What started World War One

Royal Irish Rifles on the first day of the Somme

The First World War was a human, economic and political catastrophe. It changed the map of Europe and led to further instability in the continent and around the globe. There has long been a debate about the exact cause of the First World War. Ultimately, German aggression and its attempts to secure a stronger strategic and military position in Europe led to the outbreak of the First World War.


By the summer of 1914, Europe had long been divided into two mutually hostile and suspicious power blocs. On one side was the German-dominated bloc- known as the Central Powers. This comprised Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, there was a bloc that comprised the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire. The Unification of Germany and its victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, led to a new balance of power on the continent.[1] Germany was by far the most powerful military country Europe. The United Kingdom allied themselves with France to counter any aggression from Berlin. Russia later joined them. Along with Germany's military prowess, the country committed several diplomatic blunders that convinced these powers to counter Germany.

In response, Germany allied with Austro-Hungry. Bismarck the German Chancellor in the 1870s and other European leaders sought to achieve a balance of power between the powers in Europe. It was hoped in this way to secure international peace. Some believe that such an international system was doomed to failure and led directly to the outbreak of war.[2]

Colonial Tensions

Kaiser Wilhelm the Second, 1902

While Germany was in many ways the most powerful country in Continental Europe, it lacked a large colonial Empire. The French and British Empires extended over large areas of the globe. Europe strategists at the time believed that only countries with large colonial empires could survive and prosper. The German political elite was eager to secure more colonies.[3] German had a few colonies in Africa and the Pacific Islands. These colonies did not satisfy German ambitions, and they aggressively sought more territories. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German Emperor, argued that his country deserved to have its ‘place in the sun.’ These demands increased international tensions.

A prime example of these imperial ambitions played out during the First Moroccan Crisis in 1905. France was the predominant power in Morocco and was slowly absorbing the North African country. In March 1905, the German Kaiser visited Morocco and gave his support to the Sultan. This visit encouraged the Moroccans to defy the French. The Kaiser’s intervention was widely seen as an effort to frustrate the French and to extend Germans influence in North Africa.[4] The French saw this as German interference with French internal affairs and threatened war. The colonial issue was significant in the lead up to the First World War. Many Marxists after the war broke out stated that it was the rivalry for colonies that led directly led to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.


French cuirassiers in 1914

Most pre-war Europeans believed in the ‘cultural, economic and military supremacy of their nation’. They believed that their nation was entitled to dominate others and to have special privileges within the international system.[5] Nationalism was deliberately inflamed by newspapers and politicians. This was used to secure the allegiance of the population to the existing political elite. In many European countries, the traditional elites, such as landowners, the aristocracy, and monarchies were able to stay in power by ‘harnessing the emotive power of nationalism’.[6] This was particularly the case in Imperial Germany. The conservative elite, including the army and the aristocracy, used nationalism to prevent the Social Democratic Party from assuming power in the country. However, Nationalism also created a scenario where countries viewed each other as their rivals and enemies. This meant that they were willing to go to war with their neighbors when there was a crisis in international relations in August 1914. [7]

Immediate Causes of World War I

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, were shot dead in Sarajevo by a Serbian terrorist group. Austria demanded reparations from Serbia. Germany backed its ally Austro-Hungary. Austria threatened war with Serbia, but because that country was allied with Russia, it consulted Berlin.[8]

Germany was eager to provoke a war it backed Austro- Hungry and encouraged them to take military action against Serbia, despite its alliance with Russia. Germany wanted to have an international confrontation with Russia. The Russian Empire was rapidly industrializing, and many in Berlin feared Russia. They believed that they needed to defeat Russia in a war before it became too strong. The Germans used the crisis over the assassination to push forward their objectives and to engineer a conflict with Russia. They also used the assassination to justify a war in the west with France. Imperial Germany was very aware of the hostility of France. The German military command had long planned for an offensive against France. They had devised the 'The Schlieffen Plan', which was a surprise attack on France, even though it involved the violation of the neutrality of Belgium.[9]

Germany was very aware that it was surrounded by enemies and it decided that war could help to improve its military and strategic position in Europe. During the crisis of August 1914, the Germans launched an attack on France as envisioned in the Schlieffen Plan. They used the crisis in August 1914 as a justification for pre-emptive war to ensure that it was not militarily defeated shortly by Russia in the east and France and the United Kingdom in the west.[10] German Soldiers in 1914.


The First World War was a tragedy for Europe and the Globe. It was a result of many things. These included a balance of power politics, colonial rivalry, and nationalism. The primary cause of the conflict was the German decision to take advantage of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to further its own strategic and military interests. Germany was in a weak strategic position with its main rivals especially Russia. It sought to secure its position in Europe not by political or diplomatic means but by military means. In August 1914, Germany initiated the war to assert its position in Europe and make sure that it remained the continental Europe’s major power. Ultimately, it was to prove a disastrous decision as it resulted in the catastrophic defeat of Germany.


  1. Kramer, Alan. (2014). "Recent Historiography of the First World War-Part I." Journal of Modern European History 121 pp: 5-27
  2. Hewitson, Mark. (2014). Germany and the causes of the First World War. Bloomsbury Publishing: London, p. 17.
  3. Lewiston, German', p. 54.
  4. Lewiston, Germany, p. 67
  5. Hew Strachan (2004). The First World War. Viking Publishers: New York, p. 34.
  6. Wehler, Hans-Ulrich (1985). The German Empire, 1871–1918, Berg Publishers, 1985.
  7. Tuchman, Barbara, The Guns of August, New York. The Macmillan Company, 1962
  8. Tuchman, Guns of August, p. 89.
  9. Stevenson, David (2004). Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy, p. 111.
  10. Stevenson, Cataclysm, p. 117.

Updated December 24, 2018.