Causes of World War One
The History Cat Classroom
Causes of WWI--
What the Heck Happened?
The First World War began with two gunshots. One to the neck of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the other to the belly of his pregnant wife, Sofie. The assassin was a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip, recruited by a shadowy terrorist organization calling itself the Black Hand. For months the leadership of the Black Hand had been shuttling guns and home-made bombs across the Serbian border to safe houses in Bosnia (under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). On June 28, 1914, the Archduke and his entourage arrived by train and from there were scheduled to take an automobile along the Appel Quay, the main road that ran through the city of Sarajevo-- Bosnia’s capital. In pure Chuck Norris style, Franz Ferdinand, despite previous death threats, chose to ride in an open convertible. Ferdinand knew that he was riding into a hornet’s nest but as a show of strength decided to travel with the top down so that his subjects could get a better look at him. In the days before television, a visit by a member of the royal family was prime-time entertainment, and the arrival of the heir to the Austrian throne was sure to draw a huge crowd. Mixed in among the hundreds of people standing around for their chance to gawk at the procession were Gavrilo Princip and five other accomplices. Each of the six assassins had been outfitted with a bomb, a pistol, and a vial of cyanide with which to commit suicide after the job was done.
As the procession rolled by, the first conspirator, Muhamed Mehmedbašić, got cold feet and failed to throw his bomb. That dirty deed fell to the next guy in line, Nedeljko Čabrinović who tossed his bomb at the Archduke’s car but lousy timing caused the bomb to go off too late, severely wounding two people in the sixth car as well bystanders on the sidewalk. Čabrinović stuck to the plan and downed his cyanide, which rather than killing him, only ended up made him vomit. It turns out the assassins had been supplied with expired cyanide. As Čabrinović was dragged from the river where he had tried to drown himself, the other killers melted back into the crowd. The element of surprise had been completely blown.
But luck would shine on Gavrilo Princip for another accident was about to bring him face to face with his victims. By now, more than an hour had passed since the botched assassination attempt, and Princip was understandably freaking out about the manhunt unfolding throughout the city. He had decided to grab a sandwich because you know, an assassin’s gotta eat, when the car carrying the Archduke and his wife made a wrong turn stopping just mere feet from where Princip was standing. Not missing a beat, Princip pulled his pistol and fired two shots killing the Archduke and his wife. The wheels of history had been set into motion.
Nationalism Gone Wild
At his trial, when asked why he did it, Princip told the court "I am a Yugoslav nationalist, and I believe in unification of all South Slavs in whatever form of state and that it be free of Austria." Princip was a Serbian which meant that he also belonged to a larger ethnic group called the Slavs. For radicals like Princip, the dream was to unite the Slavs living in Bosnia with their brothers in Serbia into one nation (Yugoslavia). But standing in the way of that dream was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which owned Bosnia and had no intention of letting it go without a fight. In fact, the empire had been working hard to crush Serbian nationalism by outlawing Slavic “cultural clubs” and censoring Slavic newspapers. But Franz Ferdinand, as the next in line for the Austrian throne, was about to ruin all that with promises to treat the Slavs as equals. And that is why he had to die. In the eyes of the Black Hand, the only way that a Yugoslavia could be achieved was if Bosnia completely broke away from the empire. Ironically, Yugoslavia would tear apart in a genocidal war in the 1990s, but that’s another story.
This is probably as good a spot in the story as any to point out that assassinations do not normally turn into full-blown world wars. So, how the heck did a single act of terrorism set off a chain reaction culminating in the death of seventeen million people!? A historian would likely give you a convoluted 386-page answer because that’s just what historians do, but the answer can be boiled down to one word: ‘Nationalism.' Nationalism is defined as having pride in one’s country. It can be a totally harmless thing like wearing a tee-shirt with your country’s flag on it. ‘Murica! But it can also have a dark side such as the case with Nazi Germany. Back in the summer of 1914, nationalism was the bullet in Princip’s gun.
World War One might have gone down in history as the Austro-Serbian War (which you wouldn’t even be reading about) had it not been for other stuff unfolding on the continent. Long before Europe had become a land of techno nightclubs and overpriced coffee houses, the great powers (Russia, Germany, France, and Britain) were in fierce competition with one another for world domination (literally). When Austria issued its ultimatum to Serbia (which we’ll get to soon) the other powers saw their chance to weaken their enemies. And so, millions of other people were about to be dragged into a war that had nothing to do with them. Go nationalism!
Militarism and Imperialism: It’s All About MI
In 1914, Europe's great powers were busy carving up the rest the globe in a contest known as imperialism. For the winners the stakes were high. Back then owning colonies equaled power, and the bigger your empire, the more powerful you were. And no country did imperialism better than Great Britain. In 1913 this California sized island nation controlled one-quarter of the world's population. Coming in at a distant second was France who had her flag planted in distant lands spanning the globe from the Caribbean to Vietnam. Even tiny Belgium had sunk its little fingers into the Congo-- a territory more than four times its size.
The Germans sat back and watched as control of the world fell into the hands of less than a half a dozen countries. Having only become a country a few decades earlier in 1871, the Germans grew anxious that, like a beggar looking through the window of a crowded restaurant, they would be left out in the cold. And so, Germany sprang into action. Within a few decades, Germany had built up her industry and her army to become the most powerful in Europe. France was literally freaking out as its biggest enemy grew more powerful. And then the Germans decided that it was time to get into the navy-building business. The British were not amused.
Having the world's biggest empire required the world's biggest navy. When Germany started cranking out battleships and destroyers, the British reacted by building more of their own to outpace the Germans. In 1906, the British produced the HMS Dreadnought, an ultra-modern ship that instantly made all other ships obsolete. Germany countered Britain's dominance of the seas by spending insane amounts of cash on battleships and submarines. Like two Bros at a gym, Germany and Great Britain were locked in an arms race to see who would be the strongest.As German power grew, an arms race spread throughout the continent. Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia all began stockpiling weapons like a bear stores winter fat. At the end of the day, the European powers found themselves sitting atop huge stockpiles of weapons. And what good are weapons if you can’t use them, right? In the face of this threat, European nations began banding together like street gangs for protection in a system of ridiculously complicated alliances. In one corner: Germany, Austria, and Italy formed the Triple Alliance (soon to be known as “The Central Powers”). In the opposite corner stood Great Britain, France, and Russia (aka “The Allied Powers”). Pledging to defend each other if attacked, all of the great European powers were now ready for war. All that was needed now was the spark to light the whole continent up. They didn't have to wait long.
How a Fist Fight Became a Prison Riot
On July 23rd, 1914 Austria delivered an ultimatum to Serbia which listed a series of demands that Serbia had to meet. The threat of war was barely disguised with Serbia being given only 48 hours to respond.
According to the ultimatum, Serbia had to agree to the following:
1. Suppress all anti-Austrian Propaganda
2. Ban textbooks and teachers who spoke out against Austria
3. Officially condemn anti-Austrian publications
4. Dismiss any Serbian government official that Austria named
5. Allow Austria to check for anti-Austrian propaganda within Serbia.
6. Help in the investigation of the Archduke's assassination.
Winston Churchill the future Prime Minister of Britain, after reading a copy of the ultimatum, declared that no free nation would ever agree to such terms. Shockingly, Serbia agreed to every condition except for the part about allowing Austrian officials to conduct an investigation. That, they said, would violate their constitution.
The German Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote a memo to Austria declaring a victory and was happy that war had been averted, However, the German Prime Minister took it upon himself to alter the Kaiser's message and instead told the Austrians that Germany would support their ally no matter what. Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. The people of Austria wildly celebrated the news. And here comes the chain reaction.
1. July 28 Austria Declares war on Serbia
2. August 1 Germany Declares War on Russia. It also declares war on Russia's ally -France. To get to France, German troops march through Belgium a neutral country-killing many innocent civilians
3. August 4 Britain vows to protect Belgium and declares war on Germany and Austria.
4. August 13 Japan, an ally of Britain, declares war on Germany.
5. October 29- Ottoman Empire joins in the war on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Bulgaria, and Austria) hoping to gain back some lost land.
6. Nov 2 Russia declares war on the Ottomans
7. Nov 5 Britain and France declare war on the Ottomans
8. May 23 Italy joins the Allied Powers (France, Britain, Greece, Russia)
The Great War (as it would later be called) didn’t need to happen, but nearly all Europeans were caught up in war fever. In every major city, huge crowds came out to cheer the soldiers on as they marched off to war. One German woman wrote “Everyone was waving flags. We threw flowers to the marching soldiers. Everyone was singing “We’ll meet again in the Fatherland.” Most people thought that this war would be like all the others, over by Christmas with the winners claiming land or colonies as the spoils of war. How wrong everyone was.
Gavrilo Princip's Mugshot
The British Empire (shown in black) dominated a quarter of the world's people in 1914