Some Potential Origins of the First World War (1914-1918)

Seminar Paper, 2000

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction

II. Official justification

III. The race for world power

IV. The meaning of alliances

V. Immediate motives

VI. Conclusion

VII. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Throughout World War I, almost 15 million people lost their lives; as one of its consequences, the Austrian-Hungarian, Russian and Turkish Empires fell apart, and “the old internal and international order was for ever destroyed.”[1] Owing to the fact that the First World War marked the beginning of an entire new era, the investigation of its origins still remains a controversial historical issue. While some historians put the emphasis on the primacy of domestic policies and assert that internal pressures conditioned the decisions of the belligerent states, others maintain the concept of the 19th century German historical scientist Ranke, who stressed the importance of foreign affairs on the authorities’ motivations leading to the ‘Great War’.[2]

In this essay, however, I will firstly concentrate on the formal justifications of war declarations (section II). Thereupon, section III scrutinizes these official statements by considering the broader imperial and military framework. Furthermore, section IV attempts to reveal the origins of a system of alliances and rivalries among European nations, whereas section V surveys the impacts of these tensions on the thought process on the eve of World
War I.

II. Official justification

In order to legitimize their entrance into the war to their own citizens as well as to the world, leaders of the European belligerent nations defended their behaviour by referring to the (re)actions of their adversaries. Thus, Austria-Hungary justified her declaration of war to Serbia primarily with the allusion to the unsatisfactory reply of the ultimatum given to the Serbian government, owing to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28th June 1914 in Sarajevo.[3] Once the Habsburg Empire had initiated the formal and military process of entering into war, Germany was enabled to account for the backing of Austria-Hungary by virtue of their common alliance. On the other hand, she could insist that she felt threatened by ‘encirclement’ by Russia and France, which was heightened by the Russian precautionary mobilization, and because for Germany “mobilization meant war”.[4] The beginning of military measures and the formal war declaration by Germany to their French and Russian enemies that followed provided the latter not only with the argument that they were ‘victims of aggression’, but also with the legitimation of a “necessary defence against invasion”.[5] Besides, the German attack on Belgium (directed against France) and the disregarding of the British ultimatum to respect Belgian neutrality allowed Great Britain to enter the war by claiming to stand for an innocent country. Italy, however, first remained neutral by insisting that the nature of the Austrian-Serbian conflict did not oblige her intervention in favour of the Danube Monarchy under the terms of their alliance.[6]


[1] John C. G. Röhl: ‘Germany’, in Keith Wilson (ed.) Decisions for war. 1914, (London, 1995), pp. 27.

[2] See James Joll: The origins of the First World War, (London/New York2, 1992), p. 4f., 140f.; Ruth Hening: The origins of the First World War, (London/New York2, 1993), p. 33.

[3] Austria-Hungary suspected the national association ‘Narodna Odbrana’ (‘Black Hand’) to be responsible for a plot resulting in the assassination and premised the involvement of the Serbian government in the conspiracy. In the presented ultimatum, she demanded (among other conditions) the participation of Austrian-Hungarian officials in the enquiry which the Serbs had to carry out regarding the origins of the terrorist act. While Serbia rejected this term, the shortness of submission time (it was to be replied within 48 hours) as well as the nature of the ultimatum also provoked international criticism, and Sir Edward Grey considered it “the most formidable document I had ever seen addressed by one State to another that was independent”. G. P. Gooch and Harold Temperley (eds.): British Documents on the Origin of War 1898-1914, Vol. XI (London, 1926) No. 91, p. 73. Quoted in Joll Origins p. 39; See also ibid. p. 12, 15; Henig War p. 23; Imanuel Geiss: ‘Origins of the First World War’, in H. W. Koch (ed.) The Origins of the First World War. Great Power Rivalry and German War Aims, (London2, 1984), pp. 83. The Austrian formal declaration of war on Serbia was submitted on 28th July 1914. See Henig p. 26; Joll Origins p. 17

[4] Joll Origins p. 94

[5] Germany declared war on France on the 3rd August 1914, and on Russia on the 6th August. See Joll Origins p. 35

[6] In May 1915, however, Italy decided to fight on the side of France and Great Britain. See Joll p. 127; See also ibid. p. 10, 32-35, 100f., 199; Henig War p. 16, 29-31; Geiss World War p. 79; John F. V. Keiger: ‚France’, in Keith Wilson (ed.) Decisions for war. 1914, (London, 1995), pp. 121; H. W. Koch: ‚Introduction’, in H. W. Koch (ed.) The Origins of the First World War. Great Power Rivalry and German War Aims, (London2, 1984), pp. 22.

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Some Potential Origins of the First World War (1914-1918)
University of Sussex
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World War I, First World War, 1. Weltkrieg, WW1, origins, Ursachen
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Marion Luger (Author), 2000, Some Potential Origins of the First World War (1914-1918), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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