Historical Essay Example: The Root Causes of World War I

Research PaperHistory

World War I was an armed conflict between the world’s major powers from 1914 to 1918. The events during the war resulted in a radical realignment in the power balance among nations, including the rise of the Nazis . It led to the dissolution of the Russian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire, and German Empire. From the dissolutions, some countries regained their autonomy while others, such as the United States, found themselves in a position of power. While the effects of the first world war are prominent and well-known, many are unaware of the root causes that led to the conflict. Many know that Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was the catalyst that ignited the war. However, there were other factors at play. World War I had multiple root causes ranging from the emergence of alliances to the spread of nationalism during the time.

Formation of Defense Alliances

It is common knowledge that World War I was between the Central Powers and the Allied Powers. These were alliances between countries and established the sides of the conflict. The formation of the alliances started before World War I started and was one of the root causes that made the Great War possible. Countries signed treaties with each other, obligating them to help one another during an attack (McCormick, n.d.). The alliances became a deterrent against attacks since it would result in other alliance members getting involved. As such, countries refrained from attacking countries under alliances to avoid provoking a chain reaction that would involve multiple countries.

The defense alliances included agreements between Russia and Serbia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, France and Russia, Britain and France and Belgium, and Japan and Britain. The alliance between France, Russia, and Britain became the Triple Entente which ignited many conflicts with other nations. Eventually, countries like Germany felt that the defense alliances were becoming threats since powerful alliances can take a position of global power (Six Causes, 2017). This was one of the reasons for Germany’s coercion of Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia. The declaration of war led to military mobilization, causing the alliances to fight against each other and start the first world war.


Before World War I, many countries practiced imperialism to increase their power and wealth. European countries conquered various territories across the world. They mainly focused on African and Asian territories since these places provided unique raw materials for various uses (McCormick, n.d.). Other countries also had empires that involved colonizing other countries. This made already-powerful nations stronger and inferior nations became colonies under empires. While this provided wealth to superior nations, it also created tension among them. For instance, since African and Asian territories are abundant in resources, imperialist countries had to compete against each other to colonize a particular region. Since the defense alliances deterred the countries from fighting, tension increased further.

Additionally, there was also tension between superior countries and their colonies. The superior nations exploited their colonies which led to dissatisfaction and resentment (Six Causes, 2017). The colonies began to yearn for autonomy as empires treated them badly and made them feel inferior to the common population. This was prominent in Serbia when the Slavic people wanted to be free from Austro-Hungarian influence. Eventually, this led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as Serbia believed the death could weaken Austria-Hungary. The tension that resulted from imperialism became a significant factor at the beginning of World War I since it gave the countries motivation to fight against each other.


Militarism is another root cause of World War I. This concept is closely related to imperialism as it pertains to increasing a country’s military power. Before the Great War, militarism was an integral part of imperialism since countries needed military power to conquer new territories. Germany and Great Britain increased the size of their navies and the German and Russian military was slowly gaining influence over public policy (McCormick, n.d.). France, in particular, did not trust Germany. The two countries were engaged in a war in the mid-19th century. France lost its territories in Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871 following its defeat during the Franco-German War (Alsace-Lorraine, 2022). Meanwhile, Germany and Great Britain were engaged in a naval race. Britain had been the strongest naval power since the days of Napoleon Bonaparte . But Germany wanted to contest this and so the country sought to strengthen its navy (Lambert et al., 2011; McCormick, n.d.). This militarization prepared the countries for the upcoming war as the increased military power gave them the confidence to fight an armed conflict.

Additionally, there was also the concept of millenarianism in Germany. Millenarianism is a belief that a major event is going to occur and change everything (Six Causes, 2017). This belief was prominent in Germany, leading the public to support the German government and its preparation for war. The Germans believed that the major event, which was the onset of war, was a means for the country to secure a powerful position. Spreading this idea led to the prominence of millenarianism in the country, resulting in a further increase in military power. Millenarianism motivated the Germans to go to war as it would result in a positive transformation for the country. Militarism then followed the concept as Germany prepared to wage war.


Nationalism was also an integral factor in the escalation of the tension between countries. As mentioned earlier, colonies resented imperialist countries because of bad treatment. From the resentment, nationalism arose as the colonies wanted freedom and autonomy. This was especially true for Serbia which was under Austria-Hungary (McCormick, n.d.; Six Causes, 2017). Serbia witnessed the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, further fueling its nationalism. As a solution to their problem of freedom, Serbia planned the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as a way to weaken the influence of Austria-Hungary and potentially give them access to freedom. This led to the mobilization of Austro-Hungarian forces and the start of the first world war.

Nationalism is perhaps one of the most influential root causes of World War I. One can even argue that it is the main root cause of the conflict. The feeling of nationalism makes a country want to prove itself through the show of dominance and power over others (McCormick, n.d.). Looking at the other causes, such as imperialism and militarism, one can trace the influence of nationalism. Imperialist countries are passionate about their nation and desire to increase their wealth and influence. Militaristic agendas follow this as nationalist countries want to protect their territory and showcase their power. Even the formation of alliances had nationalistic motivation as it provides security and assurance that a country will receive aid to protect itself. Nationalism led to tension among countries and was an integral component at the beginning of the first world war.

The Blank Check Assurance

Lastly, there was the “Blank Check Assurance” that Germany gave to Austria-Hungary. This “blank check” was a declaration of Germany’s unconditional support to aid Austria-Hungary in times of conflict. While this is similar to the formation of a defense alliance, the blank check highlights unconditional support. This means that regardless of reason, Germany would aid Austria-Hungary. This gave Austro-Hungarian leaders the confidence to retaliate against Serbia by waging war (Six Causes, 2017). It is important to note that Austria-Hungary initially offered a non-violent resolution despite the assassination. However, the German Foreign Office encourages Franz Joseph to go to war, leading to the mobilization of forces.


The various root causes of World War I were factors that concocted a perfect storm. The defense alliances obligated countries to mobilize their forces to help defend an ally. This meant that tension between two countries will inevitably involve other parties. Imperialism created distrust between countries and made the armed conflict a more desirable solution. Militarism ensured that the countries possessed the weaponry and forces for a large-scale war. Eventually, the boiling tension between different countries and their access to military power resulted in an inevitable violent war that would take millions of lives.

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