World War I was a conflict that began in 1914 and ended in 1918. It involved most of the world’s major powers and was waged on the battlefields of Europe.
Many factors contributed to the war, some of which were political and some of which were emotional. The political factors included heightened nationalism, alliances, balance of power issues, and imperial competition. The emotional factors included anti-Semitism and propaganda.
The end of the nineteenth century saw an increase in nationalism, or devotion to one’s nation, among many peoples. As such, many felt that their country deserved its own place in the world; this included expanding its territory or having its own independent state. Many nations also felt a strong sense of pride and loyalty to their government and ruler.
Alliances are agreements made between two or more parties that promise to assist one another if there is a certain kind of conflict. During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, there were several alliances that were negotiated between nations. Some of these alliances were mutual defense pacts that promised to defend each other if there was a conflict.
Austria-Hungary’s assassination of the archduke
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 is considered the catalyst that caused World War I.
Franz Ferdinand was visiting the Bosnian capital city of Sarajevo to inspect security arrangements following a bomb attack on his life the day before. As his open-top car passed along the streets, Serbian national Gavrilo Princip stepped forward and shot him and his wife dead.
The incident could have been treated as an internal affair, but instead, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia that was so severe that it virtually guaranteed a negative response. This prompted Russia to step in and defend its ally, which began a chain of events that led to war.
Although we often hear about how WWI was caused by obscure events far in the past, this incident was fairly recent — only 28 years before Britain entered the war.
Years of tension between Europe’s great powers
The First World War began in the summer of 1914, after a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
Austria-Hungary reacted to the assassination with devastating force, Serbia was quickly defeated, but this triggered a series of alliances between European nations.
These alliances, known as the chain of mutual defense treaties, obligated each nation to come to the aid of another if they were attacked.
This meant that once war was declared, it became a widespread phenomenon almost instantly. By the time Germany declared war on France in early August of 1914, it was too late—the Great War had begun.
All of Europe was engaged in warfare, and none could back down without exposing themselves to catastrophic consequences.
The Great War was unprecedented and unthinkable
World War I, or the First World War, was a conflict that took place between July 28, 1914, and November 11, 1918. It involved all of the major powers of the world at the time: The United States, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany.
Many historians believe that the war began due to a string of events and diplomatic decisions made over several decades. Some of these events include Wilhelm II assuming the throne in 1888; his policy of naval expansion; his relationship with France; British colonialism and territorial disputes with Germany; Russian expansion into Central Europe; and Austrian-Hungarian diplomacy.
These events contributed to a climate of tension and fear between nations that eventually led to war in 1914. Unfortunately for humanity, there was no one specific event that instantly brought nations to war in that year—it was the culmination of many things.
Alliances created a web of conflicting interests
The conflict that would become known as the Great War began with the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Austria-Hungary, one of the superpowers of the time, annexed the lands as a means to increase its power.
However, Serbia had designs on Bosnia and Herzegovina, so Austria-Hungary’s move was not welcome. This created an alliance violation, as Serbia and Russia had a mutual defense pact.
Alliances at this time were mostly a contract to defend one another if one party was attacked. This put yet more countries in conflict with each other, creating a web of conflicting interests that would eventually lead to war.
Before World War I began there were several alliances that caused some major issues. One of the most significant alliances was the Triple Entente which consisted of France, Britain, and Russia.
Germany wanted to expand its power and territory
In the 1800s, Germany was divided into states, each with its own government and ruler. These states were very independent and did not always agree with each other.
In 1871, a man named Otto von Bismarck came into power as the prime minister of Prussia. He created a strong government and a powerful army that could easily defeat the other states.
He also was against democracy and freedom of speech. He believed in a strong, authoritarian government that kept its people in line through force if necessary.
In 1871, he took over small towns in northwest Germany near the North Sea and attacked the nearby country of France. This started the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with Prussia as the winner. It also made Bismarck a national hero.
Conflict over resources and markets became intense
As the 1800s came to a close, many countries around the world were entering periods of great growth and change. New technologies and discoveries spurred industralization and new markets and trade.
Many of these markets and industries became increasingly dependent on one another as production expanded. For example, the production of cotton in the United States grew dramatically in this period, making it a more valuable commodity worldwide.
As this happened, countries began to see other nations as potential threats to their economic prosperity. Conflict over resources and markets became intense as a result.
Two particular conflicts that played a significant role in leading up to World War I were the South Manchurian Railway Incident and the Bosnian Crisis of 1908. These are explained in more detail below.
Nationalism caused tensions to rise even higher
As mentioned before, nationalism was a very strong force in the world at this time. Many people believed that their country was the best and that people of other countries were less worthy.
Nationalism is often connected to patriotism, which is the love of one’s country. During this time period, nationalism grew more and more intense, making people of different countries feel more separate from each other.
Many historians believe that the rise in nationalism at this time contributed to the war. People felt a need to prove their country was better than others, which might have caused some actions that led to war.
Nationalism continued to grow after the war and even plays a role in today’s world. We will discuss this later in the lesson, but for now, remember that nationalism played an important role leading up to World War I.
The war was a result of the alliances countries formed with other countries during this time period
During the early 20th century, countries developed alliances with other nations in order to protect their security and safety. These alliances were called treaties and agreements that bound countries to help one another in times of conflict.
During this time period, it was common for countries to build up their military forces and increase their production of weapons and ammunition. There was a constant fear that one nation would attack another, so nations tried to amass enough military strength to defend themselves and strike back if necessary.
The Triple Alliance was an alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy that formed in 1882. The Central Powers was the name given to the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War I. The Central Powers fought against the Allied Powers, which consisted of Belgium, France, Russia, Britain, and several other countries.