World War I was probably the single most significant event that separated the 19th and 20th centuries.

Great Power Relationships

Specific “Great Powers” developed in Europe during the late 19th century; Britain, France, Germany, Austria – Hungary, Italy and Russia. The states with the most power were Britain, France and Germany. On a lesser power level were Austria – Hungary, Italy and Russia. These nation-states were ruled by monarchs or dynasties, and until France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 71) there and there had been a balance in power among the great powers. The Turkish Ottoman Empire had long resisted modernization and the benefits of industrial and economic change and was thus a lesser player in the power relationships of Europe.

After the Franco – Prussian War, the German Chancellor, Bismarck, had maintained peace by creating an imbalance in power.  He did this by putting checks on the dealings between Austria – Hungary and Russia by holding the power of decision between them, and by ensuring that France was diplomatically isolated – with no allies – so that it had no allies and was thus unable to challenge German military superiority.

“Power” was a result of economic progress from the implementation of industrialization, accessing the necessary raw materials, skills and technology, and thus the resulting availability of goods and services.

Britain had taken the initial lead in industrialization, but from the 1870s Germany had increased its production of coal, iron, steel and by 1913 had replaced Britain as the leading industrial power in Europe. The United States was still the leading industrial power in the world, though, at that time.

The industrialization of the European nations had given their armed forces increased capability and they had been competing for overseas territory. Most of the world had been carved up among their empires. Britain and France had acquired the most territory, but Holland, Belgium, Germany and Italy had also acquired substantial overseas possessions.  The Russian empire had pushed out its borders in central Asia.

Expansion abroad had fuelled nationalist tensions at home. This has led to mutual fear building up between European powers, especially between Austria and Russia, both wanting to grab as much power and influence in the Balkans at the expense of a weakened Ottoman empire, and of each other.

The European nation-states moved toward war in 1914 because of specific political issues and events, and deep economic and social changes in Europe in the prior four decades – the most critical being the power relationships between the Great Powers.

After Bismarck left office in 1890, power alliances were created in Europe. On the one hand, there was the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria – Hungary and Italy.  On the other hand, there was the Franco – Russian Entente. As a result of these alliances, each of the nation-states considered themselves obligated to support their ally or allies, and assumed that their security would be destroyed if they did not.  Thus, any issue (minor or significant) that occurred to one nation would draw all the allies into the issue and, like falling dominoes, all nations would be drawn into a conflict.

The Power of the State

Between the 1870s and 1914, the nation-states had taken on new powers in their relationships with their own citizens. As a reaction, nationalist movements appeared in Austria _ Hungary and Germany, religious differences affected France and Germany. Socialist and Marxist ideologies created political challenges with the appearance of political splinter groups.  In 1905 a revolution almost overthrew the Csar, and only the army maintained the system.

By the 1870s the state had acquired increased power over its own population, and by assuming sole authority to wage war.  The Franco – Prussian War saw the state governments imposing conscription on its citizens, and thus wars involved not just hundreds of thousands, but millions of men.  Citizens were willing to accept the financial cost of wars but also were willing to be conscripted and thus a willingness to sacrifice their own lives for the state.

With this ability to raise large amounts of money and warriors, nation-states increasingly defined states, with whom they had disagreements as enemies. Some leaders also used Darwin’s, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” (1859) as a rationale for identifying differences among people such that some were ascribed ‘inferior racial characteristics’ and these traits were assigned to “enemies” as being inferior.

Thus, as Europe moved into 1914, there were many factors festering: instability caused by a ‘balance of power’ among allied groups (one in = everyone now in), nation-states that had little trouble in justifying their unilateral actions to their populations, industrialization which allowed for rapid production of war materials, more rapid communications systems (telephone and wireless radio), access to tax money to pay for the war, conscription to feed the fodder funnel of bodies.  All that was needed, it seemed, was some crisis to trigger one nation into declaring war and drawing all the rest into the conflict.

War is Declared

That event was the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg thrones, and his wife Sofia on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans. The assassin was a member of “Young Bosnia”, a group dedicated to liberating Slav lands from Habsburg rule. How come “world war”?  One issue should not have caused the “world to go to war’, but all the social and political factors that had been growing over the past decades were now ripe for the plucking. Here’s the sequence of how the dominoes of nation-state alliances cascaded into war:

  1. Austria – Hungary suspected that Serbia was complicit in the assassinations/murders and saw a chance to crush Serbia and solve their “Slav” problem in the south.
  2. The Austrian ambassador in Berlin, on July 5-6, requested German support in eliminating the Serbs as a ‘political factor’ in the Balkans. It was given, and the timing of the war was put in the hands of Austria – Hungary, not Germany.
  3. Austria then asked Hungary for its support in a potential conflict. On July 14th it was given.
  4. On July 23 Austria delivered an ultimatum to Serbia demanding Austria – Hungarian power to interfere with an inquiry into the assassination and to interfere in the internal running of Serbian affairs. Serbia suggested that disputed demands by arbitrated by either a tribunal at The Hague or by the Great Powers.
  5. The alternative was rejected and Austria – Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.
  6. Russia, whose prestige as an adviser to Serbia was threatened, did not want Austria – Hungary to destroy Serbia and with it Russia’s influence in the Balkans.  Russia ordered a partial mobilization against Austria – Hungary on July 29th.
  7. Germany warned Russia to stop its mobilization.
  8. On July 30th, Russia ordered a general mobilization.
  9. Germany and Austria – Hungary ordered their own general mobilization.
  10. On July 31st Germany demanded France’s neutrality and the French surrender of the fortress towns of Toul and Verdun.
  11. France rejected the demands and ordered its own general mobilization on August 1st.
  12. Germany declared war on Russia and occupied Luxembourg on August 1st.
  13. Germany declared war on France on August 3rd.
  14. Germany demanded the neutrality of Belgium and the right of free transit through Belgium on August 3rd.
  15. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th.