The Causes of WWI … and Other Silly Stories

Right.  So last week we talked about Life in 1912 in preparation for season two of Downton Abbey, which begins on PBS this Sunday, January 8th.  I’m not giving anything away by saying that season two is about World War I in every way.  But what would cause that burgeoning, vital society of 1912 to tip over into full-scale global war?  What happened in reality that flipped the fictitious house of Grantham on its head?

History teachers across the world will tell you it boiled down to four things: Nationalism, Militarism, Imperialism, and Alliances.  And they’re right too.  But it’s a little trickier than that.  In fact, World War I is one of the trickiest messes that the world ever tripped and fell into.

But first the textbook causes….


Unlike the Medieval world, Europe of the nineteenth century was increasingly nationalistic.  Basking in the glow of the French Revolution, the French were definitely FRENCH.  The Germans were not so much a bunch of small kingdoms like they used to be, but now and increasingly GERMAN.  The same goes for ITALY.  The Russians were catching up to the rest of Europe politically and culturally and were seriously RUSSIAN.  Britain was pretty much always BRITAIN … and played a far bigger role in tipping the balance of all this saber-rattling into all-out war than, well, Germany for one expected.  But the match that lit the fuse was the fact that Serbia wanted to be SERBIA!  But half of what they considered to be Serbia ethnically was, in fact, a principality of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and King George V of England


Ever since Magellan circumnavigated the globe everyone with ships and swords wanted a piece of it.  The rush to snatch up colonies in places like Asia, the Americas, and especially Africa rose to a fevered pitch towards the end of the nineteenth century.  Why were colonies so important?  Well, they proved the point of Nationalism for one.  The country with the most “toys” was obviously the best, right?  But more than just bragging rights, colonies provided crucial income for their parent country.  They were a source of raw materials, cheap labor and goods, and a market in which to sell it all.  Britain was the clear winner in the imperialist race, but Germany was making inroads, particularly in Africa.  This boosted the German economy and made it a real threat to the balance of power in Europe.


So what were these countries spending their money on?  Weapons.  Well, partially.  Technology was improving.  The race to build the biggest and best battleship kept Britain and Germany occupied and thumbing their noses at each other.  Naval power was critical to gaining and keeping colonies.  Aviation was brand new as well and of course there had to be a way to use it as a weapon.  Not only that, but vast armies were needed to keep the colonies, and continental neighbors in order.  Especially those naughty Serbians who kept causing trouble for Austria-Hungary.


So what better way to put your economic and political clout to good use, to justify your military spending, and to keep everyone in check than by making all sorts of sticky alliances?  Britain was the biggest peddler of the theory of a balance of power in Europe.  Since all of the major players had the potential to be dominant, the best way to keep the lid on things was to tie everyone together.  The alliances began to be formed as early as 1868.  Some were open, some were backroom deals.  I could write an entire entry about the alliances alone.  But for the sake of convenience, by 1914 the dominoes were stacked like this:  The Central Powers consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.  The Triple Entente was made up of Britain, France, and Russia.  Russia also happened to have an alliance with little old Serbia on the side and Britain had a seemingly trivial alliance with Japan, of all countries.

How the Chain Reaction Started

Okay, raise your hand if you know the event that sent the first domino tumbling.  Yep, you’re right.  The assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  But why the heck did anyone care?

Well, Franz-Ferdinand was the heir presumptive to the throne in Austria-Hungary.  Sarajevo is in Serbia.  The Serbians were ticked off with Austria-Hungary for not letting Slavic provinces in southern Austria-Hungary break off and join with Serbia to be SERBIA!  In retaliation and to make a point a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, shot the Archduke and his wife.  This, of course, made Austria-Hungary more than a little mad.  To way oversimplify what actually happened, Austria-Hungary checked with Germany to make sure they would back them up, then they declared war on Serbia.

Then Serbia’s ally, Russia, started mobilizing its troops to defend Serbia.  So Germany declared war on them.

Wait, Germany?  What the heck!  What did they have against Russia?

Well, They had told Austria-Hungary they would back them up, and they did.

So France declared war on Germany.

Hold on, hold on.  What does France have to do with any of this?

Well, they were allies with Russia.

Then Germany decided the best way to attack France was to attack Belgium first.  Because, you know, it was just sitting there being all neutral and all.

So Britain, which had said it would consider sitting this one out, pretty much said “Oh no you didn’t!” and declared war on Germany.

Not to be outdone, Japan took advantage of the situation to attack Russia way over in the east, which a lot of people forget, but which made it a truly world war, not just a European war.  Of course, it also spilled over into everyone’s colonies, but that’s yet another story.  Italy entered the fray on Germany and Austria-Hungary’s side.  And after much hemming and hawing and swearing they wouldn’t get involved in a war on the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. changed their mind and sent a bunch of troops over to save the day and win the war.  *cough*  Well, that’s what the Americans say at least.

So there you have it.  Conditions were right and the world had become a powder keg of pent-up aggression and dangerous alliances that finally boiled over.

But is that the real explanation for the causes of the war?

Well, my high school history teacher threw in another element that a lot of people tend to overlook.

Queen Victoria with her childern and grandchildren

The rulers of the two countries that barked the loudest and fought the dirtiest were cousins.  King George V of England and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were both Queen Victoria’s grandchildren.  And they did not like each other.  Not at all.  Wilhelm was older by a few years but George had more of an attitude.  When they met up at family and state events (like the picture at the top) the two would posture and rumble for precedence, who got to march at the head of the parade and such.  Wilhelm usually took precedence, but when George was raised to the throne in 1910 it was he who got the number one spot in family gatherings, parades, and pictures.  Wilhelm couldn’t stand it.  My high school history teacher speculated that Germany deliberately tweaked Britain’s nose by attacking Belgium in 1914 and that Britain’s subsequent entry into the war was a personal grudge-match between the two leaders.

I’ve never been able to find the evidence that backs this up, but then again, I’ve never looked for it.  Knowing what we know about the way the upper classes acted from watching Downton Abbey I wouldn’t be surprised.  I mean, just imagine if Mary and Edith were the rulers of their own nations.  War would have been declared long before it was.

Enjoy the premier episode of Downton Abbey on PBS on Sunday!  Next week I think I’ll take a look at how the war was supposed to be over by Christmas (ha!) and why it wasn’t.

Incidentally, this has always been my favorite explanation of the causes of the war:

2 thoughts on “The Causes of WWI … and Other Silly Stories

  1. Oh, Merry, this takes me back too far into high school history to even think about! But I remember learning the cause, and the subsequent headache.

    So basically, and not to diminish the terrible act of the assassination, a crime took place between two parties, and, like high school, everyone else stuck their noses in. Instead of the argument remaining between the two parities involved, (again, no offence to the assassinated couple. In fact, I am of Austrian decent on my father’s side) this guy brought his friend to the rumble, then that guy brought his friend, so this guy brought his bigger friend, and so on, until lots of people who never knew Franz and Sophie died along with them.

    How sad.

  2. Thanks, I enjoyed this historical recap. At least in my education, I had the sense that WWI does not get the emphasis that WWII does, and I’ve always known less about it.

    Another English conflict that was barely a blip on my educational radar til I traveled a bit were the Boer Wars (of which Grantham and his valet are veterans, I believe). Reading about this in Afrikaaner textbooks is pretty wild.

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