100 years ago: 5 reasons World War I started

By Chuck Springston
100 years ago: 5 reasons World War I started

    The first shots in World War I were fired June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, by a Bosnian of Serbian ancestry who assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

    Austria-Hungary then declared war on Serbia, and soon other nations lined up on one side or the other in the conflict. How could gunfire in a country slightly smaller than West Virginia, in square miles, soon spread over almost the whole globe? Here are five facts that help answer that question:

1. Germany had become a united, strong country

    In the 1860s, Germany was essentially a weak confederation of separate states, with Prussia  being the most powerful. When Otto von Bismarck became Prussia’s prime minister in 1862, one of his goals was a unified Germany.
    Through wars over disputed territory with Austria (1866) and France (1870-71) and agreements with other states in the confederation, Bismarck was able to establish the German Empire in 1871. In the process, Germany became Europe’s strongest military power, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II and Bismarck as chancellor.

2. European nations became trapped in a tangled vine of alliances well before the 20th Century.

     Bismarck worried that France might try to avenge its defeat by joining forces with Austria-Hungary (formed in 1867) and Russia in an attack on Germany. The German chancellor hoped to head off the French threat by forming his own alliances with Austria-Hungary and Russia, which he did in 1873.
     Russia, however, had a strained relationship with the alliance, in large part because of disputes with Austria-Hungary over conflicting interests in the Balkans. After entering and leaving various treaties with the other two powers, Russia was out for good in 1890. Meanwhile,  Germany and Austria-Hungary had entered an alliance with Italy in 1879.
     In 1892 Russia allied with France as protection against an attack from Germany, Austria-Hungary or Italy.  Around that time, Britain became troubled by Russian expansion moves in the Asian-Pacific region. Japan also saw Russia’s plans in the region as a threat to its ambitions.  In 1902, Britain and Japan combined their mutual interests into an alliance.
     Then in 1904, Britain signed an agreement with France resolving various disputes among the two countries.  Both were united in a growing fear of Germany. The Germans were constructing a navy big enough to challenge Britain’s command of the seas. Germany also began building a colonial empire that encroached on French and British possessions in Africa and the Pacific.
      Britain and Russia, which had been at odds over colonial issues in Persia, settled their differences in a 1907 agreement.
     Under the 1904 and 1907 agreements, the signatories had an obligation to support each other in war. The lineup of the alliances had now taken shape.  On one side: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. On the other: Russia, France, Britain and Japan.

3. The two alliances were on a collision course that ran through the Balkans.

     For about 500 years, beginning around 1400, Ottoman Turks had ruled the Balkans, but the Ottoman Empire’s control of the region had been weakening since the early 1800s and collapsed in the early 1900s amid a series of revolutions and wars. Serbia, one of the largest and most ambitious Balkan states, became an independent nation in 1878.
     As the Ottoman Empire receded from the scene, Russia and Austria-Hungary saw an opportunity to enter the power vacuum.  Russia was a big backer of Serbia, in large measure because of ethnic ties, and became an influential player in Serbian politics. Austria-Hungary annexed Serbian neighbor Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, much to the dismay of both Serbia and Russia.

4. The Black Hand pulled the trigger that killed peace in Europe.

     In 1911, a group of 10 Serbians founded a secret society officially called “Union or Death,”  but also known as the “Black Hand.”  Its goal was to bring all Slavic people of the Balkans together in one country by expanding  Serbia’s boundaries. The Black Hand, whose members were mainly army officers, planned to achieve its goal through unrelenting violence, including armed attacks and assassinations.  
     In 1914, the Black Hand learned that a high-profile target was heading its way. Austria-Hungary’s military governor in Bosnia-Herzegovina had invited Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Emperor Franz Joseph, to visit in June and watch Austrian troops practicing their maneuvers.
     Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, arrived in Sarajevo by train on June 28 and later that morning rode through the city in a motorcade toward a reception at the town hall. Seven Bosnian-born plotters, who had received planning assistance and weapons from Serbian terrorists in the Black Hand, positioned themselves along the route, waiting for an opportunity to kill the duke. They were armed with a mix of hand-thrown bombs and pistols.
     One of the seven was the assassination plot’s primary organizer, who didn’t carry a weapon that day. Four others with weapons did not use them for a  variety of reasons, including lost nerve and a fear of bystanders getting killed. A sixth plotter did throw his bomb, which exploded underneath a car behind the one carrying Ferdinand, who continued on to the town hall.
     After the reception, the archduke’s motorcade missed a turn and had to stop. Among the people who saw the stopped car was the seventh plotter, Garvrilo Princip, who had missed his opportunity earlier after the failed bomb attack. Princip fired two shots. The first went into Sophie's stomach, the second into Ferdinand’s neck, killing them both.

5. Austria’s response to the assassination, combined with the alliance system, propelled the world into war.

    Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the archduke’s death, although Serbian government leaders were not involved in the assassination. Austrian officials gave Serbia a list of demands including some it knew Serbia could not accept because the conditions were a threat to Serbia’s independence.
    Serbia would not accept all of the demands because it knew that if Austria-Hungary declared war Russia would jump to Serbia’s defense. (Austria-Hungary gambled that Russia would respond with angry words but nothing more.)
    Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia July 28. Russia began mobilizing its army along the border with Austria-Hungary.
    Germany, tied by treaty to Austria-Hungary and convinced that war was inevitable, declared war on Russia Aug. 1, which meant that France would have to go to war on Russia’s side. Therefore, Germany declared war on France Aug. 3  and launched an attack on France through Belgium.
    Britain, bound by treaty not only to France but also Belgium, declared war on Germany on Aug. 4.  Austria-Hungary formally declared war on Russia Aug. 6. France and Great Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary Aug. 12.  Japan, adhering to agreements with Britain, declared war on Germany Aug. 23.
    In the days leading up the war, Germany had approached the remnants of the Ottoman Empire for support in a likely war with Russia, an old nemesis of the Ottomans. Germany and the Ottoman Empire signed a secret treaty on Aug. 2. They kept the secret until Oct. 29, when the Ottoman navy attacked Russian ports in the Black Sea. In early November, Russia, Britain and France all declared war on the Ottoman Empire.
    Italy found a loophole in its treaty to avoid going to war in 1914 on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but then joined the side of Britain and France in 1915.
    In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson had issued a proclamation of neutrality on Aug. 4, but after German submarines torpedoed American ships and foreign ships carrying American passengers, the United States declared war on Germany April 6, 1917.  


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