Causes of the First World War

M. Aamir Sultan The causes of World War I, which began in central Europe in July 1914, included many intertwined factors, such as the conflicts and hostility of the four decades leading up to the war. Militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism played major roles in the conflict as well. However, the immediate origins of the war lay in the decisions taken by statesmen and generals during the July Crisis of 1914, casus belli for which was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by Gavrilo Princip, an irredentist Serb. The crisis came after a long and difficult series of diplomatic clashes between the Great Powers (Italy, France, Germany, Great Britain, Austria-Hungarian Empire and Russia) over European and colonial issues in the decade before 1914 that had left tensions high. In turn these diplomatic clashes can be traced to changes in the balance of power in Europe since 1867. The more immediate cause for the war was tensions over territory in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary competed with Serbia and Russia for territory and influence in the region and they pulled the rest of the Great Powers into the conflict through their various alliances and treaties. The topic of the causes of World War I is one of the most studied in all of world history. Scholars have differed significantly in their interpretations of the event. From the time of the Balkan Wars, which had increased the size of Serbia, it had been the opinion of leading Austrian officials (most notably the Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold and his assistant, Rory von Kimber) that Austria would have to wage a "preventive war" to greatly weaken or destroy Serbia as a state in order to maintain the dual monarchy which held extensive Serbpopulated Balkan territories. Between January 1913 and January 1914, Chief of the General Staff Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf advocated a preventive war against Serbia twenty-four times.

The alliance situation in central Europe in 1914 Serbia expanded its territory at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria under the terms of the Treaty of Bucharest. Regarding the expansion of Serbia as an unacceptable increase in the power of an unfriendly state and in order to weaken Serbia, the Austrian government threatened war in the autumn of 1912 if Serbs were to acquire a port from the Turks. Austria appealed for German support, only to be rebuffed at first. In November 1912 Russia, humiliated by its inability to support Serbia during the Bosnian crisis of 1908 or the First Balkan War, announced a major reconstruction of its military. On November 28, in partial reaction to the Russian move, German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow told the Reichstag, the German parliament, that “If Austria is forced, for whatever reason, to fight for its position as a Great Power, then we must stand by her”. As a result, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey responded by warning Prince Karl Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London, that if Germany offered Austria a “blank cheque” for war in the Balkans, then “the consequences of such a policy would be incalculable”. To reinforce this point, R. B. Haldane, the Germanophile Lord Chancellor, met with Prince Lichnowsky to offer an explicit warning that if

However. His opinion was that Austria should attack Serbia that December. With the November 1912 announcement of the Russian Great Military Programme.” Historians more sympathetic to the government of Wilhelm II often reject the importance of this War Council as only showing the thinking and recommendations of those present. which were that if there was going to be a war. The presence of the leaders of both the German Army and Navy at this War Council attests to its importance. As the British historian John Röhl has commented. In his professional military opinion “a war is unavoidable and the sooner the better”. the Prussian Minister of War. Moltke declared that Germany could not win the arms race with France. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz . Moltke “agreed to a postponement only reluctantly. the date for completion of the widening of the Kiel Canal was the summer of 1914. which states: “That was the end of the conference. Admiral August von Heeringen the Chief of the Naval General Staff and (probably) General Moriz von Lyncker. Britain would have no other choice but to fight the Reich. Historians more sympathetic to the Entente. because the financial structure of the German state. but that war was decided on for the summer of 1914. Both Wilhelm II and the Army leadership agreed that if a war were necessary it were best launched soon. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and General Josias von Heeringen. sometimes rather ambitiously interpret these words of Admiral Müller (an advocate of launching a war soon) as saying that "nothing" was decided for 1912-13. He insisted that the completion of the construction of the U-boat base at Heligoland and the widening of the Kiel Canal were the Navy’s prerequisites for war. Wilhelm sided with Tirpitz. Röhl is on safer ground when he argues that even if this War Council did not reach a binding decision which it clearly did not . . with no decisions taken. and the sooner the better. They often cite the passage from Admiral Müller’s diary. Moltke from late 1912 onwards was the leading advocate for a general war. Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller. asked for a “postponement of the great fight for one and a half years” because the Navy was not ready for a general war that included Britain as an opponent. or at least their thoughts.” but agreed that Haldane’s statement was a “desirable clarification” of British policy.the Army’s Chief of Staff. With the recently announced Russian military reconstruction and certain British communications. Entente sympathetic historians such as Röhl see this conference in which "The result amounted to nothing” as setting a clear deadline when a war was to begin. an informal meeting of some of Germany's top military leadership called on short notice by the Kaiser. however. As such. Britain and Russia. meant Germany would bankrupt herself in an arms race. too. which she evidently does…then war would be unavoidable for us. the possibility of war was a prime topic at the German Imperial War Council of 8 December 1912 in Berlin. Attending the conference were Wilhelm II. the leadership of the German Army began clamoring even more strongly for a “preventive war” against Russia.” and that would be better than going to war after Russia completed the massive modernization and expansion of their army that they had just begun. Moltke “wanted to launch an immediate attack”. Wilhelm II called British balance of power principles “idiocy.” Certainly the only decision taken was to do nothing.Germany were to upset the balance of power in Europe by trying to destroy either France or Russia as powers.the Naval State Secretary. the German Army wanted it before the new Russian armaments program began to bear fruit. namely the summer of 1914. General von Moltke . were not invited. such as British historian John Röhl. the Chief of the German Imperial Military Cabinet. Moltke agreed. which she herself had begun in 1911. and if “Russia supports the Serbs. which gave the Reich government little power to tax. Admiral Tirpitz. the Chief of the German Imperial Naval Cabinet (Marinekabinett). The result amounted to nothing.it did nonetheless offer a clear view of their intentions. Though Moltke objected to the postponement of the war as unacceptable.

Moltke engaged in an “almost ultimative” demand for a German “preventive war” against Russia in 1914. The prospects of the future oppressed him heavily. but the leadership of the Reich lacked such interests. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević. especially the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) made large gains in the 1912 German election. The military superiority of our enemies would then be so great that he did not know how he could overcome them. Had the Reich been interested in improved relations with France before August 1914. the opportunity was available. worrying that losing a war would have disastrous consequences. there was still a fierce struggle between the left-wing French government and its right-wing opponents. Since Russia also favoured peace in the Balkans. The Russian Minister in Belgrade intervened to have Pašić’s government restored. Serbian politics were polarized between two factions. knew that Serbia was near-bankrupt and. due to Colonel Dimitrigjevic’s intrigues. Gottlieb von Jagow.Throughout May and June 1914. by 1913 French leaders had largely accepted that France by itself could never defeat Germany. The Chief of the General Staff therefore proposed that I should conduct a policy with the aim of provoking a war in the near future. Pašić. In 1913 Poincaré predicted war for 1914. In 1920 at the University of Paris. In his opinion there was no alternative to making preventive war in order to defeat the enemy while we still had a chance of victory." Prime Minister and then President Poincaré was a strong hawk. and the other by the radical nationalist chief of Military Intelligence. In that month. Because of France’s smaller economy and population. who took office in 1913." .” The new French President Raymond Poincaré. having suffered heavy casualties in the Balkan Wars and in the suppression of a December 1913 Albanian revolt in Kosovo. Today we would still be a match for them. For example. Fritz Fischer famously argued that they deliberately sought an external war to distract the population and whip up patriotic support for the government. In two or three years Russia would have completed her armaments. Poincaré remarked "I have not been able to see any reason for my generation living. He is reported to have replied: "It would be a great pity. French domestic politics The situation in France was quite different from that in Germany but yielded the same results. In January 1914 Poincaré became the first French President to dine at the German Embassy in Paris. Poincaré was born in Lorraine). President Poincaré was asked if war could be avoided. reported on a discussion with Moltke at the end of May 1914: “Moltke described to me his opinion of our military situation. and preferred a policy of war to destroy France. known by his codename Apis. We should never again find conditions better. on July 29. In May 1914. Poincaré was more interested in the idea of French expansion in the Middle East than a war of revenge to regain Alsace-Lorraine. German government at the time was still dominated by the Prussian Junkers who feared the rise of these left wing parties. thinking back to his own student days. including monarchists and "Bonapartists. from the Russian viewpoint it was desirable to keep Pašić in power. needed peace. and even a successful war might alienate the population if it were lengthy or difficult. though he often talked tough in public. More than a century after the French Revolution. was favourable to improving relations with Germany. except the hope of recovering our lost provinces (Alsace-Lorraine." A "good old war" was seen by both sides (with the exception of Jean Jaurès) as a way to solve this crisis thanks to a nationalistic reflex. after he had returned from the summit in St. Petersburg. German domestic politics Left wing parties. It was in the midst of this political crisis that politically powerful members of the Serbian military armed and trained three Bosnian students as assassins and sent them into Austria-Hungary. The German Foreign Secretary. Other authors argue that German conservatives were ambivalent about a war. one headed by the Prime Minister Nikola Pašić. King Peter dismissed Pašić’s government. Russia was in the midst of a large scale military build-up and reform which was to be completed in 1916-17.

Austria-Hungary. from which Serbia eventually came out as the victor. French defeat in the war had sparked political instability. This conflict brought the establishment of a powerful and dynamic Germany. Dynastic change for consequence had rallying Serbian on Russia and France rather than on AustriaHungary as it was case during rule of Obrenović dynasty. causing what was seen as a displacement or unbalancing of power: this new and prosperous nation had the industrial and military potential to threaten Europe. an economic conflict. particularly the Anglo-German naval arms race. or annexation crisis. A legacy of animosity grew between France and Germany following the German annexation of parts of the formerly French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. culminating in a revolution and the formation of the French Third Republic. giving rise to the desire for revenge. anti-German sentiment remained. Bismarck was wary of this during his later years and tried to placate the French by encouraging their overseas expansion. and the displacement of France as the pre-eminent continental military power. The Serbian parliament elected Peter Karađorđević as the new king of Serbia. French sentiments wanted to avenge military and territorial losses. 1908. The crisis continued until April 1909. However.Changes in Austria Ethno-linguistic map of Austria–Hungary in 1910 Franco–Prussian War (1870–1871) Many of the direct origins of World War I can be seen in the results and consequences of the FrancoPrussian War. A Franco–German colonial entente that was made in 1884 in protest of an Anglo–Portuguese agreement in West Africa proved short-lived after a pro-imperialist government under Jules Ferry in France fell in 1885. Serbian desire to relieve itself of Austrian influence provoked the Pig War. when the annexation received grudging international approval through amendment of the Treaty of . annexed the provinces on October 6. a group of Serbian officers assassinated unpopular King Alexander I of Serbia. and particularly the already established European powers. The annexation set off a wave of protests and diplomatic maneuvers that became known as the Bosnian crisis. its economic strengths and its ambitions sparked colonial and military rivalries with other nations. Germany’s nationalism. its natural resources. Austrian-Serbian tensions and Bosnian Annexation Crisis On night between June 10/11 1903. known as revanchism. The annexation caused widespread resentment in France. desirous of solidifying its position in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

and so a conference should be held. Austria-Hungary began releasing secret documents in which Russia. on the one hand. Germany stated it would only continue its active involvement in negotiations if Russia accepted the annexation. and persuaded Serbia to do the same. the Ottoman Empire. Serbia and Greece allied against Bulgaria. which responded with a preemptive strike against their forces beginning the Second Balkan War. which Austria-Hungary occupied and administered since 1878 under a mandate from the Treaty of Berlin. On October 7. Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. After an Austrian. Russia agreed to the annexation. and Russia failed to pressure it to back down. 1909. relations between Austria-Hungary. Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary moved swiftly. In September 1913. since 1878. Austria-Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Sanjak of Novi Pazar.Berlin. taking the position that annexation was a matter concerning Europe. Under these pressures. it was learned that Serbia was moving into Albania and Russia was doing nothing to restrain it while the Serbian government would not guarantee to respect Albania's territorial integrity and suggested there would be some frontier modifications. unable to obtain Britain's assent to Russia's Straits proposal. and that spies . German opposition to the conference and complex diplomatic maneuvering scuttled the conference. The Treaty of Berlin then was amended by correspondence between capitals from April 7 to April 19. however both Serbia and Montenegro refused to comply. At the same time. and Russia and Serbia. The Balkan Wars strained the German/Austro-Hungarian alliance. The Balkan Wars (1912–1913) The Balkan Wars in 1912-1913 led to increased international tension between Russia and Austria as well as a strengthening of Serbia and a weakening of Turkey and Bulgaria which might otherwise have kept Serbia in check thus disrupting the balance of power in Europe in favor of Russia. on the other. it was clear that Germany was not ready to support Austria-Hungary in a war against Serbia and her likely allies. it was decided by the council of ministers that Serbia be sent a warning followed by an ultimatum. to reflect the annexation. acquiesced to the annexation and received ₤2. and then an international naval demonstration in early 1912 and Russia's withdrawal of support Serbia backed down. During the crisis. Italy proposed that the conference be held in Italy. On February 20. While Izvolsky moved slowly from capital to capital vacationing and seeking international support for opening the Straits. In return. not a bilateral issue. Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky and Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Alois Aehrenthal met privately at Buchlau Castle in Moravia on September 16. The next day. that Germany and Italy be notified that there would be some action and asked for support. The Bulgarian army however crumbled quickly when Turkey and Romania joined the war. After an exchange of letters outlining a possible deal. Russia initially agreed to avoid territorial changes. Austria-Hungary would withdraw its troops from the Ottoman Sanjak of Novibazar and support Russia in its efforts to amend the Treaty of Berlin to allow Russian war ships to navigate the Straits of Constantinople during times of war. were permanently damaged. 1909. after the German Imperial War Council of 8 December 1912. The two jointly agreed not to oppose Bulgarian independence. France fell in line behind Britain. 1908. the Austrian council of ministers met and decided to give Montenegro a last chance to comply and if it would not then to resort to military action. Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. On October 5. Britain lodged a milder protest. However.2 million from Austria-Hungary. had repeatedly stated that Austria-Hungary had a free hand in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Sanjak of Novibazar. An international conference was held in London in 1912-1913 where it was agreed to create an independent Albania. however seeing the Austrian military preparations the Montenegrins requested the ultimatum be delayed and complied. Montenegro was not as compliant and on May 2. but later in 1912 supported Serbia's demand for an Albanian port. The attitude of the German government to Austrian requests of support against Serbia was initially both divided and inconsistent. Russia. In October 1913. joined Serbia in assuming an attitude of protest. The Serbian government having failed to get Albania now demanded that the other spoils of the First Balkan War be reapportioned. At Buchlau the two agreed that Austria-Hungary could annex the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

removing the people behind this propaganda from the Serbian Military. The assassins' motives were consistent with the movement that later became known as Young Bosnia. “The Berlin War Party. After receiving a telegram of support from Russia. Austria-Hungary responded by breaking diplomatic relations. Murder On 28 June 1914. This letter is known as the July Ultimatum. The next day. Serbian reservists being transported on tramp steamers on the Danube crossed onto the Austro-Hungarian side of the river at Temes-Kubin and Austro-Hungarian soldiers fired into the air to warn them off. Since 1960. Within two days of the assassination.” although some historians have argued for shared guilt or pointed to the Entente. and there was initially much sympathy for the Austrian position. Duchess of Hohenberg. The letter reminded Serbia of its commitment to respect the Great Powers' decision regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina. were shot dead in Sarajevo. and his wife. it would recall its ambassador from Serbia. Serbia responded to the warning with defiance and the Ultimatum was dispatched on October 17 and received the following day demanding that Serbia evacuate Albanian territory within eight days. and to maintain good neighborly relations with Austria-Hungary. and Austria-Hungary stated that if Serbia did not accept all of the demands in total within 48 hours. Austria-Hungary then declared war and mobilized the portion of its army that would face the (already mobilized) Serbian Army on 28 July 1914. Serbia mobilized its army and responded to the letter by completely accepting point #8 demanding an end to the smuggling of weapons and punishment of the frontier officers who had assisted the assassins and completely accepting point #10 which demanded Serbia report the execution of the required measures as they were completed. However. The report of this incident was initially sketchy and reported to Emperor FranzJoseph as “a considerable skirmish”. Soon all the Great Powers except Italy had chosen sides and gone to war. one of a group of six Bosnian Serb assassins coordinated by Danilo Ilić.be sent to ascertain if there was an actual withdrawal. and the Kaiser made a congratulatory visit to Vienna to try to fix some of the damage done earlier in the year. by Gavrilo Princip. Under the Secret Treaty of 1892 Russia and France were obliged to mobilize their armies if any of the Triple Alliance mobilized. i. Austria-Hungary and Germany advised Serbia that it should open an investigation. Anglo-American historians argued that Germany was solely responsible for the start of the war. Russia's mobilization set-off full Austro-Hungarian and German mobilizations. heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Sophie. Austria-Hungary issued a formal letter to the government of Serbia. arresting the people on Serbian soil who were involved in the assassination plot and preventing the clandestine shipment of arms and explosives from Serbia to Austria-Hungary. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. During the period immediately following the end of hostilities. Serbia complied. the tendency has been to reassert the guilt of Germany. academic work in the English-speaking world in the later 1920s and 1930s blamed participants more equally. Serbian military officers stood behind the attack.. The political objective of the assassination was to break off Austria-Hungary's south-Slav provinces so they could be combined into a Greater Serbia or a Yugoslavia. Consequences The murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife produced widespread shock across Europe. The letter contained specific demands aimed at preventing the publication of propaganda advocating the violent destruction of Austria-Hungary. .e.

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