Causes of World War I: Factors That Led to War

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  • 0:07 MAIN
  • 3:39 Archduke Ferdinand
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

Although World War I began in Europe, it is important to take a look at World War I in relation to U.S. history as well. The U.S. was greatly affected by the war. In this lesson, we'll take a quick and direct look at the causes that led up the war and the assassination that was the final catalyst.


You might be asking yourself why we are talking about World War I for U.S. history. That is a good question. The fact is although the war was primarily in Europe, the U.S. was involved, and the 'war to end all wars' had many lasting effects on the whole world, including setting up the world for the next world war.

We will be brief while talking about the causes of World War I. The common way to do this briefly is to look at what led to the Great War as an acronym, MAIN. So we will talk about the MAIN causes of the war and then the event that really lit the fuse, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

MAIN stands for Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. This isn't my favorite order to deal with these in, but we will use it through the lesson to help give you a hand remembering the acronym and its meaning.

Militarism is exactly what it sounds like. The beginning of the 20th century was a time of great military buildup. Germany was experiencing the greatest military growth, and its navy was beginning to rival that of Britain. This led to both nations trying to outdo the other in an arms race. This huge military buildup came at a time that war was still glorified; in many ways, nations saw war as a necessity to prove their might. This attitude is even seen in some of the uniforms worn at the beginning of the war. Check out these guys! Their outfits make them look glorious while marching into battle, but it also makes them great targets.

Alliances in theory are a great thing. However, the many alliances found just prior to the war emboldened nations to be bolder than they should have been, and then, when their actions caused open conflict, their allies were dragged into it. Think of it like this: Russia is playing on the teeter-totter. Little Germany, who doesn't like Russia, comes over and shoves him off of the teeter-totter.

The thing is, Russia's little friend France, who doesn't even like to fight, now is honor-bound to step in and help Russia out. But you see, Europe in the beginning of the 20th century was a big playground. Britain even had a friend named Japan from a completely different playground. Everyone had a lot of friends - I mean, allies. All of these alliances helped move the world to war.

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