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Unlike World War II, the causes of World War I are not as clear cut. Historians say the war had been building up for some time prior to 1914. The "Great War" was not caused by megalomaniacs hungry for power as in the case of Mussolini and Hitler during World War II. The origins are more complex.

Alliance Systems: The causes can be explained, more in political terms than human terms. From the end of the Franco-Prussian War, a system of secret alliances developed in Europe. This eventually split the continent into two hostile sides. Because so many different powers were involved in mutual defense agreements, when the war did happen, it involved nearly every country of Europe. Due to the alliances, some powers were forced to support policies followed by their partners, which they didn't really condone. Lastly, the secret alliances led to suspicion and the belief that far more secret agreements existed, then was in fact, the case.

Competition: The competition for colonies was another source of international antagonism. The great powers sectioned off Africa among them, established spheres of influence in China and sought protectorates elsewhere. Sooner or later this rush to appropriate new territories was bound to spark disagreements over boundaries of control.

Militarism: All the countries within the hostile camps were building large armies and navies during the pre-war years. As a by-product, a class of professional and powerful military officers developed and tended to dominate the civil authorities. In additiona, before the conflict happened, the militaries of each country had drawn up complete plans for mobilization. These plans only awaited the go-ahead signal. The existence of secret battle plans stimulated espionage, which in turn aroused greater hatred and fear.

Nationalistic Beliefs: Strong feelings of nationalism fed the fires of hatred in pre-war Europe. It turned Frenchman against German and Russian against Austrian. Nationalistic speeches and writings (especially in countries like Germany) hastened the war by painting it as the best test for proof of national superiority.

These general causes created an atmosphere in Europe which made war a likelihood. The spark which ignited the flame and transformed these underlying problems into a frenzy of hostilities happened in the Balkans. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated while visiting Serbia. At first, it appeared to be another Balkan crisis that might pass without a major disturbance, but a month later, Austria severed relations with Serbia, a move that preceded war by only a few days.

Germany stood back of Austria's actions, while Russia stepped forward to defend it small Balkan friend. Despite frantic efforts by would-be peacemakers to localize the war, it spread rapidly, involving next France and Belgium, and soon Great Britain. As the world looked on, Europe erupted into war almost overnight.

American relations with European nations were at the time generally friendly, especially with Great Britain. President Woodrow Wilson called upon his countrymen to take no sides and to be impartial. But neutrality for America was not possible. Wilson decided to ask Congress to recognize that a state of war existed between the U.S. and Germany on April 6, 1917. The resolution passed both houses and the President signed it, thus the neutrality ended.