A look at the main causes for World War 1: Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism; together they contributed to create such a charged up international situation that the a very ordinary incident triggered the first ever international war of death and destruction.

The causes for World War I are multifaceted though it busted off by an event which could have occurred anywhere at any given time. The hostility between Austria and Serbia led to the murder of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, heir to throne of Habsburg Empire at Sarajevo in 1914. This became the incident that coiled into World War I.

But then why did one event have such overwhelming consequences which finally led the whole world into a 4 year war?

The Larger Context

The competition for colonies is a well known truth and so in the latter half of the 19th century there was a full-grown imperialist structure in place. For instance, not more than 10% of Africa was under European rule in 1876 but by 1900 more than 90% of Africa was colonized. Besides, Germany which was left behind in this race too wanted her own colonies to rule over.  By 1914, these powers were ready to enlarge their respective fields of influence to bring more and more areas under each one’s power, and to have a bigger share in the wherewithal of the world.

German dead Guillemont September 1916 Causes of World War 1

German dead in a trench and machine gun post near Guillemont during the Battle of the Somme, September 1916

Petite wars for acquiring new provinces from another country or arrangements to shield provinces already under their control were made. At times, in order to get even with a rival they entered into pact of alliance with other power/powers. In 1879, Bismarck of Germany entered into an alliance with Austria-Hungary known as Dual Alliance, which later became the Triple Alliance when Italy joined 3 years later in 1882. On the other side, France in 1894 made an alliance with Russia. In 1904, France made an agreement with Britain and in 1907, Britain made an entente with Russia; this came to be known as Triple Entente. When one country went to war the others would have to get involved to aid their ally. The rivalries and conflicts among the imperialist countries thus became the fundamental causes of the war.


Nationalist activities were also very significant features of the 19th century. By the late 19th century and early 20th century nationalism too underwent a major transformation. In the advanced capitalist countries, it became associated with enlarging territories of control and expanding one’s military power. The dictating ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity no longer came with the French revolution. These countries were also no longer concerned with the notion of popular sovereignty in a nation. On the other hand, within multinational empires like Russian Empire and the Austria-Hungary Empire, populace wanted to free them and form independent nations, which all major powers strictly opposed.

British Propoganda WW1 Causes of World War 1

“Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?”, by Savile Lumley (active 1910-50); a British propaganda poster from World War I, commissioned by The British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Published in Britain 1915.

..which led to Militarism

The major powers therefore went in for an unmatched arms race and in edifying huge armies and navies. Militarism therefore became one of the main features of foreign policy. Domestic policies were now aimed at increasing strength in comparison with other powers rather than concentrating on the welfare of their own people. Mass media was made into a major instrument – newspapers played a vital role in the spread of belligerent nationalism.

Impact on the commoners

In 1901 only few people were permitted to vote anywhere, excluding the women along with a major part of the populace. Most citizens including landlords therefore hardly had an influence and so they began to compete almost themselves for growing areas of control under them. Although the commoners hardly had a stake in this fight, once the conflict broke out, citizens did come frontward to support their own countries.

End of WW1 Causes of World War 1

People flock the streets in Philadelphia United States, Celebrating the announcement of Armistice in November 1918

The revulsion of modern war was still not understood. However, it was the brunt of the war that made people reassess the war and so they began to demand peace.

By Deepti Verma

Also See:
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Response to Terror in this Age of Violence

Image Source: John Warwick Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Facebook@World War 1

Video Source: Archdukes, Cynicism, and World War I: Crash Course World History-crashcourse

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