Causes of the First World War

Opposing Alliance systems  

Triple Alliance: Germany Austria-Hungary vs. Italy  

Triple Entente Great Britain Russia France

  1. Moroccan crises strengthened the alliance between Great Britain and France.
  2. Set in place the opposing countries on their respective sides.

Joll argues:   alliance system conditioned both military plans and political expectations. Strengthened the divisions which the alliances themselves tended to produce.

Williamson argues:   the alliance system ensured that a localised war would quickly become a world war due to the military mobilisation schedules of the respective powers.

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Long Term Causes - Schlieffen Plan

Military plans for war (Schlieffen Plan)

Schlieffen Plan result of Germany feeling encircled. Success depended on defeating France in six weeks in order to face Russia.

This meant that a European could develop out of further crises in Europe time required to mobilise and take offensive action.

Stevenson argues:

  •    from 1910 the great powers developed their capacity to attack and their war plans to take a more offensive role, based on the assumption that a future war would be short and bloodless.

  •    The plan imposed severe restrictions on the possibility of finding a last minute diplomatic solution to the July Crisis because of the narrow time frame for the initial deployment of troops.
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Arms Race

Arms Race

  • Increase in army and naval strength amongst the powers or Europe.

  • Naval Arms race from 1905 onwards between Britain and Germany i.e. construction of dreadnoughts.

  • 4 million men under arms by July 1914.

Stevenson argues:

  • Insecurity and sense of a 'threatening world', caused by the crises which caused the arms race and silenced those who opposed it.

  • Williamson argues that the Anglo-German Naval race had a particuarly negative influence on the building up of pre-war tensions.

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Bismarck’s policies were aggressive with Germany attempting to acquire colonies to achieve their 'place in the sun'.

  • Provoked Britain who had colonies abroad.

  • Fischer sees German policy as being particularly sinister.

  • Conciliatory approach adopted by Britain in the pre-war decades meant compromising when vital interests were note involved.

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Military influence on military policy

Military influence on foreign policy

  • War council of December 1912 shows in the influence of the military in the nations decision making process.
  • Historians broadly agree that by mid-1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary felt that time was not on their side.

  • Balance of military strength was moving in favour of Triple Entente.

Williamson argues:

  • Austria-Hungary's Chief of General Staff was the individual most responsible for the war in 1914.

Stevenson argues:

  • Military leadership of the each of the Great Powers in Europe believed that if war came in mid-1914, they were likely to win.
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International Crises

International Crises:

  • Russo-Japaenese War – significant change in the balance of power within Europe following Russia's defeat and the revolution of 1905.
  • First Moroccan Crisis - Russia's weakened state encouraged Germany to provoke a crisis over Morocco based on the assumption that Russia would be unable to come to her ally's aid, thus heightening Germany's chances of achieving a diplomatic victory.
  • First Moroccan Crisis – Germany's provocation over Morocco was due to not being consulted over an Anglo-French agreement. Roberts argues that German did not object on economic grounds, but for reasons of prestige. Germany perceived to be threatening the status quo in Europe.
  • Led to strengthening of the Triple Entente between Britain and France over the crisis.
  • Germany found herself isolated form the rest of Europe with only Austria-Hungary supporting her and had revealed her aggressive aims.
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Balkan Issue

Balkan Issue

The Second Balkan War of 1913 occurred as a result of the falling out of the Balkan League who had evicted the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans itself.

Serbia doubled her territory and posed a greater threat to Austria-Hungary, this was a challenge to them.

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Social Darwinism/Nationalism

Social Darwinism

The belief in the 'survival of the fittest' as applied to nations made war appear increasingly likely and even desirable. Nationalist aspirations and militarism often created a mood that was favourable to war.


Williamson argues that nationalism was a dangerous sentiment in all major European powers. Austria-Hungary was affected the most because they had eleven different nationalities combined under the Dual Monarchy. Spark that started war was due to Serbian nationalists seeking independence.

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Fischer thesis

Fischer thesis

Fischer integrates both the long-term and short-term causes of the war; the long term aims of German foreign policy and links it to the way in which Germany responded to the July crisis. Fischer argues that Germany prepared for foreign war from 1912.

September Programme

German statement of war aims, described as a 'blueprint for world power'.

Also focuses on the 'War Council' where no politicians were present and the decision for war was actually taken. Delay in the war till 1914 was due to military, naval, diplomatic and financial preparations being undertaken.

Pattern of German policy between 1912 -1914; financial preparations, pursuit of allies – Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria etc.

Argues that Germany used the crisis in July 1914 as an opportunity to provoke war, a war it believed it could win and on the best possible terms to itself.

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Fischer thesis

Blank Cheque:

- Urged Austria-Hungary to act giving it the so-called 'blank cheque'.

- Germany provoked Russia into mobilisation to help get the German public behind a 'defensive war'.

- Fischer ridicules any suggestion that Germany fought a 'preventative war' on the grounds that no-one threatened her.

- The aim was to achieve German supremacy on the continent, however, does concede war in 1914 was a 'recognised means of policy' accepted by all the great powers.

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Support for Fischer thesis

Support for Fischer thesis

Fischers thesis was unpopular in Germany in the 1960's due to the revival of 'war guilt' for orld War I.

- Much of Fischer's thesis is now widely accepted, war council shows that Moltke wanted war.

- Pre-1914 domestic tension had contributed to the aggression of German foreign policy i.e. weltpolitik, increased arms production, foreign crises.

- German elite had an incentive to use foreign policy as a method of domestic control, therefore, Germany's calculated gamble in favour of war in July 1914 to safeguard the nation's expansionist future. Germany did not seek world war, but risked causing one and bears the heaviest responsibility for bringing one about.

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Criticism of Fischer

Criticism of Fischer thesis:

'September programme' written after the war began, bears no relation to why Germany had actually gone to war in the first place.

- Fischer misinterpreted the significance of the 'war council', no politicians were present and although arms programme was speeded up after it, there was no declaration of war.

- Fischer gets German policy during the July crisis wrong and misunderstands the nature of the 'blank cheque'. Germany only wanted a local war when she backed Austria-Hungary and believed that Austria-Hungary would be strengthened by eliminating the Serbian threat.

Unit criticism of Fischer's thesis

- argues that Germany's leaders did not want a world war in 1914, but that they were prepared to risk a local war escalating into a European war.

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How far were the other powers responsible?

How far were other powers to blame for the outbreak of World War I?

- Wilson argues that the First World War resulted from the deliberate decisions of politicians and they did not primarily act because of internal pressures.

- There was in 1914, a broad willingness – not just a German one – to support a local war and to risk setting off a conflict throughout Europe.


- Williamson argues that Austria-Hungary's policies have been neglected by historians even though this is where the war began.

- Austria-Hungary sent a ten-point ultimatum to Serbia which was designed to be rejected.

- Austria-Hungary, was then surrounded by external enemies and increasingly under internal strain, a factor which influenced her policy more than any of the other great powers.

- Overall, Austria-Hungary was intent on a local war and was prepared to risk a continental one.

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Serbia and Russia


- In 1914, there was a broad willingness to accept and launch a local war and to risk a general European conflict for the sake of attaining a greater Serbia.


- Stevenson argues that Russia had initiated the pre-war arms race from 1910, because she had the weakest representative institutions of any of the great powers.

- Russia from 24-25th July 1914 initiated provocative military preparations which they hoped would deter Austria-Hungary, but instead only alarmed Germany who warned Russia that is these didn't stop, she would mobilise and declare war on her.

- Williamson argues that Russia was the first great power to mobilise and only did so because if she did not, she would be defenceless against Germany on her western borders.

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- The policies of Britain had some culpability, but many of the key decisions relating to the outbreak of war had already been taken. Like Russia, Britain was caught by surprise by the Austria-Hungary ultimatum and attack on Serbia.

 - Williamson argues Great Britain probably couldn't have done much more to keep peace, as it did not have a large standing army that could have deterred Germany.

- Gordon was more critical of Great Britain's 'ineffective' policy, arguing that Grey's response during the July crisis was inhibited by domestic politics. Capacity for action in late July was limited by the distractions of the Irish problem and by deep cabinet divisions over Britain's alignment with France and Russia.

- Great Britain, argues Ferguson, share guilt for the outbreak of war with her involvement in the arms race, her role in German encirclement from the early 1900s, in backing Russia and France in 1914 and arguably her weak policy during the July crisis.

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- France entered World War I because she was attacked by Germany, she did not want war, but had to support her ally Russia and believed that she could win.

- Like Great Britain, her culpability for the outbreak of war relates to her contribution to Germany's sense of encirclement, her involvement in the arms race and the support she gave Russia in late July 1914.

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Slithered over the edge approach/Internal economic

- The assasination of Franz Ferdinand was the last straw after the successive crises, 1904-13, tensions had built up in Europe etc.

- This explanation is inadequate however, the unit argues that the war resutled from the 'deliberate decisions of politicians'.

- There was widespread willingness amongst the belligerents to accept of support a local war and to risk a European war – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia etc.

- Fischer argues that economic and social factors were important in Germany.

- Austria-Hungary's policies in July 1914 were decisively influenced by its internal ethnic and nationalist strains, which were reinforced by social and economic fissures.

- Difficult to argues that internal tension had much if any influence on Great Britain or France.

- Overall, national self interest would appear to have been the most important determinant of policy in the events leading up to war in 1914.

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19th Century Imperial Problems

19th Century Imperial problems

Balkan question was always going to be difficult to resolve without war.

War in 1914 was avoidable, if the issues that lead up to its outbreak were resolvable peacefully – but only if Germany and Austria-Hungary had been willing to accept compromise.

German and Austro-Hungarian decisions were based on the explicit desire to provoke a conflict, for them a diplomatic victory was not enough.

Stevenson argues that war in 1914 represented 'one last opportunity before all chance of victory faded' for Germany and Austria-Hungary.

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Exam Questions - First World War

2012 - Which had most influence over states’ decision to go to war in 1914: diplomatic manoeuvres or domestic tensions?

2011 - At what point, if any, did the outbreak of World War 1 in Europe become inevitable?

2010 - The impression grew stronger and stronger (in mid 1914) that we wanted war under any circumstances. It was impossible to interpret our any other way’ (Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, German Ambassador in London, 1916). Has this contemporary assessment been borne out in the work of subsequent historians?

2009 - Was Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality the reason or the pretext for Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 4 August 1914?

2008 - If there had been no Gavrilo Princip, there would have been no First World War. Discuss

2007 - To what extent was the European war that broke out in 1914 ‘Germany’s war’?

2005 - ‘The First World War broke out because of decisions taken in July 1914 by the Austro-Hungarian and German governments.  Had they taken different decisions, war could have been avoided for the foreseeable future.  In this sense, the war had no long term causes.’  Do you agree?

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