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Why Did WW1 Break Out In 1914?

World War One was a war between the major powers of Europe that can not be said to have had one specific cause. Throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th-century countries were in constant conflict. Tensions between the major powers and Germany, quickly advancing and becoming a larger power in Europe, were always on a knife-edge. Different historians from different times all have different views on what was the main cause of the First World War. Some historians, particularly Marxists, believe that the cause of the war was Imperialism. Others think it was one or a combination of all three (four including Imperialism) other reasons; Militarism, Nationalism and the formation of the Alliance systems between major countries. It can be argued that all of these played a major part in the break out of the war in 1914; however, you must consider that the war may not have broken out without the trigger. Most people believe the shooting of Franz Ferdinand is the trigger that shot the world into war.

Imperialism during the 19th century and into the early 20th century was viewed as one of the major long-term causes of the First World War. Having a colony at that time was the thing to have. Because it was such a sought-after entity, it caused many tensions between the major imperialistic powers in Europe. Most likely the biggest rivalry between countries over pieces of land was between Britain and France. Britain and France were the two countries owning the most land abroad. Therefore they were always challenging each other for more land and for certain pieces which they each thought would make a valuable contribution to their Empire. The squabbling over pieces of land caused rising tensions between the two countries. Although Britain later signed an Entente with France, that was more to make sure they were not fighting a war alone, than to exclaim that their tense relationship was over. Another large conflict was between Britain and Germany. Germany, who was very jealous of Britain’s large Empire that covered 20% of the world’s surface, wanted a large empire too.

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The continent with the most available land at the time was Africa. Germany claimed some land in Africa that the British were hoping to get; namely the piece of land that separated their colonies in the south and their colonies in the north. This ruined Britain’s plan of having a Cape to Cairo railway. Germany also tried to take places such as Morocco from France. This greatly angered France as Morocco was one of their major colonies. All of this fighting for land, mainly in Africa caused much tension between rival powers in Europe. Therefore it can be said that Imperialism gave the countries a long-term start to their rivalries. It gave them a background of unrest and instability. Another major cause of the war was militarism between the countries in Europe. During the period from 1870-1914, an arms race was going on between the countries. The armies of France and Germany both more than doubled from 1870 to 1914. There was also great competition between Germany and Britain over the sizes of their respective navies.

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Throughout history, Britain had always had the largest navy. They had recently built a new wonder ship, the Dreadnaught. The Germans also wanted to have a large navy and started to build Dreadnaughts. This led to the British building more. A naval arms race followed between the two countries. The expansions of armies and navies throughout the period of the war greatly mounted the tensions between the countries in Europe, in particular Britain, France and Germany. It is also thought that a World War might not have been possible had it not have been for the expansions of the armies. Without armies it is hard to fight a war, also without armies, the tension between countries may well have been much reduced. Nationalism caused much unrest in places such as the Balkans and in Austria-Hungary. The trigger of the war, the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand could have been viewed as a direct result of nationalism. Nationalism was especially high in Austria-Hungary. Inside Austria-Hungary, there were up to 11 different nationalities. All these nationalities had viewed Serbia as gaining their independence and were starting to feel jealous.

This caused many uprisings against the Dual Monarchy that ruled over Austria-Hungary. It can also be said that nationalism caused the Serbian rebel group, the Black Hand, to shoot and kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Nationalism was also a reason for long-term tensions between France and Germany. When Germany unified as one country they were determined to show their strength and try to prove themselves as a great power in Europe. To prove themselves they attacked France, won and gained the land of Alsace-Lorraine. This greatly angered the French and huge tensions were felt between the countries. Nationalism also helped cause Russia to enter the war in defence of Serbia. Pan Slavism was a theory of the Russians that they were the protectors of the Slavs. Because of this, they felt that they had to go into Serbia to protect themselves from the Germans and Austria-Hungarians. The joining into alliances can also be viewed as nationalism, as each country wanted to protect itself in the event of war. The alliances then caused more tension between the countries. And eventually, the tension was relieved by Serbs acting against Austria-Hungary.

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The Alliance system played an intricate part in the break out of the war in 1914. The alliances caused much suspicion between countries in Europe. At this time Europe was very unstable and everyone wanted to know what everyone else was up to. The creating of treaties that a certain country was not involved in made it feel as if it was missing out on something. It made it into a more nervous state. That then led to that country signing treaty of its own. This continued and you were left with two main alliances/ententes. The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia). There was great uneasiness between these two sides, mostly because of nationalism, militarism and imperialism, but also because they did not trust each other. It can be argued by many historians, and otherwise, that without the Alliance System the war may have been very localized, staying only as a war over areas in the Balkans. However with the alliances in place, as they were, countries such as Franc, Britain and German were involved.

Had they not had been drawn into the war; it is likely it could have been contained. For this reason, many historians, including myself believe that the alliance system was one of the most important, if not the main cause of the First World War. Nationalism, Militarism, Imperialism and the Alliance System can all be viewed as definite causes of the war. However, none of these causes can be viewed as the real trigger that caused the break out of the First World War. Most people throughout history have all been in accordance with what they view as being the trigger. The shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is the event that is blamed the most. This event led to Austria-Hungary sending an ultimatum to Serbia, and when Serbia failed to agree, declaring war on Serbia. This is what originally started the war, then other factors, such as the alliance system “kicked in” and Russia, France, Germany and Britain were drawn into the war. This made it a large-scale war in Europe rather than being a localized war that was purely in the Balkans.

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Along with the causes of the war, the ‘isms’ and the alliance system, many people have also placed the blame on different countries in Europe. Geiss Fisher claimed that “Germany only wanted a war, prepared for it, and ultimately provoked it in 1914 in order to advance Germany’s position in the world.” Many historians would agree with this statement. The whole idea of the Schlieffen Plan would also support the fact that Germany wanted war. However, there are people who also believe that everyone has to take a share of the blame for causing the war. Schroeder, a historian, said that “War was the logical outcome of tensions leading up to 1914 and no individual country should be held responsible.” This is also true and connects and supports well the four main causes of the First World War. The First World War was largely down to the three ‘isms’ and the Alliance System. They all worked together to create large amounts of tension among the countries in Europe. This tension mounted from 1870 until finally, it was too much, the trigger went off and Europe released the steam it had been building up. War was brought to Europe.

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Why Did WW1 Break Out In 1914?. (2021, May 29). Retrieved August 14, 2022, from