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The Cause of World War I

World War I is rapidly fading into the mists of history term papers, as distant and as elusive as the Napoleonic Wars, or even the Middle Ages.  Standing less than a decade from the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, the world that spawned the Great War is alien and bewildering.  Millions upon millions of men were slaughtered in the trenches between 1914 and 1918; occasional World War I battles recorded a million casualties.  One clear factor about the world that caused World War I is clear: the system of alliances and militarism that existed in the summer of 1914 made World War I inevitable. 

Outbreak of World War I

The outbreak of World War I is clear and concise.  World War 1On June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo.  Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s legendary Iron Chancellor had predicted that “some damn fool thing in the Balkans” would initiate the next Great War, and he was right.  What started as an act of rebellion against unwanted imperial domination by the Serbs quickly brought into play an alliance system based on the Balance of Power.  

The Serbs had a treaty with Russia, who saw themselves as the great Slavic protectors.  Serbs and Russians were both Orthodox Slavic people, and Russia felt duty bound to intervene on Serbia’s behalf, so that when Austria declared war on Serbia (after demanding concessions that Serbia could never accept), Russia declared war on Austria.  

Secret Alliances in World War I

Europe at the dawn of the 20th century was a web of secret alliances.  This was the situation faced by Germany, who was forced by their treaty with Austria to declare war on Russia, once that nation mobilized.  When Germany entered into the conflict, global war was inevitable.  Although Germany had had a huge military build-up over the past several decades, as Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to build a better navy than England, Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II (first cousins) rapidly exchanged a series of personal telegrams pleading for an avoidance of war.  

Germany knew that Russia had a treaty with France. Therefore, years earlier, they had developed the Schlieffen Plan, for fighting a two front war.  The plan called for invading France and knocking out the closer power before Russian forces could reach the German frontier.  On the night of August 1, German forces moved in the Netherlands and Belgium on their way to France.  Britain had a treaty with Belgium, and when that nation was invaded, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.  Every major power in Europe was at war within six weeks of the assassination, because the alliance system they had created fell like so many dominoes.

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