<World History II 16.............................................................................................................................................World History II 18>

Describe the relative importance of economic and imperial competition, Balkan nationalism, German militarism and aggression, and the power vacuum in Europe due to the declining power of the Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman Empires in causing World War I.

Topics on this page

General Causes of World War I

Background on Alliances

Economic and Imperial Competition

Balkan nationalism

German Militarism and Aggressiveness

  • Otto von Bismark
  • The Schlieffen Plan

The Power Vacuum and the Decline of the Russian, Austrian and Ottoman Empires

The causes of WWI, set out like a bonfire
The causes of WWI, set out like a bonfire

Focus Question: What were the different causes of World War I?

General Causes of World War I

The Origins of World War One from BBC History.

rotating gif.gifFor more on events leading to World War I, see


Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.40.38 AM.pngClick here for an interactive map from BBC's Bitesize History demonstrating the building of European tensions in the early 20th century.

Multimedia.pngA video recorded lecture from Yale University -- The Origins of World War I.
Multimedia.pngCrash Course videos on World War One:

French Propaganda: "Our glorious 75 mm gun"
French Propaganda: "Our glorious 75 mm gun"

lessonplan.jpgHere you will find a comprehensive list of lesson plans and primary sources that represent World War I in a global context.
  • The National World War I museum off teachers the ability to receive lesson plans on WWI that are heavily focused on the importance to primary source material.
    • Click here to reach the page which allows teachers to sign up to receive these materials.
  • Lesson Plan from PBS
  • For a lesson plan on the causes of World War I, see The July Crisis: Can You Stop the Great War? from Arcadia High School in Arcadia, California.
  • The Blame Game - students, individually or in teams, are assigned a nation to represent.
game_icon.svg.pngFor an interactive game, see Causes of World War One.

Europe, 1914

Background Information on the Alliances

To aid in understanding the causes of World War I, it is important to note the different alliances made prior to World War I. These alliances were often the result of the causes of WWI.
  • League of the Three Emperors: 1873. Germany, Austria Hungary, and Russia.
  • The Dual Alliance: 1879. Germany and Austria Hungary. This is what remains after Russia opts out of the previous alliance. Germany and Austria Hungary agree to come to each others aid if Russia were to attack.
  • The Triple Alliance: 1882. Germany, Austria Hungary, and Italy. All agree to help in case French attack. If a country was attacked by two or more other countries, members of the alliance would aid them. However, if a member of the alliance was involved in a war where preventative measures could have been taken, the other members of the alliance can choose to remain neutral. (Italy later goes and makes a deal on the side with the French too). Click here for more.
  • Franco-Russian Alliance: 1892. France and Russia.
  • Anglo-Japanese Alliance: Britain breaks self-imposed isolation to make a pact with Japan so that Germany can't expand in the East.
  • Entente Cordiale: 1904. Britain and France. Diplomatic cooperation.
  • The Triple Entente: 1912. Britain, France, and Russia. The countries involved are "morally obligated" to help if attacked. In 1912, Britain and France agree to mutual military assistance. Britain agrees to protect France's coastline and France agrees to help protect the Suez Canal.
Multimedia.pngFrom Khan Academy, Alliances Leading to World War One.
primary_sources.PNGThe Triple Entente Declaration on No Separate Peace, September 4, 1914.
primary_sources.PNGExcerpt from Daily Telegraph interview with Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The result of these alliances is that each country gets pulled into the war. Most of these alliances were made because the rulers of each country hoped to gain, or at least not lose, land and/or power and influence.

map-ancient-rome-2.jpgCheck out this page which uses 40 different maps to illustrate the changing European landscape in the years during and surrounding WWI.

Russia, 1914
Russia, 1914

Economic and Imperial Competition

Economic and Imperial competition played a crucial role in causing World War I.

Most European rulers sought to expand their empires by controlling foreign lands.

These lands were often used for the benefit of the mother country. However, expanding and maintaining power was often difficult and sparked rivalries.

Austria-Hungary wanted to have more control in the Balkans, therefore triggering the response to Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination in 1914.

The Russian Empire then responded to the Austrian-Hungarians because increased control over the Balkans meant control over the Dardanelles Straight, the only trade route from Russia that accessed to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea.

Bismark, the German Chancellor, and later Kaiser Wilhelm II, sought to expand Germany's territories and saw war as an option for doing so. France, bitter over losing land to Germany in 1871, wanted desperately to gain their territory back. Russia and Japan both had interests in Korea and Manchuria.

Nationalism and WWI

map-ancient-rome-2.jpgFor a map showing European Imperialism in Africa on the eve of WWI click here.


  • For a critique of European Imperialism from a Muslim scholar living in Africa in 1908 click here.
Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand
Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand

Balkan Nationalism

Wars in the Balkans raged during the pre-war period. In 1912, Turkey and Italy fought over land and Turkey lost. Then, shortly after concluding the war with Italy, Turkey was at war with Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro. In 1913, European powers intervened and Turkey lost Crete and all of its European possessions. Following this, Bulgaria fought against its former allies in order to gain more control of Macedonia. Bulgaria lost, but these constant uprisings show how the people in the Balkans were tired of living under the rule of the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Nationalistic feelings began to spread.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina had been annexed in 1908 by Austria-Hungary. This move had angered many who felt that these areas should be unified as a pan-slavic state headed by Serbia, not held under the control of Austria-Hungary.
  • Franz Ferdinand, Inspector General of the Austro-Hungarian army, went to Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia) in 1914 to inspect military maneuvers.
Gavrilo Princip
Gavrilo Princip

primary_sources.PNGThe Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as related by one of the leaders of the Black Hand and Ferdinand's bodyguard.
Multimedia.pngFrom Khan Academy, The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
  • However, it was soon realized that this was the pretense needed for gaining more control of the Balkans. Austria-Hungary gave Serbia a ridiculous ultimatum, which essentially would leave Serbia devoid of any sort of control over itself.
  • It was expected that Serbia would refuse the ultimatum, thus giving Austria-Hungary a reason to declare war.
    • Shockingly, Serbia accepted almost all of the terms of the ultimatum. However, because some points of the ultimatum were not accepted completely, Austria-Hungary used this as a reason to declare war.

primary_sources.PNGThe Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum to Serbia
primary_sources.PNGSerbian response to the ultimatum

A lecture by Steven W. Sowards, a professor from Swarthmore College, called The Balkan causes of World War I.

primary_sources.PNGThe "Blank Check", Germany's assurance of support to Austria-Hungary.

For an overview of Balkan Nationalism leading up to WWI click here.

German Militarism and Aggression

Otto von Bismarck, 1879
Otto von Bismarck, 1879

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngOtto von Bismark was appointed First Prime Minister of Prussia and chancellor of Germany in 1862 by Kaiser Wilhelm I. Bismark wanted unification, rather than smaller states that were mostly under Austrian influence.
  • Jonathan Steinberg (Bismark: A Life. Oxford University Press, 2011) has written that Bismark's effort to unify Germany as "the greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries."
    • He accomplished this "without commanding a single soldier, without dominating a vast parliamentary majority, without the support of a mass movement, without any previous experience in government and in the face of national revulsion at his name and his reputation" (quoted in "Master Statesman," Henry Kissinger, The New York Times Book Review, April 3, 2011, pp. 1, 10-11).

In 1866 Prussia went to war against Austria over the duchy of Holstein.
  • Also known as the "Seven Weeks War," Prussia gained more territory than what was even being fought over and the North German Federation was created.
  • After peace was negotiated with Austria, Bismark turned his sights on France. Through manipulation of the throne in Spain and a doctored telegram, Bismark got France to declare war on Prussia.
  • Just as before, Prussian forces triumphed and southern and northern Germany were united. After securing land and unifying the German states to create Germany, Bismark sought to establish alliances to secure stability.
  • These alliances would contribute to the outbreak of World War I. With each country linked to another, it was not long before one country's declaration of war would lead to a domino effect of others doing the same thing.

In 1890, Bismark was dismissed by the new Kaiser, Wilhelm II.
  • Wilhelm II wanted to expand Germany, especially into Africa. In an effort to do this, he wanted the navy built to rival Britain's, which was considered the best in the world.
  • Germany continued to contribute a massive amount of their war fund to this creation of a navy, leaving other areas to suffer during the war.
  • The British viewed this naval build up as a threat and broke their self-imposed isolation to make a pact with Japan to stop Germany from expanding in the East. Britain also began to put more resources toward their already large and powerful navy.

For a brief video of von Bismark click here.

primary_sources.PNGFor a primary source on Germany's desire to have a more influential role in foreign affairs through increased militarism click here.

Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg thought that increased militarism in Germany would be a way to calm social unrest. Wilhelm II, meanwhile, grew increasingly frustrated that he could not expand his empire. With the coming of war, the government had to consider what the best plan of action would be. The country was right in between France and Russia. In order to prevent a two-front war, Germany had to attack not only with an intense force but quickly.

The Schlieffen Plan

The Schlieffen Plan [10] was created with its main goal being to knock France out of the war before Russia could contribute.
  • This required a heavy build up of forces and several stages of an invasion.
  • What came out of this was an understanding of a pre-emptive strike for Germany along with an understanding for the Allies that Germany‚Äôs strength was growing and they were a serious concern.
Multimedia.pngA clip from a WWI documentary illustrating The Schlieffen Plan.

primary_sources.PNGAlthough German militarism is cited as one of the causes of WWI, other nations were militaristic as well. England, France, Russia, Italy and the US all began to increase their military spending by 1908. For Primary sources on increased European militarism click here.

Click here to learn more about the arms race that happened in Europe before the outbreak of the war.

The Power Vacuum in Europe and the Decline of the Russian, Austrian and Ottoman Empires

Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, three of the major empires in Europe began to fall apart.
  • The Russian empire experienced revolution in 1917 [11], and the Austrian and Ottoman empires both fell apart from within for economic and political reasons.
    • They can all be seen as dissolving either during or after World War I, but they had been losing power in the area for years.
      • Before the war, all three empires were very influential and powerful in Europe, but once they started to unravel it created an interesting effect. A power vacuum occurred in which all of the major empires lost control and the surrounding nations, eager for a chance at more power, tried to fill their spots.
        • Since the empires were noticeably weaker before the war, the surrounding countries all began to gain nationalistic attitudes and vied for that power which was a major contributor to the fervor that caused the war.

The expansive empires of Europe are what truly made "The Great War" a global one. Colonial powers in Europe were quick to draw on the resources of their colonial entities to facilitate their roles in war. For more information on the role of contract workers in the lead up to and during WWI read this article.

The Russian Empire

Read more about the decline of the Russian Empire on WWII.18.

primary_sources.PNGRussia in Color, A Century Ago features a collection of color photographs taken between 1909 and 1912 by photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii who was doing a photographic study of the Russian Empire with the support of Czar Nicholas II.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.33.12 AM.pngWomen's Political Activism in Russia from 1905-1917, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

external image Austrian_crown.svg
The Austrian Empire

Europe's Declining Powers: The Hapsburg Empire

Was Austria-Hungry in Decline Pre-World War I? from AskHistorians

The Ottoman Empire

Multimedia.pngThe Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire

rotating gif.gifRead more about the decline of the Ottoman Empire on WHII.19.

[1] Duffy, M (2007). First World War. Retrieved March 11, 2007 and February 26, 2008, Web site: http://www.firstworldwar.com/
[2] Sowards, S (April 13, 2004). The Balkan Causes of World War I. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from 25 Lectures on Modern Balkan History Web site: http://www.lib.msu.edu/sowards/balkan/lect15.htm
[3] Lozinski, B.P. (1964). The Name Slav. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from Essays in Russian History Web site: http://www.kroraina.com/fadlan/lozinski.html
[4] (March 9, 2007). Austria-Hungary. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austria-Hungary
[5] Hooker, R (June 6, 1999). The Ottomans. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from World Cultures Web site: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/OTTOMAN/OTTOMAN1.HTM
[6] Duffy, M (2007). The Balkan Causes of World War One. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from First World War Web site: http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/balkan_causes.htm#Serbian Blame: The Black Hand
[7] Duffy, M (2007). Who's Who: Gavrilo Princip. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from First World War Web site: http://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/princip.htm
[8] Duffy, M (2007). Who's Who: Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from First World War Web site: http://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/ferdinand.htm
[9] (2006). Retrieved March 11, 2007, from Royal Navy Web site: http://www.royal-navy.mod.uk/
[10] Schlieffen Plan. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from Spartacus Educational Web site: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWschlieffenP.htm
[11] The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party. Retrieved March 11, 2007, from Libcom.org Web site: http://libcom.org/library/russian-revolution-communist-party-alexander-berkman