World War I: Causes

A Preventable War

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HMS Dreadnought. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

World War I: 101 | Next: 1914 - Opening Campaigns

A Prosperous Europe

The early years of the 20th century saw tremendous growth in Europe of both population and prosperity. With arts and culture flourishing, few believed a general war possible due to the peaceful cooperation required to maintain increasing levels of trade as well as technologies such as the telegraph and railroad. Despite this, numerous social, military, and nationalistic tensions ran beneath the surface.

As the great European empires struggled to expand their territory, they were confronted with increasing social unrest at home as new political forces began to emerge.

Rise of Germany

Prior to 1870, Germany consisted of several small kingdoms, duchies, and principalities rather than one unified nation. During the 1860s, the Kingdom of Prussia, led by King Wilhelm I and his prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, initiated a series of conflicts designed to unite the German states under their influence. Following victory over the Danes in the 1864 Second Schleswig War, Bismarck turned to eliminating Austrian influence over the southern German states. Provoking war in 1866, the well-trained Prussian military quickly and decisively defeated their larger neighbors.

Forming the North German Confederation after the victory, Bismarck's new polity included Prussia's German allies, while those states which had fought with Austria were pulled into its sphere of influence.

In 1870, the Confederation entered into a conflict with France after Bismarck attempted to place a German prince on the Spanish throne. The resulting Franco-Prussian War saw the Germans rout the French, capture Emperor Napoleon III, and occupy Paris. Proclaiming the German Empire at Versailles in early 1871, Wilhelm and Bismarck effectively united the country.

In the resulting Treaty of Frankfurt which ended the war, France was forced to cede Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. The loss of this territory badly stung the French and was a motivating factor in 1914.

Building a Tangled Web

With Germany united, Bismarck began setting about to protect his newly formed empire from foreign attack. Aware that Germany's position in central Europe made it vulnerable, he began seeking alliances to ensure that its enemies remained isolated and that a two-front war could be avoided. The first of these was a mutual protection pact with Austria-Hungary and Russia known as the Three Emperors League. This collapsed in 1878 and was replaced by the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary which called for mutual support if either were attacked by Russia.

In 1881, the two nations entered into the Triple Alliance with Italy which bound the signatories to aid each other in the case of war with France. The Italians soon undercut this treaty by concluding a secret agreement with France stating that they would provide aid if Germany invaded. Still concerned with Russia, Bismarck concluded the Reinsurance Treaty in 1887, in which both countries agreed to remain neutral if attacked by third.

In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by his son Wilhelm II. Rasher than his father, Wilhelm quickly tired of Bismarck's control and dismissed him in 1890. As a result, the carefully built web of treaties which Bismarck had constructed for Germany's protection began to unravel. The Reinsurance Treaty lapsed in 1890, and France ended its diplomatic isolation by concluding a military alliance with Russia in 1892. This agreement called for the two to work in concert if one was attacked by a member of the Triple Alliance.

"A Place in the Sun" and the Naval Arms Race

An ambitious leader and the grandson of England's Queen Victoria, Wilhelm sought to elevate Germany to equal status with the other great powers of Europe. As a result, Germany entered the race for colonies with the goal of becoming an imperial power.

These efforts to obtain territory overseas brought Germany into conflict with the other powers, especially France, as the German flag was soon raised over parts of Africa and on islands in the Pacific.

As Germany sought to grow its international influence, Wilhelm began a massive program of naval construction. Embarrassed by the German fleet's poor showing at Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, a succession of naval bills were passed to expand and improve the Kaiserliche Marine under the oversight of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. This sudden expansion in naval construction stirred Britain, who possessed the world's preeminent fleet, from several decades of "splendid isolation." A global power, Britain moved in 1902 to form an alliance with Japan to curtail German ambitions in the Pacific. This was followed by the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, which while not a military alliance, resolved many of the colonial squabbles and issues between the two nations.

With the completion of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the naval arms race between Britain and Germany accelerated with each striving to build more tonnage than the other. A direct challenge to the Royal Navy, the Kaiser saw the fleet as a way to increase German influence and compel the British to meet his demands. As a result, Britain concluded the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907, which tied together British and Russian interests. This agreement effectively formed the Triple Entente of Britain, Russia, and France which was opposed by the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

World War I: 101 | Next: 1914 - Opening Campaigns

World War I: 101 | Next: 1914 - Opening Campaigns

A Powder Keg in the Balkans

While the European powers were posturing for colonies and alliances, the Ottoman Empire was in deep decline. Once a powerful state that had threatened European Christendom, by the early years of the 20th century it was dubbed the "sick man of Europe." With the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, many of the ethnic minorities within the empire began clamoring for independence or autonomy.

As a result, numerous new states such as Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro became independent. Sensing weakness, Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia in 1878.

In 1908, Austria officially annexed Bosnia igniting outrage in Serbia and Russia. Linked by their Slavic ethnicity, the two nations wished to prevent Austrian expansion. Their efforts were defeated when the Ottomans agreed to recognize Austrian control in exchange for monetary compensation. The incident permanently damaged the already tense relations between the nations. Faced with increasing problems within its already diverse population, Austria-Hungary viewed Serbia as a threat. This was largely due to Serbia's desire to unite the Slavic people, including those living in the southern parts of the empire. This pan-Slavic sentiment was backed Russia who had signed a military agreement to aid Serbia if the nation was attacked by the Austrians.

The Balkan Wars

Seeking to take advantage of Ottoman weakness, Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Greece declared war in October 1912. Overwhelmed by this combined force, the Ottomans lost almost of their European lands. Ended by the Treaty of London in May 1913, the conflict led to issues among the victors as they battled over the spoils.

This resulted in the Second Balkan War which saw the former allies, as well as the Ottomans, defeat Bulgaria. With the end of the fighting, Serbia emerged as a stronger power much to the annoyance of the Austrians. Concerned, Austria-Hungary sought support for a possible conflict with Serbia from Germany. After initially rebuffing their allies, the Germans offered support if Austria-Hungary was forced "to fight for its position as a Great Power."

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

With the situation in the Balkans already tense, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, head of Serbia's military intelligence, initiated a plan to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were intending to travel to Sarajevo, Bosnia on an inspection tour. A six-man assassination team was assembled and infiltrated into Bosnia. Guided by Danilo Ilic, they intended to kill the archduke on June 28, 1914, as he toured the city in an open-topped car.

While the first two assassins failed to act when Franz Ferdinand's car passed by, the third threw bomb which bounced off the vehicle. Undamaged, the archduke's car sped away while the assassin was captured by the crowd.

The remainder of Ilic's team was unable to take action. After attending an event at the town hall, the archduke's motorcade resumed. One of the assassins, Gavrilo Princip, stumbled across the motorcade as he exited a shop near the Latin Bridge. Approaching, he drew a gun and shot both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Both died a short time later.

The July Crisis

Though stunning, Franz Ferdinand's death was not viewed by most Europeans as an event that would lead to general war. In Austria-Hungary, where the politically moderate archduke was not well-liked, the government elected instead to use the assassination as an opportunity to deal with the Serbs. Quickly capturing Ilic and his men, the Austrians learned many of the details of the plot. Wishing to take military action, the government in Vienna was hesitant due to concerns about Russian intervention.

Turning to their ally, the Austrians inquired regarding the German position on the matter. On July 5, 1914, Wilhelm, downplaying the Russian threat, informed the Austrian ambassador that his nation could "count on Germany’s full support" regardless of the outcome. This "blank check" of support from Germany shaped Vienna's actions.

With the backing of Berlin, the Austrians began a campaign of coercive diplomacy designed to bring about a limited war. The focus of this was the presentation of an ultimatum to Serbia at 4:30 PM on July 23. Included in the ultimatum were ten demands, ranging from the arrest of the conspirators to allowing Austrian participation in the investigation, that Vienna knew Serbia could not accept as a sovereign nation. Failure to comply within forty-eight hours would mean war. Desperate to avoid a conflict, the Serbian government sought aid from the Russians, but were told by Tsar Nicholas II to accept the ultimatum and hope for the best.

War Declared

On July 24, with the deadline looming, most of Europe awoke to severity of the situation. While the Russians asked for the deadline to be extended or the terms altered, the British suggested a conference be held to prevent war. Shortly before the deadline on July 25, Serbia replied that it would accept nine of the terms with reservations, but that it could not allow the Austrian authorities to operate in their territory. Judging the Serbian response to be unsatisfactory, the Austrians immediately broke off relations. While the Austrian army began to mobilize for war, the Russians announced a pre-mobilization period known as “Period Preparatory to War."

While the foreign ministers of the Triple Entente worked to prevent war, Austria-Hungary began massing its troops. In the face of this, Russia increased support for its small, Slavic ally. At 11:00 AM on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. That same day Russia ordered a mobilization for the districts bordering Austria-Hungary. As Europe moved towards a larger conflict, Nicholas opened communications with Wilhelm in an effort to prevent the situation from escalating.

Behind the scenes in Berlin, German officials were eager for a war with Russia, but were restrained by the need to make the Russians appear as the aggressors.

World War I: 101 | Next: 1914 - Opening Campaigns

World War I: 101 | Next: 1914 - Opening Campaigns

The Dominoes Fall

While the German military clamored for war, its diplomats were working feverishly in an attempt to get Britain to remain neutral if war began. Meeting with the British ambassador on July 29, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg stated he believed that Germany would soon be going to war with France and Russia, as well as alluded that German forces would violate Belgium's neutrality.

As Britain was bound to protect Belgium by the 1839 Treaty of London, this meeting helped push the nation towards actively supporting its entente partners. While news that Britain was prepared to back its allies in a European war initially spooked Bethmann-Hollweg into calling on the Austrians to accept peace initiatives, word that King George V intended to remain neutral led him to halt these efforts.

Early on July 31, Russia began a full mobilization of its forces in preparation for war with Austria-Hungary. This pleased Bethmann-Hollweg who was able to couch German mobilization later that day as a response to the Russians even though it was scheduled to begin regardless. Concerned about the escalating situation, French Premier Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister René Viviani urged Russia not to provoke war with Germany. Shortly thereafter the French government was informed that if the Russian mobilization did not cease, then Germany would attack France.

The following day, August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and German troops began moving into Luxembourg in preparation for invading Belgium and France. As a result, France began mobilizing that day. With France being pulled into the conflict through its alliance to Russia, Britain contacted Paris on August 2 and offered to protect the French coast from naval attack.

That same day, Germany contacted the Belgian government requesting free passage through Belgium for its troops. This was refused by King Albert and Germany declared war on both Belgium and France on August 3. Though it was unlikely that Britain could have remained neutral if France was attacked, it entered the fray that next day when German troops invaded Belgium activating the 1839 Treaty of London. On August 6, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and six days later entered into hostilities with France and Britain. Thus by August 12, 1914, the Great Powers of Europe were at war and four and a half years of savage bloodshed were to follow.

World War I: 101 | Next: 1914 - Opening Campaigns