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10 Key Details About The Origins Of The First World War

On June 28, 1914, the chauffeur of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne took a wrong turn. While the car stalled, a teenage revolutionary leaped aboard and fired at Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at point-blank range. The double slaying kicked off a series of diplomatic events that spiraled out of control and led to the outbreak of World War I.

But the act itself was only a small part of a much larger story. As this explainer will show, the conflict was the result of both long- and short-term factors. Some were decades in the making. Yet despite all the turmoil, there were still multiple opportunities to preserve the peace. As the armies of Europe were marching to war, two estranged cousins engaged in a final, desperate attempt to make peace. 

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  • By 1914, There Wasn't Much Of The World Left To Carve Up
    Photo: Edward Linley Sambourne / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    By 1914, There Wasn't Much Of The World Left To Carve Up

    By the dawn of the WWI, virtually every square inch of the globe had been claimed by one power or another. Africa was rapidly carved up among European nations. Even Belgium claimed a slice of the continent, with horrific results. The US had taken a more aggressive international posture following the Spanish-American War. But the most expansive of the imperialist powers by far were Britain and France.

    Initially, the German Empire did not show a great deal of interest in acquiring overseas colonies. As a central European nation, Germany’s early foreign policy was based on avoiding a two-front war. Otto von Bismarck skillfully navigated the quagmire of European diplomacy by playing powers against one another and maintaining good relations with Britain.

    By the end of the 19th century, the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II saw Germany shift toward a more aggressive outward-looking foreign policy known as Weltpolitik (“world politics”). Germany's relative lack of an overseas colony was a real sticking point for the Kaiser. There was also a self-serving undertone for his ambitions: the prestige of foreign colonies would help to disquiet calls for reform at home. 

    In the words of Foreign Minister Bernhard von Bulow in 1897:

    We do not want to put anyone into the shade, but we demand a place for ourselves in the sun.

  • Racial Ideology Of The Time Predicted A Final Showdown Of The Races

    In the late 1800s to early 1900s, Social Darwinism was a prevalent idea among world powers. In a 1908 speech, Kaiser Wilhelm II claimed “the future belongs to the white race” - specifically, the “Anglo-Teutons” were the only race that could save humanity. British Prime Minister Lord Robert Salisbury noted that the nations of the world could only be divided into the living and the dying. If a state was not rising, then it was falling to the other ascending world powers. 

    The essential idea was that only the strongest races of the world could hope to survive and prosper. There was a rather fatalistic idea that, sooner or later, the major world powers would have it out in a great war to determine which group would prevail. That meant that acquiring resources, or at the very least denying them to a rival, wasn’t simply a matter of prestige, but of survival.

    Of course, imperialist nations could and did find common cause on the world stage. The intervention of the Eight-Nation Alliance in the Boxer Rebellion was the best example. But even when on the same side, the members of the alliance still tried to outdo one another. Even in cooperation, there was still a sense of competition. 

  • A Naval Arms Race Between Britain And Germany Ignited Tensions Between Them
    Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    A Naval Arms Race Between Britain And Germany Ignited Tensions Between Them

    At the turn of the 20th century, a key idea among military strategists was the importance of sea power. The American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan's seminal work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, was a best-seller in Europe. One particularly influential fan of Mahan's work was Kaiser Wilhelm II. He instructed German naval officers to study Mahan, and German Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz successfully lobbied Wilhelm to construct a fleet that could rival Britain’s.

    As an island nation with an expansive overseas empire, Britain's defense was reliant upon control of the seas. Without the need for a large army, the British were able to build a much larger naval fleet than comparable nations. The British adopted a strategy of holding a 2-to-1 advantage over the next two powers combined. The Germans challenged this supremacy, and in doing so greatly damaged relations between the two nations. The naval arms race took a new turn in 1906 with the launching of Britain's HMS Dreadnought (pictured), a new class of battleship whose superior speed and firepower rendered every other ship of that caliber obsolete. 

    Britain took notice of the German buildup when a 1908 bill was passed to bring Germany's dreadnoughts to 21. In response, the British ramped up naval production, viewing the German move as an act of hostility. February 1912 saw an unsuccessful effort to relieve tensions with the Haldane Mission. The British Secretary of State for War sought peace by offering the Germans a compromise: accept British naval supremacy in exchange for British endorsement of German colonial claims in Africa. The Germans wanted one more thing that proved too high a price for the British: a pledge to stay out of any conflict involving Germany. This would have meant the British withdrawing from the Triple Entente

    The financial toll of building the world's second-largest navy alongside the world's largest army was too much even for Germany. By the dawn of WWI, Germany's surface fleet was one of the world's largest, but still lagged far behind the British. Ultimately, the incredibly expensive battleships spent most of the conflict docked in port.

  • Two Superblocks Of Alliances Were Formed
    Photo: Nelson Harding / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Two Superblocks Of Alliances Were Formed

    The foreign policy of the major powers shifted in the early 1900s. Britain had long been reluctant to get involved in European affairs, preferring to remain - as one Canadian statesman put it - in "splendid isolation" rather than form entangling alliances. 

    The emergence of Germany as a rival on the world stage at sea pushed the British into the arms of an age-old enemy: France. Although some tensions still had to be ironed out, the British and French managed to seal an alliance in 1904 that still exists today: the Entente Cordiale. The French were also allied with Russia at the time, which placed Germany in the very scenario it had worked for decades to avoid: a war on two fronts. 

    On the other side, Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary and Italy in the early 20th century. Neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary had much faith the Italians would honor the alliance. Those fears proved accurate when the Italians not only refused to come to the aid of the Central Powers but actually joined the opposing side the following year. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a multi-ethnic domain with significant tensions in the Balkans. Serbia was accused of supporting Slavic nationalist groups within the empire. 

    Serbia was not officially an ally of Russia, but the two nations had a close relationship, and it was likely that any Austro-Hungarian action against Serbia would prompt a Russian response. That, in turn, would draw the French and Germans into the mix and most likely involve the British. The British were still allied with the Japanese, while the Ottoman Empire's interests in the Middle East made it a likely partner of the Central Powers. As mentioned, Italy was a bit of a wild card, while the Romanians and Bulgarians were other potential belligerents. 

    Simply put, the alliances might have helped to deter war for a time, but they also meant that the war that did break out would be catastrophic. WWI very nearly did break out in 1905 and again in 1911, when the Germans unsuccessfully tried to drive a wedge between the British and French over French interests in Morocco. The attempts backfired spectacularly and only strengthened the Anglo-French alliance, while cementing Germany as Britain's primary enemy on the world stage. 

  • Austria-Hungary Annexed Bosnia In 1908
    Photo: Unknown cartoonist / Le Petit Journal / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Austria-Hungary Annexed Bosnia In 1908

    In 1908, Austria-Hungary seized the formerly Ottoman territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although technically still a part of the ailing Ottoman Empire, the area had been under Austro-Hungarian occupation for decades after one of the many conflicts between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. 

    Austria-Hungary took advantage of an internal struggle within the Ottoman Empire and Russia’s weakened state after a disastrous conflict with Japan to snatch the domains permanently. This had some important consequences in the short and long term. Neighboring Serbia had ambitious for a "Greater Serbia" that would unite the Slavic people in Southern Europe, which naturally put them at odds with Austria-Hungary.

    There were also internal intentions within the empire's newest acquisition to contend with. To put it mildly, the Slavic population wasn’t too pleased to be under the Dual Monarchy’s rule. Underground nationalist groups formed to agitate against Austro-Hungarian rule; both Serbia and Russia were accused of supporting these groups.

    Crucially, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister sought and received Germany’s full backing during the crisis, even if it led to war. The opportunistic annexation fueled long-standing tensions between the Russians and Austria-Hungary. Although the Bosnian Crisis ended without conflict, the seeds of a future crisis had been sown.

  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand Was Targeted Because He Supported Minority Rights
    Photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Franz Ferdinand wasn’t a popular choice to succeed his uncle, the 84-year-old Franz Joseph. Franz Ferdinand held a very dim view of the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy, believing the Hungarians to be an untrustworthy drain on Austria. He further irritated his future subjects by broadly supporting greater rights and autonomy for the minority groups of the multi-ethnic empire, presenting a threat to the position of the Hungarians. He was also opposed to war, which brought him into conflict with the bellicose Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf

    The Archduke's desire for peace and support for minority rights might seem to make him an odd target for assassination, but it was actually those ideas that landed him in the crosshairs of members of the revolutionary group, Young Bosnia. The revolutionaries feared Ferdinand’s reforms would quiet the calls for Slavic unity. The man who ultimately pulled the trigger, a sickly teenager named Gavrilo Princip, explicitly outlined the motivation behind the slaying:

    [Franz Ferdinand] would have prevented, as a future ruler, our union by realizing certain reforms which would evidently have been against our interests.

    When Young Bosnia members learned that the Archduke would visit Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, they hatched a plan to eliminate him.

    One of the great tragedies of the assassination was just how easily it could and should have been prevented. After a series of errors, the would-be assassins seemed to have blown their chance, but when Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn on the way to a hospital, the car stopped right in front of Princip. The frail teenage revolutionary fired two shots at point-blank range, changing the course of history in an instant.