Causes of World War 1. What really caused the First World War?

World War 1 - One Hundred Years ago.
World War 1 - One Hundred Years ago.

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Typical army recruitment poster World War 1
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World War 1 - One hundred years ago
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Recruitment Poster - World War I

The causes of World War 1

When we were learning history in school we were usually taught that World War 1 was a conflict that was primarily precipitated by the assassination of Austria’s heir apparent, Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914. However now that I am studying history in more depth this theory is now considered to be an overtly simplistic analysis of the political and social unrest that permeated throughout Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Since the First World War ended in 1919 it has been globally recognized that while the assassination of the Duke Franz Ferdinand may have been the final catalyst that caused Europe to erupt into an all out conflict but there are also many other factors to be considered when discussing the causes of World War 1. Factors such as Militarism, Imperialism, Nationalism, Industrialism and European Political Alliances also all had a part to play in the outbreak of World War 1 on July 28, 1914.

Militarism and World War 1:

In 1888, Militarism in Germany took on a new dimension when Wilhelm II became Emperor. Otto von Bismark was Chancellor of Germany at this time. His diplomacy prior to Germany's new emperor had ensured it's prosperity for over two decades. However within two years the new Kaiser, Wilhelm II had sent him into early retirement. Wilhelm II had a new vision for Germany and he felt Bismark's principles were outdated and his diplomatic tactics were too lenient in some instances to ensure the growth of a new Germany.

The Kaiser's mother Victoria (usually known as Princess Vicky),was the daughter of Queen Victoria of England and his father was Prince Friedrich of Prussia. Wilhelm II's birth was very difficult as he was in a breached position. Therefore he sustained nerve damage when being born. This left him with partial paraysis in his hand and left side as well as balance problems and other ongoing difficulties.

For Wilhelm II these were disabilities that his parents did not want to acknowledge and this made his childhood very difficult for him. He had to endure endless and mostly futile treatments fuelled by his mother's determination to cure his disabilities and make him a suitable candidate to be Emperor. At this time any signs of weakness or disability in a person were seen as a huge barrier to living any kind of a normal life. So at the time having a disability when being heir to the German throne was perceived to be a catasrophe.

So his tutor was told that no allowances were to be made for the Kaiser's difficulties and instead he was to teach him to overcome them. When he was being taught to ride a horse he kept falling off because of his paralysed hand and his balance problems. Every time he came crashing to the ground he was put back up on the horse again despite his pleas and tears. After many months of this daily grind he did find a way to stay on the horse but the mental torture he had endured would stay with him for his lifetime. His childhood was also marred by many unsuccessful treatments such as being made to wear a freshly killed hare wrapped around his arm, to electrotherapy treatment and being made to wear metal braces to supposedly improve his posture as his head was beginning to lean to one side.

So with these emotional and psychological scars to contend with the Kaiser had a great need to prove himself on the world stage. Therefore he was determined that Germany would have the most powerful army and impressive naval fleet in Europe. One that could easily rival that of his royal Brittish cousins. The young German Kaiser spent many of his childhood summers in England with his cousins. It was from this point that he began to want Germany's power and particularly its naval fleet to be a match for his English cousins empire. Perhaps his future resentment of his relations may all have been seated in the Kaiser's mind from his childhood memories of seeing his perfectly healthy Brittish cousins enjoying their summers and having no inclination of how carefree they looked compared to the daily grind the Kaiser endured at home in Germany.

Therefore when Wilhem II became Emperor he wanted to be portrayed as the symbol for a new Germany. However this quickly led to conflict and distrust from Europe’s other military leaders i.e. Britain, France and Russia were immediately concerned by Germany’s new aggressive military stance.

Imperialism and World War 1:

At the beginning of the twentieth century Imperialism was seen as a great source of national pride. It was believed that in order to increase a country’s prosperity it was vital to colonize and extract wealth from many other nations. In Germany, once again, Wilhelm II wanted to rival his royal English cousins in his quest to conquer parts of Africa and the islands of the pacific. He too had been taught as was the thinking in Great Britain at the time that it was an act of charity and morality to rule other countries i.e. so that they could civilize their colonies and bring them what was deemed to be English culture, religion and civilisation.

Russia and its Tsar, Nicholas II, also had aspirations to unite all the Slavic-speaking people into Russia. Although it could also be argued that what was really sought was the continued access to the lucrative Black SeaPort. This situation meant too that there was ongoing tension between Russia and Austria-Hungary concerning the rule of the Balkan Islands.

Industrialism and World War 1:

However at the beginning of the twentieth century there was a huge chasm between the living standards of Europe’s leading Monarch’s and the ordinary people. While their leaders were primarily interested in fighting over colonies; the social expectations of the working classes were changing rapidly. The Industrial Revolution meant that there was a large movement of people from the countryside to the cities in order to take up employment in the new factories. Here people saw a new future and this instilled a belief in them that technology would change their lives for the better. In contrast the upper classes thought that everything would stay as it had always been and they were completely out of touch with the working classes and their new aspirations.

Nationalism and World War 1:

Nationalism was widely used to ingrain a sense of patriotic duty into its citizens. Posters and adverts abounded everywhere telling young men all over Europe what a great and nobel thing it was to go and fight for the greatness of their country. As a consequence of this PR campaign men all over Europe did sign up for war totally believing that it was a heroic and worthwhile cause that they were going to fight for. They marched away from their homes and loved ones to great cheers and celebrations believing there was nothing but glory and success ahead of them.

Unfortunately for many the stark reality of war was a horrific experience and was nothing like what they had imagined it would be. Millions of young soldiers were ordered to march to a certain death. As although new technology was being used on the war field the war planners had yet to master the concept that warfare needed to change and the tradional approach of marching and engaging in battle one to one was no longer going to be effective.

However, Nationalism also empowered the working classes and they began to strive for a more equal and democratic society. In fact for many seeking their independence from their imperialistic rulers World War 1 was an opportunity to gain their independence while so many leaders were concentrating all of their efforts on winning the war.

This saw the emergence of many new movements. In Serbia a secret society known as the Black Hand, began seeking its independence from Austria-Hungary. Socialism and equality were now also becoming the mantra of Europeans everywhere. Women too took to Britain’s streets as the Suffragettes, to fight for women’s rights to vote. However they did not receive this right until after the war. During the war they put their campaigning aside and undoubtedly showed that women were just as competent as men in every field, as so many women took over traditional men's roles while they were away fighting the First World War and did so very successfully.

Undoubtedly the Nationalist banner did in fact encourage many young men to go to war but it was not the reason the war happened. Instead the main consequence of Nationalism seemed to be that it gave people all over Europe a desire to have a better life. It also encouraged many nations to seek their independence.

As the Industrial Revolution swept across Europe it also changed the way that wars would now be fought. For the first time there were steam engines to ensure the swifter movement of both soldiers and artillery. The moblisation of large armies was now much easier than ever before.

European Political Alliances and World War 1:

On the 28th of June 1914, Franz Ferdinand the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated by a member of The Black Hand. Subsequently Austria went to Germany to ask for their support in a war.

At the time there were no direct animosity between Germany and Russia but there were the issues between Germany’s main ally Austria-Hungary and Russia concerning control and access to the Balkan Islands.

Germany gave them a blank cheque which meant they had their full support. Subsequently Germany marched on Belgium with the intention of attacking France in July 1914. This immediately brought Britain into the war. Now Germany, Austria Hungary, Russia, France and Britain were all involved in the War. Italy initially claimed neutrality.

The only way that Germany could now attack France was by marching through Belgium. At this time Belgium was a neutral country protected by Britain. It was predicted that if Germany marched on Belgium then Britain would automatically declare war on Germany. However the Kaiser incorrectly believed that Britain would not uphold this agreement.

However there is evidence to suggest that Germany had been planning to go to war for at least two years before it began. As early as December 1912 it is documented that the Kaiser of Germany was ready to declare War. At the time he was eventually convinced to wait at least another eighteen months until the completion of the widening of the Kiel Canal by the summer of 1914.

What caused World War 1?

Therefore in summary what did cause the First World War? Nationalism and Industrialism gave the working classes the desire to have a more equal society. Imperialism and Militarism fuelled an atmosphere of political unrest which led to the strengthening of existing and the creation of new Political Alliances that led to the inception of World War 1.

However, by the end of the War on November 11, 1918 Russia’s Tsar, Germany’s Kaiser and Austria’s Emperor would all have fallen in defeat and Europe’s structure had been permanently altered.



World War 1 in 6 minutes

There was also more effective firepower such as the modern breech-loading rifle which meant a much more expedient and accurate killing machine. Then there were new war weapons such as tanks which could break through defences effortlessly and cause many more casualties.

Also for the first time the telegraph and the ability of a steam press to mass produce newspapers meant that the public was better informed. Yet there had been wars in the past without these technological breakthroughs, so while the Industrial Revolution did change the structure of future battles it did not precipitate World War 1.

The biggest contributor to World War 1 was the over zealousness of Europe’s Monarch’s to control the entire region. Imperialism was a definite catalyst to the outbreak of the Great War. Combined with this the succession to power of Germany’s Kaiser, Wilhelm II along with his family’s close ties to Austria’s Royal family seemed to allow his military ambitions to escalate out of control.

In 1897 the Kaiser began his mission to intensify and expand Germany’s navy. Britain soon became concerned about this and in 1904 they entered into a political agreement with France called, ‘The Entente Cordaile.’

Yet, unperturbed the Germans continued to intensify their arms race. Subsequently the British entered into, ‘The Anglo-Russian Entente,’ in 1907. This now meant that Britain, Russia and France were agreeing to support each other in the event of a war. In opposition there was, ‘The Triple Alliance,’ between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.

France had also been lying in wait for an opportunity to go to war with Germany again since they had lost their territories of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.


The Kaiser's Germany

The only way that Germany could now attack France was by marching through Belgium. At this time Belgium was a neutral country protected by Britain. It was predicted that if Germany marched on Belgium then Britain would automatically declare war on Germany. However the Kaiser incorrectly believed that Britain would not uphold this agreement.

At the time there were no direct animosity between Germany and Russia but there were the issues between Germany’s main ally Austria-Hungary and Russia concerning control and access to the Balkan Islands.

On the 28th of June 1914, Franz Ferdinand the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated by a member of The Black Hand. Subsequently Austria went to Germany to ask for their support in a war.

Germany gave them a blank cheque which meant they had their full support. Subsequently Germany marched on Belgium with the intention of attacking France in July 1914. This immediately brought Britain into the war. Now Germany, Austria Hungary, Russia, France and Britain were all involved in the War. Italy initially claimed neutrality.

However there is evidence to suggest that Germany had been planning to go to war for at least two years before it began. As early as December 1912 it is documented that the Kaiser of Germany was ready to declare War. At the time he was eventually convinced to wait at least another eighteen months until the completion of the widening of the Kiel Canal by the summer of 1914.

World War 1 footage

Therefore in summary; Nationalism and Industrialism gave the working classes the desire to have a more equal society. Imperialism and Militarism fuelled an atmosphere of political unrest which led to the strengthening of existing and the creation of new Political Alliances that led to the inception of World War 1.

However, by the end of the War on November 11, 1918 Russia’s Tsar, Germany’s Kaiser and Austria’s Emperor would all have fallen in defeat and Europe’s structure had been permanently altered.


Causes of World War I

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11 comments

Angelladywriter profile image

Angelladywriter 2 years ago from Media, Pennsylvania

This is a very interesting article. I also appreciate the reason given in the Bible at Revelation 12:7-10, as to how and why World War 1, was started. Continue to do the great research.


raymondphilippe profile image

raymondphilippe 2 years ago from The Netherlands

Liked this article. It's so relevant again because it is 100 years ago that it started and history (Imperialism and Militarism) seems to repeat itself.

I find it so hard to understand why the man in charge (political & business) would willingly sacrifice the lives of so many combatants and civilians.

Voted up!


thewritingowl profile image

thewritingowl 2 years ago from Ireland Author

Thank you for your comment Angelladywriter. But I have to admit to not being in anyway religious myself and I don't really understand what you mean by the bible causing the war, but I am curious to know what you may mean Angelladywriter? Thanks for reading.

Thank you too raymondphilippe, Its hard to know now what was really going on in the minds of the people who led the world into this war, but it is very interesting trying to figure out what their motivavtions were certainly. There was probably a lot more going on behind the scenes too though as there normally is.


thewritingowl profile image

thewritingowl 2 years ago from Ireland Author

Thank you for your comment Angelladywriter. But I have to admit to not being in anyway religious myself and I don't really understand what you mean by the bible causing the war, but I am curious to know what you may mean Angelladywriter? Thanks for reading.

Thank you too raymondphilippe, Its hard to know now what was really going on in the minds of the people who led the world into this war, but it is very interesting trying to figure out what their motivavtions were certainly. There was probably a lot more going on behind the scenes too though as there normally is.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

Very interesting indeed and thanks for sharing. Voting up and sharing.

Eddy.


thewritingowl profile image

thewritingowl 2 years ago from Ireland Author

Thanks for your comment Eiddwen and thanks for commenting.


Angelladywriter profile image

Angelladywriter 2 years ago from Media, Pennsylvania

It appears you are a person interested in history because of the way you stated facts about World War 1. The book of Revelation 12:7-12 talks about war breaking our in heaven and "Woe" or trouble that would exist on the earth. Ssatan and his demons were now confined to the earth causing the entire world to be in chaos. Writer Ernest Hemingway called World War 1 "the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth." Numerous writers and historians have made similar comments that something wicked had to occur because the world was changed forever.


thewritingowl profile image

thewritingowl 2 years ago from Ireland Author

That's interesting Angelladywriter and I think Ernest Hemingway's take on WW1 has some credence to it, I guess your take on the book of revelation from the bible could have some significance too, if you are a bible reading person, can't say I am myself. Thanks for offering your opinion though, always good to get every view.


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

Nicely done history hub! I'm pinning this and emailing it to my favorite history lover.


thewritingowl profile image

thewritingowl 2 years ago from Ireland Author

Thanks for those nice words FlourishAnyway, I could do with them today.


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

Very interesting read. My dad fought in WWII; but truly I don't think I ever gave WWI much thought so this was very good information. Beyond my imagination I know. The poor man; turned into a demon by his parents to result in a world war. Sure hope we are not headed for our last war.

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