Causes of WWI

Updated on January 3, 2019
Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili is a student of history and of WWI. She has researched BEF and Canadian battles and has visited WWI battle sites, including Gallipoli.

Causes of WWI

No one thing caused the Great War. Centuries of wars, regional conflicts, rising nationalism and ethnic tensions all contributed.

This article attempts to cover the main causes of WWI. Detailed articles could be written about any of the wars mentioned in this timeline and their resulting treaties. Volumes have already been written about the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan States. This is written in the hope that readers unfamiliar with what caused WWI will gain some insight into this bloody period in our common history.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand


The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

On June 28th, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated while riding in a motorcade through the streets of Sarajevo.

Many people assume that this assassination was the cause of WWI, but it was really just a catalyst, the final tipping point among Imperialistic ambitions, ethnic tensions, regionalism and intra-European wars that had caused the map of Europe to be re-drawn many times over the centuries. The decline of the Ottoman Empire, Russia flexing its muscle, an ambitious Austro-Hungarian Empire and continuing tensions in the Balkans all meant that war was inevitable.

The Decline of the Ottoman Empire

The seeds of World War I were sown well before the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. Back through decades and decades of regional conflicts and full-scale wars, to the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. The decline of the great empire of the Ottoman Turks is generally accepted to have occurred from about 1699 to the end of the 18th century. As the Ottoman Empire had grown, its military forces were stretched thinner and thinner, and wars with both Austria and Russia repeatedly drained the coffers. The Empire suffered from poor central leadership, and was falling farther and farther behind Europe.

In 1697, the ruler of the Ottomans waged a war against Austria in an attempt to reclaim Hungary. His forces were defeated, leading the Ottomans to seek peace with Austria. In a treaty signed in 1699, the Ottomans surrendered Hungary and Transylvania to Austria, and part of what is now Greece went to the Republic of Venice. The Turks also withdrew their troops from another contentious part of eastern Europe.

The next Sultan to sit on the throne was determined to give Russia a bloody nose for its past forays into Ottoman-held territory. At the urging of the King of the Swedish empire, who lived under the protection of the Ottomans after his own problems got out of hand, the Ottoman Turks once again squared off against the Russian army. Though this particular war with Russia in 1710 was successful, a subsequent war with Austria in 1717 was not, and Belgrade became part of the Austrian Empire. In 1731, another war with Russia fought in the Crimea and what is now Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine, brought parts of Moldova and the Ukraine under the Russian umbrella, while Austria gave up Belgrade (it had just won it in 1717) and northern Serbia to the Ottomans. This Austro-Russian-Turkish War was ended in 1739 by the Treaty of Belgrade.

A History of War

And so it went, with another disastrous war with Russia from 1768-1774 and a final rout by the combined forces of Austria (Treaty of Sistova in 1791) and Russia (Treaty of Jassy in 1792) in the final decade of the 18th century. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling. All of this capturing, ceding and recapturing of territories had also created a tinderbox. The Serbian Revolution that began in 1804 further fuelled regionalism in the Balkan states, and the Crimean War (1853-1856) saw Russia lose to the combined forces of France, Britain, the remains of the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. Though the Crimean War was partly about the religious rights of Christians in the Ottoman-dominated Holy Land, France and Britain also did not want Russia to gain any more territory from the crumbling Ottoman Turkish Empire.

Treaty of San Stefano and the Congress of Berlin

Uprisings and revolts continued, including the Bulgarian Uprising and another Russo-Turkish War from 1877-1878. When hostilities ceased, the Treaty of San Stefano that Russia imposed on the Turks after the Russo-Turkish War was aimed at ending Ottoman rule in the Balkans. The treaty had carved out a separate Principality of Bulgaria after almost five centuries of Ottoman rule. Serbia, Romania and Montenegro were also to become independent states. Armenia and the Georgian territories in the Caucasus went to Russia.

The neighboring territories and France were enraged when they learned of the size of the re-emerged Bulgaria, while Austria-Hungary feared this new Bulgarian state and what it meant in terms of influence in the region. Britain was alarmed by what Russia had gained in lieu of war reparations and was extremely wary of a Russian takeover of the Bosphorus Strait, which provided a link from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Russia said it had never intended for the Treaty of San Stefano to be the final word on carving up the Ottoman Empire, that it wanted the other major European powers at the table.

And so it was that the Great Powers of the day – Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Russia – met with the Ottomans and delegates from The Kingdom of Italy, Serbia, Romania, Greece and Montenegro in Berlin in the summer of 1878 to redraw borders and attempt to stabilize the Balkan states. The Congress of Berlin, as it was called, was at first hailed for the steps taken toward stabilizing the Balkans and achieving peace between the warring factions. But peace would not come so easily.

The Treaty of Berlin formally created three new states – Romania, Montenegro and Serbia – and a host of problems. It also divided Bulgaria into three pieces, one of which, Macedonia, went to the Turks. The Germans dominated the talks, and while the Treaty solved some issues by maintaining the Ottomans as a European power, it also created many more issues by leaving the Russians with less than they had under San Stefano. Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina, paving the way for further Balkan conflicts. Germany, happy as they were with the status quo in Europe, did not want to be seen to favor Austria over Russia.

Balkan States in 1899


An Angry Russia

The Russians came away from the table furious. After such a victory against the Turks, they had expected to gain more of the Balkan territories. Instead, it was Austria-Hungary who gained ground. Austria was favored by the European delegates over Russia as they viewed the Austrian Empire as less of a threat. Thus was the League of Three Emperors representing Russia, Austria and Germany destroyed, as Russia could not accept that Germany had not backed them. Tensions between the Turks and Greece remained, and even the Kingdom of Italy went away dissatisfied.

The Slavic peoples were left being ruled by non-Slavs, divided as the Balkans were between Austria and the Turks. The Ottomans, for their part, had not kept their promises regarding rule of the Balkans, nor could they deal with the increasing nationalism within the states under the Empire. Tensions simmered for decades and finally led to the creation of the Balkan League in 1912. The League – Greece, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia – waged war against the Turks, first in 1912 and again in 1913. The four won the first war against the Turks, while Bulgaria lost the second to its former allies Serbia and Greece.

The Ottoman Empire was drastically reduced, having lost most of its European territory. During the two wars, the Great Powers had issued official warnings to the Balkans that the territorial rights of the Ottomans had to be recognized. Each of the Powers had their own best interests at heart, and though the Balkans were no longer under Turkish rule, problems remained. The Balkan states that had for so long been under Ottoman rule were now pawns in a dangerous game being played by the Great Powers. The stage was set for the Balkan crisis of 1914 and the assassination that started WWI.

German Declaration of War


Who Started WWI?

By the time Franz Ferdinand made his way to Sarajevo in 1914, things had already passed a point of no return. The year 1914 saw increasing tensions between Austria and the Turks, and Russia and the Turks. The Turks were continuing to align themselves with Germany, and a war between Turkey and Greece was only narrowly averted. Serbia celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Croat revolt in 1667 against the Hapsburgs, Austria’s ruling dynasty. Needless to say, Austria was not pleased.

Serbia continued to move more toward Russia’s sphere of influence, and was keen to restore its former empire. The Serbs – both those in Serbia and those living in Austria – were also outraged over the fact that Bosnia-Herzegovina had been handed to Austria under the Treaty of Berlin.

On June 28th, 1914, Gavrilo Princip fired two shots, fatally wounding both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Princip was one of six assassins, five of them Serbs. They belonged to a group whose goal was the breakaway of the Slavic southern provinces of Austria-Hungary to form an independent Yugoslavia.

Austria’s reaction to the assassination was, with the support of Germany, to demand that Serbia clamp down on all nationalist activities within its borders and allow Austria to conduct its own investigation into the Archduke’s assassination. Though Serbia mostly agreed to all but one of Austria’s demands, the Austrians broke off diplomatic relations and three days later – exactly one month after the assassination – Austria declared war on Serbia July 28th, 1914.

In support of its Serbian ally, Russia in turn mobilized along its common border with Austria-Hungary. When the Russians ignored Germany’s demands to halt mobilization, Germany declared war on Russia. France, allied with Russia, declared war on Germany, and Germany declared war on France. When the Germans declared their intention to invade neutral Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany August 4th, 1914, and the world was at war.

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie

© 2014 Kaili Bisson


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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hi aviannovice and thanks for reading. Yes, the assassination was just a catalyst. It whole thing was a real tangle. I am writing other hubs on WW1, so I hope you enjoy those too :-)

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I knew about Franz Ferdinand but not all the other gory details that just turned everything into a hotbed. Thanks for putting the puzzle together with al the missing pieces.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hi Mel and thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub; WWI research is a hobby of mine.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      6 years ago from San Diego California

      You've done a really excellent job here of explaining the complicated chain of events that led to that regrettable conflict. Awesome hub!

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hi Suhail and thank you for reading and commenting (and thank you dahoglund for sharing). The whole thing was such a crazy mixed up mess, so I'm glad I was able to write about the events in such a way as to make it interesting and easy to read.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

      6 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      Came to read this article after being shared by Dahoglund! Found it very informative and interesting.

      I have always been interested in history but Kaili you wrote this piece in a very interesting and easy to read manner. Thank you for sharing with us.


    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hi dahoglund and thank you. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. Look for more in the coming days :-) This is a topic I love.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hi Suzette and thank you for reading. You are right, there are still so many issues hanging over us. Even WWI was not resolved effectively and led to WWII. The way the Great Powers carved up Europe and what was left of Ottoman-Turkish Empire in 1919 in Paris created as many problems as it solved. So unfortunate.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Kaili, Well done job of relating the events about WWI. voted up, awesome and unteresting. sharing.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Very interesting to read. It is interesting to see how the European and Russian leaders carved up Europe. This time time period seems similar to today. So many tensions world wide and Putin/Russia trying to redraw international boundaries with Crimea and Ukraine. It is a tinderbox and I hope it does not explode into another world war, because I don't think anyone will survive that.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hi Phyllis and thank you for reading and sharing. I am a real student of WWI and have always been keenly interested in it. I plan to write some more hubs as the centenary of events moves along. Such a horrible, bloody war.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Kaili, this is a very informational hub -- a great work of historical events that led to WWI. You have done some excellent research, which I know is not an easy task. I knew some of the facts involved, but not all of them. It was very complex and interesting. I was aware of the Ottoman rise to power when I researched for a few of my hubs, but did not know all that had happened to cause the decline of the Turkish Empire or all the other involvements. I enjoy reading about history and this is a really good source you provide. Very well done.

      Voted up and sharing.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hi Chitrangada and thank you for the up and share...a real compliment coming from someone with a degree in PoliSci. I too hope we can all learn from the past.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      6 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Very nice and informative hub!

      I am reminded of my history lessons. History is a teacher and gives direction, so that we do not repeat mistakes of the past.

      Voted up and shared on HP!

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Hello Wesman and thank you for reading and commenting!

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Very good article.


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