World War I: causes

In the last third of the 19th and early 20th centuries, two military blocs were formed in Europe, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. Mutual fear, conflicting colonial interests and ambitions in the Balkans eventually led to a serious conflict: the First World War.

Imperialism & war

As we saw in previous sessions, imperialism is the policy that a country implements to establish its own empire. To achieve this it is necessary to conquer territories of other countries, which mostly always generates wars. Before the outbreak of the World War I, there were a lot of tensions in the World due to imperialism, since many countries wanted to have a great empire: Germany, France, England, Italy, Russia… and they necessarily had to compete with each other to achieve it. You cannot expand your territory without taking territory from someone else. And if you are a power and the country you are going to invade is very weak and cannot defend itself, it is still probable that another power is interested in getting that same territory (or interested in preventing you from getting it). Strategic interests played a key role during imperialism.

Militarism & war

Militarism is also a policy thought, designed and adopted by certain countries. Although nowadays there are few militaristic countries, in the years before the Great War broke out, there were several countries that had adopted this policy. Militarism is that a country’s economy is based on the military industry and that the country’s main goal is to become a military power. There is nothing more important: neither agriculture, nor education, nor culture… the main issue is the army. It must be improved and enlarged. Thus began an «arms race», a competition to see who developed the best weapons and had the best army.

So much militarism ironically led to an era known as the Armed Peace (1871-1914), more than forty years in which there weren’t many wars and conflicts, but in which there was a lot of tension. All countries were arming themselves, believing that «if you want peace, prepare for war.» Armed Peace was a time when everyone was so afraid of everyone, that’s why no one dared to attack anyone. It is funny to see how militarism brought years of peace. Although the peace would not last long…

A third factor that made the war global was the existence of military alliances. When one country attacks another, usually the war that starts happens between those two countries, one vs one. But if there are military alliances, when one country attacks another there are third countries that are forced to involve into combat. Before the Great War broke out, there were the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. If someone attacked one of its members, the rest had to protect them.

Nationalism & war

The nationalist exaltation made nationalist ideologies pit some peoples against others. In some cases, nationalism pitted people from different empires (for example, the enmity between the French and the Germans had grown since the loss of the Alsace and Lorraine regions by the French).

In other cases, nationalism confronted the different nationalities that made up the empires (this was the case of the discontent of the nationalities that made up the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires). In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Serbs, Croats, Czechs, and Hungarians were unhappy about their subordinate position to the Austrians. In the Turkish empire, it was the Romanians, Albanians and Bulgarians who wanted independence from the Ottoman power. For its part, the exaltation of Slavic nationalism made Russia want to increase its influence over all Slavic peoples.

Summer of 1914

On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated during an official visit to Sarajevo, in Bosnia. The assassin was a pro-Serbian Bosnian who was part of the Black Hand organization, whose goal was to create a Greater Serbia, free from Austrian rule.

On July 23, Austria, backed by Germany, issued an ultimatum to Serbia, threatening it with war if it did not allow the murder to be investigated. Serbia, which was supported by Russia, rejected the ultimatum on July 25. Three days later the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia.

Russia started the general mobilization in support of Serbia. Germany demanded that they stopped operations. Receiving no reply, Germany declared war on Russia, and later on France. The United Kingdom declared war on Germany. Italy did not support Austria or Germany, which broke the Triple Alliance. The First World War had started.