Causes of World War I

The relationship had been tense between many European countries in the years before. Most had not forgiven each other for past rivalries, as they looked to become more powerful than their neighbors. In fact, the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand may have been the tipping point towards a war that had been brewing for years.

Due to the complicated relationship between so many countries due to:

• shifting power in the region

  • friendships
  • jealousies
  • past defeats
  • national pride

It is necessary to look further into European history to understand the reasons behind World War



Before 1914, there were a few strong and powerful countries within Europe. They had divided into two groups, who agreed they would help defend one another if one of them did go to war with a country from the other group. None of the countries planned to be the one to declare war.

  • The Triple Alliance – this was an alliance formed in 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy
  •  The Triple Entente – this was an alliance formed in 1907 between Britain, Russia and France

Italy also made a secret agreement with France that it would remain a neutral country if Germany attacked France. When the war started, Italy remained neutral rather than supporting the Central Powers.

There were many reasons why the countries chose to form these alliances, although much of it came down to power. Powerful countries had empires, which made them wealthy. To control other countries for their empires, they needed strong armies.

As their enemies also became stronger, they were more of a danger, so countries joined alliances against common enemies. For example, Britain and Germany were competing to have the most powerful navy in the region. France had recently lost a war to Germany, who took a region of French land called Alsace, which angered France. It made sense for Britain and France to form an alliance against Germany.

Military Power

The European countries considered powerful were:

  • Germany
  • Austria-Hungary
  •  Italy,
  •  Britain,
  •  Russia
  • France

All these powerful countries started spending a lot of money on their Defense Forces, including increasing their:

  •  military technology
  • number of weapons
  •  trained soldiers

As each country increased their spending on their armies, their enemies would too. This resulted in a cycle of major growth of power as well as continuing to worsen the relationship between the countries.

The Anglo-German Naval Arms Race was a race to build ships in Britain and Germany, and added to the tensions within Europe. In the late 1800s, the United Kingdom had the largest navy in the world. After the British threatened to stop shipping along the German coastline in 1897, Germany increased its navy. Britain saw Germany’s expansion as a threat, and in turn started to build more ships and make them more powerful. The public supported their country, and both countries continued to spend more and build faster. In 1912, Germany decided to spend more on their army instead, because it saw the size of Russia’s army as more of a threat than the British navy.

Nationalism and Imperialism

  •  Nationalism is more than pride in a country, it is a belief by the public that their country is more important than any other country in the world. People often consider their country is more powerful than any other

Before the war, many of the powerful nations were full of nationalism. The governments and the media celebrated how great their nations were, and making fun of enemy countries they saw as weak. The growth of their militaries made the countries feel stronger and more important than countries around them. It also meant that they supported going to war, because they did not believe they could lose. Most countries even had war plans for their militaries if war did break out.

Countries such as Britain and France were successful and building empires and were powerful and rich. European powers such as Germany and Russia were jealous of these empires, and hoped to reduce them. Germany had already won the Franco-Prussian War against France in the late 1800s to reduce France’s empire. Three arguments over land between the great powers significantly worsened the relationships between the great powers:


  •  First and Second Moroccan Crisis – Germany challenged France’s growing power in Morocco, in 1905 and again in 1911. Both times, Germany hoped to break the bond between France and Britain. Germany also hoped to secure Morocco for its own empire (at the time, there were few independent countries available in Africa). In both instances, Britain supported France. Germany received little support from other powers. Both crises increased tension in the region, given how close the parties came to war
  • First Balkan Crisis – in the 1870s, Austria-Hungary took control of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia wanted control over Bosnia- Herzegovina due to its relationship with the people in that area. Austria-Hungary did not want Serbia becoming powerful in the region, and so disagreed. Russia offered to support Austria-Hungary’s decision to declare Bosnia-Herzegovina an independent nation instead. This was unusual because Serbia and Russia were allies. But Russia wanted Austria-Hungary to support one of Russia’s plans in the region, in return. Austria-Hungary announced Bosnia-Herzegovina as independent, without honoring its agreement with Russia. Russia was furious, and prepared to declare war against Austria-Hungary. Russia decided against war because Germany said it would support Austria-Hungary. Russia was embarrassed it failed to assert its power. The mistrust and anger added to the already simmering tension in the region

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Slavic nations are a group of people sharing similar cultures and histories. They also speak similar Slavic languages. Austria-Hungary included land in which Slavs close to the Serbian border lived. A nationalistic secret society in Serbia wanted to “free” those Slavs. They felt Austria-Hungary’s declaration of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence justified their action.

Serbia had become aware of the assassination plan and tried to warn Austria-Hungary. Their warning was too vague and so was not taken seriously. It is only after the war that the warning was publicly discussed.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot during a visit to Bosnia on 28 June 1914. Austria-Hungary was angry that Serbia did not think it was a Serbian responsibility to investigate the shooting. Although Serbia agreed to some of the demands for action sent to them by Austria-Hungary, it was not enough.

Serbia replied to the escalating tensions by sending a part of their army close to the Austria-Hungary border. The Austro-Hungarian army warned them away by firing shots into the air. The Austro-Hungarian government received reports of greater Serbian aggression, and declared war on Serbia. This set off a domino effect, where the great powers of Europe activated their war plans. First, Russia prepared its army for war based on its friendship with Serbia. Russia’s act resulted in full preparation of Austro-Hungarian and German armies for battle. Soon, more and more countries had joined the war based on their alliances, agreements and reactions to the war.