The first world war began in August 1914. It was directly triggered by the assassination of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, on 28th June 1914 by Bosnian revolutionary, Gavrilo Princip.
This event was, however, simply the trigger that set off declarations of war. The actual causes of the war are more complicated and are still debated by historians today.
Scroll down for a comprehensive discussion of the causes of World War 1.
Causes of WW1: Alliances
An alliance is an agreement made between two or more countries to give each other help if it is needed. When an alliance is signed, those countries become known as Allies.
A number of alliances had been signed by countries between the years 1879 and 1914. These were important because they meant that some countries had no option but to declare war if one of their allies. declared war first. (the table below reads clockwise from the top left picture)
The Dual Alliance
Germany and Austria-Hungary made an alliance to protect themselves from Russia
Austria-Hungary made an alliance with Serbia to stop Russia gaining control of Serbia
The Triple Alliance
Germany and Austria- Hungary made an alliance with Italy to stop Italy from taking sides with Russia
Triple Entente (no separate peace)
Britain, Russia and France agreed not to sign for peace separately.
Russia formed an alliance with France to protect herself against Germany and Austria-Hungary
This was made between Russia, France and Britain to counter the increasing threat from Germany.
This was an agreement between Britain and Russia
This was an agreement, but not a formal alliance, between France and Britain.
Causes of WW1: Imperialism
Imperialism is when a country takes over new lands or countries and makes them subject to their rule. By 1900 the British Empire extended over five continents and France had control of large areas of Africa. With the rise of industrialism, countries needed new markets. The number of lands ‘owned’ by Britain and France increased the rivalry with Germany who had entered the scramble to acquire colonies late and only had small areas of Africa. Note the contrast in the map below.
Causes of WW1: Militarism
Militarism means that the army and military forces are given a high profile by the government. The growing European divide had led to an arms race between the main countries. The armies of both France and Germany had more than doubled between 1870 and 1914 and there was fierce competition between Britain and Germany for mastery of the seas. The British had introduced the ‘Dreadnought’, an effective battleship, in 1906. The Germans soon followed suit introducing their own battleships. The German, Von Schlieffen also drew up a plan of action that involved attacking France through Belgium if Russia made an attack on Germany. The map below shows how the plan was to work.
Causes of WW1: Nationalism
Nationalism means being a strong supporter of the rights and interests of one’s country. The Congress of Vienna, held after Napoleon’s exile to Elba, aimed to sort out problems in Europe. Delegates from Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia (the winning allies) decided upon a new Europe that left both Germany and Italy as divided states. Strong nationalist elements led to the reunification of Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871. The settlement at the end of the Franco-Prussian war left France angry at the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany and keen to regain their lost territory. Large areas of both Austria-Hungary and Serbia were home to differing nationalist groups, all of whom wanted freedom from the states in which they lived.
Causes of WW1: Crises
In 1904 Morocco had been given to France by Britain, but the Moroccans wanted their independence. In 1905, Germany announced her support for Moroccan independence. War was narrowly avoided by a conference that allowed France to retain possession of Morocco. However, in 1911, the Germans were again protesting against French possession of Morocco. Britain supported France and Germany was persuaded to back down for part of French Congo.
In 1908, Austria-Hungary took over the former Turkish province of Bosnia. This angered Serbians who felt the province should be theirs. Serbia threatened Austria-Hungary with war, Russia, allied to Serbia, mobilized its forces. Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary mobilized its forces and prepared to threaten Russia. War was avoided when Russia backed down. There was, however, war in the Balkans between 1911 and 1912 when the Balkan states drove Turkey out of the area. The states then fought each other over which area should belong to which state. Austria-Hungary then intervened and forced Serbia to give up some of its acquisitions. Tension between Serbia and Austria-Hungary was high.
The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand, aged 51, was heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was married to Sophie Chotek von Chotvoka and had three children. Franz Ferdinand was, however, very unpopular because he had made it clear that once he became Emperor he would make changes.
The map below, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, shows that Bosnia/ Herzegovnia was controlled by Austria. Austria had annexed Bosnia in 1908, a move that was not popular with the Bosnian people.
Franz Ferdinand decided to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovnia, to make an inspection of the Austro-Hungarian troops there. The inspection was scheduled for 28th June 1914. It was planned that Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie would be met at the station and taken by car to the City Hall where they would have lunch before going to inspect the troops.
A Serbian terrorist group, called The Black Hand, had decided that the Archduke should be assassinated and the planned visit provided the ideal opportunity. Seven young men who had been trained in bomb-throwing and marksmanship were stationed along the route that Franz Ferdinand’s car would follow from the City Hall to the inspection.
The first two terrorists were unable to throw their grenades because the streets were too crowded and the car was traveling quite fast. The third terrorist, a young man called Cabrinovic, threw a grenade which exploded under the car following that of the Archduke. Although the Archduke and his wife were unhurt, some of his attendants were injured and had to be taken to hospital.
After lunch at the City Hall, Franz Ferdinand insisted on visiting the injured attendants in the hospital. However, on the way to the hospital, the driver took a wrong turn. Realizing his mistake he stopped the car and began to reverse. Another terrorist, named Gavrilo Princip, stepped forward and fired two shots. The first hit the pregnant Sophia in the stomach, she died almost instantly. The second shot hit the Archduke in the neck. He died a short while later.
Gavrilo Princip was arrested but was not executed because he was under 20 years. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison where he died of TB in 1918.
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