essay on the causes of world war 1

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World War I

By: Editors

Updated: May 10, 2024 | Original: October 29, 2009

"I Have a Rendevous with Death."FRANCE - CIRCA 1916: German troops advancing from their trenches. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

World War I, also known as the Great War, started in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. His murder catapulted into a war across Europe that lasted until 1918. During the four-year conflict, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Canada, Japan and the United States (the Allied Powers). Thanks to new military technologies and the horrors of trench warfare, World War I saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction. By the time the war was over and the Allied Powers had won, more than 16 million people—soldiers and civilians alike—were dead.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Tensions had been brewing throughout Europe—especially in the troubled Balkan region of southeast Europe—for years before World War I actually broke out.

A number of alliances involving European powers, the Ottoman Empire , Russia and other parties had existed for years, but political instability in the Balkans (particularly Bosnia, Serbia and Herzegovina) threatened to destroy these agreements.

The spark that ignited World War I was struck in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand —heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was shot to death along with his wife, Sophie, by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. Princip and other nationalists were struggling to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

essay on the causes of world war 1

The Great War

The two-night event The Great War begins Monday, May 27 at 8/7c and streams the next day.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand set off a rapidly escalating chain of events: Austria-Hungary , like many countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Serbian nationalism once and for all.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Because mighty Russia supported Serbia, Austria-Hungary waited to declare war until its leaders received assurance from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany would support their cause. Austro-Hungarian leaders feared that a Russian intervention would involve Russia’s ally, France, and possibly Great Britain as well.

On July 5, Kaiser Wilhelm secretly pledged his support, giving Austria-Hungary a so-called carte blanche, or “blank check” assurance of Germany’s backing in the case of war. The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary then sent an ultimatum to Serbia, with such harsh terms as to make it almost impossible to accept.

World War I Begins

Convinced that Austria-Hungary was readying for war, the Serbian government ordered the Serbian army to mobilize and appealed to Russia for assistance. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers quickly collapsed.

Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun.

The Western Front

According to an aggressive military strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan (named for its mastermind, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen ), Germany began fighting World War I on two fronts, invading France through neutral Belgium in the west and confronting Russia in the east.

On August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the border into Belgium. In the first battle of World War I, the Germans assaulted the heavily fortified city of Liege , using the most powerful weapons in their arsenal—enormous siege cannons—to capture the city by August 15. The Germans left death and destruction in their wake as they advanced through Belgium toward France, shooting civilians and executing a Belgian priest they had accused of inciting civilian resistance. 

First Battle of the Marne

In the First Battle of the Marne , fought from September 6-9, 1914, French and British forces confronted the invading German army, which had by then penetrated deep into northeastern France, within 30 miles of Paris. The Allied troops checked the German advance and mounted a successful counterattack, driving the Germans back to the north of the Aisne River.

The defeat meant the end of German plans for a quick victory in France. Both sides dug into trenches , and the Western Front was the setting for a hellish war of attrition that would last more than three years.

Particularly long and costly battles in this campaign were fought at Verdun (February-December 1916) and the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916). German and French troops suffered close to a million casualties in the Battle of Verdun alone.

essay on the causes of world war 1

HISTORY Vault: World War I Documentaries

Stream World War I videos commercial-free in HISTORY Vault.

World War I Books and Art

The bloodshed on the battlefields of the Western Front, and the difficulties its soldiers had for years after the fighting had ended, inspired such works of art as “ All Quiet on the Western Front ” by Erich Maria Remarque and “ In Flanders Fields ” by Canadian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae . In the latter poem, McCrae writes from the perspective of the fallen soldiers:

Published in 1915, the poem inspired the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.

Visual artists like Otto Dix of Germany and British painters Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash and David Bomberg used their firsthand experience as soldiers in World War I to create their art, capturing the anguish of trench warfare and exploring the themes of technology, violence and landscapes decimated by war.

The Eastern Front

On the Eastern Front of World War I, Russian forces invaded the German-held regions of East Prussia and Poland but were stopped short by German and Austrian forces at the Battle of Tannenberg in late August 1914.

Despite that victory, Russia’s assault forced Germany to move two corps from the Western Front to the Eastern, contributing to the German loss in the Battle of the Marne.

Combined with the fierce Allied resistance in France, the ability of Russia’s huge war machine to mobilize relatively quickly in the east ensured a longer, more grueling conflict instead of the quick victory Germany had hoped to win under the Schlieffen Plan .

Russian Revolution

From 1914 to 1916, Russia’s army mounted several offensives on World War I’s Eastern Front but was unable to break through German lines.

Defeat on the battlefield, combined with economic instability and the scarcity of food and other essentials, led to mounting discontent among the bulk of Russia’s population, especially the poverty-stricken workers and peasants. This increased hostility was directed toward the imperial regime of Czar Nicholas II and his unpopular German-born wife, Alexandra.

Russia’s simmering instability exploded in the Russian Revolution of 1917, spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks , which ended czarist rule and brought a halt to Russian participation in World War I.

Russia reached an armistice with the Central Powers in early December 1917, freeing German troops to face the remaining Allies on the Western Front.

America Enters World War I

At the outbreak of fighting in 1914, the United States remained on the sidelines of World War I, adopting the policy of neutrality favored by President Woodrow Wilson while continuing to engage in commerce and shipping with European countries on both sides of the conflict.

Neutrality, however, it was increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of Germany’s unchecked submarine aggression against neutral ships, including those carrying passengers. In 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British Isles to be a war zone, and German U-boats sunk several commercial and passenger vessels, including some U.S. ships.

Widespread protest over the sinking by U-boat of the British ocean liner Lusitania —traveling from New York to Liverpool, England with hundreds of American passengers onboard—in May 1915 helped turn the tide of American public opinion against Germany. In February 1917, Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill intended to make the United States ready for war.

Germany sunk four more U.S. merchant ships the following month, and on April 2 Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany.

Gallipoli Campaign

With World War I having effectively settled into a stalemate in Europe, the Allies attempted to score a victory against the Ottoman Empire, which entered the conflict on the side of the Central Powers in late 1914.

After a failed attack on the Dardanelles (the strait linking the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea), Allied forces led by Britain launched a large-scale land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915. The invasion also proved a dismal failure, and in January 1916 Allied forces staged a full retreat from the shores of the peninsula after suffering 250,000 casualties.

Did you know? The young Winston Churchill, then first lord of the British Admiralty, resigned his command after the failed Gallipoli campaign in 1916, accepting a commission with an infantry battalion in France.

British-led forces also combated the Ottoman Turks in Egypt and Mesopotamia , while in northern Italy, Austrian and Italian troops faced off in a series of 12 battles along the Isonzo River, located at the border between the two nations.

Battle of the Isonzo

The First Battle of the Isonzo took place in the late spring of 1915, soon after Italy’s entrance into the war on the Allied side. In the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, also known as the Battle of Caporetto (October 1917), German reinforcements helped Austria-Hungary win a decisive victory.

After Caporetto, Italy’s allies jumped in to offer increased assistance. British and French—and later, American—troops arrived in the region, and the Allies began to take back the Italian Front.

World War I at Sea

In the years before World War I, the superiority of Britain’s Royal Navy was unchallenged by any other nation’s fleet, but the Imperial German Navy had made substantial strides in closing the gap between the two naval powers. Germany’s strength on the high seas was also aided by its lethal fleet of U-boat submarines.

After the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915, in which the British mounted a surprise attack on German ships in the North Sea, the German navy chose not to confront Britain’s mighty Royal Navy in a major battle for more than a year, preferring to rest the bulk of its naval strategy on its U-boats.

The biggest naval engagement of World War I, the Battle of Jutland (May 1916) left British naval superiority on the North Sea intact, and Germany would make no further attempts to break an Allied naval blockade for the remainder of the war.

World War I Planes

World War I was the first major conflict to harness the power of planes. Though not as impactful as the British Royal Navy or Germany’s U-boats, the use of planes in World War I presaged their later, pivotal role in military conflicts around the globe.

At the dawn of World War I, aviation was a relatively new field; the Wright brothers took their first sustained flight just eleven years before, in 1903. Aircraft were initially used primarily for reconnaissance missions. During the First Battle of the Marne, information passed from pilots allowed the allies to exploit weak spots in the German lines, helping the Allies to push Germany out of France.

The first machine guns were successfully mounted on planes in June of 1912 in the United States, but were imperfect; if timed incorrectly, a bullet could easily destroy the propeller of the plane it came from. The Morane-Saulnier L, a French plane, provided a solution: The propeller was armored with deflector wedges that prevented bullets from hitting it. The Morane-Saulnier Type L was used by the French, the British Royal Flying Corps (part of the Army), the British Royal Navy Air Service and the Imperial Russian Air Service. The British Bristol Type 22 was another popular model used for both reconnaissance work and as a fighter plane.

Dutch inventor Anthony Fokker improved upon the French deflector system in 1915. His “interrupter” synchronized the firing of the guns with the plane’s propeller to avoid collisions. Though his most popular plane during WWI was the single-seat Fokker Eindecker, Fokker created over 40 kinds of airplanes for the Germans.

The Allies debuted the Handley-Page HP O/400, the first two-engine bomber, in 1915. As aerial technology progressed, long-range heavy bombers like Germany’s Gotha G.V. (first introduced in 1917) were used to strike cities like London. Their speed and maneuverability proved to be far deadlier than Germany’s earlier Zeppelin raids.

By the war’s end, the Allies were producing five times more aircraft than the Germans. On April 1, 1918, the British created the Royal Air Force, or RAF, the first air force to be a separate military branch independent from the navy or army. 

Second Battle of the Marne

With Germany able to build up its strength on the Western Front after the armistice with Russia, Allied troops struggled to hold off another German offensive until promised reinforcements from the United States were able to arrive.

On July 15, 1918, German troops launched what would become the last German offensive of the war, attacking French forces (joined by 85,000 American troops as well as some of the British Expeditionary Force) in the Second Battle of the Marne . The Allies successfully pushed back the German offensive and launched their own counteroffensive just three days later.

After suffering massive casualties, Germany was forced to call off a planned offensive further north, in the Flanders region stretching between France and Belgium, which was envisioned as Germany’s best hope of victory.

The Second Battle of the Marne turned the tide of war decisively towards the Allies, who were able to regain much of France and Belgium in the months that followed.

The Harlem Hellfighters and Other All-Black Regiments

By the time World War I began, there were four all-Black regiments in the U.S. military: the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry. All four regiments comprised of celebrated soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War and American-Indian Wars , and served in the American territories. But they were not deployed for overseas combat in World War I. 

Blacks serving alongside white soldiers on the front lines in Europe was inconceivable to the U.S. military. Instead, the first African American troops sent overseas served in segregated labor battalions, restricted to menial roles in the Army and Navy, and shutout of the Marines, entirely. Their duties mostly included unloading ships, transporting materials from train depots, bases and ports, digging trenches, cooking and maintenance, removing barbed wire and inoperable equipment, and burying soldiers.

Facing criticism from the Black community and civil rights organizations for its quotas and treatment of African American soldiers in the war effort, the military formed two Black combat units in 1917, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions . Trained separately and inadequately in the United States, the divisions fared differently in the war. The 92nd faced criticism for their performance in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in September 1918. The 93rd Division, however, had more success. 

With dwindling armies, France asked America for reinforcements, and General John Pershing , commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, sent regiments in the 93 Division to over, since France had experience fighting alongside Black soldiers from their Senegalese French Colonial army. The 93 Division’s 369 regiment, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters , fought so gallantly, with a total of 191 days on the front lines, longer than any AEF regiment, that France awarded them the Croix de Guerre for their heroism. More than 350,000 African American soldiers would serve in World War I in various capacities.

Toward Armistice

By the fall of 1918, the Central Powers were unraveling on all fronts.

Despite the Turkish victory at Gallipoli, later defeats by invading forces and an Arab revolt that destroyed the Ottoman economy and devastated its land, and the Turks signed a treaty with the Allies in late October 1918.

Austria-Hungary, dissolving from within due to growing nationalist movements among its diverse population, reached an armistice on November 4. Facing dwindling resources on the battlefield, discontent on the homefront and the surrender of its allies, Germany was finally forced to seek an armistice on November 11, 1918, ending World War I.

Treaty of Versailles

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Allied leaders stated their desire to build a post-war world that would safeguard itself against future conflicts of such a devastating scale.

Some hopeful participants had even begun calling World War I “the War to End All Wars.” But the Treaty of Versailles , signed on June 28, 1919, would not achieve that lofty goal.

Saddled with war guilt, heavy reparations and denied entrance into the League of Nations , Germany felt tricked into signing the treaty, having believed any peace would be a “peace without victory,” as put forward by President Wilson in his famous Fourteen Points speech of January 1918.

As the years passed, hatred of the Versailles treaty and its authors settled into a smoldering resentment in Germany that would, two decades later, be counted among the causes of World War II .

World War I Casualties

World War I took the lives of more than 9 million soldiers; 21 million more were wounded. Civilian casualties numbered close to 10 million. The two nations most affected were Germany and France, each of which sent some 80 percent of their male populations between the ages of 15 and 49 into battle.

The political disruption surrounding World War I also contributed to the fall of four venerable imperial dynasties: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey.

Legacy of World War I

World War I brought about massive social upheaval, as millions of women entered the workforce to replace men who went to war and those who never came back. The first global war also helped to spread one of the world’s deadliest global pandemics, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people.

World War I has also been referred to as “the first modern war.” Many of the technologies now associated with military conflict—machine guns, tanks , aerial combat and radio communications—were introduced on a massive scale during World War I.

The severe effects that chemical weapons such as mustard gas and phosgene had on soldiers and civilians during World War I galvanized public and military attitudes against their continued use. The Geneva Convention agreements, signed in 1925, restricted the use of chemical and biological agents in warfare and remain in effect today.

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essay on the causes of world war 1

  • Modern History

The four MAIN causes of World War I explained

Statue of a WWI soldier and horse

The First World War was the first conflict that occurred on a staggering scale. World War I (WWI) was unprecedented in its global impact and the extent of its industrialization.

However, the reason why the war originally began is incredibly complex. To try and explain the causes of the war, historians have tried to simplify it down to four main causes.

They create the acronym: MAIN. 



This simplified acronym is a useful way to remember the four MAIN causes of the war.

However, we will explain each of these concepts out of order below.

One of the most commonly discussed causes of WWI was the system of alliances that existed by 1914, the year the war started.

An 'alliance' is an agreement made between two countries, where each side promises to help the other if required.

Most of the time, this involves military or financial assistance. When an alliance is created, the countries involved are known as 'allies'.

By the dawn of the First World War, most European countries had entered into one or more alliances with other countries.

What made this an important cause of WWI, was that many of these alliances were military in nature: that if one country attacked or was attacked, all of their allies had promised to get involved as well.

This meant, that if just one country attacked another, most of Europe would immediately be at war, as each country jumped in to help out their friends. 

Imperialism, as a concept, has been around for a very long time in human history. Imperialism is the desire to build an empire for your country.

This usually involves invading and taking land owned by someone else and adding it to your empire. 

By the 19th century, many European countries had been involved in imperialism by conquering less advanced nations in Asia, the Americas or Africa.

By 1900, the British Empire was the largest imperial power in the world. It controlled parts of five different continents and owned about a quarter of all land in the world.

France was also a large empire, with control over parts of south-east Asia and Africa.

By 1910, Germany had been trying to build its own empire to rival that of Britain and France and was interested in expanding its colonial holdings.

This meant that when an opportunity for a war of conquest became available, Germany was very keen to take advantage of it.

Militarism is the belief that a country's army and navy (since air forces didn't exist at the start of WWI) were the primary means that nations resolved disagreement between each other.

As a result, countries like to boast about the power of their armed forces.

Some countries spent money improving their land armies, while others spent money on their navies.

Some countries tried to gain the advantage by having the most number of men in their armies, while others focused more on having the most advanced technology in their forces.

Regardless of how they approached it, countries used militarism as a way of gaining an edge on their opponents.

An example of this competition for a military edge can be seen in the race between Britain and Germany to have the most powerful navy.

Britain had recently developed a special ship known as a 'dreadnought’. The Germans were so impressed by this, that they increased their government spending so that they also had some dreadnoughts.

The final of the four causes is 'nationalism'. Nationalism is the idea that people should have a deep love for their country, even to the extent that they are willing to die for it.

Throughout the 19th century, most countries had developed their own form of nationalism, where they encouraged a love of the nation in their citizens through the process of creating national flags and writing national anthems.

Children at schools were taught that their country was the best in the world and that should it ever be threatened, that they should be willing to take up arms to defend it.

The growing nationalist movements created strong animosity between countries that had a history of armed conflict.

A good example of this is the deep anger that existed between Germany and France.

These two countries had a recent history of war and struggling over a small region between the two, called Alsace-Lorraine.

Germany had seized control of it after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, which the French were deeply upset by.

As a result, France believed that they should be willing to fight and die to take it back.

Conflicts and Crises

In the two decades before WWI started in 1914, there were a number of smaller conflicts and crises that had already threatened to turn into global conflicts.

While these didn't eventually start the global war, it does show the four causes mentioned above and how they interacted in the real world.

The Moroccan Crisis

In 1904, Britain recognized France's sphere of influence over Morocco in North Africa in exchange for France recognizing Britain's sphere of influence in Egypt.

However, the Moroccans had a growing sense of nationalism and wanted their independence.

In 1905, Germany announced that they would support Morocco if they wanted to fight for their freedom.

To avoid war, a conference was held which allowed France to keep Morocco. Then, in 1911, the Germans again argued for Morocco to fight against France.

To again avoid war. Germany received territorial compensation in the French Congo in exchange for recognizing French control over Morocco.

The Bosnian Crisis

In 1908, the nation of Austria-Hungary had been administrating the Turkish regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1878, but they formally annexed it in 1908, which caused the crisis.

The country of Serbia was outraged, because they felt that it should have been given to them. As a result, Serbia threatened to attack Austria-Hungary.

To support them, Russia, who was allied to Serbia, prepared its armed forces. Germany, however, who was allied to Austria-Hungary, also prepared its army and threaten to attack Russia.

Luckily, war was avoided because Russia backed down. However, there was some regional fighting during 1911 and 1912, as Turkey lost control of the region. 

Despite this, Serbia and Austria-Hungary were still angry with each other as they both wanted to expand into these newly liberated countries.

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essay on the causes of world war 1

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5 Key Causes of World War I

Illustration by Hugo Lin. ThoughtCo.

  • M.A., History, University of Florida
  • B.A., History, University of Florida

World War I, known as the "war to end all wars," occurred between July 1914 and November 11, 1918. By the end of the war, over 17 million people had been killed, including over 100,000 American troops. The causes of the war are infinitely more complicated than a simple timeline of events, and they are still debated and discussed to this day.

However, the list below provides an overview of the most frequently cited events that led to war. These include a combination of mutual defense alliances, imperialistic rivalries, the rise of militarism, fervent nationalism, and the immediate catalyst—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Watch Now: 5 Causes of World War I

Mutual defense alliances.

Countries throughout the world have always made mutual defense agreements with their neighbors, treaties that could pull them into battle. These treaties meant that if one country was attacked, the allied countries were bound to defend them. Before World War 1 began, the following alliances existed:

  • Russia and Serbia
  • Germany and Austria-Hungary
  • France and Russia
  • Britain, France, and Belgium
  • Japan and Britain

When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia got involved to defend Serbia. Germany, seeing that Russia was mobilizing, declared war on Russia. France was then drawn in against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany attacked France by marching through Belgium pulling Britain into war. Then Japan entered the war to support its British allies. Later, Italy and the United States would enter on the side of the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, etc.).


Imperialism  is when a country increases its power and wealth by bringing additional territories under its control, usually without outright colonizing or resettling them. Before World War I, several European countries had made competing imperialistic claims in Africa and parts of Asia, making them points of contention. Because of the raw materials these areas could provide, tensions around which country had the right to exploit these areas ran high. The increasing competition and desire for greater empires led to an increase in confrontation that helped push the world into World War I.

As the world entered the 20th century, an arms race had begun, primarily over the number of each country's warships, and the increasing size of their armies—countries began training more and more of their young men to be prepared for battle. The warships themselves increased in size, number of guns, speed, method of propulsion, and quality armor, beginning in 1906 with Britain's HMS Dreadnought . Dreadnought   was soon out-classed as the Royal Navy and Kaiserliche Marine quickly expanded their ranks with increasingly modern and powerful warships. 

By 1914 , Germany had nearly 100 warships and 2 million trained soldiers. Great Britain and Germany both greatly increased their navies during this time. Further, in Germany and Russia particularly, the military establishment began to have a greater influence on public policy. This increase in militarism helped push the countries involved into war.


Much of the origin of the war was based on the desire of the Slavic peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina to no longer be part of Austria-Hungary but instead be part of Serbia. This specific essentially nationalistic and ethnic revolt led directly to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand , which was the event that tipped the scales to war.

But more generally, nationalism in many of the countries throughout Europe contributed not only to the beginning but to the extension of the war across Europe and into Asia. As each country tried to prove its dominance and power, the war became more complicated and prolonged.

Immediate Cause: Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The immediate cause of World War I that made the aforementioned items come into play (alliances, imperialism, militarism, and nationalism) was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  of Austria-Hungary. In June 1914, a Serbian-nationalist terrorist group called the Black Hand sent groups to assassinate the Archduke. Their first attempt failed when a driver avoided a grenade thrown at their car. However, later that day a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke and his wife while they were driving through Sarajevo, Bosnia, which was part of Austria-Hungary. They died of their wounds.

The assassination was in protest of Austria-Hungary having control of this region: Serbia wanted to take over Bosnia and Herzegovina. The assassination of Ferdinand led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. When Russia began to mobilize to defend its alliance with Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia. Thus began the expansion of the war to include all those involved in the mutual defense alliances.

The War to End All Wars

World War I saw a change in warfare, from the hand-to-hand style of older wars to the inclusion of weapons that used technology and removed the individual from close combat. The war had extremely high casualties over 17 million dead and 20 million injured. The face of warfare would never be the same again.

In 1914, British author H.G. Wells published his book "The War That Will End War," discussing the change in warfare and coining the phrase that would eventually become synonymous with World War I.

  • The Balkans
  • Causes of World War I and the Rise of Germany
  • The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914
  • World War I Timeline From 1914 to 1919
  • Biography of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria
  • The Causes and War Aims of World War One
  • World War I Timeline: 1914, The War Begins
  • World War I Introduction and Overview
  • The Major Alliances of World War I
  • World War 1: A Short Timeline Pre-1914
  • World War I: Opening Campaigns
  • The Fourteen Points of Woodrow Wilson's Plan for Peace
  • Key Historical Figures of World War I
  • The First Battle of the Marne
  • The Black Hand: Serbian Terrorists Spark WWI

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essay on the causes of world war 1

The History Hit Miscellany of Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds

  • 20th Century

The 4 M-A-I-N Causes of World War One

essay on the causes of world war 1

Alex Browne

28 sep 2021.

It’s possibly the single most pondered question in history – what caused World War One? It wasn’t, like in World War Two, a case of a single belligerent pushing others to take a military stand. It didn’t have the moral vindication of resisting a tyrant.

Rather, a delicate but toxic balance of structural forces created a dry tinder that was lit by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo . That event precipitated the July Crisis, which saw the major European powers hurtle toward open conflict.

The M-A-I-N acronym – militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism – is often used to analyse the war, and each of these reasons are cited to be the 4 main causes of World War One. It’s simplistic but provides a useful framework.

The late nineteenth century was an era of military competition, particularly between the major European powers. The policy of building a stronger military was judged relative to neighbours, creating a culture of paranoia that heightened the search for alliances. It was fed by the cultural belief that war is good for nations.

Germany in particular looked to expand its navy. However, the ‘naval race’ was never a real contest – the British always s maintained naval superiority.  But the British obsession with naval dominance was strong. Government rhetoric exaggerated military expansionism.  A simple naivety in the potential scale and bloodshed of a European war prevented several governments from checking their aggression.

essay on the causes of world war 1

A web of alliances developed in Europe between 1870 and 1914 , effectively creating two camps bound by commitments to maintain sovereignty or intervene militarily – the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance.

  • The Triple Alliance of 1882 linked Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
  • The Triple Entente of 1907 linked France, Britain and Russia.

A historic point of conflict between Austria Hungary and Russia was over their incompatible Balkan interests, and France had a deep suspicion of Germany rooted in their defeat in the 1870 war.

The alliance system primarily came about because after 1870 Germany, under Bismarck, set a precedent by playing its neighbours’ imperial endeavours off one another, in order to maintain a balance of power within Europe

essay on the causes of world war 1

‘Hark! hark! the dogs do bark!’, satirical map of Europe. 1914

Image Credit: Paul K, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


Imperial competition also pushed the countries towards adopting alliances. Colonies were units of exchange that could be bargained without significantly affecting the metro-pole. They also brought nations who would otherwise not interact into conflict and agreement. For example, the Russo-Japanese War (1905) over aspirations in China, helped bring the Triple Entente into being.

It has been suggested that Germany was motivated by imperial ambitions to invade Belgium and France. Certainly the expansion of the British and French empires, fired by the rise of industrialism and the pursuit of new markets, caused some resentment in Germany, and the pursuit of a short, aborted imperial policy in the late nineteenth century.

However the suggestion that Germany wanted to create a European empire in 1914 is not supported by the pre-war rhetoric and strategy.


Nationalism was also a new and powerful source of tension in Europe. It was tied to militarism, and clashed with the interests of the imperial powers in Europe. Nationalism created new areas of interest over which nations could compete.

essay on the causes of world war 1

For example, The Habsburg empire was tottering agglomeration of 11 different nationalities, with large slavic populations in Galicia and the Balkans whose nationalist aspirations ran counter to imperial cohesion. Nationalism in the Balkan’s also piqued Russia’s historic interest in the region.

Indeed, Serbian nationalism created the trigger cause of the conflict – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The spark: the assassination

Ferdinand and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Bosnian Serbian nationalist terrorist organization the ‘Black Hand Gang.’ Ferdinand’s death, which was interpreted as a product of official Serbian policy, created the July Crisis – a month of diplomatic and governmental miscalculations that saw a domino effect of war declarations initiated.

The historical dialogue on this issue is vast and distorted by substantial biases. Vague and undefined schemes of reckless expansion were imputed to the German leadership in the immediate aftermath of the war with the ‘war-guilt’ clause. The notion that Germany was bursting with newfound strength, proud of her abilities and eager to showcase them, was overplayed.

essay on the causes of world war 1

The first page of the edition of the ‘Domenica del Corriere’, an Italian paper, with a drawing by Achille Beltrame depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

Image Credit: Achille Beltrame, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The almost laughable rationalization of British imperial power as ‘necessary’ or ‘civilizing’ didn’t translate to German imperialism, which was ‘aggressive’ and ‘expansionist.’ There is an on-going historical discussion on who if anyone was most culpable.

Blame has been directed at every single combatant at one point or another, and some have said that all the major governments considered a golden opportunity for increasing popularity at home.

The Schlieffen plan could be blamed for bringing Britain into the war, the scale of the war could be blamed on Russia as the first big country to mobilise, inherent rivalries between imperialism and capitalism could be blamed for polarising the combatants. AJP Taylor’s ‘timetable theory’ emphasises the delicate, highly complex plans involved in mobilization which prompted ostensibly aggressive military preparations.

Every point has some merit, but in the end what proved most devastating was the combination of an alliance network with the widespread, misguided belief that war is good for nations, and that the best way to fight a modern war was to attack. That the war was inevitable is questionable, but certainly the notion of glorious war, of war as a good for nation-building, was strong pre-1914. By the end of the war, it was dead.

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Main Causes of World War 1: Discussion

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Updated: 16 November, 2023

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The essay explores the causes of World War 1, which took place from 1914 to 1918. It begins with a brief overview of the war's timeline and the major countries involved, including the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, the United States of America, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. The essay then delves into the four main causes of the war: Militarism, Nationalism, Imperialism, and Alliances.

Militarism is discussed as the policy of maintaining a strong military force and a readiness to use it aggressively for defense. The significant arms buildup and military spending by various countries, including Germany, are highlighted as contributing factors to the outbreak of the war.

Nationalism is described as the strong attachment to one's own nation and culture. It is explained how nationalism led to conflicts, including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered Austria's desire for revenge.

Imperialism, the expansion of a nation's power by dominating other countries, is presented as a factor due to the competition among European powers over control of African resources and territories.

Lastly, the essay discusses the role of Alliances, where countries formed partnerships to defend each other, often resulting in a domino effect of declarations of war.

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  • Causes of World War 1

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Causes o f world war 1, nationalism and imperialism.

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A Good Hook Examples for WWI Essay

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  • Strachan, H. (2014). The First World War: To Arms. Oxford University Press.
  • MacMillan, M. (2013). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. Random House.
  • Fay, S. B. (1928). The Origins of the World War (Vol. 1). The Macmillan Company.
  • Gildea, R. (2003). Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914. Harvard University Press.
  • Kennedy, P. M. (1980). The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914. Allen & Unwin.

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essay on the causes of world war 1

The Causes and Effects of World War I Essay


The effects of World War I can be seen around the world even now, more than one hundred years after its end; however, there is still no consensus as to its cause. In the words of Alfred Korzybski, “the destruction was brought about by nationalism, entangled alliances, narrow ethnic concerns, and desires for political gain – forces that are still with people today.” (cited in Levinson, 2014). Even though the majority of United States citizens did not have the direct experience of the terrific upset that the war caused in Europe, it can be argued that the country’s concern with championing democracy around the globe is one of its products (Levinson, 2014).

Many historians agree that an atmosphere of twentieth-century Europe was conducive to the creation of a complex mixture of economic, social, and political reasons that translated into powerful forces of imperialistic, nationalistic, and militaristic movements leading to the diplomatic crises of 1914 (Donaldson, 2014). Therefore, it can be said that the blame for the war could not be assigned to any individual country or a group of countries.

Nonetheless, the issue of responsibility was the main focus of the world in the years following the Armistice of 1918 (Donaldson, 2014). To this end, the Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and the Enforcement of Penalties met in Paris in 1919 (Donaldson, 2014). The investigation conducted by the commission showed that Germany and Austria, along with Turkey and Bulgaria as their allies, were responsible for the aggressive foreign policy tactics that led to the precipitation of the war (Donaldson, 2014).

The start of World War I was precipitated by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914 (Mulligan, 2010) The elimination of the high-standing official was carried out by the group of secret society members called Black Hand and directed by Bosnian Serb Danilo Ilić (Storey, 2009). The political objective of the murder was to separate Austria-Hungary’s South Slav provinces to combine them into Yugoslavia (Storey, 2009).

In response to the killing of their official, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia that commanded its government to prosecute the assassins. The objective of the ultimatum was to make its terms so strict that Serbia would be forced to reject it, thereby giving an excuse for launching a small war against it (Storey, 2009). Taking into consideration that Serbia had diplomatic relationships with Russia strengthened by their shared Slavic ties, the Austro-Hungarian government decided to take precautions against the two countries declaring war on it and allied with Germany. It is agreed that Germany was not opposed to Austro-Hungarian bellicosity, but rather supported and encouraged it, thus providing one more reason for the precipitation of the Great War (Levinson, 2014).

Even though Serbia’s response to the ultimatum was placating, Austria-Hungary decided to take aggressive action and declare war. It is argued that the main reason for World War I was the web of entangling alliances among the countries having an interest in the conflict between Austro-Hungary and Serbia (Storey, 2009). Following the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war, the Russian monarch mobilized his army because of the binding commitment of the treaty signed by the two countries.

As a result, on August 3, 1914, Germany declared war on the Russian Empire (Levinson, 2014). France was bound by treaty to Russia, and, therefore, had to start a war on Austria-Hungary and Germany. Even though a treaty tying France and Britain was loosely worded, the latter country had “a moral obligation” to defend the former (Levinson, 2014). Therefore, Britain and its allies Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Japan, and the Union of South Africa also took a bellicose stance against Germany and offered their assistance in the military action against the country (Levinson, 2014). Thus, a gigantic web of entangling alliances pushed numerous countries to the precipice of war over what was intended to be a small-scale conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

Numerous other reasons led to World War I. The conflicting political interests of Russia and Japan over Manchuria and Korea resulted in a military defeat of Russia (Levinson, 2014). Therefore, the country wanted to restore its dignity by a victorious war. During the same period, a lot of small nations were seething with discontent over the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian rule, thereby providing an opportunity for the Russian Empire further to stir resentment by firing up nationalistic zeal under a pretense of pan-Slavic narrative (Levinson, 2014).

Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, sought an opportunity to establish its influence over a vast territory of mixed nations; the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne provided them with a perfect excuse for the initiation of the war. Political clashes in Germany were a reason for the country’s government to resort to the military conflict as a way of “averting civil unrest” (Levinson, 2014). Another factor that caused World War I was the desire of France to revenge a military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 (Levinson, 2014).

It is impossible to name a single reason for the initiation of World War I. However, it is clear that the entangling web of alliances among numerous parties participating in the war, as well as complicated plots of governments and empires, led the small-scale dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia escalating into a military conflict that swept the entire world.

Donaldson, P. (2014). Interpreting the origins of the First World War. Teaching History , 155 (4), 32-33.

Levinson, M. (2014). Ten cautionary GS lessons from World War I. Et Cetera, 71 (1), 41-48.

Mulligan, W. (2010). The origins of the First World War . Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Storey, W. (2009). The First World War . Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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IvyPanda. (2020, October 9). The Causes and Effects of World War I.

"The Causes and Effects of World War I." IvyPanda , 9 Oct. 2020,

IvyPanda . (2020) 'The Causes and Effects of World War I'. 9 October.

IvyPanda . 2020. "The Causes and Effects of World War I." October 9, 2020.

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IvyPanda . "The Causes and Effects of World War I." October 9, 2020.


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