World War I, also known as the Great War or First World War, was an armed conflict waged between most of the world’s major powers from 1914 to 1918. Considered as a watershed moment in history, the war resulted in a radical realignment in the balance of power among nations. Among its effects were the dissolution of four major empires such as the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the German Empire; the emergence of new countries from the empires that were dissolved; the rise of new superpowers including the United States; and the exacerbation of the Spanish Flu pandemic which claimed the lives of millions of people around the globe (“Overview of World War I”). But while the consequences of the Great War are well-known, there is less awareness regarding its causes. Why World War I happened in the first place is a question that for many people only get answered when they are required to write a historical essay about the event. So why did World War I happen? What were the events that led to this cataclysmic conflict? Could this war and therefore all its death and destruction have been avoided? There is no single factor that caused World War I; rather, the conflict can be attributed to a number of reasons including a rash disregard for peaceful multilateral solutions in response to imperialism and the very the nature of international relations at the time.
Most people are well aware of the fact that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the event that sparked World War I (Backhouse et al.). But there is more to this narrative than this incident. One of the broader factors behind the conflict was the rapid militarization that was taking place long before the war broke out. As Europe was dominated by major powers that were often in conflict with each other, European nations had an incentive to militarize to defend against attacks from their respective rivals. In the early 20th century, a newly unified Germany was undergoing aggressive militarization, largely in a bid to establish itself as a major power in Europe. But Germany was not alone in this. Other countries were also rapidly militarizing including France and Great Britain (Nathwani). 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”). Meanwhile, Germany and Great Britain was 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.). This was seen by Great Britain as a threat. In a way, it can be reasonably argued that the European nations were laying the foundation for a future conflict. The fact that these countries were enhancing their military capabilities strongly indicates that it was just a matter of time before they put their armies and weapons to use.
At the heart of the militarization is imperialism. Early 20th century Europe was in many ways similar to the Europe of previous centuries. The empires that formed in the past still existed and the bitterness of old rivalries was still very much alive. Such nations still had imperialist aspirations, either through the acquisition of new territory or the protection of existing colonies. The European powers, therefore, were constantly wary of each other’s advances. As this this was a world where diplomacy was not the preferred solution to disagreements, the armed conflict following the death of Franz Ferdinand was the only logical outcome to the said incident.
While militarization and imperialism made Europe a powder keg waiting to blow, also a crucial factor that led to the war was the web of alliances that were forming in Europe and beyond. For many years the European nations were forming allegiances with one another through agreements and treaties. These treaties and agreements required a country to provide military assistance to an ally country in the event that the latter is attacked. By the time Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the web of alliances had grown big and complicated enough that conflict between two countries could easily drag other countries as well. This is exactly what happened at the time.
When the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war against Serbia for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Russia was forced to aid Serbia since these two countries were allied. Meanwhile, Germany also had to come to Austria-Hungary’s aid due to an allegiance the two had entered with Italy, which was known as the Triple Alliance. As Russia was allied with France and Great Britain in an allegiance called the Triple Entente, the two latter countries were also dragged into the conflict. Finally, Great Britain’s existing alliance with Japan and other nations such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia all meant that these countries had to come to the aid of Great Britain (Duffy). Similar to other nations, the Ottoman Empire also entered the war due to its alliance with Germany. While the United States chose to remain neutral, it had ties with Great Britain. This caused Germany to launch a preemptive attack against the United States, thus forcing the Americans to enter the war as well. This complex system of rivalries and allegiances set the stage for global war. As history showed, the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary rapidly spilled over to encompass dozens of countries around the globe.
It is difficult to determine the scope of death and devastation caused by the war. Some estimates put the death toll at 20 million people, while some estimates present higher numbers. The economic costs were also staggering. Years of conflict had caused the devastation of towns and cities and the collapse of entire industries. The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to pay around $33 billion in reparation. Beyond economic losses, the extent of human suffering knows no limit. Families lost loved ones and millions of soldiers returned home with irreparable wounds and indescribably mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is quite baffling to consider how separate factors all led to this single catastrophic outcome. In a way, the factors mentioned above were characteristic of a perfect storm. Imperialism created an atmosphere of distrust between the countries, and when a country distrusts another, armed conflict appears a more logical solution than diplomacy. Militarization made sure that the European nations had the manpower and the arms to wage largescale war. Finally, the web of rivalries and allegiances prompted many countries not directly related to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand into taking part in the conflict. In the end, all these factors blinded the European nations from coming to a more peaceful agreement. Mounting tension and a quickness to aggression led these countries to a downward spiral of violence. Most unfortunate of all, these countries did not learn from the lessons taught by World War I, as the consequences of this war had a role to play in the far deadlier World War II that erupted just twenty years later. It is hard to imagine what the world would be like had World War I not occur. However, it can perhaps be said that the world would be drastically different had leaders of these countries had exercised restraint in their actions.
“Alsace-Lorraine.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Alsace-Lorraine. Accessed 13 October 2020.
Duffy, Michael. “The Causes of World War One.” FirstWorldWar.com, https://www.firstworldwar.com/origins/causes.htm. Accessed 13 October 2020.
Backhouse, Fid. “Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Franz-Ferdinand-Archduke-of-Austria-Este. Accessed 13 October 2020.
Lambert, Andrew et al. “ The Dreadnought and the Edwardian Age, Ashgate Publishing, 2011.
Nathwani, Dhiresh. “What was the most significant cause of World War One? (WW1).” Medium, https://medium.com/@dhireshnathwani/what-was-the-most-significant-cause-of-world-war-one-ww1-74bb9e815e37. Accessed 13 October 2020.
“Overview of World War I.” Digital History, https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraid=12&smtid=1. Accessed 13 October 2020.