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World War I: Origins


In the late summer of 1914 the most powerful countries in Europe went to war. By the time the fighting stopped. Four years later, 20 million people had been killed. Why did this disastrous war start? In 1919 the countries on the winning side met together and said that the war had been Germany's fault.


Was the War the fault of the German government?

Historians have identified a number of long-term and short-term causes of the war:


The Rise of Germany

Until the middle of the nineteenth century Germany was divided into many separate states. The most important of these German states was a kingdom called Prussia. In the 1860s the leaders of Prussia wanted to unite Germany. France was unhappy about this and went to war against Prussia from 1870 to 1871.


France was beaten and the victorious Prussian government was able to set up a new German Empire. This was a massive new state that included most German-speaking people. Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, was declared to be the emperor or Kaiser of Germany. His chief minister, Bismarck, became the powerful Chancellor of Germany.


Between 1871 and 1914 the economy of the new German state went from strength to strength. This was based on an amazing industrial revolution and by 1914 the output of German factories had overtaken the output of British factories.


Chancellor Bismarck was very skilful. After 1870 he stopped the German government from getting involved in any more wars. France was the sworn enemy of Germany but Bismarck made sure that France remained isolated.


As long as he was in charge of German foreign policy there was no danger of Germany going to war against Russia or Britain. This all changed when Germany got a new Kaiser- Wilhelm II - and Bismarck lost the chancellorship.


The New Kaiser

Now that Germany was the equal of Britain in terms of wealth and industry, some German people felt that their country should have a worldwide empire like Britain. One German who believed this was the new ruler of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who came to power in 1888. He made Bismarck retire in 1890.


Wilhelm wanted a new, more aggressive approach to the rest of the world. He ended the friendly relationship that Bismarck had encouraged between Germany and Russia. As a result of his attitude, other countries began to see Germany as a threat.


The two alliances

Germany signed a treaty of alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879. The two states remained allies in the decades that followed. At first the only likely enemy of this alliance was France. However, Wilhelm's clumsy policy encouraged Russia to join forces with France. In 1892 France and Russia agreed to an alliance: if either country was attacked by Germany, the other state would go to war against the Germans.


The government of Britain began to look around for allies at the turn of the century. British politicians thought about an alliance with Germany against France and Russia. However, German policy under the Kaiser was so badly managed that Britain felt forced to look to France and Russia.


Britain established friendly relations with France in 1904 and Russia in 1907. The link was not an official alliance but an 'entente' or understanding that the countries would try to work together. People talked of the Triple Entente: an anti-German grouping of France, Russia and Britain.


The Arms Race

After 1897, the German government started building up an enormous navy that could challenge the might of the British navy. The Germans knew that a worldwide empire would have to be defended by a worldwide navy.


The German government passed a law in 1900 ordering the building of a huge new fleet of 40 battleships and 60 cruisers. The British responded energetically to this threat by increasing the size of their navy. They introduced a new type of powerful battleship called a 'Dreadnought' in 1906. The Germans responded by building similar ships of their own. The British went on to order even more substantial battleships called 'Super Dreadnoughts'.


Other countries also took part in this arms race. The French increased their forces and by 1914 had an army of nearly 4 million soldiers. The Russians spent a fortune on military railways that were clearly designed to take troops to fight Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russian spending on its army was huge. People in Germany feared that this mighty force would one day flatten Berlin.


The crisis in Europe: summer 1914

By January 1914 the situation in Europe was tense. Between January and August a number of short-term causes led to the outbreak of war.


The Killing in Sarajevo

The city of Sarajevo in Bosnia was the center of world attention in June 1914. Bosnia was part of Austria-Hungary but many of its people were Serbs who wanted to be ruled by the neighboring state of Serbia. On 28 June 1914 a Serb called Gavrilo Princip shot dead the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife.


The killing of the Archduke was linked to a bitter dispute between Austria-Hungary and the state of Serbia. Austria-Hungary was looking for an excuse for a war against Serbia.


Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the murder and got ready to attack.


The system of alliances led to several other countries becoming involved in the outbreak of war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. While Austria-Hungary was allied to Germany, Serbia was closely linked to Russia. The government of Austria-Hungary looked to Germany for help. Serbia expected Russian help.


The Russians, in turn, hoped for support from France and Britain. In this way, the killing at Sarajevo made possible a wider war which would involve all the powerful countries of Europe.


The German Decision for War

In 1913 there had been another argument between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and Russia about how land taken from Turkey should be divided. This nearly led to war between the two alliances. It had not because the German government refused to support Austria-Hungary.


A year later the German policy changed. On 5 July 1914 the Kaiser gave his full backing for an Austrian attack on Serbia. Austria-Hungary would not have risked war without help from their more powerful ally. The German government knew that there was a good chance that Russia would go to war on the side of Serbia, and that the result would be a general war.


In the following weeks of crisis the German government did more than offer support. It urged Austria-Hungary to make sure that war broke out. When Britain and Russia tried to get Austria-Hungary to negotiate, Germany told her ally to ignore these attempts to stop the war.


Confusion About the British Position

The Germans were not sure whether the British would fight. If the British had made clear their determination to fight, the German leaders might have thought again about the war. The position of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, was not complicated. Although Britain had links with France and Russia there was no of formal alliance. Legally, Britain was not bound to go war on the side of France and Russia.


As the crisis developed, senior civil servants urged Grey to say that Britain would definitely side with France and Russia. They hoped that an announcement like this would frighten the Germans into stepping back from war. Grey disagreed.


He wanted to try to avoid war by negotiating. Talks continued right up to 3 August when Germany attacked France via Belgium. At this point Britain stopped talking and, a day later, went to war.