Exactly a hundred and one years ago, on June 1914, a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the small Balkan city of Sarajevo. But again, Europe had witnessed a number of high-profile assassinations in the preceding years – a chain of assassinations that had shocked everyone alike, but none of them had led to a major inevitable crisis. It was this incident that sent ripples all over Europe and set off a series of events that led to the Great War – an armed conflict so violent and massive that over 17 million people lost their lives in a period of over 4 years. To pinpoint a single assassination as the cause of this war would be historically insufficient and unfair – for it was the chain of events prior and after the incident that played an even bigger role. Here is the list of the top 10 causes that led to the first Great War of the 20th century.
10. Russian growth
Even though Russia was facing a massive industrial unrest in the years prior to the world war, by 1914, it already boasted the largest army in the world. Within two years of its establishment, the Russian Army Air Service had become the largest airforce in the world with 360 aircrafts and 16 airships. In fact, they had so many people in the army that they outnumbered the number of guns available by a mile. Despite a turbulent industrialization, Russian GNP had already amassed a significant increase of 55% by 1913. Such strong numbers stared at the face of Germany and Austria-Hungary, both of them terrified of the exponential growth of a potential and powerful enemy. This only added fuel to the paranoia among European leaders, encouraging them to become the forerunners in one of the most blatant arms races in history.
9. German paranoia
Though the sole blame of possible encirclement by surrounding countries goes to Germany itself, the general frenzy among the German high commands is pretty high during the years that led to the start of world war 1. At a time when the rise of German naval power was threatening to overshadow, the yet undisputed might of British naval fleets, Britain took the most obvious step to ensure its safety. The signing of the Entente Cordial between France, Russia and Britain tipped the balance of power towards the British alliance. But this only made the Germany become more wary of a possible conspiracy to encircle it in Europe. The consequence was even more heightened German paranoia of imminent attack at the hands of British alliance and resulted in even more aggression from the Germans.
8. Arms race in Europe
At a time when almost all the Europeans were living in fear of a war that threatened to break out any day, the major European nations became involved in a major arms race to fortify themselves from the worst case scenario. It was the naval race between Britain and Germany that caused a lot of friction between the two nations and their alliances. By 1914, Britain already had 29 of dreadnaught battleships and even though Germany lagged behind with 19 dreadnaughts, the pace at which it was building new ones showed all indications of overshadowing the British by 1920. On the land, pretty much every major European country was on a military expansion spree. Over a short period of 3 years between 1910 and 1913, Europe saw an unprecedented rise in military expenditure from an annual 1.67 billion dollars to 2.15 billion dollars.
7. Decline of Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman empire was once a force to reckon with, especially through the medieval period and in the early days of the modern era, it was known as the world’s largest imperial power – its rule extending all over the Middle East and much of northern Africa and eastern Europe. But by the end of the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire was already near dismantled by internal conflicts and instabilities. This situation led to the break out of the first Balkan war which saw Serbia (then part of the Balkan League) annex Albania. With the perspective of Serbians gaining access to the sea looming on its face, Austria-Hungary was set for an unavoidable clash with the Serbs. Meanwhile, the Russians were lying Armenia and Britain. France was looking set to conquer Iraq and Syria. Germany was already feeling left out in the race of extending colonies and territory.
Prior to world war 1, the major European powers had colonies all around the world. The British had control over major parts of South Asia, the French were colonizing much of Africa and the Spanish had parts of South America under their rule. The Europeans had made the most out of the age of Renaissance, using their advancement over the lower societies to bring them in under their rule. The likes of Britain, France, Spain, and Russia had a massive head start over Germany in terms of extended colonizing. The prospect of resources and raw materials new colonies could provide was lucrative enough. For that reason, all these big powers were trying to make the most out of contemporary unrest in Europe, leading to more conflict between themselves.
5. Balkan wars
The Balkan war was a result of instability in the Ottoman empire, with Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, and Bulgaria making up the Balkan alliance against the fading empire. By the first Balkan war in 1913, they had destroyed almost all opposition and divided the Balkans among themselves. This thumping victory of Balkan league shocked the major European superpowers, but none was more shocked then Austria-Hungary for whom the idea of a sovereign Serbia was out of the question. The prospect of Serbia becoming the center of an eventual South Slavic state was a massive threat to the Serbs. Meanwhile, Britain, Russia and the French were eyeing for a grab by annexing areas in the Middle East and the Armenia. Needless to say, such a volatile situation, where every opportunist nation was lurking right around the corner only further worsened things.
In an attempt to make the most out of instability in the Slavic region, the Slavic people in Bosnia and Herzegovina decided it was the right time to put their aspiration of separating from Austria-Hungary and merging into Serbia into action. Despite all volatile situation in the region, a war that would soon envelop all major European superpowers are still only a distant fear for many. This single event triggered a series of offenses that significantly narrowed any chances of the peaceful armistice. Nationalism played a role in leading to the war not only in the Balkan region. The entire Europe was high on the concept of nationalism, granting each of nations an ‘inviolable territory’. So when Germany had captured Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, it did not go very well with the French. It is for that reason when the Slavic region opened up due to repeated conflicts, the newly formed Balkan nations were ready for war if any European nation tried to annex them into new colonies.
3. Mutual defense alliances
As the conflict between nations started to take an ugly turn, countries around the Europe embarked into signing mutual defense agreements with nations they could mutually depend on in the face of war. Since these were mutual defense treaties, it meant if an allied nation became involved in any sort of war, the alliance nation had to participate as well in defense of its ally. Prior to the Great War, Russia-Serbia and Germany-Austria-Hungary were already in alliances. So it was no big surprise when Russia and Germany also became involved in the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. But then again, both Russia and Germany had further alliances with other European nations – increasing the roster of the eventual participants in the conflict which eventually took shape in a full-fledged war in Europe.
2. Lack of International Laws
These days there are so many rules that have brought most of the nations under the canopy of a certain set of laws of international peace that must be followed or else the culprit nations has to face consequences and ramifications (though their effectiveness is fairly questionable). Back when world war one was about to put entire Europe into chaos and disarray, no such laws had been formed to keep unwarranted aggression between nations in check – let alone bring justice to those who annexed territories in the name of imperial aspirations. Although a global level economy had already surfaced by the late 19th century, the global community as a whole was yet to devise a system of international law that could restrain one nation from using violence against another. Institutions that were supposed to treatise peace were fairly dysfunctional to have any impact on the then international community.
1. Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
At a time when every event had led the now imminent war to its boiling point, it was this incident that almost immediately turned much of Europe into an active war zone. The conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia over the desire of Bosnia to become part of Serbia was brimming high. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was making a visit to Sarajevo with his wife on June 28, 1914. Although the couple narrowly escaped an attack by a Serbian terrorist group called Black Hand, they were later assassinated on the same day by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip while they were still in Sarajevo. Since Princip and his accomplices were Bosnian Serbs, Austria-Hungary accused Serbia of masterminding the assassination and immediately declared war on Serbia. Being in alliance with Serbs, Russia soon mobilized its army in Serbian defense, which in turn led to German declaring war over Russia.
World War 1 was fought over some of the most intricately related reasons – one thing led to another and finally, the biggest of Europe’s powers were divided into two factions in a war. A war that ironically no one wanted – none of the key players were willing to partake into an avoidable large scale conflict. In many ways, the definitive origin of world war 1 took a serious shape when the Balkan war broke out and the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary began to mold into an inescapable war. And it was the assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo that hammered the final nail into a series of events that collectively precipitated into the first Great War.