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The Main Causes of World War I

Although the factors that started World War I are intricate, they can generally be remembered with an easy acronym: MAIN.

World War I was the first global war of the 20th century, taking place between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918.

The causes of the war are complicated. Though Germany was blamed for the start of the war, some historians argue for collective responsibility between the warring parties. The main short term and long term causes of the war are outlined below.

Short Term Causes

Franz Ferdinand Assassination

On Sunday, June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, by Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Yugoslav nationalist and member of a terrorist organization called the Black Hand. The motivation behind the attack was to break away from the Austro-Hungarian occupation of the Balkan states in order to form a united Yugoslavia.

Gavrilo Princip is apprehended in Sarajevo.

In the aftermath of the attack, Austria-Hungary placed the blame on Serbia and declared war. Austria-Hungary didn’t do it alone, however - they knew that they had to look for help from their ally, Germany.

Unable to fend for themselves, Serbia turned to Russia for help. However, at the same time, Germany declared war on Russia. Germany also saw this time as an opportunity to finally break out what they called the Schlieffen Plan. The Schlieffen Plan referred to Germany’s plans to invade Belgium and France in order to collect soldiers and in turn improve their chances of winning a war against Russia. At the time, Germany did not have a military anywhere near the size of their Russian counterparts. However, in the end the plan backfired, when Great Britain brought their troops in to protect neutral Belgium, which caused a disastrous clash between Britain and Germany.

Due to these above events, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is generally regarded as the main catalyst for World War I. However, there are many other reasons why the war broke out, some of them which are harder to pinpoint.

Long Term Causes

The long term causes of World War I can be remembered using a simple acronym: M.A.I.N.

M: Militarism

The 20th century saw a great increase in army training and equipping. Most of the countries in Europe sought to increase their military power and reserves by conscription of young men into the army and the training of more soldiers. The countries developed new and more capable weapons, each competing to outdo one another. The arms race is linked to the emergence of the First World War. By the time of the war, the countries had gathered piles of weapons and other military resources, indicating that the countries were ready for a bigger war.

A: Alliances

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, countries in Europe formed mutual defense alliances which would require the participating parties to support one of the members should they engage in war. In the case of attacks on a member, those in the alliances would rise to their defense. Alliances formed before WWI include the alliance between Russia, Great Britain and France called the Triple Entente, and the alliance between Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany, called the Triple Alliance. The war began after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia rose in defence of Serbia and Germany in defence of Austria-Hungary which pulled Britain and France into the war. The United States, Italy, and Japan joined the war later on.

A map showing World War One alliances.

I: Imperialism

Imperialism is the expansion of a government’s power through the conquest of new territories. The European powers in the 19th century had occupied territories in Asia and Africa. The British and the French had the largest areas. Germany had very few territories as it had been dealing with political problems at home and had joined the scramble for colonies much later. The scramble led to conflict and tensions rose among the powers. When the war began between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia, colonies recruited their subjects into war, drawing the entire world into war.

N: Nationalism

Nationalism is a political ideology where individuals identify with a particular national identity. In Europe, various groups identified themselves as being part of a particular national entity, each trying to prove their dominance over the other. Nationalism increased the desire for major economic powers to establish themselves as economic and military powers within Europe. This led to rivalries between ethnic communities such as the Slavs and Germans. The Slavs identified themselves as Serbians, not Austria-Hungarians which led to conflict which later developed into a world war.

Aftermath of World War I

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 saw the end of the war. However, the lasting effects of the First World War changed the world forever. Not only did the war cause the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the German Empire also dissolved. Many countries lost a staggering number of human casualties. It is estimated that an astonishing 37 million people lost their lives as a result of World War I.

Though peacetime brought with it the "Roaring 20s", more strife was yet to come to the world. In the years following the war, the worst economic depression that the world had ever experienced would be felt. Even more so, it wouldn’t be long before the world would experience yet another devastating war, aptly named World War II, a war for which some of the causes had already been planted.

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