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World War I Causes by Ethnic Problems in Austro-Hungary Essay

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Updated: Mar 23rd, 2022


More than ninety years after the first volley was fired in the trenches, the discussion on the causes of World War I still continues. There are many theories and ideas as to the proverbial spark that started it all. For instance, historian Sidney Bradshaw Fay, in The Origins of the World War, made the assertion that “secret alliances, militarism, nationalism, economic imperialism, and the newspaper press” are the five most important causes of World War I (Herwig, p.16). While this would make an interesting discussion, it would be impossible to cover all of those factors in this study. It would be better to simplify the discussion by pointing out two major reasons why World War I engulfed much of Europe and affected the rest of the world. Firstly it has to do with age long conflicts between ethnic groups residing within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Secondly, World War I broke out as the indirect result complicated relationships among major European powers and this includes military alliances that forced allies to fight side by side with their allies even if they do not want to take part in World War I.

Igniting the Flames of War

On June 28, 1914, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie were visiting Bosnia where the Habsburg army was performing military maneuvers. It was supposed to be a routine event and something that men of royal blood are obligated to attend. But from the beginning, there were already signs that something bad was going to happen. First of all, it was an ill-chosen day because June 28 is the anniversary of the defeat of Serbia by the Turks in 1389 A.D. (Keegan, p. 49). This is the day that Serbian marked the beginning of suffering because from that point forward, starting form the conquest of the Turks, they experienced a long history of oppression from foreign overlords (Keegan, p. 49). Moreover, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie were in the wrong place at the wrong time because Bosnia was annexed by Austro-Hungary in 1908 (Keegan, p.49).

On this very day, the Serbian people are in mourning, remembering their sufferings in the hands of their oppressors. On this day, June 28, many Serbians were full of patriotism. The slightest provocation will lead to irrational actions that will hurt a lot of people. In fact, “the provincial administration had been warned that Ferdinand’s visit was unwelcome and might be dangerous” (Keegan, p.49). But Ferdinand, thinking perhaps that his actions were non-aggressive, ignored the warnings coming from the local leaders. Little did he know that the military maneuvers performed by members of the Austro-Hungarian army, stirred strong patriotic feelings from the Serbians.

These maneuvers were an affront to the Serbians and were especially offensive to a group of radicals called the Black Hand and the Young Bosnia Organization. The members of the aforementioned groups made secret plans to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand. The presence of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in the said maneuvers was the perfect opportunity. Archduke Ferdinand, ignorant of the plans and having a false sense of security in the midst of a large contingent of military personnel could never have thought that June 28, 1914 was his last day on earth. Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian patriot was given the task to assassinate the archduke and he was able to carry the plans to perfection, killing Ferdinand and his wife and setting in motion a chain of events that will soon destroy the lives of millions of people and plunge Europe into an economic disaster that will take decades to repair.

Ethnic conflicts in Austro-Hungary

It is kind of bizarre to think that Gavrilo Princip and other members of radicals can be easily provoked by a display of military power. Although oppressed people are never happy when their masters show their military might it is still difficult to accept that this feeling can lead someone to shoot an heir to the throne and kill him in public. But upon closer examination of the ethnic composition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it will be revealed that a large part of the population are of Slavic descent from which Serbians like Gavrilo Princip came from. Although the Slavs comprise the bulk of the population they are not the most dominant group.

According to one historian the following is a breakdown of the diverse ethnic population in the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Germans 24%; Hungarians 20%; Romanians 6%; Italians 3%; and Slavs 47% (Tonge, S, 1999). It is important to note that almost half of the population is composed of Slavs but they have no say in how their country should be governed. At that time, Austro-Hungary was a dualistic country governed by Germans and Hungarians, but the two groups together did not account for even half of the population. The Slavic people were oppressed for centuries by the Austro-Hungarian Empire with added pressure from its allies the German Empire.

When Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger, he did it in behalf of all the Slavic people and he is hoping that this act will unite everyone to participate in a revolution to overthrow the yoke of the oppressors. After the capture of Gavrilo Princip it was time for the Austro-Hungarian Empire to react and teach the rebels a lesson they will not forget. They issued an ultimatum in order for those who took part in the conspiracy to surrender. If the perpetrators and mastermind of the assassination plot was no known before the deadline then there will be serious repercussions for the Serbians.

The ultimatum was directed at the Serbians who were of Slavic descent. It is important to reiterate this fact because the Russians are also of Slavic descent and this means that there is natural connection between the two ethnic groups. This bond between Serbians and Russians will play a major part in inciting nations to join the war. For instance, since most of the Serbians are Slavs, Serbian’s resistance would encourage Slavs in Austro-Hungary to revolt, which was a great threat to the Austro-Hungarian government. Furthermore, since the Serbians are part of a multicultural society, they can also easily encourage the other members of the minority, the Romanians and the Italians to fight for their freedom. In the letter from Prince G.N. Trubetskoi to Nicholas II in January 1914:

“Austro-Hungary will, in the perhaps not too distant future face a choice between two paths: either fundamental reconstruction of the state structure on the basis of federation of the different nationalities, or a desperate struggle aimed at the final confirmation of the predominance of the German-Hungarian minority over all the other peoples in the Empire…. At a given moment, especially if Germany were disposed towards this, the warlike tendency might come out on top in Austria-Hungary, and its supporters are already pointing out that war is perhaps the only way out of insoluble internal difficulties.” (Herwig, p.188)

Trubetskoi’s words were right on target. There is reason to be concerned and therefore he made an emphatic statement that there can be two ways to resolve the crisis. He suggested that the decision makers in Austro-Hungary can prevent a Slav revolt by building up the trialism system which is adding a third Slavic component to the original Dual Monarchy. The effect of this action is to reduce the complicated internal ethnic tensions.

The second option is more direct and it is to completely suppress the Serbians and other groups who are encouraging others to rebellion. Before his death, Archduke Franz Ferdinand insisted that trialism would be the best solution (Herwig, H. 2003). However, this suggestion would also reduce the Hungarian power, which would bring about a new national issue – there will be ethnic groups other than Slavs who will clamor for more rights and privileges. Hungarians and Germans would certainly reject this idea. Some other decision makers insisted on taking the field against Serbia to completely end its national conflicts.

The classic book, The Origins of World War I provide the details, “The string of losses and the imminent threat led the top leaders to a now-or-never conclusion: the empire must react; it must end the Serbian threat, or else, like the Ottomans, it would proceed to an ultimate decline.” (Herwig,H. p.444). Judging from this analysis, it is easy to see that the Slavic nations’ strong desire for independence, especially in Serbia, forced Austro-Hungary to resort to violence. The leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire firmly believed that if they will not act now, if they will not go to war then they will stand to lose everything. Thus, the empire initiated war against the Serbians in 1914.

Interlocking relationships among European Countries

If the basis for going to war was the murder of Ferdinand and the open defiance of the Serbians then the war would have been limited between the empire and the Serbians. However, the complicated conflicts and interlocking relationships among the European major powers escalated the limited war to a world war. At that time, one country’s decisions directly influenced other countries’ decisions: France would go to war with support from Russia and vice versa if either was attacked by Germany; Britain would offer assistance to France if their vital interests were threatened; Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy (the Triple Entente) would go to war together if any of them was attacked by either Russia or France. (Keegan, J. p.52). As a result, every country’s decision highly depends upon its relationship with other countries, military alliances and then the assumptions on what the others might do as well as the predictions on what will happen to their vital interests in the region.

The Germans are willing to support Austro-Hungary if a war would break out between them and the Russians. This is because Germany believed that Britain would stay neutral. The German leaders thought that if they will emerge triumphant – with Italy as one of the principal members of the Triple Entente – they would expand their influence and solidify their hold on Central Europe. German decision makers’ extreme greediness made them belligerent. They made the bold prediction that even if France will come to the aid of Russia the Triple Entente can still defeat them. If German national leaders were able to foresee that Great Britain will be forced to join the war, then they would not have risked going to war.

Going back to the earlier events that led to World War I, Austro-Hungary made a wrong analysis when it came to the Russia’s sentiments. The Austro-Hungarian Empire concluded that although Serbians and Russians are closely knit because of a shared heritage, they argued that the Russians will not gain anything of value if they will go to war with the Serbians (Keegan, p.51). Their analysis was based on Russia’s past actions. In 1913 the Bulgarians, men and women of Slavic heritage were also threatened by war and yet Russia did not come to their rescue. Furthermore, the Austro-Hungarian Empire knew from experience that they can easily scare Russia if they get the support of Germany. In 1908, when they conquered Bosnia, Russia agreed to support the Bosnians but when Germany participated in the conflict Russia backed out knowing that it is a hopeless situation. So Austro-Hungary thought that the war must be a war between Serbia and Austro-Hungary and if they can get help from Germany they can be assured of non-interference from other major military power. What Austro-Hungary failed to anticipate was Russia’s secret alliance with the French that made their position much stronger and provided them the confidence to stand up against the Triple Entente.

This gave Russia a newfound resolve and this time around it stood by Serbia all the way until the dying hours of the final ultimatum in 1914. Their attitude was defiance against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Sazonov, the foreign minister of Russia explained their position:

The moment had come when Russia, faced with the annihilation of Serbia, would lose all her authority if she did not declare herself the defender of a Slavonic nation threatened by powerful neighbors … if Russia failed to fulfill her historic mission she would be considered a decadent state and would henceforth have to take second place among the powers. (Herwig, p.115)

From Sazonov’s words, we can see that Russia was determined to help Serbia during her darkest moments. On the other hand Russia was willing to go to war to save its reputation and to show that she rightfully belongs to the elite club of military superpowers. Russia is tired from being kicked around by other powerful nations in Europe, this time Russia will show them what she is made of. Moreover, Russian political leaders thought that in 194, Russia had enough military and economic might to participate in an all out war. Furthermore, Russia is more than willing to bounce back from a humiliating defeat from an Asian upstart – the Japanese Imperial Army. In the recently concluded Russo-Japanese War (Herwig, p.445), Japan convincingly defeated the Russians. Thus, Russia decided to join the war.

Although France had a long-standing hostility towards Germany it would be better if this war could be avoided. In a conflict of this magnitude there would surely be a loser who will suffer tremendous loss of life and property. However, France had to honor its alliance with Russia. If France decided to break her promise, she would be left without an ally in the future and she will be isolated. No one can afford to be weak during the early phase of the 20th century because during this period in human history it seems that nations were constantly at war therefore alliances are very precious. Every nation must do its utmost best to honor alliances or pay a terrible price in the future. Therefore, France was forced to take the risk of war and frankly speaking, she did not have any other option.

Unlike Austro-Hungary, Germany, France, and Russia, Britain had a different reason to go to war. It decided to follow France and Russia’s decision simply because it was afraid that she will be isolated and trapped in an increasingly volatile and dangerous situation. Great Britain, like France had to choose which side to support. But before going all out for war, Britain tried to exhaust every possible means to prevent a full scale war. Great Britain tried hard to defuse the crisis, offering mediation, the Foreign Secretary of Britain stated:

The danger of a European war, should Austro-Hungary invade Serbian territory would become immediate. The results of such a war between four nations would be absolutely incalculable (Herwig,H. p.280)

But just like France, Great Britain was forced into a corner. If Germany and Austro-Hungary beat Serbia, then Britain’s position of mistress of the seas would be seriously threatened. Furthermore, as an alliance member, Britain was expected to support France and Russia in the war. If Britain will turn its back against its allies then they will not forgive this treachery. So the battle for supremacy in the high seas as well as the effects of the interlocking relationship with its allies, Britain was forced to participate in World War I.

In contrast, Italy participated in the war knowing that it has chosen the best and the strongest alliance. Italy, just like many of the nations that were dragged into the conflict, had to quarrel with the Serbians. In fact, at that point, Italy had been a major country that managed to remain neutral for quite some time. Due to her past failures in the 19th century, Italy deciced to join Germany and Austro-Hungary first in 1882 before the Triple Entente formed (Herwig, p360). But as the war about to begin, the Italians realized that the combined forces of the British and French can easily tip the war into their favor. As a result Italy tried to find a way to break free from the Triple Alliance (Herwig, p.370), It was the reason why Italy’s first response to the war was a declaration of neutrality that its leadership announced on 3rd August 1914 (Herwig, H. p.356-367). In late 1914, when Austro-Hungary was not in a positive situation in the war any more, Italy seriously considered to join Russia, Britain, and France, who were more likely to win the war compared to the Triple Alliance. Italy was acting shrewdly and very much interested on sharing the war loot in the aftermath of World War I. Then finally, just like the rest of the participants, Italy had to choose sides and therefore it formally joined the Triple Entente in 1915.

One can easily see that in the very beginning the conflict between Austro-Hungary and the Serbians could have been contained in that region and not allowed to spill over Europe and other parts of the world. The conflicts between two countries can hardly cause a global conflict. However, the intricate military alliances as well as the web of interlocking relationships among the major countries created a very complicated and highly volatile situation. At the end there were two major camps and every major national player in Europe was forced to choose which side they must support. There was no middle-ground and no one was allowed to be mere spectators


The Serbians were oppressed in their own country and ruled by a people who are only a part of the minority. They comprise the largest percentage of the whole population but they are not the most dominant group in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This fact plus their past history of defeat and oppression forced them to train and equipped a lone assassin. Gavrilo Princip was sent to kill the heir to the Hapsburg throne. The death of Archduke Ferdinand started a chain-reaction of event that led to the first ever global conflict. Yet, upon closer examination, it is not enough to simply blame the 1914 crisis and the ethnic issues in the empire that started the war. It was also the complicated relationships among the six European countries that became the tipping point and ignited the flames of World War I. It was the fear of breaking military alliances that forced countries like France, Britain, and Italy to join the war. It is the pride of citizenship and national heritage that forced Russia to join the war and it is the pride and desire for power that forced Austro-Hungary and Germany to join forces in the hopes to control central Europe. All of these factors together contributed to the cause of World War I.


Hobsbawm, E. J. The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, New York: Random House, Inc.

Albertini, L. The origins of the War of 1914, 3 vols. London and New York, vol. 2, pp. 390-465

Herwig, H. (2003) The Origins of World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press

Keegan, J (1999) The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

Tonge, S. (1999) .

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