An Investigation of the Leading Theories as the Actual Cause of the Second Great War

The First World War began in August, 1914. It was directly triggered by the assassination of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, on 28th June, 1914 by Bosnian revolutionary, GavriloPrincip. While this started a chain of events that directly led to the fighting, the actual root causes are much deeper and are continue to be speculated by scholars and historians today. Germany, responsible for the outbreak of fighting, is blamed by some as the sole instigator of the Great War. The blame and total responsibility was laid upon them by the victors in the Treaty of Versailles after the war; this was to assert their dominance over the Germans. As history is written by the victors, it is important to note that the blame on Germany as the cause of WW1 was further fueled by the second World War. In this paper, we shall investigate some of the leading theories on what led to the war and why it escalated to such a global extent.


Between the years 1879 and 1914, countries throughout Europe made a number of mutual defense agreements that would pull them into battle. Thus, if one country was attacked, allied countries were duty-bound to shield them and provide aid in any way. This also meant that if one of their allies declared war first, they were obligated to go to battle as well. The following alliances were in effect prior to WWI:

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  • Russia and Serbia
  • Germany and Austria-Hungary
  • France and Russia
  • Britain, France, and Belgium
  • Japan and Britain

The Assassination and the Events that Followed Gavrilo Princip was a member of Young Bosnia, a revolutionary movement consisting mostly of students who promoted Yugoslavian aims of pan-South Slav unification of territories including Bosnia into a Yugoslavia (haven for South-Slavs). After attending schools in Sarajevo and Tuzla, Princip left for Belgrade in May 1912. While in Serbia, Princip joined the secret Black Hand society, a nationalist movement favoring a union between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. Princip was one of three men sent byDragutinDemitrijevic, the chief of the Intelligence Department in the Serbian Army and head of the Black Hand, to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, during his visit to Sarajevo on 28 June, 1914. The three men were instructed to commit suicide after killing the Archduke; to this end they were each given a phial of cyanide, along with a revolver and grenades. They later met up with more conspirators and, within an hour of the first attempt, succeeded in gunning down the Archduke.

The Archduke’s assassination had an incendiary effect throughout Central Europe. Tensions between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, which had already been rising for several years over territorial disputes, escalated further. Austria- Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the assassination. Furthermore, it blamed Serbia for seeding unrest among ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a province of Austria-Hungary (since 1909) that shared a border with Serbia. Austro-Hungarian leaders decided that the solution to the Serbian problem was an all-out invasion of the country. However, the major obstacle to this plan was Russia, which had close ethnic, religious, and political ties with Serbia, andwas likely to come to its defense during an invasion. Though poorly armed and trained, Russia’s army was huge and posed a formidable threat to Austria-Hungary.

Aware of the threat from Russia, Austria-Hungary held off on its attack plans and turned to its well-armed ally to the north: Germany. On July 5, 1914, Austria-Hungary sent an envoy to meet personally with the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to convey Austria’s concerns about Russia. The Kaiser felt that Russia was unlikely to respond militarily, as its forces were utterly unprepared for war. He also had a close personal relationship with his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, so he hoped to smooth things over diplomatically. Nevertheless, the Kaiser pledged that if Russian troops did in fact advance on Austria-Hungary, Germany would help fight off the attackers. This guarantee is often referred to as Germany’s “blank check.”

On July 23, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian government issued an ultimatum to Serbia containing ten demands. The ultimatum insisted that Austria-Hungary be allowed to participate in Serbia’s investigation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and, in particular, to directly take part in the judicial process against the suspects. The demands also required Serbia to stamp out all forms of anti-Austrian activism and propaganda emanating from the country. The ultimatum, written by members of the Austrian Council of Ministers, was specifically intended to be humiliating, and was unacceptable to Serbia.

On July 25, however, Serbia accepted Austria-Hungary’s demands almost entirely aside from the conditions regarding Austria’s participation in the judicial process against the criminals. Austria-Hungary’s response was swift; its embassy in Serbia closed within a half hour of receiving Serbia’s answer, and three days later, Austria declared war on Serbia. On July 29, the first Austrian artillery shells fell on Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. These first instigations caused Serbian ally Russia to begin an immediate general mobilization of its troops at its borders which in turn led to the German’s military deployment. This series of snowballing events, coined as the “July Crisis”, is seen as the immediate cause for the beginning of the war.

French Motives and Involvement

French militarism had been exceptionally strong in the lead up to the war;French revanchism was fervent, and the desire to retake Alsace-Lorraine from Germany was deep- seated. In his Reflections on Violence (1909), French engineer turned philosopher, Georges Sorel attributed all France’s great achievements to violence. It is undeniable that forty years after the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, a vast number of French were still angered by the loss of territory, as well as by the humiliation of being compelled to pay large reparation to Germany in 1870. From a nationalistic perspective, the transfer was justified, as most of the annexed lands were populated by people who spoke Alemannic German dialects. From a military perspective, shifting the Franco-German frontier away from the Rhine would give the Germans a strategic advantage over the French, especially by early 1870’s military standards and thinking.

Where Bismarck, before his removal, had tried to avoid a European war, many government officials in France actively sought it. The French were well-aware that regaining Alsace-Lorraine would be impossible without a war. Their rivalry with Germany would not have permitted them to tolerate German expansion in the East. While fearful of an all-out German invasion, some French leaders felt that if Germany was distracted by a war with Russia, France might have a chance to seize back Alsace-Lorraine. The decision of France to get in to the fighting created a two-front war and was a prime contribution in forcing Britain into the war. The First World War can thus be seen in this light as simply revenge by the French (on their part at least) for the Franco- Prussian War of 1870-71.

British Motives and Involvement

Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, tension over the threat of German expansion was high among the British. Germany had supported and supplied the Boers during the Boer Wars, and its empire was expanding in Africa. Although Germany did not want to war with Britain, it was in the process of trying to dominate Europe and Africa. When the Germans began strengthening their navy, a Naval Arms Race was set in motion, and Britain began to panic. With three quarters of her navy concentrated in European waters, Britain signed a naval agreement with France against Germany in 1911, a clear act of aggression. In the years leading up to this, Britain launched numerous anti-Germany campaigns, and formed an unwritten basis for the Triple Entente in anticipation of attack.

Generally considering herself a European peacekeeper of sorts, Britain was particularly sensitive about Belgium; Britain saw Belgium’s ports as a potential gateway for German naval offence, and therefore a huge security threat. In his war memoirs, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George admitted, “We muddled into war.” The general attitude in Britain, however, was to avoid having to fight Germany, but at the risk of Germany’s rising power, Britain had to be prepared. As soon as Germany declared war on France and began to invade the neutral Belgium, Britain rallied its troops and joined the fray. Had Britain not gotten involved, it quite possibly would have been a swift victory for the Germans. It is also possible however, that if Britain had simply threatened Germany, Germany might have backed down, avoiding the war entirely. But Britain was a force to be reckoned with as its vast empire was spread across the world; not only did British involvement expand this European conflict to a World War, but she also managed to harness the numbers she needed.


In all fairness, however, one must argue that there is no single cause or single culprit that the war can be blamed on. All the Great Powers, caught up in their nationalistic, imperialistic, and militaristic policies, exploded into a quagmire of death and destruction so there can be no true way to logically and legally lay blame on one country or the other. The Versailles “war guilt clause”, which treated every German man, woman and child as responsible was the Entente seeking a scapegoat for the massive and unprecedented loss of life that took place during the war. This was done, more or less, to frame such horrific and ultimately futile wanton destruction into a morally accepted framework. The resentment caused by the treaty would however, sow fertile psychological ground for the eventual rise of the Nazi party, which would plunge the world into an even more horrific global confrontation.


  1. Princip
  2. Crisis

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An Investigation of the Leading Theories as the Actual Cause of the Second Great War. (2023, May 02). Retrieved from