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The effects of World War I can be seen around the world even now, more than one hundred years after its end; however, there is still no consensus as to its cause. In the words of Alfred Korzybski, “the destruction was brought about by nationalism, entangled alliances, narrow ethnic concerns, and desires for political gain – forces that are still with people today.” (cited in Levinson, 2014). Even though the majority of United States citizens did not have the direct experience of the terrific upset that the war caused in Europe, it can be argued that the country’s concern with championing democracy around the globe is one of its products (Levinson, 2014).
Many historians agree that an atmosphere of twentieth-century Europe was conducive to the creation of a complex mixture of economic, social, and political reasons that translated into powerful forces of imperialistic, nationalistic, and militaristic movements leading to the diplomatic crises of 1914 (Donaldson, 2014). Therefore, it can be said that the blame for the war could not be assigned to any individual country or a group of countries.
Nonetheless, the issue of responsibility was the main focus of the world in the years following the Armistice of 1918 (Donaldson, 2014). To this end, the Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and the Enforcement of Penalties met in Paris in 1919 (Donaldson, 2014). The investigation conducted by the commission showed that Germany and Austria, along with Turkey and Bulgaria as their allies, were responsible for the aggressive foreign policy tactics that led to the precipitation of the war (Donaldson, 2014).
The start of World War I was precipitated by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914 (Mulligan, 2010) The elimination of the high-standing official was carried out by the group of secret society members called Black Hand and directed by Bosnian Serb Danilo Ilić (Storey, 2009). The political objective of the murder was to separate Austria-Hungary’s South Slav provinces to combine them into Yugoslavia (Storey, 2009).
In response to the killing of their official, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia that commanded its government to prosecute the assassins. The objective of the ultimatum was to make its terms so strict that Serbia would be forced to reject it, thereby giving an excuse for launching a small war against it (Storey, 2009). Taking into consideration that Serbia had diplomatic relationships with Russia strengthened by their shared Slavic ties, the Austro-Hungarian government decided to take precautions against the two countries declaring war on it and allied with Germany. It is agreed that Germany was not opposed to Austro-Hungarian bellicosity, but rather supported and encouraged it, thus providing one more reason for the precipitation of the Great War (Levinson, 2014).
Even though Serbia’s response to the ultimatum was placating, Austria-Hungary decided to take aggressive action and declare war. It is argued that the main reason for World War I was the web of entangling alliances among the countries having an interest in the conflict between Austro-Hungary and Serbia (Storey, 2009). Following the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war, the Russian monarch mobilized his army because of the binding commitment of the treaty signed by the two countries.
As a result, on August 3, 1914, Germany declared war on the Russian Empire (Levinson, 2014). France was bound by treaty to Russia, and, therefore, had to start a war on Austria-Hungary and Germany. Even though a treaty tying France and Britain was loosely worded, the latter country had “a moral obligation” to defend the former (Levinson, 2014). Therefore, Britain and its allies Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Japan, and the Union of South Africa also took a bellicose stance against Germany and offered their assistance in the military action against the country (Levinson, 2014). Thus, a gigantic web of entangling alliances pushed numerous countries to the precipice of war over what was intended to be a small-scale conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.
Numerous other reasons led to World War I. The conflicting political interests of Russia and Japan over Manchuria and Korea resulted in a military defeat of Russia (Levinson, 2014). Therefore, the country wanted to restore its dignity by a victorious war. During the same period, a lot of small nations were seething with discontent over the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian rule, thereby providing an opportunity for the Russian Empire further to stir resentment by firing up nationalistic zeal under a pretense of pan-Slavic narrative (Levinson, 2014).
Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, sought an opportunity to establish its influence over a vast territory of mixed nations; the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne provided them with a perfect excuse for the initiation of the war. Political clashes in Germany were a reason for the country’s government to resort to the military conflict as a way of “averting civil unrest” (Levinson, 2014). Another factor that caused World War I was the desire of France to revenge a military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 (Levinson, 2014).
It is impossible to name a single reason for the initiation of World War I. However, it is clear that the entangling web of alliances among numerous parties participating in the war, as well as complicated plots of governments and empires, led the small-scale dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia escalating into a military conflict that swept the entire world.
Donaldson, P. (2014). Interpreting the origins of the First World War. Teaching History, 155(4), 32-33.
Levinson, M. (2014). Ten cautionary GS lessons from World War I. Et Cetera, 71(1), 41-48.
Mulligan, W. (2010). The origins of the First World War. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Storey, W. (2009). The First World War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.