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The Shot Heard Round The World: Cause of The First World War

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The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, otherwise known as “the shot heard round the world”, is widely recognized as the immediate cause of the First World War. However, while Ferdinand’s assassination may have posed as the trigger of the war, without long-time underlying factors such as nationalism and the alliance system, it would not have launched one of the greatest wars in history. According to historical sociologist Anthony Smith, nationalism, in simple terms, is the ideology or movement of promoting the interests, self-determination, and unified national identity of a particular state. The alliance system of 1914 refers to the two main alliances of pre-Great War Europe: The Triple Entente, formed between Britain, France, and Russia, and the Triple Alliance, formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. With reference to historians subscribing predominantly to the Realism and Power Transition theories of interpretation, and without straying from the last 25-30 years leading up to the war, this paper will discuss the relative importance of nationalism, the alliance system, and Ferdinand’s assassination as general causes of the First World War. The spread of nationalist sentiment and the rivalry of the alliances, both of which established severe tensions between the European powers, paved the path for a war outbreak after the Archduke’s murder more so than any other cause.

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In all of Europe, the spread of nationalism through popular culture and politics bred not only an intense war fever throughout the nations but also a fierce arms race between the powers for ultimate militaristic domination. Filled with nationalist sentiment, media outlets and politicians began to exaggerate tales to the public, portraying their own countries as righteous and just and antagonizing their enemies as defenders of evil. Leaders gained an overinflated sense of confidence in their ability to win the war, as well as an overinflated sense of pride and unwillingness to lose national prestige. In the words of Baroness Ruth Henig, “Countries went to war because they believed they could achieve more through war than by diplomatic negotiation and that if they stood aside their status as great powers would be gravely affected…”. More significant, however, is the effect that nationalist sentiment brought upon militarism and imperialism, especially in the case of young Germany. In hopes of affirming Germany’s supremacy among the other powers, a young and equally as ambitious Kaiser Wilhelm II eagerly pushed programs in imperial conquests, the military, and the economy, in doing so reinforcing his ideal of Pan-Germanism and rearing hostilities between Germany and the other powers. In his biography of Wilhelm II, John C. Fredriksen writes, “Wilhelm’s Weltpolitik thus remained bent on securing Germany’s imperial place under the sun, regardless of the circumstances. Such thoughtless behavior drove France, Russia, and England into a grand military alliance against Germany- the Triple Entente.” To the dismay of the competing Entente powers, by 1914 Germany had in her possession several valuable regions in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. German naval expansion and support of the Boers in the Boer war from 1899-1902 were met with distaste especially from the British, fuelling both the beginnings of a relentless arms race and the German urge to rid of domestic and foreign dissension through war. Aside from Germany’s alienation of Britain, the Kaiser also held feelings of disdain toward France and Russia. Referring to the effects of nationalism on German relations, American historian Sidney Bradshaw Fay states: “In nationalism’s chronic form of Pan-Germanism, Pan-Slavism, and revanche, it nourished hatred between Germany and her two neighbors on the East and West.” The hatred that Fay describes manifested itself in none other than the German Schlieffen Plan, a meticulously-timed plan for a two-front war against France and Russia. Created in 1905, the Schlieffen Plan was risky and dependent on confidence in assumptive action. It is safe to say that, in the window of time while they were still militarily stronger than their European counterparts, the Germans were prepared to strike. However, the inter-European hostilities that arose in the brief period before the war caused a rapid build-up of military and economic power throughout all of Europe, and countries, in particular Wilhelm II’s Germany, were prepared to take either an offensive or defensive stance in war.

As for the alliance system of 1914, while the bonds between the participating powers were not strongly transfixed, they were established in an effort to increase security and to maintain the balance of power. If the threat of imperialism or militarism began to tilt the balance in favor of one alliance, the other alliance would take action to restore peace. In this way, the alliances also impacted the progression of the arms race and the formation of war plans. The net result of the disagreements between the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente was the renewed appeal of war. Most prominent of these disagreements was the question of the future of the Balkans, which, on the basis of imperialism, Austria-Hungary sought to control, and on the basis of Pan-Slavism, Russia sought to protect. As previously mentioned, there were mutual feelings of contempt between Germany and the Entente powers. From Gordon Martel’s The Origins of the First World War, “The First World War was… fought for control of the collapsed Ottoman territories; whoever won this struggle would, it was believed, be in a position to dominate all of Europe. Germany and her ally made the bid for control; Russia and her allies resolved to stop them.” The alliances also supplied connections through which disputes in smaller colonial regions could spread and influence the involvement of the greater powers. Historical author Stephen J. Lee expands upon this concept: “Normally, the dangers were seen and the connections were cut; hence the Moroccan crises of 1906 and 1911 were allowed to fizzle out. But, as the sequence of events after Sarajevo showed only too clearly, the means existed whereby a local conflict could be transformed into a continental war.” Lee’s mention of Sarajevo is a direct reference to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The following paragraph will further examine why the Archduke’s murder, unlike the Moroccan crises, was capable of provoking a full-blown war between the great powers.

On June 28, 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired the shots which would change the whole course of European history. Only a month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. From Fay: “the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the factor which consolidated the elements of hostility and started the rapid and complicated succession of events which culminated in a world war, and for that factor, Serbian nationalism was primarily responsible.” While relations between Austria-Hungary and Serbia had first gone sour in the 1600s, it was the 1908 Bosnian Crisis that brought their disagreements to light. In response to the Serbian nationalist movement demanding the liberation of Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Balkan region that had recently been annexed by Austria-Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire refused and even talked of invading Serbia. When news of the Archduke’s assassination reached Austria-Hungary, despite having gained justification of an attack on Serbia, the threat of Russian involvement on Serbia’s behalf was enough to contain her for the time being. Fortunately for Austria-Hungary, on July 5, 1914, Germany gave her a “blank cheque”, vigorously promising to support whatever action she decided to take against Serbia. From an official telegram sent by Laszlo Szogyeny, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador from 1892-1914: “It was Wilhelm’s opinion that our action against Serbia must not be delayed. Russia’s attitude will no doubt be hostile, but to this, he has for years been prepared, and should a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia be unavoidable, we might be convinced that Germany, our old faithful ally, would stand by our side…Wilhelm would regret it if we did not make use of the present moment, which is all in our favor…”. With the guarantee of German support in mind, Austria-Hungary issued an unreasonable ultimatum to Serbia, knowing that the Serbian government would be unable to satisfy all the terms. Although Serbia accepted most terms and disputed only a few minor clauses in an effort to appease Austria-Hungary, it was not enough to change her mind. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. As anticipated, Russia came to the defense of Serbia, as did Germany in the defence of her ally. The situation was ideal for Germany; wanting to achieve her own aims, she declared war on both Russia and France, on August 1 and 3 respectively. Germany quickly mobilized into neutral Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan, and her refusal of the British ultimatum to leave Belgium, whom Britain had promised to defend with the 1839 Treaty of London, provoked Britain to join the Triple Entente in a war that she was not obligated to enter. While it was a clash between Serbian nationalism and Austro-Hungarian nationalism that initiated the war, the tangled web of alliances and treaty obligations extended what was meant to be a minor war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary into a 4-year-long continental war.

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In the final analysis, not only were nationalism and the alliance system the leading long-term causes of war, but they were also the factors responsible for causing a war outbreak after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. While it may not have been clear from the contents of this paper, it is a challenging task to differentiate between which causes played a greater role in the outcome of events, as the forces of war are very closely aligned with one another. Nevertheless, the study of the origins of war remains crucial to the understanding of history and the development of society. The First World War was deemed as “the war to end all wars”, yet less than 25 years after the end of the war in 1918, Europe was to face a second World War, this one much worse than the last.


  1. Fay, Sidney Bradshaw. The Origins of the World War. New York: Macmillan Comp., 1928.
  2. Fredriksen, John C. Biographical Dictionary of Modern World Leaders 1900-1991. New Delhi: Viva Books Private, 2005. Accessed January 8, 2019. Infobase.
  3. Henig, Ruth. The Origins of the First World War. Florence: Routledge, 1987.
  4. Joll, James, and Gordon Martel. The Origins of the First World War. London: Routledge, 2014.
  5. Lee, Stephen J. Aspects of European History 1789-1980. Place of Publication Not Identified: Routledge, 2015.
  6. ‘Nationalism as a Cause of World War I.’ Nazi Germany. November 19, 2018. Accessed January 5, 2019.
  7. Slavicek, Louise Chipley. The Treaty of Versailles. New York: Chelsea House, 2010. Accessed January 5, 2019. Infobase.
  8. ‘(Official Coded Telegram).’ Count Laszlo Szogyeny to Count Leopold Berchtold. July 1914. Germany.

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