Causes of the Great War of 1914

The World War 1 has survived as a great part of our national memory and in a way no other way can match. The sheer scale, the high number of casualties, and the collapse of three mighty European empires ensured that the war remained engraved in our minds. Although historians believe that, the immediate cause of World War 1 was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, different policies were also to blame. According to, the war started mainly because of four elements – militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism. Before 1914, the European countries were involved in an “arms race” in a bid to build up weapons to match Great Britain. The countries were also divided into two armed camps through a series of Alliances – the Triple Alliance comprised of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy (1882), while the Triple Entente comprised of Britain, Russia, and France (1907). Alongside the growing militarism was an intense feeling of nationalism in the majority of the nations of Europe. Germany desired for world power status, while the French wanted revenge for Alsace and Lorraine that was in the hands of the Germans. In Britain, the support for nationalism and its Empire was evident. The other element was imperialism, which encompassed bringing additional territories under the European nation’s control. Before WWI, parts of Asia and Africa were areas of great interest due to the presence of raw materials. As competition and desire for greater empires increased, the countries engaged in confrontations that pushed the world into WWI. Virtually, although imperialism was one of the four contributing elements to the cause of WWI, historians believe that it is the most important cause due to the tension it generated inside and outside Europe triggering the other three elements.

Ideally, years before WWI started, the Great powers increased their military spending in an “arms race” to outdo Britain. At the time, Britain had a large navy and Germany wanted to build a bigger navy too. Germany and France entered into a race and the more one nation built up its army and navy, the more other nations felt the need to do the same. From 1870 to 1914, all the major powers had doubled their size of armies, except for Great Britain and the United States. The other element was alliances. In 1871, Bismarck – the then Chancellor of Germany realized the importance of a powerful Germany. Fearing the possibility of an anti-German alliance between France and Russia, Germany formed a defensive alliance with Austria and later added Italy to form the Triple Alliance of 1882. However, when Bismarck started a campaign to find Germany’s right “place” as he termed it, he dropped the treaty with Russia. Russia then formed an alliance with France and triggered by German policies, Britain drew closer to France. By 1907, Great Britain, France, and Russia formed the Triple Entente alliance. Over time, the nations allied to each side entered into mutual defense agreements that would defend them against any conflict between countries. Allied to militarism was the intense nationalism among European nations. Germany wanted power, as France desired to reclaim the Alsace- Lorraine territory that was in the hands of Germany. Nationalism meant that there was little resistance to war among these countries and many welcomed what they imagined would be a short and victorious war. It was in the same spirit of nationalism that Austria declared war on Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Nonetheless, the ultimate question remains, why did the countries feel the need to expand their military base or what cemented the alliances. 

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European Imperialism was the most significant causes of World War 1. Prior to WWI, Great Britain was the most dominant imperial power occupying a significant part of the globe. Virtually, while British acquired some of her colonies with little difficulty, for others such as South Africa, her powerful navy and a fleet of commercial vessels reinforced the operation. Notably, Britain focused on maintaining and expanding trade, importation of raw materials, and sale of manufactured goods. Closest to the British Imperialism was France and Germany Empire who entered the race for colonies a bit late. Other imperialists include the Spanish Empire, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman Sultanate who had imperial holdings closer home, and despite condemnation of the European Imperialism in America, the United States engaged in empire building towards the end of 1800.

During the second half of the 1800s, several European countries were in a significant rush for colonies, fueled by increased nationalism, demand for land, and diminishing opportunities back in Europe. In the battle to expand colonies, Germany and Italy entered the race, which caused problems for France and particularly Britain the dominance imperial power.

In the Scramble for Africa, there were several diplomatic incidents. For instance, when Wilhelm II traveled to Tangier city in Morocco, he delivered a speech supporting the country’s independence. Unfortunately, this antagonized France, precipitating a series of diplomatic responses and press reports. In 1911, a second crisis emerged, when France sent troops to help the Sultans government in Morocco. German reacted to this by sending a naval ship and demanded compensation from France by getting the entire French Congo. However, the British backed France and Germany was humiliated diplomatically and publicly. The diplomatic wars and the imperialist expansion played a major role in the growing tensions between Great Britain and Germany. As the British continued to support France, their alliance grew and ended the long-standing colonial rivalries

Another contributor was the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which affected the balance of power in Eastern Europe. According to Morrow, the defeats led to the decline of the Ottoman rule and significantly lost grip on their territories, prompting European imperial powers to scramble and secure the territories. As German watched other countries acquire vast masses of territories they grew anxious. They also understood that the only way to acquire a big empire such as the British were having the biggest navy. Thus, when they started building battleships and destroyers, Britain retaliated and triggered an arms race. Other countries also joined the race and in the face of weapons ammunitions threats, nations joined alliances promising to protect each other. 

The tensions from European Imperialism caused alliances and nations strengthening their military. Among European countries such as Germany, nationalism was driven by imperialism. Britain and Germany were expanding and believed they were unstoppable. By 1914, the countries pledging loyalty to the two alliances were ready for war and only waited for the spark to light the whole continent, which came with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria blamed Serbia, and the Russian army joined to help Serbia to defend itself against the attack. When Germany demanded that Russia hold back from helping Serbia, Russia refused, prompting Germany to declare war on Serbia. France wanted the return of the province of Alsace and Lorraine from Germany and was drawn against Germany and Austria-Hungary. When Germany attacked France through Belgium, Britain had no option but to join the war. Japan would later join the war, followed by Italy, and the United States.

The Great War also famously known as the World War 1 was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, it is evident that several factors also contributed to the First World War. Elements such as militarism, nationalist, and alliances played a significant role. However, imperialism played a critical and important role and connected all the other three factors. Clearly, as Britain was the largest imperial power and her large military base facilitated the operation. Other nations wanted to expand their territories and the scramble for more land started sparking tensions along the way and strengthening the alliances. Realizing the importance of having a bigger army as one method to colonize territories, Germany followed by the others started building their military base. By 1914, the alliances were strong, and backed by the spirit of nationalism and the tensions that existed between the two alliances; the countries were only waiting for a trigger to light up the whole continent. Thus, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, countries were ready to go into war and back their alliances. 


Bonfiglioli, Margaret; Munson, James. 2014. Full of Hope & Fear. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. 2017. The Essential World History. Australia: Cengage Learning.

Morrow, John Howard. 2004. The Great War: An Imperial History. New York: Routledge. Kindle.

Raico, Ralph. 2005.  “The Great War Retold.” The Independent Review, Winter 2005.

The Causes of the War. (1918, Nov 11). Los Angeles Times (1886-1922)Retrieved from, Jerry, Mark Willner, George A. Hero, and Bonnie-Anne Briggs. 2008. Global History. the Industrial revolution to the age of globalization Vol. 2 Vol. 2. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barrons Educational Series Inc.

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