The Great War, also later known as World War 1, began in 1914 as a European conflict between the major powers and spread to almost all European states except Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain. Countries outside of Europe like Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Japan, and India joined the fray, usually due to political obligations or strategic concerns. Many believed the war would be short-lived. Fighting, however, lasted until 1918, taking many lives and forever changing the global landscape.
How did the war begin? The origins of the conflict are complex and contentious. Historians have cited numerous causes, including the Alliance System, nationalism, imperialism and militarism. As eminent historian Jacques Barzun pointed out, “No conclusion has been agreed upon.” (68). We will explore the causes and other topics of The Great War in other blogs. For now, we will focus on the events leading to war.
European Alliances and Rivalries The alliance system refers to the two opposing camps that entered the war in 1914 after a series of war declarations. On one side, the Triple Alliance comprised Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary. The other, the Triple Entente, included France, Great Britain and Russia. These alliances reflected a “strength in numbers” approach to security.
All of the countries had reasons to ally. France feared a Germany that, since its unification in 1870, became a formidable economic and military power, in part at France’s expense. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), Prussia defeated France, annexed Alsace-Lorrain, and made France pay reparations. An invigorated Germany bolstered its military power and, through French eyes, remained the primary threat. Britain and Russia agreed. Germany’s military growth, particularly its Navy, threatened Britain’s traditional naval hegemony. Russia, still recovering from their 1905 loss to Japan and reeling from an internal revolution, saw a growing Germany as a threat to Russia’s western border.
Germany, of course, had its concerns. With France and Russia on its west and east borders, Germany stood pinned between two powers. Berlin met this challenge in two ways. First, in 1880, German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark solicited Austro-Hungary and Italy to create a Triple Alliance. Second, they adopted the Schlieffen Plan – an offensive strategy where Germany would attack France first in the hope of defeating them before Russia mobilized – in what they estimated to be forty-two days. (Storey, 21-22)
Berlin’s primary ally, Austria-Hungary, included a significant German population and coveted a solid supporter to back it against Balkan uprisings, particularly from Serbia. Italy, less enthusiastic about allied commitments, would not enter the war until 1915 – alongside the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia! Neither Russia nor France matched Germany’s economy or military, but together they offered a viable threat. Neither Berlin nor Vienna wanted to stand alone.
So, how did these countries come to war?
The Balkans – Instability Spreads. As William Kelleher Storey writes, the war “was touched off by a crisis over nationalist aspirations in the Balkans,” a region of unrest and instability. (29) The Ottoman Empire once controlled the Balkan Peninsula but, after a steady decline, relinquished control of the region that broke into several countries – Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Romania, Montenegro and Greece. Competing nationalities and religions exacerbated political divisions and lead to perpetual struggles for regional control and independence, leading to many local conflicts and longstanding hostilities.
Serbia became the peninsula’s dominant country and took center stage leading to the Great War. Serbia gained independence from a weakening Ottoman Empire in 1878 and coveted a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary feared Serbian nationalist fervour might encourage the southern Slavic population in Austro-Hungary to separate and join Serbia.
On the other hand, Russia coveted a strong Serbia as a base of influence in the Balkans and Constantinople and the Dardanelles that would link the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. These ambitions, coupled with its Slavic heritage, lead Russa to offer itself as sponsor and protector of the Slavs in the Balkans, particularly Serbia.
Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia and its significant Serbian population in 1908 widened the rift between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Russia, still recovering from its 1905 loss to Japan and warned off by Germany, did not intervene, undermining its status as Slavic protector. As tension grew between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, it seemed more likely that regional strife would spill over into the rest of Europe. All that was needed was a catalyst – that occurred on July 14th, 1914.
The Catalyst. On July 14th, 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip assassinated Austro-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife- shooting them both in the car as they toured the streets of Sarajevo. Emboldened by German support, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia that would effectively deny Serbian independence. Serbia accepted all but one of the demands. Seeing an opportunity to deal with the “Serbia problem,” Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28th.
The entangled alliances and competing interests encouraged a series of Great Power decisions that lead to a much broader conflict. Here is a very simplified sequence of events. Russia, supporting Slavic Serbia and protecting its influence in the Balkans, declared war on Austria-Hungary and mobilized its forces. Germany, alarmed by Russian mobilization and in support of Vienna, declared war on Russia then France. Germany’s attack plan on France required them to cross Belgium, a neutral country. This action leads to Britain, obligated to protect Belgian neutrality, to declare war on Germany. Now, the prominent European nations were at war, and soon, soldiers from around the world would join the fray.
Conclusion. Could the war have been averted? Some historians insist that the alliance system meant that one declaration of war leads to the diplomatic equivalent of dominoes falling. Others maintain that leaders could have made different choices and averted war. These are discussions for future blogs. Historians, however, do agree that World War 1, drastically changed Europe and the world.
Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.
Black, Jeremy. The Great War and the Making of the Modern World. London: Continuum International Public Group, 2011.
Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Ferguson, Neill. The War of the World Twentieth Century and Descent of the West. Penguin Books, 2006.
Meyer, G.T. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.
Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.