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What Were The Underlying Causes of World War I

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Woodrow Wilson once said, “This is the war to end all wars,”. World War I, sometimes referred to as The Great War, was thought to be the war that ends all wars. The two main sides were the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, United States, Belgium, Greece, and Romania) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria). The war lasted from 1914 to 1918 and was mostly fought in Europe. Europe has not had a substantial war since the French revolution. Technology has evolved, society has changed, and countries had modernized. World War I was the first war that involved almost all of Europe and was one of the bloodiest wars in all European history. The start of the war can usually be traced back to a handful of underlying causes. So what were the underlying causes of World War I? Answers are very simple. The underlying causes of World War I are forming alliances, increased militarism, imperialism, nationalism, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

First, nations in Europe were forming alliances with each other. These alliances were an agreement to aid an ally if attacked. The two main alliances were the Triple Entente, which included Great Britain, France, and Russia, and the Triple Alliance, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. These alliances brought up the question of who started the war. The political cartoon The Crime of the Ages shows men labeled as countries, whose size corresponds with their military strength, pointing to blame another country for the war. These alliances would set off a chain reaction which leads Europe to go to war.

Next, European nations increased their militaries. This was called an arms race. The chart in document seven shows an increase in the amount of money spent on their militaries from 1890 to 1914. Germany more than quadrupled their military budget during that time. Prince Bernhard von Bulow of Germany, “…we realize that without power, without a strong army and strong navy, there can be no welfare for us”. Germany realizes they need a strong military to ensure safety for its citizens. Prince Bulow continues saying, “The means of fighting the battle for existence in this world without strong armaments on land and water, for a nation soon to count sixty million, living in the center of Europe and at the same time stretching out its economic feelers in all directions, have not yet been found”. He means that the European population is growing ever faster, Germany is almost at sixty million people, countries in central Europe are going to want more land and they need to be able to protect themselves. He would rather Germany strike first with great strength than be weak and beat upon. They are spending too much money on the military and not enough on keeping the people happy. The increase in money spent on the military meant war was imminent whether Europe wanted it or not.

In addition, the increase in the military coincided with the increase of imperialism. Great Britain, France, and Germany had huge land claims in both Africa and Asia and needed a vast military to protect their territory in the event of an attack. Britain had the largest claims at roughly thirty-three million square kilometers with about four hundred million people. The British Octopus pollical cartoon is German propaganda used to portray the British as a bloodsucking octopus whose influence and control are spread all over the world. It is strangling countries, especially Germany. Colonial claims in Africa and Asia gave European nations a feeling of being more powerful than the others which increased tensions and the struggle for power.

Finally, the increase of nationalism and people wanting a war are other causes of World War I. To start, in Fall of Giants, Follett describes that the older generation wants the war. Follett says, “The sooner we have this war, the better for Germany”. James Joll says in The Origin of the First World War, “How many times in the last two years have we heard people repeat ‘Better war than this perpetual waiting!’ In this wish, there is no bitterness, but a secret hope”. In the many generations since the last war, people seem to have forgotten what war was like. They want to get a taste of it and see what it is like for themselves. Kaiser Wilhelm II seems to think the war will be short, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees”. Nationalism was used in a poem by James Thomson in the lines, “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves”. Thomson is confident that if the British come together and have pride in their nation, they will never be defeated and become the slaves of another country. Since Europe has not seen a full-scale war, one which almost everyone is involved in, since the French revolution, its people want to get a taste of war and will support it.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set the war in motion. After the assassination, Austria gave Serbia a list of ten demands that would prevent war if fulfilled. In Fall of Giants, Follett says that the first three demanded that Serbia suppress liberal newspapers, break up the secret society called the Black Hand, and clamp down on nationalist propaganda. He continues with point four which would purge the nationalists in the Serbian civil service. Point five demanded that Austria assist the Serbian government in crushing subversion and point six insisted that Austrian officials take part in Serbia’s judicial inquiry into the assassination. Point seven through ten consisted of arresting the conspirators, preventing the smuggling of weapons into Austrian territory, and a clampdown on anti-Austrian pronouncements by Serbian officials. In addition to the harshness of these points, Austria gave Serbia a forty-eight-hour deadline to reply. Serbia could not meet these demands and were subsequently invaded by Austria, starting World War I.

The start of the war was a result of nationalism, militarism, alliances, and imperialism. The war continued for five years. The objective of the war changed from backing up an ally to gaining territory and conquering Europe. When the war ended in 1919, Europe was left in ruins. Fascism and Communism rose from the ruins and paved the way for World War II. 

Works Cited

  1. Bulow, Bernhard von. “Hammer and Anvil.” Speech to the Reichstag. Speech to the Reichstag, 11 Dec. 1899, Berlin.
  2. Follett, Ken. Fall of Giants. Penguin Group, 2012.
  3. Joll, James. Origins of the First World War. Routledge, 2018.
  4. McCutcheon, John. “The Crime of the Ages-Who Did It?” The Chicago Tribune, 1914.
  5. Ruggenberg, R. (n.d.). Immortal Quotes from the Great War. Retrieved from
  6. Thomson, James. Rule Britannia, Great Britain. 

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