The assassination of Franz Ferdinand is often cited as the event that started World War I. The action of one man’s trigger finger surely altered the course of history, but the assassination was the catalyst for war rather than its sole cause. Look back at the state of the world prior to 1914 to survey the causes that led to WWI. 


Soldiers in the trenches (Source: Pixabay)


H.G. Wells was being ironic when he referred to World War I as "the war that will end war" in an essay he wrote in 1914. In reality, he aptly anticipated the bloodshed that would come over the next four years. Approximately 8.5 million soldiers and 13 million civilians lost their lives as the toll of war ricocheted around the world. "The Great War" pitted two major alliances of nations and empires against each other. The victorious outcome for Russia, France, and Great Britain changed the social and political makeup of Europe, Africa, and Asia for years to come. 


The assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is often considered to be the event that started WWI, yet the dominos of nationalist unrest, military competition, and imperial insecurities had begun to fall decades prior. The question “what started WWI?” seems to blitz past the deeply rooted tensions that contributed to the onset of war. Let’s look at the complicated web of “what caused WWI.” 


Overarching Causes of WWI

Rarely is it the case that one person’s life changes the course of the world, but Gavrilo Princip’s shot at the Austro-Hungarian heir irreversibly altered history. He is often credited as the individual who started WWI. Archduke Ferdinand’s untimely end came at the hands of this Serbian extremist, who was angered by the prospective leader’s animosity towards Serbian nationalism. 


A series of wars in the Balkans, Turkey, Morocco, and western Asia primed the powers across Europe for a much larger conflict that would call on alliances decades in the making. As the power of the Ottoman Empire disintegrated in central Europe and Northern Africa, the Italian, French, and Austro-Hungarian empires eyed an opportunity to extend their powers. National interests threatened imperial ones, while refurbished navies lingered in the background, ready to defend the empires that built them.


Alliances Split Europe into Two Factions

Map of European Alliances in 1914. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


In the leadup to WWI, countries across Europe aligned themselves with one another, splitting the continent into two major groups. In 1882 the German Chancellor Otto von Bismark created The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy) following the Franco-Prussian War. This alliance would defend recently reunified German interests and preserve the legacy of the Prussian kingdom for decades to come. 


King Ferdinand III of Prussia died 99 days into his appointment as Emperor of Germany. His 29-year-old son ascended to the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888 with a fervor to expand his influence on government affairs. Two years into his regime, Wilhelm II retired chancellor Otto von Bismarck so he could take on more responsibility himself. Wilhelm II disrupted Germany’s foreign policy by severing the country’s relationship with Russia. The hubris of the novice statesman solidified the political partitioning of Europe between German countries and those that bordered it. 


While Austria-Hungary and Germany settled into a post-war lull thanks to their successes, France and Russia formed a secret alliance following their collective defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Bismarck’s unification of Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and southern German states raised concerns in neighboring French and Russian regions they might be acquired next. 


To counter the strength of the Triple Alliance, France formed a military pact with Russia, creating the Dual Alliance in 1894. Russia agreed to help France in case of conflict with Germany, and France would defend Russia from Austria-Hungary. Russia and France had been military allies for ten years before Great Britain joined the alliance in 1905 when it was renamed the Triple Entente.


Militarism Prompts an Arms Race

HMS Dreadnought (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


In his role as the Supreme Commander of the Navy, Kaiser Wilhelm II reorganized the German fleet to ensure that his forces could compete with the Russian and French militaries. The first naval law was passed in 1898, outlining a construction plan for a series of new battleships and cruisers that would be seaworthy and ready for battle in 1904. In 1900, Wilhelm II would create the second German naval law that doubled the size of the fleet. 


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, countries across Europe engaged in an arms race to build the most daunting and technologically advanced military forces. Britain secured its naval dominance by unveiling the HMS Dreadnought, a new breed of all-big-gun warship that used steam turbine engines to travel longer distances faster. Built in under a year, the Dreadnought prompted Germany to amp up its naval expansion and compete with the quality of the British military’s crown jewel. By 1914 Britain had twenty dreadnoughts and Germany thirteen. The turn-of-the-century arms race heightened tensions between the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente, especially in conflicts abroad that paved the way for WWI.


Imperialism Causes Dissension that Spans from West to East

Caricatured map of Europe in 1906. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Europe consisted of several competing empires in the early 20th century – some were vanishing, and others were expanding drastically. The British and French empires acquired many colonies across the African and Asian continents. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire resented the growth of the neighboring empires while regions historically under their control broke away and formed new nations. Tensions at home and abroad boiled up to the point of needing to be settled on the battlefield.


Following suit in the expansionist policy of nearly every imperial power at the time, the Russian Empire sought water access on its eastern frontier and looked to Manchuria and Korea as areas to conquer. The Japanese Empire was growing in power and had no interest in sharing Pacific waters with Russian warships. When Russia refused to withdraw its troops from Manchuria following an agreement it had with Japan, the Russo-Japanese War began. Ultimately, Japan obliterated Russia’s naval forces around Port Arthur and took over their garrison in the town formerly known as Mukden. Russia’s dream of expansion into east Asia had been quelled, so the Empire refocused on expansion in the Balkan region of central Europe, an area vied for by Austria-Hungary as well. 


While Russia looked unsuccessfully towards expansion in Asia, African colonization had been going swimmingly for France and Britain, which had partitioned Morocco and Egypt between themselves. Around 1911, civil unrest in Morocco warranted an increased presence of French troops to secure peace, and Germany sent a gunboat to protect its economic interests in the area. Kaiser Wilhelm II vocally backed Moroccan independence, hoping to add fire to the flames that would create a rift between France and Britain. 


Tensions subsided when Morocco became a French protectorate with the Treaty of Fez, and Germany was placated with new territory in the French Congo. The crises in Morocco ultimately strengthened the relations between Britain and France while Germany presented itself as an obstacle to the Triple Entente’s interests in Africa.


Nationalism Puts Countries on the Brink of Aggression

A group of Young Bosnians, a nationalist political group. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


At the start of the 20th century, the imperial powers of Europe encompassed vast geographic regions and ruled over diverse populations. The 13 languages spoken in Austria-Hungary reflected the complex range of ethnic groups and cultures that had been lumped together in one empire. A sentiment of nationalism swept across the Balkan Peninsula, especially among Serbs, as citizens sought to establish new governments that served the interests of particular communities. For empires, war was seen as a tool for nation-building, and nationalists across Europe turned this principle on its head to resist imperial powers and establish nations on their own terms. Violence was seen as a tool for suppressing insurrection on one hand, and a tool for gaining independence on the other. 


Since the late 18th century, Ottoman territory had dwindled as peripheral regions rebelled to form independent nations. When the Young Turks overtook the government in Constantinople, Austria-Hungary saw an opportunity to stake its claim to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Austria-Hungary justified the move by claiming that annexation into its empire protected Bosnia and Herzegovina from being taken over by Turkish interests. 


As Austria-Hungary steadily encroached on Serbian territory, Serbian nationalists rejected the idea of annexation and called on their Russian allies for backup. Even with Russian reinforcement, nationalists were unable to stop Austria-Hungary from occupying the two Balkan states. Austria-Hungary rode the wave of Ottoman unrest to gain ground in a highly desirable region. 


The ‘Start’ of World War I

Fed up with life under an empire that failed to recognize its people's desire for autonomy, several nations rose up against Ottoman rule. Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League in 1911 and fought to reestablish home rule across the peninsula. Despite a squabble between Bulgaria and the others over the borders of Macedonia, the Balkan Wars demonstrated the weakness of the Ottoman name while showcasing the strength of citizens united in a common cause. Some nationalists in Serbia wanted to build off the momentum of the Balkan Wars to intimidate the Austria-Hungarian Empire and show a strong defense against Wilhelm II’s desire to invade. 

Franz Ferdinand, photo by Ferdinand Schmutzer, public domain. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife visited Bosnia for an inspection of the Imperial army. While parading through the streets of Sarajevo, the presumptive heir of the Austro-Hungarian crown was attacked by a group of Serbian extremists who wanted to break up the Empire. Nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip fired the bullets that killed the Archduke and his wife, sparking anti-Serb protests and riots across Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary launched an attack against Serbia for the actions of its extremists. Once war was declared, Germany joined to support Austria-Hungary, and Russia rushed to aid Serbia. Per the alliances that had been forming over the last decades, Britain, France, and Italy were obligated to sign onto the war efforts. The world had mobilized for war, and a war it would be. 


Want to Learn More About World War I?

There wasn't a sole cause of WWI, but the years leading up to its outbreak marked a time of flux, instability, and unrest for people across Europe. The continent had been split in two. If once Europe had found unity through geographic proximity, the Alliance and the Entente had flipped like repelling magnets. The rift between them became insurmountable. With European nations dividing the rest of the world into pieces for its imperial puzzles, the slightest upset to one empire offered a chance for another to seize even more power. By 1914, Europe had morphed into a powder keg of extremist ideologies, antsy militaries, and overzealous leaders. War seemed inevitable. 


Eventually, war did descend on Europe. It tore apart landscapes, nations, and families that crumbled beneath aerial attacks, caved to imperial armies, and shattered with the emptiness of human loss. "The war that would end war" might have seemed that way at the time, but the fallout from WWI merely set the stage for a revival show to take place a few decades later. For some of the most important figures in World War II, WWI was a warm-up that set a new precedent for the ethics of battle. It primed troops for the most heinous atrocities of war. To get a glimpse into how the horrors of WWI affected the lives of WWII’s most historic figures, watch Doomsday WWI: Descent into Madness.



Daisy Dow is a contributing writer for MagellanTV. Her articles also appear in Local Life magazine. She recently graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in philosophy and studio art.

Title Image: Australian troops in the trench, State Library of Queensland, Australia (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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