What were the causes of World War I?

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The causes of World War I all came to a head with the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sofia in Sarajevo in August 1914.  This single event set in motion a chain of events that eventually drew the entire continent of Europe into war.  Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by Serb nationalists.  Serbia had only recently gained independence from Austria, and had sought assistance from Russia in that endeavour.  Russia had initially promised to back Serbia but then reneged on the deal.  Czar Nicholas II had resolved never to do that to his Slavic brothers again. 

In the aftermath of the assassination, Austria made a series of demands that interfered with Serbian sovereignty.  With a firm commitment of backing from Russia, Serbia rejected Austria's demands.  Austria mobilized to invade Serbia and Russia mobilized to counter the invasion.  Austria had an alliance with Germany.  When Russia mobilized against Austria, Germany mobilized to counter Russia.  When neither side backed down, Germany invaded Russia.  Russia had a military alliance with France, so the invasion of Russia brought France into the war against Germany. 

Germany achieved success early, it made a solid gain into Russia, and prevented Russia from invading Austria, allowing Austria to invade Serbia unimpeded.  Germany then switched its Eastern campaign to a holding plan, and turned the majority of its forces against France.  Instead of meeting the French head-on though, Germany went for an end-run around their Northern flank.  This strategy required Germany to violate Belgian neutrality.  Great Britain had a military alliance with Belgium so the violation of neutrality drew Great Britain into the war. 

The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) wisely sought to remain neutral, but Turkish control of the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits meant they had to take sides.  If they maintained a long tradition of closing the straits to military traffic, they would inevitably assist Germany and Austria, because the Russian Black Sea fleet would not be able to back up the French in the Mediterranean, forcing Britain to divert a portion of its Navy to the Mediterranean.  Opening the straits to military traffic would have the opposite effect.  Britain confiscated 2 paid-for destroyers from the Turks at the start of the war, and that pushed Turkey towards Germany and Austria.  Fearing that the straits would remain closed, a British Cruiser and minesweeper were dispatched to force the straits open.  The Cruiser was forced to retreat, and the minesweeper was sunk across the Dardanelles, and that sealed Turkey siding with Germany and Austria. 

A US diplomat had compared the situation to a powder keg, "All it takes is a spark to set it off."  It proved an apt description. 

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There were very many causes of World War I.  There was one immediate cause of the war, but a multitude of more fundamental causes that were more distant in time from the outbreak of the war.

The immediate cause of the war was the Serbian rejection of Austria’s unreasonable ultimatum.  The Austro-Hungarian Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand had, of course, been assassinated in Sarajevo.  The Austrians blamed the Serbs and, wanting a war, issued an unreasonable ultimatum.  When Serbia rejected one part of it, Austria went to war and WWI had started.

The more fundamental causes of the war are many.  They include:

  • Nationalism.  Nationalism caused people like the Slavs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to resent being ruled by Germans.  This was behind the assassination.  Nationalism also caused Germany to back Austria and Russia to back Serbia.   Thus, nationalism helped to start the war and to broaden it.
  • Militarism.  Many countries glorified their militaries at this time.  They felt the military was an expression of national strength and honor.  They wanted to have strong militaries.  This ended up causing an arms race as well as a culture in which it was accepted that military force should be used to solve problems.
  • Imperialism.  All of the major European countries were scrambling to get as much imperial power as they could.  This was partly for economic reasons and partly for reasons of prestige, as with Germany’s desire for its “place in the sun.”

These underlying factors, when unleashed by the assassination in Sarajevo, caused WWI to begin.


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