Causes of World War I Essay

The First World War is considered to have been more complicated than the Second World War since it was disorganized and many activities led to its uprising. The major causes of the war are hard to be ascertained. Contrary to World War II whose blame is directed to all parties involved, World War I cannot be directly pointed to one particular cause. The biggest blame however, is placed on Germany for having had staged an attack on Belgium in the year 1914, whilst Britain had promised protection on Belgium. The street celebrations that accompanied the war declaration between French and British gave historians the impression that the move was really popular. Politicians, known to follow the popular side were in support of this move. Historians yet believe that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the heir of the Serbian empire sparked war between the Austria-Hungary, which prompted the allied nations to join.

The First World War having started in Central Europe, begun in 1914 and ended in 1918. During its progression time, it rapidly spread to other parts of the world and involved many countries. The war that had devastating effects is believed to have been caused by a number of reasons according to historians. However, they anonymously agree on the four major causes of the war which include Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. This paper will look at these four as the major causes of World War I and their effects to the fighting nations.


Various scholars attribute the start of World War 1 to imperialism that was sparked in the European continent. Since countries such as United Kingdom had accumulated a lot of wealth in the late 19th century and early 20th century from the control of foreign resources and markets, territories and people, other empires too started gaining hopes of economically benefiting from acquiring empires such as Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia. However, this totally flopped as things did not turn out to their expectations leading to a lot of frustrations that increased the levels of anxiety and rivalry among powers. Increasingly, the natural resources in the European continent were diminishing at a fast rate, negatively impacting on trade balance. This development made it necessary for companies to seek for new raw materials elsewhere, thus settling for Africa and Asian continents. Vested economic interests by various European nations were the major contributors of the Anglo-German rivalry when the scramble for Africa intensified. This scene created the sharpest conflict between German and British interests that had been in a heated competition.

The rivalry was however not based on colonies alone. Colonial trade and trade routes was also part of the major issues that caused the outbreak of the war as experts observe. Different emerging economic powers and the incumbent of great economic powers in the African continent saw an increased rise in the broader disputes. From the 1980s, the rivalry among great powers due to colonial territories intensified and kept growing. Hatred between conflicting powers was evident, while war was imminent. This period witnessed the acquisition of both the African and the Asian continents by the European powers. However, the increased conflicts that arose between the various powers of the European origin saw the spark of the war.

The scramble for African and Asian continents increased the tensions between Anglo-French and Anglo-Russian powers, as well as the crises that had sought to prevent British alliances with either of the two until the wake of the twentieth century. Not only was the overseas empire a problem to some countries such as Germany, she was also faced with yet another predicament. Otto von Bismarck was not in favour of overseas empire building, and more so acquisitions of Africa. His only support for the African scramble and colonization was that to him, it served as a bite which diverted the attention of governments away from Europe and focusing them elsewhere. Although he resigned in the 1890s and Kaiser (Wilhelm II) took over, he too lost office in 1894. Despite these developments, the German policy led to increased conflicts with other colonial powers, especially Germany’s excessive aggression in expanding her territories in Europe. The competitive mentality of the European powers did not end, as they extended to Morocco. Later, when the tensions rose too high, war broke out.

Different European powers tried to colonize many African and Asian countries in the late nineteenth century as they tried to fulfil their individual destiny that was manifest. England for example had vast controls in African as well as Asia, while the Belgium vastly controlled central African country of Congo. To ensure a successful ruling of the colonies, these colonies were the sole financiers of their individual colonies’ economies. Not only did the colonies serve as sources for raw materials, they also provided market for the European products. This led to the need for expansion making it more desirable to the wealth and the glory of these powers as Africa had become a potential business hub for the powers.

However, land diminished substantially as other countries joined in the struggle for colonies increased. Many powerful countries joined in the struggle such as Germany, making competition for colonies quite stiff. To remove an earlier owner of a particular colony, it required the use of excessive force. The biggest tracts of land were occupied by Germany, France, England, Italy and Belgium. In many times, boarder disputes were common, arising between the different nationalists such as the Boer war that took place in South Africa between the Dutch and the English. Moreover, in the Middle East, the crumble of Ottoman Empire was a big allure to Austria- Hungary, as well as the Balkans and the Russian countries.


Militarism is defined as a steep rise in military expenditure, increase in military forces as well as naval forces, increased influence of the military soldiers in the policies and decisions of the government and the preferred use of force as a means of solving the various problems facing a country. It was one of the major causes of the First World War as many countries got involved in building their armies and uptake of weapons.

Increased military influence on the policy decision making of different nations started taking shape from the years succeeding 1907. The activities taking place in Germany and Russia were a testimony to this, with the German army being referred to as a “state within a state”. Both politicians and the parliament had no obligation but follow the General Staff, being denied a word on the manner in which the military chose to preserve the territory. In spite of the knowledge and understanding of the likelihood of Great Britain being drawn into war by the Schlieffen Plan, it was unanimously accepted as the plan by the German civilian government. The Russian generals on their part were successful in forcefully convincing the Czar in accepting full mobilization in 1914. These actions greatly contributed to the start of the war.

Arms race by different countries in the last quarter of the nineteenth century cooked feelings of hostility among European nations. With the common knowledge that Germany was at the fore front in military organization and efficiency, other great powers of Europe joined in the universal conscription, acquiring large reserves of arms and detailed planning of the Prussian system. Technological and organizational developments contributed to the formation of general staff whose specific plan was to mobilization and staging attacks on enemies. These activities were hard to be reversed the moment that they began. More countries were unnecessarily drawn due to the German Von Schlieffen plan to attack France before Russia could do it in the event of war with Russia.

Not only were nations involved in an arms race, they also invested numerous capital for expanding their navies and armies. Between 1870 and 1914, the active armies of France and German doubled in size. The expansion of the navies also was faced by a stiff competition especially from Germany and the Great Britain. Prior to the year 1889, British had established a strategy that required it to have a navy that was two and half times as large as the second largest navy in order to win the war. Due to this strategy, the British were motivated to launch the Dreadnought, an invention by engineer Admiral Sir John Fischer in the year 1906.

The Russo-Japanese War that took place between 1904 and 1905 demonstrated the efficiency of these battleships. As Britain increased on their battleships manufacture, Germany subsequently stepped up their naval production that included the Dreadnought. Although the Hague Conferences held in 1899 and 1907 were aimed at disarming the various countries involved in arms race, the international rivalry existing between various countries led to a steep rise in the arms race. Stopping this was inevitable as increasingly, nations were involved in arms take up.


Nationalism took place in many countries and in Europe before the start of the First World War. Two types of nationalism existed in Europe in the nineteenth century. One type of nationalism was subject people’s desire of their states to be independent. Various states had been under colonial rule in the European continent and were getting tired, thus started demanding for their independence. This culminated to a series of struggles at the national level by the Balkan people. Other powers joined in the demands and thus increased instability.

Secondly, the desire of the already independent nations to dominate the un-independent nations and their feeling of prestige also led to increased instability. Increasingly, the desire of the powers to dominate each other in Europe is regarded to have been the greatest causes of the World War 1.

In the year 1871, Germany showed signs of unity out of the Franco-Prussian War. Rapidly, she became the strongest power in Europe both economically and military wise. Between the year 1871 to 1890, Germany increasingly was interested in the preservation of her hegemony in Europe. To ensure that she was successful in doing this, Germany formed numerous peaceful alliances with different powers in the European continent. However, after 1890, Germany’s aggression multiplied, as she was bent at stamping her influence in all the parts of the world. More and more, Germany wanted to expand her territory in different nations of the world. The mission was referred to as “Welpolitik”, which meant the world of politics. Germany’s ambitious campaign of expanding her territory into different parts of the world created numerous conflicts with other major powers of Europe except for Austria-Hungary which was a close ally. This was a good breeding ground for animosity that later led to war.

Italy on its part was unified in the year 1870. Barely could she afford the power to be influential, a reason why she could not be regarded as a great power. She was bundled with a corrupt and inefficient parliamentary system. She had a slow industrial progress. Despite these constraining factors though, Italy had great ambitions of expanding her territory. In the north of Africa, for example, she was interested in Tunis and Tripoli and this gave rise to conflicts with France since Tunis geographically lay adjacent to the French colony of Algeria, which was regarded as the French sphere of influence by France. Italy was also interested in Italia Irridenta that included Trieste, Trento and Tyrol. Although most of the people living in these places were of Italian origin, they were kept together under a monarchical rule. This led to increased conflicts between Italy and Austria-Hungary.

In 1867, Austria-Hungary was declared a Dual Monarchy which ruled over an extensive empire made up of many nationalities. However, only the Australians and the Hungarians were vested with the powers to rule the monarchy. Australians were lucky because their race identified with the Germans and the fact that they spoke a similar language. This heightened level of discrimination made other nationalities resent their loss of political freedom. These nationalities, including the Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Rumanians and the Poles started demanding for independence. From the start, the policy of the Dual Monarchy aimed at suppressing the nationalists’ movement that had come about both from the inside and from the outside of the jurisdictions of the empire.

Particularly, the object of the dual monarchy was gaining political control over the Balkan Peninsula, an area where the nationalist’s movements were rife. Additionally, these movements continuously gave encouragement to nationalists’ movements within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To the Balkans, the centre of the nationalist movement was at Serbia. To create a large Serbian state, Serbia had increased hopes of doing this by uniting all the Serbs who were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a result of this, automatically Serbia became the first enemy of Austria-Hungary between 1871 and 1914. Apart from Serbia, Austria-Hungary had increased hatred for Russia since she was a Slav country and always rallied behind Serbia in any dispute that arose in the Austria-Hungary Empire.

In the late 1880s, Russia was the most popular country in the European continent. Her boundaries extended form the shores of the Arctic Ocean all the way to the Black Sea. It also stretched form the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Despite the extensive land that was occupied by Russia, she was ambitious of expanding her territory in all directions. Subsequently, in 1870, she broke the treaty of Paris and begun aggression on the Balkans which led to interests clash with Austria-Hungary and Britain. Despite this though, she b=did not show signs of retreat as her landlocked state made her yearn to win a territory that had warm waters.

In Europe, by the year 1870, Britain was referred to as the moist industrialized of all countries. Additionally, she possessed the largest empires in overseas, and boasted of having the world’s largest navy. These factors made her keep away from the continental affairs of Europe, choosing to focus more on preserving her overseas empire. Her chief enemies in 1890 included the France and Russia. Interests of both France and Britain constantly clashed especially in Asia and in Africa.

The various nationalist activities that were inherent in the European continent contributed to the rise of the war. With the increased clash of interests in different territorial land and colonial interests as different countries sought to expand their overseas empires, heightened animosity was evident. More countries became involved in personal feuds that often were went a notch higher to include the allied nations. Due to the heighted tensions, war arose between the countries.

During the Vienna Congress on settlement held in 1815, the principle of nationalism was ignored in order to favour peace preservation. After the congress, Germany and Italy were left as divided states. However, the strong nationalist movements and revolutions unified the Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 also left France seething over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. Perhaps, the biggest challenge of nationalism was experienced by the Austria-Hungary and the Balkans since they comprised of many conflicting groups. This was mostly influenced by the ardent of Panslavism of Serbia and the readiness of Russia to support its brother, Slavic which conflicted in a large way with Austria-Hungary’s Pangermanism. In 1907 however, Russia and Britain formed an entente after reaching an understanding with Japan, an ally of the British. William II further had alienated Russia by supporting the ambitions of Austrian in the Balkans. The Triple Entente was an informal coalition between that involved Britain, France and Russia.


A number of alliances that took place between different countries largely contributed to the start of the war. By the year 1914, Europe had been split into two rival camps which were The Triple Alliance whose members were Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary while the Triple Entente included members such as Britain, France and Russia. The advantage between Germany and Austria is that they enjoyed a natural alliance as both countries had similar culture and spoke same language. Many historians believe that the war had been for a long time been coming. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire sparked the war. The incidence that took place on 28th June1914 in Sarajevo sparked a series of activities that led to the rise of the war.

Even before the era of alliances, friendship was already evident from various ally nations. After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Austro-Hungarians wanted to take that opportunity to and declare its authority upon the Serbians, by crushing the nationalist movement in Serbia and cementing the Austria-Hungary’s influence on the Balkans. To make sure this was effective, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia due the extent that it demanded prosecution of the assassinators. However, such a move could not be extended beyond jurisdictions and as undermined Serbia’s sovereignty. Austria- Hungary expected that Serbia would not honour this order and thus gave it a good ground of waging war against the country.

Serbia however, had unlimited Slavic ties with Russia from a previous past that were aimed against Austria-Hungary. Since Austria did not expect the inclusion of Russia in the dispute except a diplomatic stand on the issue, it sought the assurance if its alley, Germany. Austria-Hungary’s agreement with Germany that in case Austria decided to do the unthinkable and Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany would come to its aid. Germany was more than willing to this proposal, going to the extent of encouraging Austria-Hungary’s warlike stance.

The various events happening sequentially fuelled and sparked the start of the war. Austria-Hungary, having been unsatisfied with the response of a Serbia towards her ultimatum declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. The ultimatum was unrealistic since there was no provision requiring a country to demand another country to take action regardless of the issue in question. Russia and Serbia had been bound in a treaty that and thus announced the mobilization of its vast army in the defence of Serbia. However, this process was too slow and took roughly about six weeks to complete.

Germany, in an alliance with Austria-Hungary that was as a result of a treaty between the two countries viewed the mobilization of Russia as an act of war against Austria-Hungary. After a scanty warning, Germany declared war on Russia on 1 august. France on her side was bound by a treaty to Russia found it waging war against Germany. This even extended to Austria-Hungary which followed a German declaration on 3 august. Germany was quick in declaring war on Belgium, a country that was neutral in a bid to create the shortest route to Paris.

Britain was allied to France by a very loosely worded treaty that was aimed at placing a “moral obligation” that required her to defend France and thus declared war on Germany on 4 August. Her reason for involvement in the conflict was however due to the fact that she held the obligation of defending Belgium that was neutral by the terms of a 75-year old treaty. Germany, having invaded Belgium on 4 august, the king of Belgium appealed to Britain for assistance and thus Britain committed herself to defend Belgium. By extension, Britain was at war with Austria-Hungary.

The entry of Britain into the war made her colonies and domination abroad offer military and financial support to Britain. These countries included Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa.

The president of United States, Woodrow Wilson declared a U.S. policy of absolute neutrality which was an official stance that was to last until 1917 when the policy by Germany on submarine warfare which was a serious threat to the commercial shipping of America. This finally forced America to enter the war on 6 april 1917.

Japan, in an honour to a military agreement with Britain also declared war on Germany on 23 august 1914, two after Austria-Hungary had declared war on japan. Italy had been allied to both Germany and Austria-Hungary and was able to avoid entering the fray by successfully drawing reference to clause that embedded it to evade obligations to both. This meant that Italy was committed to offer Germany and Austria-Hungary defence only in an event of a defensive war. Her argument was that their actions were offensive and instead declared a policy on neutrality. The year that followed in May 1915 however; she gave in to the conflict by siding with the allies against her two former allies.

Allies were the mechanics that brought the worlds’ major nations into the war during different times. What was intended to be a brief war between the accusing parties, between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, it rapidly exploded and grew into a much bigger and beyond expectations of even the most warlike ministers in Berlin.

The alliances did not arise in the early 90s, as witnessed by the increased treaties and alliances that characterized the immediate period before the start of the war. Activities of Otto von Bismarck in the mid to late 80s indicated that he had a need for alliances. His creation for a unified Germany was aimed at directing relevance to the outbreak of war 43 years later. It resulted in the engineering of new alliances that later came to be reality.

Having realized the aim of his life, Bismarck’s had made his dream a reality and all that was required was maintaining the stability. Thus, he set out building European alliances that was aimed at protecting Germany from any potential threats. He acutely was aware that the French were after revenging on their defeat on any opportunity that was likely to materialize. The loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia proved to be la sting pain for the country. In fact, the plan of French on war in the year 1914 was largely was based on and around the recapture of the both empires using the shortest period possible, and this had disastrous consequences.

Initially, Bismarck in 1873 began by negotiating with Three Emperors’ League. The league tied together Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. The treaty required the three allied states to be there for each other in times of war. The activities of Bismarck after the Franco-Prussian war that took place in 1871 that he was in favour of alliances more than ever. Realizing that France was likely to remain a threat, he was keen to consolidate the position of Germany through planning and developing alliances with other major powers in Europe. This was the birth of the Three Emperors League tying together Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Thus, although the effects of these alliances were evident in the start of the war in the early 1990s, the fact that these alliances were born in the 80s prove that the war was imminent.

The Triple Alliance was born after the inclusion of Italy into the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary in the year 1881. This was the initial birth and the formation of the triple alliance. The provisions of this treaty required Germany and Austria-Hungary to assist Italy in case she was attacked by France or if Hungary was to be attacked by Serbia. Italy was obliged to lend either Germany or Austria-Hungary aid in case French declared war on either of them. Moreover, if any member of the alliance was to be involved in war with more than one state, the other nations were supposed to help it out. The last provision of the treaty required the three friendly nations to wage a preventive war against other nations to declare their stand in the alliance and preserve their status.

Another alliance that was formed prior to the start of the war was the Franco-Italian Alliance, which was an alternative alliance of the Triple Alliance. In case the Triple Alliance proved to be meaningless, Italy, to secure her safety got into a secret alliance with France. The provision of this treaty required Italy to remain neutral in the event where Germany decides to attack France. This eventually happened in 1914 when Italy held that the war by Germany against France was aggressive and thus she claimed her neutral position. Later in the year 1915, a year later after declaring a neutral position, she joined the war in support of the British.

Austria-Hungary too signed a treaty with Romania in the year 1883 which saw Germany as the negotiating party. However, this did not have any significance inj the war as it did not have much influence on the fighting partners.

The reinsurance treaty is referred to as one that held a significant strength in the war. Although it lasted for only three years after it had been signed, Bismarck in the year 1887 decided to get into a treaty with Russia. The document containing this agreement stated that the two powers were to remain neutral if either of them was to be involved in war with a third party. However, in case the third party happened to be France, Russia was not allowed to provide any assistance to Germany. Intentionally, Bismarck was avoiding the possibility the occurrence of a two front war happening against France and Russia.

After the Reinsurance Treaty lapsed in the year 1890, the following year saw Russia and France formed an alliance. The two powers agreed into consulting with each other in case either found itself waged in war with another nation, or when the stability of Europe proved to be affected in a significant way. This was solidified in the year 1892 during the 1892 Franco-Russian military convention whose specific aim was counteracting the potential threat showcased by the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.

It is not possible to settle on a single cause of the First World War. Many activities that took place in Europe and around the continent in the early years of 1900s fuelled the war. The final years of 1800s saw an alignment of different countries, which created friendship that would make them immune from each other in cease of war. Although they had strategically placed themselves at the best position where they were not at the receiving end of the war, some of the allied nations secretly got into alliances with the enemies to be. The confusion of these happenings made the whole system backfire when the war begun.

However, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is considered to have sparked the start of the war. This cannot be argued out. But it is important to note that preparations had begun way before the start of the war. Increase in arms race and heightened imperialism as well as nationalism created a fertile breeding ground for the war that later shook the world, lasting for four years.


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