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What Really Caused World War I?

Academic Discipline: History
Course Name: War in the 21st Century
Assignment Subject: The Real Causes of World War I
Academic Level: Undergraduate
Referencing Style: Chicago
Word Count: 2,050

It is widely accepted that the ultimate cause of World War I was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary. However, this act was simply the final tipping point in a string of factors that contributed to the outbreak of The Great War. There was no singular event that sparked the conflict because it had, in fact, been mounting as early as the late nineteenth century as the European powers were building their own imperial empires and their wealth. While Ferdinand’s death is a singular event, it was not the only reason that countries around the world were preparing for war well before the events of the early twentieth century. Over the course of the war, at least 10 million soldiers on all sides were killed, and in the end Germany was found guilty for causing the war under the Treaty of Versailles. However, a closer analysis shows that the causes of the war were much more complicated, and that there was a buildup of events and factors that contributed to the rising tension within Europe, as well as around the world. Many countries had participated in the build up of militia, industrialization, and cultural superiority that led to a variety of issues in foreign relations. An age of paranoia had been ushered in at the dawn of the twentieth century, and many countries found themselves building up their militaries under the concern that war was going to break out. The rise of the military was the direct result of many of the indirect factors that contributed to the conflict, and was the inevitable trigger for the Serbian assassins to kill Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. While a significant number of events happened before 1914, there were three main factors that contributed to World War I: imperialism, nationalism, and the formation of alliances between world powers.

In the nineteenth century, a scramble for colonial power occurred in the form of imperialism. During the earlier centuries, European explorers had created the New World in the Americas, and now that the Americas were becoming their own nations, the quest for world domination turned to other ventures. Since the European nations had dominated in the New World and established colonies there, most of which would later form their own countries, these powers had their own notions of superiority and power, and they became hungry for more wealth. Many of Europe’s powers were racing to control territories around the world as they saw an opportunity to collect resources and wealth there, especially in Africa, where there were many unclaimed territories with uncollected resources and vast opportunities for gold. The more colonies a country controlled also meant that the country could take one step closer to that goal of world domination, and it showcased the power that they had against the rest of the world. As a result, a “distribution of power” was beginning to change the way that Europe was structured. The world powers, such as Russia, France, and Britain, were beginning to rise above the other nations in Europe and the gap between powerful countries and weaker countries was beginning to significantly increase. The major European powers were beginning to display their own dominance and power in more intense ways as they exerted empirical control over territories in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Latin countries. This meant that some countries were becoming more much powerful than others, which posed a threat to those who had been slower to colonize other areas, or to those who had not had the power or military to conquer any lands at all. In addition, the United States had recently emerged as a new world power, one that would assist in this distribution of power from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In fact, the United States would prove to become more important as a world power than ever before, and its threat from the West meant that Europe was not the only major playing field anymore. As the scramble for colonies increased, so did tensions between the world powers. This is largely regarded as one of the main contributing factors to the war because it assisted in the instability and tension between countries and powers. Imperialism did not stop at conquering other territories. Additionally, various smaller territories were being taken during the wars leading up to 1914. For example, Italy had annexed territory in the Aegean area from Turkey after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, and would not let it go. The Austrian Habsburg Empire had also gained some territories that had belonged to the Ottomans. In this sense, imperialism was also a factor in the war because the countries that declared war, and chose to go to war, did so because they either wanted to keep their current territory or acquire territory they had lost. For example, France had lost its territories Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. Therefore, while this was not the only reason France joined World War I, it was a motivating factor against Germany. This is also an example of how other countries were feeling during post-imperialism because everyone wanted to protect the assets that they had.

Imperialism and the scramble to conquer other colonies increased feelings of nationalism within Germany, as well as the other powers. Germany was beginning to feel threatened by the power of countries such as France and Britain, as these countries had been colonizing and conquering much longer than Germany had. As a result, Germany was somewhat behind on the global scale in the advancement of industrialization and technological development, leaving the country to feel threatened due to this lack of progress compared to other, powerful nations. At the same time, Pan-Slavism and Serbian nationalism were threatening Austria’s multicultural territory, and Pan-Germanism was inspiring a country of people who wanted Germany to be more powerful. Austria-Hungary’s imperial control was being disrupted by the rise of nationalism, and internal tensions mounted. Many of the states on Austria-Hungary’s southern border were especially concerning, as these states were experiencing “a new self-confidence” and internal violence was on the rise. Nationalist groups began to form, and these groups had aggressive ideas on how to preserve and protect identity. Ideals of nationalism arose within many of the countries that had previously been controlled by the Holy Roman Empire, as a new concept of independence was on the frontier. It became more important than ever for countries such as Germany to create a strength and unity internally, and for one united people to emerge. The belief was that nationalism would create a more powerful nation of people who would work hard to support independence and sovereignty. As nationalism rose, an arms race developed between the most powerful countries, as each built up their own armies to prepare for a large war and protect the independence they had. According to historian Charles Townshend, “the states who embarked on the road to war in 1914 wished to preserve what they had. This included not only their territorial integrity but their diplomatic alliances and their prestige.” It was believed by many nationalists that the more superior a nation was, the more likely it was that they would win a war. Further, many of these nationalists also believed that war would help to further those nationalist goals and make their country more powerful, as a way to boast their superiority by defeating the other nations. The more each country built up their own militaries and defenses, the more tensions rose between each other and the need for alliances began to emerge. Eventually, it was Pan-Slavism and Serbian nationalism that dealt the final blow in starting off World War I. Nationalism directly contributed to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, as Ferdinand was the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, a country whose government was desperately trying to hold together the different nations and races under one empire. It was Serbian nationalists that murdered Ferdinand and his wife, as the Serbians wanted to create a Slavic kingdom that was free from the control of Austria-Hungary. Ultimately, these nationalists wanted to gain independence from Austria-Hungary and become a united nation based on Pan-Slavic ideals and unity, and since the Serbians were backed by Russia, the two sides of alliances went to war.

Alliances were formed between many different countries in the years leading up to the First World War, and these alliances obligated the agreeing countries to go to war to aid one another if combat broke out. However, it was the alliance formation that brought on some of the tensions that eventually escalated the conflicts that caused the war. The first alliance was formed by the powers that would go on to become the Allied Forces, and who would eventually win the war. Britain, Russia, and France formed the Triple Entente in 1912, along with Serbia, who was tied to Russia. While many of these countries, and their controlled territories, were still tense with one another, they agreed that they needed to work together in order to protect their interests and fend off the threat from Austria-Hungary. Since many of the powers of Europe were forming the Triple Entente, these agreements were viewed as threats by Austria-Hungary and Germany. These powers questioned the need for an alliance because they were beginning to believe that the Triple Entente powers were joining together against them, to take away their power and territories and to break down the empire that Austria-Hungary had retained from the days of the Holy Roman Empire. The stronger the alliances grew, the more Germany and Austria-Hungary began to become concerned about their own strength as a nation. In response, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed the Triple Alliance. The Triple Entente powers were in communication with each other as they began to make military agreements and build up their armies, which concerned Germany and caused distrust. German officials began to grow concerned because they found evidence that there were communications, but these communications were denied and hidden, causing suspicion. As the tension continued to grow, the alliances began to prepare to answer the call to war. The beginning of World War I saw many different countries enter the war because they were obligated to by the terms of these alliances, which would soon escalate the conflict to a worldwide setting. Since Britain was the most powerful country in the world, it also had the most allies, including strong countries such as France and Russia. In addition, Britain also had strong connections to the countries it had taken under colonial control, including South Africa, Canada, India, New Zealand, and Australia. Britain also had close allied ties with the United States. This was perceived as a threat and a source of concern for Germany, who was collecting as many of its own allies as it possibly could. Italy became a lost ally, as it remained neutral at the beginning of the war, yet soon switched to join the Allied powers.

While the direct cause of World War I was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the three main causes that led up to this event were imperialism, nationalism, and alliance formation. Tensions had been rising around the world for the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. As some powers, such as Britain and the United States, began to establish themselves on the scale of world domination, other countries became threatened by this rising power. Paranoia ran high among many countries, especially Germany and Austria-Hungary, and everyone began to engage in an arms race to build up their armies under the looming threat of war. However, this arms race only made the situation worse, as it increased the tension between the various nations and inspired the final spark to the flame, the assassination of Ferdinand. Pan-Slavic nationalism and other nationalist ideals were direct contributors to the assassination, as it was a group of Serbian nationalists who committed the fatal crime. Their goal was to break away from Austria-Hungary’s control and gain independence for a new, Slavic country, and they believed that this murder would further their goals of nationalist pride. Therefore, all of these factors came together to contribute to the singular event that would trigger one of the bloodiest, most fatal wars in the history of the modern world.

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Townshend, Charles. The Oxford History of Modern War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Williamson, Jr., Samuel R. “The Origins of World War I.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (1988): 795-818.