Causes of World War I: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Jaimie Orozco

Jaimie has a master's degree in history and over 9 years of experience working as an Adjunct Instructor, High School Social Studies Chair, AP and Dual Credit Instructor.

World War I erupted in Europe in 1914 and led to the loss of many lives. But why did the war begin in the first place? In this lesson, you will discover the four main causes of the war and the event that sparked its outbreak.

What Triggered World War I?

The prince of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was on a visit to Bosnia with his wife, Sophie, in June 1914. While fairy tales of princes and princesses are often happy and heartwarming, this historical visit does not have a happy ending.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Archduke Franz Ferdinand

At the time, Austria-Hungary was occupying Bosnia, but Bosnia wanted to be its own independent country. So, a secret society called the Black Hand--which was made up of one person from Bosnia and five from their ally, Serbia--set out to assassinate Ferdinand during his visit. On June 28, 1914, a Black Hand member named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Ferdinand.

Austria-Hungary was very angry and pointed the blame at the Serbs, who played a big role in the assassination, and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. This assassination is widely recognized as the 'spark that ignited the powder keg of Europe'--it triggered a series of events that led to World War I.

M.A.I.N. Causes of WWI

While the assassination of Ferdinand sparked World War I, there were other factors that built up to the war. An easy way to remember the four main causes is with the mnemonic M-A-I-N, which we will outline below:

M stands for militarism. Many European countries were focused on building up their militaries, adding more army and navy troops as well as more advanced weapons. Military leaders became very influential in politics, and the culture of these nations started to center around the military. It created an environment of hostility, and when conflict arose, nations were more likely to jump into battle than negotiate.

A stands for alliances. Many countries in Europe formed alliances, mutually beneficial relationships, and agreed to help one another if a country in the alliance was attacked. There were two main alliances. The Central Powers were formed by Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and the Ottoman Empire. The Allied Powers were formed by France, Russia, Great Britain and the United States. Many other countries joined over time. So, what would have been a relatively small conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia turned into a world war.

World War I military alliances
WWI Military Alliances

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