World War I sparked from economic jealously, desires for power, and nationalism
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sunday marks 100 years since the end of World War I. There were several tectonic shifts in society that led to the war and not just a single catalyst. Those conflicts continued to heat up culminating in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — and this led to several leaders declaring war on other countries, kingdoms, and territories.
Right before the war, it was noticeable people’s ways of life had drastically changed. The Industrial Revolution brought about new understandings, better medicine, inventions, light bulbs, factory jobs, and in many cases poor working conditions. People were becoming more aware of each other and more independent in thought rather than relying on a king or a queen — monarchy was still whimpering over Europe, and the people of Europe craved democracy.
Women wanted to vote, slaves across the planet had won freedom, and many nations had won religious freedom. These societal shifts were natural for a growing civilization — a kind of adolescence — but with these developments came a fog. People wanted to use the state of flux for their own gain. Leaders wanted to control the world rather than share it. This desire for controlling resources, for power and say over others, and military might quickly led to tension.
The British Empire was still active and had dominated the previous centuries, spurning hatred among neighbors close and far. Serious competition was stirred up among communities to garner resources and become powerful nations, if not empires.
World War I began on July 28, 1914. The war ended on November 11, 1918. Some 70 million military personnel across the planet took arms, including 60 million Europeans.
Some nine million soldiers died and seven million civilians died as a direct result of war.
The Great War is also considered a major factor in the 1918 influenza epidemic, which caused between 50 and 100 million deaths worldwide.
The war was defined by new technological advances on ground, sea, and air. It was the first large conflict to use aircrafts for combat. Pilots who received only a handful of hours of training were often sent into missions with bombs and a mere map in hand. A great deal of the war was fought in trenches, as leaders fought to change territory lines.
The war resulted in great political changes across the globe. Unresolved rivalries at the end of the conflict contributed to the start of the Second Word War about twenty years later.
The tensions in Europe leading to millions of deaths
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary, in response, issued an ultimatum to Serbia; but, Serbia’s reply failed to soothe the wounds of Austrians — and the two moved into war. This caused a ripple effect across Europe — a network of interlocking alliances formed. By 1914, the great powers of Europe were divided into two main coalitions: the Triple Entente — consisting of France, Britain, and Russia; and the Triple Alliance — consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.
Understanding the reasons why and how these countries aligned together, it helps to look at the 1800s. For much of the 19th century, the major European powers were in a state of flux trying to balance power among themselves. With so much technological change all at once and with new ideas on politics, reasoning, and independence, there was an existential nature — countries, nations, states, and kingdoms were unsure of their identity, much less what to do with it.
Some of the biggest challenges to bringing order to Europe had to do with Britain withdrawing into so-called splendid isolation, the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the post-1848 rise of Prussia under Otto von Bismarck.
Alliances were often negotiated and rivals were often made from these agreements. Alliances were also broken and allies would become enemies — betrayal happened in the blink of an eye. Some of these alliances were meant to settle long-standing colonial disputes. Wounds from the past hadn’t fully healed.
One of the biggest tectonic shifts in zeitgeist happened with the conclusion of the 1871 Franco-Prussian War and the creation of the German Reich, this led to a massive increase in Germany’s economic and industrial strength. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz sought to use that wealth to create an Imperial German Navy to compete with Britain’s Royal Navy for world naval supremacy. The leaders rationalized, based on the ideas of U.S. naval strategist Alfred Mahan, that whoever rules the sea, also rules the world. Jealously and hunger for power set Germany on a path to burn through its resources.
The result of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s zeal was the Anglo-German naval arms race. With the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the Royal Navy increased its advantage over its German counterpart and continued to do so. This further brewed jealously among the Germans, but its economy could no longer support the means to expand and fulfill its naval dreams. A large amount of resources were dedicated to this goal to antagonize Britain; it never reached the same level.
Ending the naval arms race reduced tension between Germany and Britain. However, military might was still on Germany’s mind. It increased its standing army by 170,000 men. Russia committed to another 500,000 men over the next three years, while France extended its compulsory military service from two to three years.
Germany increased its total military spending by 73% from 1870 to 1914, the largest proportional increase of any nation. Russia had the second biggest increase in that same time frame at 39%.
In October 1908, Austria-Hungary helped fuel the Bosnian crisis of 1908–1909 by officially annexing the former Ottoman territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it had occupied since 1878. This angered the Kingdom of Serbia and its patron, the Pan-Slavic, as well as the Orthodox Russian Empire. Russian political maneuvering in the region destabilized peace accords that were already fracturing in the Balkans. This political faltering is historically known as the “powder keg of Europe.”
In 1912 and 1913, the First Balkan War was fought between the Balkan League and the fracturing Ottoman Empire. The resulting Treaty of London further shrank the Ottoman Empire. This led to an independent Albanian state, while also expanding the territorial holdings of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece.
When Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece on June 16, 1913, it triggered the 33-day Second Balkan War. By the end of the conflict, several places were destabilized into uncertainty, including the areas from Macedonia to Serbia and Greece, and Southern Dobruja to Romania. Keeping power balanced in Europe was quickly failing.
The spark that led to series of war declarations
Everything became far more hostile with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A group of six assassins from the Yugoslavist group Mlada Bosna worked together to kill him. They were armed by the Serbian Black Hand, a secret military society. The six involved in the plot gathered on the street where the Archduke’s motorcade was to pass. The assassins believed killing Ferdinand would break off Austria-Hungary’s South Slav provinces, which Austria-Hungary had annexed from the Ottoman Empire. Then it could be combined into Yugoslavia.
Gavrilo Princip was successful in shooting down Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The assassination didn’t immediately impact the lives of the people in Austria. The political impact unfolded over days as the murder of the heir to the throne put pressure on an already confused, existential Europe.
Following the assassination, the Austro-Hungarian leaders encouraged anti-Serb riots in Sarajevo. In those riots, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks killed two Bosnian Serbs and damaged numerous buildings owned by Serbia.
Violent actions against ethnic Serbs were also organised outside Sarajevo, in other cities in Austro-Hungarian-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia. Austro-Hungarian authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina imprisoned and extradited some 5,500 prominent Serbs. 700 to 2,200 of those captured died in prison. A further 460 Serbs were sentenced to death. A predominantly Bosniak special militia known as the Schutzkorps was established and carried out the persecution of Serbs.
Franz Ferdinand’s assassination led to a month of diplomatic maneuvering between Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain. It was called the July Crisis.
Austria-Hungary correctly believed Serbian officials (especially the officers of Black Hand) were involved in the assassination plot. The leaders wanted to finally end Serbian influence in Bosnia. The instability and violence grew fast.
On July 29, Russia declared partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia. The next day Russia ordered general mobilization.
This upset Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II asked his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, to stop its actions, but Russia refused. Germany eventually declared war on Russia.
On August 2, Germany occupied Luxembourg. The following day it declared war on France. Britain demanded Germany to stop its mobilization, but ended up declaring war on Germany after an unsatisfactory reply.
World War I had a lasting impact on social memory. It was seen by many in Britain as signalling the end of an era of stability stretching back to the Victorian period. Across Europe many regarded it as a storm no one won. Historian Samuel Hynes said of the war:
“A generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honor, Glory, and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned, and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them. They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance.”
Learn more about the Great War at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City
If you would like to learn more about WWI, the National World War I Museum has plenty of educational resources for people of all ages. Going through the museum can take several hours as there are several exhibits, artifacts, and interactive experiences. The museum has collected a large amount of materials from the war including posters, uniforms, weapons, items found on soldiers, letters, journals, photographs, and videos. It also has several maps and infographics to help people of the modern world understand how people lived, survived, and fought in the early 1900s.