The Start and Causes of WWI

Instructor: Jason McCollom
In the summer of 1914, a localized conflict quickly became a global war. In this lesson, learn about the causes of World War I and investigate how it began.

The Reality of War

Today in the United States we have an all-volunteer military. This means that unless you have a soldier in your family or know personally a serviceman (or servicewoman), conflict and war might seem distant to you. The beginning of World War I sure seemed distant to English college student Vera Brittain in 1914. On August 3 of that year, Vera was having fun playing tennis with friends. Someone told her that France and Germany had declared war on each other. This news didn't at first affect the 21-year-old Vera. In her diary she reflected, 'I suppose it is because we all know so little of the real meaning of war that we are so indifferent.'

Soon, however, reality rudely interrupted her indifference. Vera's fiancé was killed in the trenches of World War I the next year. Her brother died in the war. Her close friends met their fate on battlefields. This galvanized Vera, and she left college to become a nurse on the front lines. Her experience haunted her. After assisting in an amputation, she emerged 'with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.'

How did World War I begin? What were the causes? Let's examine those questions.

Drift Toward War

There were four primary forces propelling Europe to war leading up to that fateful summer of 1914: nationalism, rivalries, the naval race, and colonial disputes.

The first element contributing towards World War I was nationalism. This feeling is fueled by the idea of self-determination: the belief that people have the right to form a nation around shared ethnicity, language, or political ideals. This meant, for instance, that in the multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary Empire, several ethnic groups sought freedom to form their own nations. The Serbs, for instance, fought against Austria-Hungary's domination and demanded inclusion in their own nation--Serbia--based on ethnic Slavic unity. Indeed, the Serbs' desire for a nation free from Austria-Hungary would be the spark that began World War I.

Among the powerful nations of Europe, rivalry drove the wheels of war forward. Britain had long been the predominant power of Europe, but Germany's quick rise since the late 19th century threatened Britain's position. France too clashed with Germany in the 1870s, and Russia--a nation of ethnic Slavs--conflicted with Austria-Hungary over the situation of Serbia. These national rivalries would spill over into the summer of 1914.

A naval buildup between Germany and Britain represented once manifestation of this rivalry. One way in which Germany threatened British superiority of the seas was to build even more powerful battleships. Britain responded with the construction of dreadnoughts, a fleet of super battleships. The race to war was on.

A naval race between Britain and Germany increased tensions between the two nations. Here, a super battleship, or dreadnaught, sails.

Finally, the major European powers clashed over their colonial holdings in Africa and Asia. In a race to colonize in order to increase their economic power and demonstrate superiority, Germany, France, Britain, and Russia confronted each other around the globe. Britain and Russia, for example, quarreled in the Middle East. Britain and France argued over territories in Southeast Asia; Britain, Germany, and France confronted each other in the race to control Africa. These confrontations produced small conflicts, such as the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, which foreshadowed the world war to come.


These European powers also formed alliances for security and for mutual protection in the case of war. This rival alliance system created the conditions whereby a minor event could soon set off a chain reaction and explodes into a global conflagration.

Germany and Austria-Hungary joined together in the Triple Alliance in the late 19th century. Austria-Hungary wanted protection from Russia, and Germany sought a partner to help it confront France. Italy, fearful of France too, joined the alliance.

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