On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb student, shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. Princip was a member of Young Bosnia, a group whose aims included the unification of the South Slavs and independence from Austria-Hungary. The assassination in Sarajevo set into motion a series of fast-moving events that eventually became a full-scale war. Austria-Hungary wanted action by Serbia to punish those responsible and, when Austria-Hungary deemed Serbia had not listened, declared war. Major European powers were at war within weeks because of overlapping agreements for collective defense and the complex nature of international alliances.
- See also: Black Hand
The naval race between Britain and Germany got worst because of the 1906 launch of HMS Dreadnought —a revolutionary craft whose size and power rendered previous battleships unused. Britain also had a big naval lead in other areas particularly over Germany and Italy. Paul Kennedy pointed out both nations believed Alfred Thayer Mahan's thesis of command of the sea as vital to great nation status; experience with guerre de course would prove Mahan wrong.
David Stevenson described the arms race as "a self-reinforcing cycle of heightened military preparedness." David Herrmann viewed the shipbuilding rivalry as part of a general movement in the direction of war. The revisionist Niall Ferguson, however, argued Britain's ability to have an overall lead signified this was not a factor in the oncoming conflict.
The cost of the arms race was felt in both Britain and Germany. The total arms spending by the six Great Powers (Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy) got 50% higher between 1908 and 1913.
Plans, distrust, and preparation
Closely related is the idea made by many political scientists that the preparation plans of Germany, France and Russia automatically made the problem worst. Fritz Fischer emphasized the nature of the Schlieffen Plan, which outlined a two-front strategy. Fighting on two fronts meant Germany had to get rid of one opponent quickly before taking on the other. It called for a strong right flank attack, to seize Belgium and cripple the French army by pre-empting its preparation. After the attack, the German army would rush east by railroad and quickly destroy the slowly preparing Russian forces.
Russia's Plan XIX foresaw a mobilization of its armies against both Austria-Hungary and Germany.
All three plans created an atmosphere in which speed was one of the determining factors for victory. Elaborate timetables were prepared; once mobilization had begun, there was little possibility of turning back. Diplomatic delays and poor communications exacerbated the problems.
Militarism and autocracy
President Woodrow Wilson of the United States and others blamed the war on militarism. Some argued that aristocrats and military groups had too much power in countries such as Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. War was thus a consequence of their desire for military power and disrespect for democracy. This theme figured prominently in anti-German propaganda. Consequently, supporters of this theory called for the abdication of rulers such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, as well as an end to aristocracy and militarism in general. This platform provided some justification for the American entry into the war when the Russian Empire surrendered in 1917.
The Allies had Great Britain and France, both democracies, fighting the Central Powers, which had Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Russia, one of the Allied Powers, was an empire until 1917, but it was opposed to the subjugation of Slavic peoples by Austro-Hungary. Against this backdrop, the view of the war as one of democracy versus dictatorship initially had some validity, but lost credibility as the problem continued.
Balance of power
One of the goals of the foreign policies of the Great Powers in the pre-war years was to have the 'Balance of Power' in Europe. This evolved into an elaborate network of secret and public alliances and agreements. For example, after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), Britain seemed to favor a strong Germany, as it helped to balance its traditional enemy, France. After Germany began its naval construction plans to rival that of Britain, this stance shifted. France, looking for an ally to balance the threat made by Germany, found it in Russia. Austria-Hungary, facing a threat from Russia, sought support from Germany.
When World War I broke out, these treaties only determined a bit who entered the war on which side. Britain had no treaties with France or Russia, but entered the war on their side. Italy had a treaty with both Austria-Hungary and Germany, yet did not enter the war with them; Italy later sided with the Allies. Maybe the most significant treaty of all was the initially defensive pact between Germany and Austria-Hungary, which Germany in 1909 extended by saying that Germany was bound to stand with Austria-Hungary even if it had started the war.
Vladimir Lenin asserted that imperialism was responsible for the war. He drew upon the economic theories of Karl Marx and English economist John A. Hobson, who thought that unlimited competition for expanding markets would lead to a global problem. This argument was popular in the wake of the war and helped in the rise of Communism. Lenin argued that the banking interests of different capitalist-imperialist powers orchestrated the war.
Cordell Hull, American Secretary of State under Franklin Roosevelt, believed that trade barriers were the root cause of both World War I and World War II. In 1944, he helped design the Bretton Woods Agreements to reduce trade barriers and get rid of what he saw as the cause of the problems.
Ethnic and political rivalries
A Balkan war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia was considered avoidable, as Austria-Hungary’s influence weakened and the Pan-Slavic movement grew. The rise of ethnic nationalism coincided with the growth of Serbia, where anti-Austrian feeling was maybe most noticed. Austria-Hungary had what was the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had a high Serb population, in 1878. It was formally annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908. More nationalist feelings also coincided with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Russia supported the Pan-Slavic movement, encouraged by ethnic and religious loyalties and a rivalry with Austria dating back to the Crimean War. Recent events such as the failed Russian-Austrian treaty and a century-old dream of a warm water port also encouraged St. Petersburg.
Many other geopolitical encouragements existed elsewhere as well, for example France's loss of Alsace and Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War helped make a feeling of irredentist revanchism in that country. France eventually allied itself with Russia, making the likelihood of a two-front war for Germany.
- "First World War.com Primary Documents: Archduke Franz Ferdinand's Assassination, 28 June 1914". 2002-11-03. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
- Stevenson, D., Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904-1914, 1996 (Oxford University Press)
- Herrmann, David G. The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War(1996)
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- Fischer, Fritz. Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914-1918 (published in English as Germany's Aims in the First World War)
- Snyder, Jack. Ideology of the Offensive. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984; Dupuy, Trevor N., Colonel, USA (rtd). Numbers Predictions, and War. Philadelphia: Bobbs-Merrill, 1979.
- "First World War.com A map of the French and German war plans".
- "First World War.com French and German war plans".
- 30 October 1918 in Herbert Hoover, Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson p. 47
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- “Imperialism" (1902) fordham.edu website
- "1917 pamphlet "Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism"".
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- "Web reference" (PDF).