Though triggered by the assassination (June 28, 1914) of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia at the hands of a pro-Serbian nationalist assassin (a Bosnian Serb student named Gavrilo Princip), the war’s origins lie in the complex relations of the European powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 had brought not only the establishment of a powerful and dynamic German Empire but also a legacy of animosity between France and Germany following the latter’s annexation of the formerly French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Under the political direction of her first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, Germany secured her new position in Europe by an alliance with Austria-Hungary and a diplomatic understanding with Russia.
The accession (1888) of Emperor Wilhelm II brought to the German throne a young ruler determined to direct policy himself, despite his rash diplomatic judgment. After the 1890 elections, in which the center and left parties made major gains, and due in part to his disaffection at inheriting the Chancellor who had guided his grandfather for most of his career, Wilhelm engineered Bismarck’s resignation.
Much of the fallen Chancellor’s work was undone in the following decades, as Wilhelm failed to renew the arrangement with Russia, presenting republican France with the opportunity to conclude (1891-94) a full alliance with the Russian Empire. Worse was to follow, as Wilhelm undertook (1897-1900) the creation of a German navy capable of threatening Britain’s century-old naval mastery, prompting the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904 and its expansion (1907) to include Russia.
Rivalry among the powers was exacerbated from the 1880s by the scramble for colonies which brought much of Africa and Asia under European rule in the following quarter-century. Even the once hesitantly imperialistic Bismarck became an advocate of overseas Empire, adding to Anglo-German tension as German acquisitions in Africa and the Pacific threatened to impinge upon British strategic and commercial interests. Wilhelm’s support for Moroccan independence from France, Britain’s new strategic partner, provoked the Tangier Crisis of 1905. During the Second Moroccan or Agadir Crisis (1911), a German naval presence in Morocco tested the Anglo-French coalition once again.
A key ingredient in the emerging diplomatic powder-keg was the growth of powerful nationalist aspirations among the Balkan states, which each looked to Germany, Austria-Hungary, or Russia for support. The rise of anti-Austrian circles in Serbia following a 1903 palace coup contributed to a further crisis in 1908 over Austria’s unilateral annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, German pressure forcing a humiliating climbdown on the part of a Russia weakened (1905) by defeat at the hands of Japan and subsequent revolutionary disorder
Alarm at Russia’s unexpectedly rapid recovery after 1909 fuelled feeling among German ruling circles in favor of pre-emptive war to break alleged Entente “encirclement” before Russian rearmament could tip the strategic balance decisively against Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1913 both France and Germany were planning to extend military service, while Britain had entered into a naval convention and military discussions with France during the previous year.
World War 1 History – The Outbreak, The First Battles
World War 1 History – The Russian Revolution, Entry of the United States, German Offensive of 1918
World War 1 History – Allied Victory, End of the War, Distinguishing Features of the War
World War 1 History – A Deadly War, Revolutions, Influenza Pandemic, Geopolitical Consequences