World War I: Causes, Characteristics & Effects

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  • 0:01 Causes of World War I
  • 2:54 Characteristics of World War I
  • 4:30 Effects of World War I
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will identify the causes, characteristics, and effects of World War I. We will highlight key figures, events, and developments that relate to these aspects of World War I.

Causes of World War I

Ask any school-aged kid what caused World War I, and you're likely to hear, 'The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand!' This is the classic textbook answer concerning the start of the war. But there is so much more to it than just the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne. Let's dig deeper and explore some of the underlying causes of World War I.

Some teachers use the acronym MAN to help students remember some of the leading causes of World War I. M stands for militarism, which is basically a nation building up its military might. In the years leading up to 1914, Germany in particular embraced militarism as a means of dominating European geopolitics. This sparked an arms race among the major European powers. When Germany began building up its arsenal, countries like Great Britain, France, and Russia became alarmed and began building up their own. So you can see why tensions were high among the European powers on the eve of World War I.

The A stands for alliances. The term that we often hear when discussing this issue is entangling alliances. In 1882, the Triple Alliance was formed. This was a military alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Basically, to put it in our modern-day terminology, it meant these countries had each other's backs. To counter the Triple Alliance, the Triple Entente was formed in 1907, composed of Great Britain, France, and Russia. The implications of these competing alliances meant that if any one nation went to war against any other belligerent nation, all the nations would become involved. Dangerous.

The N stands for nationalism. Nationalism is basically extreme pride in one's nation. Basically, each nation believed that they were better than everyone else. In the Balkan region, Slavic nationalism against their Ottoman rulers led to all kinds of turmoil. And this is where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand fits in. The Archduke was killed by a Serb and Yugoslavian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand provided a pretext for Austria-Hungary to invade Serbia. Russia then rushed to Serbia's defense, and in turn, German rushed to Austria-Hungary's defense. Boom! The system of entangling alliances came into play, and now all of Europe was at war. MAN.

Characteristics of World War I

World War I was unlike any war preceding it. In many respects, it was the first truly 'modern' war. Never before had technology been put to such destructive ends. On land, at sea, and in the air, mechanized warfare was carried out with devastating efficiency. Just in case you are not sure, mechanized warfare refers to the use of advanced machines in war. Aircraft, armored vehicles, modern artillery, machine guns—these are all components of mechanized warfare.

World War I was characterized by trench warfare, in which opposing armies would dig sophisticated trenches into the earth in order to provide themselves with cover. The open space between the opposing trench systems was commonly referred to as 'no man's land' because no man wanted to enter this dangerous area. Holed up underground for weeks and months at a time, the men living in trenches experienced appalling conditions.

World War I was very much a war of 'firsts'. It was the first war in which the airplane saw widespread use. Also, the 'Great War', as it's called, was the first war involving tanks. The world's first combat tank was invented by the British. Called the Mark I, it first saw action in September 1916 in the Battle of the Somme. Submarines and modern poison gas also had their first widespread use in World War I.

Effects of World War I

The effects of World War I were monumental. The war resulted in the death of empires and the birth of nations and in national boundaries being redrawn around the world. It ushered in prosperity for some countries, while it brought economic depression to others.

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