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Colonial rivalries certainly played a role in the outbreak of WWI, but it might be difficult to point to it as the most important reason. It certainly caused some of the conflicts but many historians believe the most important causes were the alliances that forced a number of countries into the war, and the desire for more territory that pulled several more in.
There were also a number of specific events that people look at as causes, but it also was accelerated by the policies of many countries that had built up their armies and navies and were basically looking for a reason to use them and let loose the pressure built up by their great campaigns for nationalism and a desire for greater power.
In my opinion, the most important reason for World War I was balance of power politics, not colonial rivalry.
During the years before the war, Germany was intent on getting its "place in the sun." This meant that it was pushing to become a stronger and more respected country. This included actions that caused colonial rivalry.
The other countries of Europe engaged in alliance building and an arms race, as the first answer says. But what is important is why they did that. What they were mostly trying to do was to ensure that no country or alliance became so powerful that the others could not defeat it if they all banded together.
So the real cause of the war is Germany's desire to grow in power and the desire of most countries to maintain a balance of power in Europe.
Another reason in addition to colonial rivalry was intense nationalism among most if not all of the six empires in Europe. Nationalism is hyperpatriotism, a feeling of "My nation right or wrong" and my nation is never wrong.
In combination with the alliances, the arms race and colonial rivalry, this was a major trigger of the war.
Imperialism was definitely a major factor but let's not forget the effect of militarism and technology on the situations. Many of Europe's rivalries are centuries old. Add the rise of militarism and the glorification of the military, and these rivalries take on a whole new level of size and lethalness. Throw in the numerous alliances and you have the making of a gigantic mess. What was once local scirmishes ( Prussia and Serbia for example ) are blown into huge major continental issue aka WWI. I guess you could say that it was not a question of if WWI would take place, but when. The thought of a Perfect Storm comes to mind...
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