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The Origins Of World War 1

Updated on June 24, 2010

There were many issues in Europe during the early part of last century that made Europe a very volatile place. These issues coupled with some major and not so major events contributed greatly to the outbreak of the First World War. Historians have different views on which issues and events were of the greatest cause and which countries should be given the blame for the outbreak of the Great War.

Many people cite the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28th of June 1914 as a major precursor to the war. While the issues run a lot deeper than just that event it is nevertheless a good place to start. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austria-Hungarian Empire, he was shot by Gavrilo Princip whilst visiting Sarajevo, Bosnia. Gavrilo Princip was a member of a terrorist group called The Black Hand, who allegedly had connections with the Serbian government.

So why were the Serbian government involved in the assassination of an Austrian-Hungarian leader? This had to do with Serbian nationalism which was causing great friction in Europe. Serbia wanted to take parts of Austria-Hungary to form a ‘South Slav Kingdom’ where Serbs and Croats could live united. But Austria-Hungary feared that if Serbia succeeded in this it could affectively destroy the Habsburg Empire. 

There had been much unrest in the Balkan region (where Serbia and Austria-Hungary were located) for a few years before 1914. In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed the Turkish province of Bosnia, shortly after a revolution in Turkey. The Serbians had wanted to take Bosnia for themselves because Bosnia contained almost three million Serbs. Serbia appealed to Slav ally Russia for help, and Russia called a European conference. Russia’s two major allies France and Britain both backed down from supporting Serbia after learning that Germany would support Austria-Hungary in the case of a war. France and Britain didn’t want to become involved in a war in the Balkans and did not want to come into conflict with Germany at that stage. This left Serbia with even more reason to be hostile to Austria-Hungary. It also prompted Russia into rebuilding its armed forces so they could help Serbia in the future.

After the Bosnian Crisis there came two Balkan Wars. The first in 1912, came about when Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria attacked Turkey in an effort to expand, they did so by capturing most of Turkey’s European land. The land was divided up with the help of the German and English governments. Serbia however wanted Albania which would have granted them access to the sea. They were disallowed this by Austria-Hungary however, with the backing of Germany and Britain.

The Second Balkan War was started in the following year by Bulgaria. They attacked Serbia to try to steal Macedonia off them. Macedonia had been given to Serbia after the first Balkan War. Unfortunately for Bulgaria; Greece, Romania and Turkey supported Serbia and Bulgaria was soon defeated. It may have been different if Austria-Hungary had joined the conflict in favour of Bulgaria. But England and Germany held them back. This marked twice in two conflicts where Anglo-German relations had been good. This may have lead Germany to belief that the Alliance of France, Britain and Russia may not be steadfast. The outcomes of the Balkan Wars had made Serbia a much stronger nation and this made Austria-Hungary eager to put an end to the Serbian’s ambitions.

Joachim Remak, a German historian, refers to the First World Was as the Third Balkan War that got out of hand. It got out of hand because the great European powers got involved, on opposite sides. On the 6th of July, eight days after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the German Kaiser promised support to Austria-Hungary in a war against Serbia. This came a year after the German’s had held back Austria-Hungary in the second Balkan War. Historians have varying views on why Germany’s tact changed. Fritz Fischer of Germany wrote in 1961 that Germany, by handing Austria-Hungary a ‘Blank Cheque’, were deliberately provoking war. The reasons he believed Germany wanted war, were to become the greatest power in Europe and to also unify a country who at the time was struggling with domestic tensions. Another German, Gerard Ritter, believed the Germans only risked war and refutes the claim that they were striving for world power.

Many historians believed that Germany’s actions came about out of paranoia. Believing that the German’s felt encircled by their so called enemies, the Entente, made up off France, Britain and Russia. This I believe is true, but I also think Germany probably felt Austria-Hungary had a genuine reason for wanting war with Serbia after the assassination and felt it should aid one of its closest allies. Although numerous historians felt that Germany was trying to break the ‘iron ring of encirclement’, they do not agree on how the German’s actions would break it. Fischer believed the German’s plan was to break the Entente with a deliberate war. While Karl Erdman said that by supporting Austria-Hungary the Germans were attempting to divide the Entente through bluff. Hoping that either Russia would not support Serbia thus keeping the war localised or Russia supported Serbia but France and Britain not agreeing with Russia’s support.  The fact that Germany would take such a risk in an effort to break the Entente may be put down to the unreliable alliance system.

In 1904 Britain and France signed an agreement to become friendly. Part of this agreement was for Britain to let France take over Morocco. The Germans didn’t think the new found Anglo-French alliance would be strong considering the two country’s turbulent past. But when Germany decided to help Morocco keep its independence they were met with opposition not just from Britain but from Russia, Italy and Spain as well. In 1907 when Britain formed a new alliance with Russia the Germans felt that this was a deliberate ploy to encircle them where in fact it was more an economical alliance. Nonetheless the Entente was now complete; France and Russia had been allies since 1894.

The British again joined forces to help France during the Agadir Crisis of 1911. The Germans were putting pressure on France for compensation for annexation of Morocco. But this was solved reasonably diplomatically when the British stepped in. So although this suggests the Entente were fairly united, there were other times mentioned previously in this essay when the alliance was less reliable, especially where possible conflict with Germany was involved.

Once the Germans voiced their support of Austria-Hungary, it left the Russians in a dangerous position. The Russians did not know of the Serbian government’s involvement in the Black Hand and were heavily in support of Serbia. After talks between German and Russian governments went nowhere, Russia ordered a general mobilisation of its armed forces on 29th of July. Though many acknowledge this move as making a localised war impossible, I think Russia had to mobilise to make sure they were protected from a possible German attack, considering Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia the previous day. Two days later Germany declared war on Russia after they refused to immobilise, they then declared war on France, who had voiced support of Russia.

On 4th of August Germany instigated the Schlieffen Plan, something I think proved fatal. Historians K.D Erdman and A.J.P Taylor agree with me. It seems the German Commander in Chief Moltke, ordered the plan to be instigated without the full backing of the German Chancellor or Kaiser. It involved Germany capturing France before heading east to battle the Russians. However the Schlieffen plan involved crossing Belgium to get to France. Britain saw this as a chance to enter the war as they had sworn to protect Belgian neutrality almost 100 years before, thus meaning all the great European powers had entered the war. I think the reason Britain really joined was to destroy the rising power of the German Empire and to show off its impressive naval fleet by defeating Germany.

My view of who caused World War One can be summed up in this quote from Joachim Remak. ‘Serbia was right in wanting to expand, Austria in wanting to survive. Germany was right in fearing isolation, Great Britain in fearing German power. Everyone was right. And everyone was wrong.’ Not enough was done to prevent the war because no great wars had been fought in that generation meaning no one could predict the destruction that was to come. So everyone must take the blame, though Germany risked most, maybe with good reason.


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