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Causes of the First World War

Updated March 29, 2019
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Causes of the First World War essay

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In the summer of 1914 a massive war was started between the great powers. In this essay I will investigate the causes of World War 1 and try to work out which country or countries were to blame for starting it. In the 1800’s, Britain was by far the leading nation. It had an enormous world-wide empire and powerful navy to protect the large amount of land overseas that it owned.

Britain manufactured many different goods, which were exported to other countries, including Germany. Before 1900 Britain was the world’s leading industrial power, with it’s main rival being France. Britain was by far the leading European power, but it feared other countries building up a larger navy and catching it up, especially Germany. Britain knew that Germany had caught up with it in industrial production and that Germany’s leaders also had strong ambitions to build up a world- wide empire, like Britain already had.

In 1914 Britain had an empire of 27 million km and Germany only had 2.5 million km, but Britain was still worried. In 1870 there was a war between Germany and France called the Franco- Prussian war. The Germans captured a piece of French land called Alsace- Lorraine. The French wanted the Alsace-Lorraine back and were still worried that the Germans may attack again. Previously the French had had a fairly small army, but they expanded it and built strong fortresses on their border with Germany. In 1908 Kaiser Willhelm, the king of Germany and the ruler of the German army announced that he intended to develop the German navy.

Germany started to build more battleships. Because Britain was worried about Germany catching it up and having a larger navy, Britain also started to build more battleships. In 1906 Britain launched HMS Dreadnaught, a new battleship, which could get up to speeds of 21 knots. It was faster and more powerful than any other warship. The Germans copied the British and started to build their own Dreadnaughts. In 1914 Germany had 17 Dreadnaughts and Britain had 29.

Even though Britain was well ahead in the Naval Race, it was worried that it could not fund many more of these ships to be built and that Germany would continue to build more of these battleships and threaten Britain’s naval supremacy. In the 1800’s the very large country of Russia was a very backward country, with a large population. It also had a large army, but it was badly equipped and poorly led. Russia was quite a poor country which hardly had any industry at all. Russia, along with France and Britain, was worried about Germany’s growing strength. In 1904 France and Britain became allies.

Fear of Germany’s apparently aggressive policies led these countries to join in military alliance. Because Russia was also worried about Germany’s growth, France and Russia made a similar defensive agreement and became allies in 1907. This alliance between Britain, France and Russia was known as the Triple Entente. Because Russia was a very backward country the other two countries in the Triple Entente planned to help Russia become more powerful.

Some ways that they planned to do this were by funding its army to help it improve, by funding it’s transport network to improve communications and to help the army get from one place to another more quickly and also by helping it to become more industrial. Germany was surrounded by the three countries in the Triple Entente. Germany’s leaders were worried by this and they started to make military plans, in case France and Russia jointly declared war on them. The countries in the Triple Entente knew that they were in a good position. They desperately wanted to weaken Germany and stop it becoming a very powerful country. Another country that surrounded Germany, but was not against it was Austria-Hungary.

Previously Germany had formed an alliance with Austria-Hungary. This was because the Austrians felt threatened by the Russians and by nationalism in the Balkans (an area of land in south-east Europe.) The Russians wanted the Austrian empire (made up of many different nationalities) to fall apart because the Russians wanted a chance to expand their influence into Europe. Russia had a long-term aim of gaining ports on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Austrians were particularly worried by Serbia. Austria owned the land to the west of Serbia, called Bosnia. However many of the people living in Bosnia were Serbs.

Austria did not want Serbia to expand but Serbia wanted a coastline. Russia was friends with Serbia and thought that their friendship would increase their influence in the Balkans. This put the Russians in direct conflict with the Austrian government. Serbia was made up of mainly Slavs and wanted to bring them all together into one country. Austria-Hungary didn’t agree with the idea of Slavs being united because it was concerned that the large number of Slavs that lived in its lands would not want to live in its lands anymore and would join with Serbia. So, Austria-Hungary had conflicts with the Russians about the Balkans and also with Serbia because of Serbia’s friendship with Russia and Serbia’s ideas about Panslavism (uniting the Slavs.) Previously Austria-Hungary had an alliance with Germany.

The Austrians wanted this alliance because they felt threatened by the Russians and by nationalism in the Balkans. The Italians did not really have any reasons to be part of an alliance. They were an ambitious nation and wanted to be part of an alliance, just to be seen as a significant country and an important European power. Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary became the Triple Alliance in 1882. In 1910 there were two defensive agreements; the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. Each country promised to help and defend it’s allies if they were attacked.

Some people thought that the defensive agreements were a good idea, because they would prevent countries from declaring war because it would lead to their own destruction. Others thought that it was not such a good idea and it was very dangerous because instead of smaller wars between two countries like the Franco-Prussian war, a huge war involving all of the powers would happen, which would be started by a minor dispute between just two countries. Also it was dangerous because clever diplomats from both sides sometimes tested and threatened the other side to see how they reacted. This was called brinkmanship and it often got out of control. The Triple Entente had placed a “ring of steel” around Germany.

Germany would have stood no chance if the Triple Entente chose to attack it before 1906. In 1906 Germany’s war minister Count Alfred von Schlieffen who was worried about this made military plans to defeat both the French and the Russians, should they declare war on Germany. This plan was called the Schlieffen Plan. He thought that if there was going to be a war then the huge country of Russia would be slow to mobilize because they would have such long way to go with a very backward transport system. Because Germany thought that it would take Russia a couple of months to have it’s forces ready, he planned to defeat the French first and then go and deal with the Russians. It was planned that the Germans would invade France through the neutral country of Belgium, so that the French wouldn’t realize what was happening until the Germans got close to their country.

The Germans then planned to surround Paris, win the battle and move the bulk of the army away again to fight the Russians. This plan was worked out precisely down to every last detail. Even the train times were planned down to every last minute. The Austrian-Hungarian government strongly opposed the Serbs ideas about Panslavism. Some Serbs began to carry out acts of terrorism in Austria- Hungary because they disagreed with the government. Several secret societies were formed in Serbia and were dedicated to throwing the Austrians out of the Balkans.

One of the well-known terrorist group was called the Black Hand. On June 28th 1914 the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne and his wife visited Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. The Black Hand saw this as an opportunity to protest about the Austrians taking over Bosnia to stop Serbian expansion. Several members of the Black Hand were waiting for the archduke when he visited Sarajevo.

Firstly a bomb was thrown at his car, which miraculously did not hit him. After this incident Franz Ferdinand was going to leave Sarajevo. His driver turned the car around and as he was doing so, one of the members of the Black Hand, Gavrillo Princip fired two shots at the car. The first killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the second killed his wife, Countess Sophia.

After this event Austria-Hungary was very annoyed with Serbia and blamed them for the killing of the archduke. They accused the Serbian government of helping Princip. This then annoyed Serbia because it was not actually their country, but a small group of Bosnian Serbs. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Before doing so they checked that their German allies would stand by them. The Austrian-Hungarians attacked Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. On the 29th July the Russian army got ready to help Serbia defend itself against the Austrians. The next day Germany, being in the Triple alliance with Austria-Hungary, sent a threatening message to the Russians ordering them not to help Serbia.

Because Austria-Hungary didn’t like Serbia this caused Germany to declare war on Russia. Germany also began to move its army towards France and Belgium, because France was a member of the Triple Entente along with Russia. The French army was aware of this and was put on war alert, ready to fight a German invasion. On the 3rd and 4th of August Germany invaded France through neutral Belgium.

Britain, being on France’s side, ordered Germany to leave Belgium. When Germany refused, Britain declared war. On the 6th August Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia, because Russia was friendly with Serbia, whom Austria-Hungary had already declared war on and Russia had tried to defend. Also Austria-Hungary had had previous conflicts with Russia about the Balkans. The German’s meticulously planned Schlieffen Plan actually failed.

It was a lot weaker in practice than the German’s had expected because they were slowed down by fierce resistance in Belgium. The British succeeded at the Battle of Mons and pushed the Germans to the east of Paris. The French had sent the Russians money to develop the army, who mobilized more quickly than the Germans had expected. The Germans had to send two divisions of the army to try to stop them on the Eastern front. There was a deadlock on the Western front by the end of September 1914 because both sides dug trenches which eventually stretched from the channel coast to the Swiss border.

The war of movement was over. I will now try to work out which were the most important and relevant causes of the war, which country or countries actually caused World War 1 and whether the long term or the short term causes were more important. Because many of the countries declared war on each other, one country can not be solely to blame. The disputes between the different countries before and after they joined the alliances were about nationalism. From 1870 to 1914 the French wanted the Alsace Lorraine back. Russia wanted to gain ports on the coast, Serbia wanted independence in the Balkans and Austria-Hungary was worried about nationalism within its empire.

This nationalism led to imperialism. France and Germany were rival empires, so were Russia and Austria-Hungary and Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Militarism also caused imperialism. Britain and Germany were rival empires because of the Naval Race. France helped Russia to become more powerful by funding its army.

The German Schlieffen Plan that finally pushed Europe into war. It was also the alliance system that made so many countries become involved in the war. Instead of sorting out problems by having small disputes between two different countries, the alliance system made many more countries become involved, just because they were defending their allies. Some people would blame Serbia for starting World War 1.

After all they did assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which started the whole chain of events. Serbia also stirred up trouble among the southern Slavs. Some people would say that Russia should share the blame with the Serbs. This is because Serbia could not have been as powerful without Russian support. Russia also stirred up trouble with the Slavs.

It was also the Russians that mobilised in July, which then caused the Germans to mobilise and declare war. If I was to decide which one of the two countries (Russia and Serbia) declared war then I would blame Russia. This is because the whole of Serbia was not to blame for assassinating Franz Ferdinand, it was just a small group of Bosnian Serbs and it was the Russians who mobilised first. It is unfair to blame Russia for the war because Russia was under pressure to mobilise from France’s ambassador.

Some historians think that it was actually Germany that started the war. They think this because they seized the Alsace Lorraine in 1870, which made the French angry with the Germans. They also started the naval race which made the British people angry with the Germans. In 1908 Germany threatened Russia with war, and planned exactly what they would do if any of the members of the Triple Entente started to mobilise, which pushed Europe into war.

Also without Germany’s support ( Germany being the most powerful country in the Triple Alliance), Austria-Hungary would not have declared war on Serbia or on Russia. Some people blame Austria-Hungary for starting the war. They were the first people to declare war. Maybe if they hadn’t have declared war on Serbia then Russia wouldn’t have mobilised and the war wouldn’t have started. It was Austria-Hungary that placed the blame on Serbia for the assassination, when actually it was not the Serbian government or the whole of Serbia’s fault. Other people may say that Austria-Hungary is not to blame for Russia mobilising, but it was actually France.

The French didn’t stop the Russians from mobilising, they helped them. Also France’s ambassador in Russia urged Russia to declare war on the countries in the Triple Alliance. It was not just France that could have stopped the war from happening. Britain could have warned Germany that they would fight alongside Russia and France, to scare the Germans and make them see that the Schlieffen Plan would not work and they would have to fight three countries, instead of two. The only country that is free from blame is Italy. Not being biased, I think that Britain is almost free from blame as well.

The Germans should’ve at least worked out which countries were going to fight in the war before they worked out the train time tables! It is understandable that Britain did not want to be overpowered by Germany and it was the Germans that started the Naval Race, between the two countries. Britain did not want the Germans to get ahead of them so they had no choice but to join in with the naval race to try to stay ahead of their enemy. France is also almost blame free. It made sense that France should help Russia to mobilise, after all they both hated Germany and didn’t want it to become powerful. Russia was a very backward country so France helped it to become more modern.

Apart from Britain and France I think that Serbia should have the smallest share of the blame. Some Serbs disagreed with Panslavism and protested against it. I don’t really blame Gavrilo Princip because he was standing up for what he believed in and he did not know that a war would be started after the shooting. The assassination at Sarajevo was just a perfect excuse a war to begin. Germany and Britain had been looking for an excuse to start a war for a long time before that.

Some people may think that Gavrilo Princip is to blame because he started the chain of events in June 1914, but actually arguments were happening between the countries well over 30 years before the assassination. Germany started the arguments by seizing the Alsace Lorraine in 1870. Germany was also the first country that wanted an alliance system, which it made with Austria-Hungary. Also Germany ignored the Treaty of London which was signed by Britain and other European nations, promising to protect Belgium’s neutrality Even though no country is solely to blame, if I had to blame one country for starting the war then it would be Germany.

This is because if Germany did not start making defensive agreements and did not start the battle for power then there would have been no arguments about the Morocco (with the Moroccans), the Alsace Lorraine(with the French), no Naval Race(against the British), no Schlieffen Plan (against the Triple Entente) and the brinkmanship wouldn’t have got so out of hand. It is not just the Germans fault that the war started. There were many different causes, both long term and short term. There were many disputes about things in the past and there were short term causes but I don’t think that the war would have happened if the Triple Alliance, the Triple Entente and the alliance between Serbia and Russia had not been formed.

These alliances could, and did, create a huge war out of a small dispute. I blame the suspicions and assumptions that all of the countries involved made. All of the countries were suspicious of each other and some of these suspicions had gone on for hundreds of years. All of these suspicions made Britain a very tense place.

All of the countries wanted to show that themselves and their allies were stronger than their enemies. Many assumptions also were made. The Germans just assumed that the British would not join the war. If I had to blame a single cause for starting the war then it would be the Schlieffen Plan.

It was very dangerous because the military chiefs planned to start mobilising the German army just before war was declared and once they mobilised it would be very difficult to stop them. The Schlieffen Plan led to hasty decisions to declare war being made. I blame the long term causes more than the short term causes. This is because a long time before the war there were more meaningful disputes over land and power. The short term causes such as the assassination of the archduke just sparked off the war.

Causes of the First World War essay

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