October 12, 2009
Major Causes of World War I
Although the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is the best-known cause that led to World War I, several other lesser-known events triggered the start of the war. Europe at the time was entwined in a web of secret alliances that effectively split the continent in two. Additionally, fervent nationalism caused military buildups and plans for mobilization of armies while imperialism led to colonization of Africa and South America by England, Germany, and France (Sheffield, 2002). These three significant events, the secret alliances between countries; nationalism that caused an arms race between countries; and imperialism, Germany’s attempt to increase international influence, led to a global conflict that escalated an assassination into the “war to end all wars.”
Between 1879 and 1914, many European countries signed a number of secret alliances. The most influential of these was the Triple Alliance, entered into by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy in 1882 to prevent Italy from aligning with Russia (United States Army, 2001). In retaliation, Russia formed an alliance with France, who then fashioned a similar agreement with England. These three major alliances helped set the stage for escalation of the conflict; fervent nationalism thereafter provided the necessary armies.
The mounting tension in Europe led to an arms race between Germany, Britain, and France. The armies of both France and Germany more than doubled in the years prior to 1914. Britain launched its first battleship, the Dreadnought, in 1906 (Department of the Navy, 2001), and Germany soon followed with a fleet of battleships of its own. Moreover, one of Germany’s generals, Alfred von Schlieffen, already had constructed a plan to conquer France and Russia if a conflict should begin (Count Alfred von Schlieffen, 2008). The stage was set for conflict; all that remained was for the principal players to take their places.
Germany had spent the early years of the twentieth century trying to find a niche in international affairs and attempting to keep pace with France and Britain in international influence. Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, had reunified Germany 40 years earlier. In 1914, “fate seemed to have offered Germany the opportunity to turn dreams into imperial reality” (Sheffield, 2002, p. 2). By 1900, according to a popular expression, the “sun did not set on the British Empire” as Britain’s colonial presence extended over five continents. Similarly, France