World War One or The Great War’ as it became known, occurred due to many causes, some of which still remain unexposed today. The obvious trigger for the war was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on 28th June 1914. The assassination occurred during the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Archduke was targeted due to the general feeling amongst Serbians that, once appointed to the throne, Ferdinand would continue the persecution of Serbs living within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Just moments after the two had been shot; authorities arrested the culprit, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian student, who was believed to have been linked to the Serbian terrorist organization, The Black Hand.
Causes of the war also dealt with such ideologies as Nationalism, Imperialism and militarism along with the prominent alliance systems in Europe all strongly affected the outbreak of the war. All of these factors where established in many of Europe’s Great Powers’ which consisted of Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.
During the late nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, Nationalism was a prominent movement that had spread itself across Europe. All major powers had strong feelings toward the concepts of supporting their own nation. Nationalists believed that their own nation’s needs must be met before that of other nations. These strong beliefs sometimes became obsessive as nationalists became so proud of their nation that they strived for it to become richer and more powerful than any other.
This wave of national pride became a major problem for the Austro-Hungarian Empire as they attempted to maintain a form of order and control within the annexed area of Bosnia. This power was placed under threat due to the Slavonic peoples dislike of their Austro-Hungarian superiors and there desire to attach themselves to Serbia and create an independent state to be known as Yugoslavia, or The Land of the South Slavs.’ This was seen as the reason for the assassination of Ferdinand and his wife.
The assassination gave Austria-Hungary the ideal excuse to declare war against Serbia. An ultimatum was issued to Serbia stating that it must agree to all terms described in the ultimatum in order to avoid war. Austria-Hungary gave Serbia 48 hours to reply and clearly stated that all terms must be met and complied with. Serbia agreed to all terms of the ultimatum bar one. This concerned Austro-Hungarian officials entering Serbia to perform an investigation into the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife. As the Serbians denied this request, it is believed by some historians that the young operatives sent to kill Ferdinand were not only nationalistic students but also as scapegoats used by the Serbian government to carry out their dirty work.
Imperialism was present in Europe for some time before the war broke out, as each of the great powers aimed to expand theirs boundaries into new areas in order to exploit the opportunities that the new land held. Just as England had done for centuries, it had become desirable to seek out new land to rule under the laws and cultural beliefs of the mother’ country.
The numerous conflicts raging within the confines of the Balkans since March 1912 had many historians, such as Remak, believing that the First World War was simply the Balkan War that had raged out of control and spread across Europe. The Balkans had been a problem in Europe for over a century as it was ruled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire.’ This empire had become so dilapidated that the many different ethnic groups within the area wanted to break away becoming free of Turkish rule, and create their own independent nations.
This particular theory is supported by the fact that all of the Great Powers in Europe had a vested interest in this area of Europe. Within the Balkans, the Slavic people were rising up against Austria-Hungary who had annexed Serbia and not allowed the independent state that the Slavs desired. Russia, who also consisted of Slavs, was involved due to its ethnic ties to the Slavs residing in the Balkans. Britain and Germany both developed interest in the area for the same reasons. At the time, Britain held the bulk of trade from Europe to distant markets such as the Middle East and Asia. Germany saw the Balkans as an ideal prospect to gain, as it was adjoined to their ally, Austria-Hungary and was in an ideal position to establish a trade headquarters, dealing to the same markets as the British. After its embarrassment at the hands of Bismarck and the Germans in 1871, France had held a bitter grudge and looked to gain control of the Balkans simply to frustrate and achieve revenge against Germany.
Austria-Hungary was willing to go to war with Serbia as long as they could be assured of Germanys support in the matter. The Germany Kaiser, Wilhelm II, provided this support for their neighbouring ally through a telegram to Emperor Franz Joseph II. This telegram is known today as the “Blank Cheque.” It was this reassurance that prompted Austria to declare war on Serbia, which set off a chain reaction of conflicts. This theory is what another historian, Gilbert, believes provoked war, saying that “The Austrian foreign minister was fired up’ for war against Serbia, but needed Germanys support.
In the early part of the twentieth century, militarism was as prominent as ever, with the recent industrial revolution being the main factor. As materials for weaponry and other war structures could be produced with less effort and in greater volume, countries were attempting to increase their stocks of weaponry and other instruments of warfare.
Two nations that were pitted against each other in a head-to-head situation were Britain and Germany. At the turn of the century, Britain controlled the largest empire on earth and also had the largest and most powerful navy on earth. It was required that Britain have such a large and powerful navy in order to protect their overseas territories and also to maintain sea routes between their various territories and colonies.
The German Kaiser was extremely envious of Britain for having a larger navy than that of Germany’s and ordered the production of new Dreadnought-class battleships. Britain responded to the Germans attempt to equal its navy by creating a navy so large and powerful that no other nation’s navy would ever contemplate an attack. This head-to-head production period was known as the “Arms Race” and created more tension between the two nations.
Within Europe during the early years of the twentieth century, a system of military alliances was formed to provide European powers with a sense of security before the commencement of the war. Two rivalling alliance systems where established.
The Triple Alliance consisted of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary that had existed since 1879 when Bismarck had befriended the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the agreement, both countries pledged that they would go to the aid of the other if attacked by Russia. This was done to ensure that Germany would always have an allied nation on its border if war were to occur. Italy later joined this alliance in 1882, which remained in tact until the beginning of World War I. The conditions of the alliance changed after Italy was added and stated that countries would aid any other that was under attack from two or more countries.
The other alliance: The Triple Entente, was made up of Great Britain, France and Russia. As a result of Germanys build-up in naval resources, Great Britain was forced to abandon its isolation policy and adopt allies. France joined Great Britain in 1904. Unlike the Triple alliance, this agreement contained no promises of military support, although the two powers began to talk of joint military plans. The Triple Entente was completed when Russia joined in 1907.
A country hoped to discourage an attack from its enemies by entering into a military agreement with one or more other countries. In case of an attack, such an agreement guaranteed that other members of the alliance would come to the country’s aid or at least remain neutral.
The alliance system has been attributed by numerous historians as the defining cause of the war’s outbreak and spread throughout Europe. As the two key alliances strengthened, a potentially disastrous situation was created whereby if any single country was to provoke or be involved in any conflict, allied nations of both sides would come into the conflict to assist any allied nation and would eventually cause mass war. Fritz Fischer, a German historian, believes that Germany was looking to provoke war by making the assumption that Russia had not mobilised, and allowed Austria to invade Serbia with the belief that no retaliation would come from Russia.
Of the belief that Russia was not mobilised and therefore, were unprepared for war, Austria declared war on Serbia on 28th July 1914, exactly a month after the murder of Franz Ferdinand and his wife.
Russia responded to this attack by partially mobilising and going to war against Austria-Hungary in order to protect their Slavic relatives, which was followed by Germany’s demand that Russia demobilise immediately. The Russians refused Germany’s demand and the Kaiser declared war on Russia and France.
The Germans were sticking to a prior plan known as the Shlieffen plan. which involved Germany going to war with France and Russia. In the plan, German was to use two arms of their army in order to trap the French forces. One small arm would defend along Germanys border and the much larger right side would encircle French forces by invading Belgium. The German army proceeded to invade Belgium and by August, Belgium was almost completely under German dictatorship. This invasion complicated matters further as Great Britain were brought into the war due to a prior treaty being signed with Belgium that included the defence of the country if it was invaded.
Just as predicted, the war that initially began due to an assassination on an Austrian leader grew into a colossal battle that enveloped the entirety of Europe. Alliance systems drew nations into the conflict that, had it not been for past agreements, would have steered clear.
The Balkans proved to be the lynchpin in regards to the outbreak of the First World War. From the minor conflicts in the region, violence and warfare spread over four years of fighting and resulted in the death of some ten million people. It could be said that Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian student who assassinated Franz Ferdinand was responsible for the mayhem and despair that occupied the four years to follow in Europe, for had he not assassinated Ferdinand and provided the initial spark for conflict, the events from 1914 to 1918 may have been vastly different.
Otto von Bismarck, leader of Germany during the unification period of the 1870’s, some forty years before the outbreak of World War One, summed up the future of Europe when he said, “The Balkans will be the cause of the next great war”