiliate France and create friction between the French and English governments. The plan backfired. Although Germany was given the right to trade in Morocco, she had done it in such a way as to appear to be the bully-boy of Europe. Grey, the British prime minister began to work with France and made overtures to Russia to smooth out disagreements over colonies. Germany had become even more isolated, dangerously so.

The Triple Entente (1907) between Britain, France, and Russia was now in place as a powerful counter-weight to the Triple Alliance. In 1908 the Austrians decided it was time to fully annex Bosnia-Herzegovina into the Austrian state. The Russians and Serbians objected. The Russians even threatened war over the matter, but when they found out that Germany would come to Austria's aid in the event of a Russian attack, the Czar backed down. It had not helped Russian confidence that they had recently lost a war with Japan (1905) and suffered social upheaval at the hands of socialist movements within the country.

Yet another crisis struck in 1911 to bring tensions to an even greater height. This one again over Morocco. The French had been attempting to create a defacto protectorate of that country. Germany had her own designs on it, and sent in a gun-boat, the Panther, to the seaport of Agadir. Both France and Germany seethed. Germany was thought to be far stronger, but the French centered Triple Entente proved more powerful diplomatically. Britain strongly hinted that in case of war, she would come in on the side of France. The German stock exchange dropped and Germany felt compelled to allow the French to have control of Morocco. However, she demanded and received concessions from France in the Congo.

These three crises hardened the two sides. Germany was made to appear to be an aggressor. Her isolation made her cling even more strongly to her only faithful ally, Austria.

The Balkan Powder Keg Blows: Play Over: Curtains for Europe

The First Balkan War (1912-1913) was a direct result of an Italo-Turkish war whereby the Italians easily defeated the Turks and took Libya. The countries in the Balkans, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece banned together to form the Balkan league. They joined together to defeat Turkey and pushed her European possessions to a mere sliver of space near Istanbul. However, an easy victory by the league created jealousy among the league's members, and war broke out between Bulgaria and the other league members, now joined by Turkey (1913). Bulgaria lost the war and Macedonia was carved up among the victors.

This helped make Serbia more of a power in the region. However, she was still no match for Austria. Yet, she did have Russian support as she was a Slavic nation, and the Russians considered themselves protectors of Slavs everywhere.

The final spark to bring on the "Great War" would come in the Balkans. While on a visit to Sarajevo, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria and his wife were assassinated by a Slavic nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The Austrians were certain that the Serbians were complicit. In fact, evidence indicates the Serbians may have known of the plot and neglected to warn the Austrian government. The Austrian government demanded a multitude of concessions from Serbia, including that the capital of Serbia itself, Belgrade, be occupied by Austrian forces. Though the Serbs were willing to make some concessions, the Austrians demanded too much, probably in order to make war inevitable. The Austrians thought that this would be a limited war. However, the fuse was primed and lit. The powder keg was set to blow.

Germany openly declared she would support her only ally come what may. The Russians insisted on supporting Serbia. The Germans then declared war on Russia. France declared support for Russia and Germany declared war on France. The German attack on France through Belgium then brought Britain into the war on the side of France. Italy remained aloof for a time, but finally came into the war on the side of the Entente. And so began the Great War we call World War I.

More on History

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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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