The trigger was pulled when a Serb assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. This gave Austria an excuse to exert influence in the Balkans. Austria wanted to punish and weaken Serbia, which wanted to be free of the empire’s dominance. Poland and the Ukraine were part of the empire. But, the danger was that Slavic Russia might come to the aid of its Slavic brothers. Germany pledged support to Austria, believing Russia was too weak to intervene. This was the fatal mistake, because when Austria pressed Serbia, Russia came to the defense. Everyone mobilized.
Germany attacked France through Belgium, which brought in Britain. Their sense of honor and national preservation overcame their common sense. The assassination was the immediate cause of the war, but it merely gave the powers, especially Germany, an opportunity to carry forward their economic and political objectives relative to the other powers. Unseen Change Europe had been relatively stable since Napoleon was defeated a hundred years earlier. The balance of power system, designed to prevent one or two nations from overwhelming another, had been effective.
This led to complacency. The five great powers entered World War I feeling that this situation would continue, and that the war would be short and would not upset the overall stability. Two mighty forces dominated Europe in the early 20th century: Imperialism and nationalism. The major powers did not foresee that great change was on the horizon as a result of the collision of these forces. The industrial revolution created a new class of workers who were more interested than peasants of earlier times in participating in government and supporting their nations.
This caused a weakening of empires that was not immediately apparent. Already, the Austrian and Ottoman conglomerate empires, led by autocrats, were steadily deteriorating and losing their cohesion. The more democratic empires of France and Britain were also going to lose their colonies in Asia and Africa. World War I, then, could be seen as a violent readjustment to reality. Within those few years, the Russian, Austrian and Turkish empires simply disappeared. Nationalism had triumphed over imperialism. Governments and Objectives of the Empires
Each of the five great powers was an empire. Britain and France had semi-democratic systems of government, while Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary were autocratic. There were many conflicting objectives among these powers. Each had its own faults that created and sustained Europe’s greatest disaster. Germany had united in a series of small wars, notably defeating France and taking some of its territory in 1870-1971. It rapidly became the strongest continental power, and began building military force and economic empire, especially in Africa where they competed with France and Britain.
This upset the existing balance of power. But, Germany had a weak ally in Austria-Hungary. It hoped Britain would remain neutral; but, when Britain supported its French and Russian allies, some in Germany realized that they would be overpowered. Germany’s greatest weakness, however, was the all-powerful Kaiser, who made fateful decisions. Russia and the Czar did not know it, but in 1917 revolution and the Bolsheviks would take Russia out of the war. Russia wanted the other Slav nations to be independent and provide an additional source of strength in Europe.
When war started, the Russian army was not up to the challenge, and provided Lenin with the road to power. Austria-Hungary was creaking under mismanagement and the centrifugal forces of nationalism. It feared chaos in the Balkans would severely wound the empire. It also saw an opportunity to calm a rabid region and expand the empire. The Balkans, not just the assassination of the Austrian prince, were the real cause of the war. That same support of the Slavs by Russia may be seen in today’s foreign policy.
In trying to punish Serbia militarily instead of diplomatically, Austria brought Russia into the position that set off the conflagration. Germany merely had to wait. France, Russia’s ally, had long feared a stronger Germany (leading to the European Union). It therefore found natural allies in Russia and Britain in trying to balance German power. As Germany began to flex its muscles, the Allied Powers felt the need to counter this new threat. France also hoped it might regain the territory it had lost to Germany half a century earlier. In the end, it did.