Background to the War




Although the war was started by the murder of the Austrian archduke, other developments in Europe led to it. In the 19th centuries European powers fought for colonies in other parts of the world. In Europe itself, people that were governed by empires, like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, fought for their own independence.


Rise of Nationalism

During the 19th century nationalism broke out in much of Europe. People, who had a common history or language, thought of themselves as an own state. This led to the creation of two new states from many smaller ones: Germany and Italy. On the other hand, nationalism weakened the big empires in Europe. They consisted of many separate groups who wanted the right to govern themselves.

Especially the Balkans was a place where many conflicts arose. It became known as Europe's powder keg. Most of the area had been a part of the Ottoman Empire. During the course of the 19th century Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania won their independence. The new nations started arguing over boundaries. Austria-Hungary and Russia saw that the Turkish Empire’s power had diminished and started to spread their influence to the Balkans.

Serbia became a powerful state that wanted to unite the people of the Balkans. Austria-Hungary, on the other side, was afraid of this because it had many Slavic groups in its own empire. Serbia was angry at Austria-Hungary because the Hapsburg Empire had gained control of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where many Serbs lived.



Military Buildup

During the unification wars that Germany its army became very powerful. Many men saw this with pride and wanted to fight for their country.

At first , other countries, like England, were not worried about the military strength of Germany. Towards the end of the 19th century , however, Germany started to build a powerful navy and wanted it to be as powerful as the British . The two countries started building bigger and stronger vessels in case a war broke out.

New technology also led to the creation of new machines and weapons. Machine guns and artillery made it possible to hit a target more accurately. Ships and railroads could move soldiers and weapons from one place to another more quickly. By the end of the 1800s new technology made it possible for countries to fight longer and more intensive wars.



System of Alliances

In the decades before the outbreak of World War I European nations agreed to help each other if they were attacked. Although these military alliances protected a country from being attacked it also created dangerous situations. A country would risk a conflict with another one because it knew its friends would support them. Alliances could also make countries take part in a war they did not want, thus a conflict could spread over many countries, possibly even the whole continent.


The Triple Alliance

At the end of the 19th century Germany's chancellor Otto von Bismarck set up alliances to strengthen Germany's position in Europe. Germany and Austria-Hungary agreed to help each other if they were attacked by Russia. Italy joined the agreement which became known as the Triple Alliance. Bismarck also tried to make friends with Russia so that it would not attack his country. On the other side , he tried to prevent Great Britain and France from forming an alliance with Russia.



The Triple Entente

During the 1800s the United Kingdom did not form alliances with other countries. Its policy became known as splendid isolation. But the military buildup in Germany made England worry, so they decided to end their isolation and look for allies. In 1904 the United Kingdom and France decided to settle their long dispute and form an alliance, called the Entente Cordiale (Friendly Agreement). A few years later Russia joined the alliance, which then became the Triple Entente. Although these countries did not pledge to go to war for each other they did start making military plans together.



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Related Topics



  • accurately = in an exact way
  • agreement = here: group
  • alliance = when two or more countries form a pact and try to help each other
  • ally = friendly country
  • although = while
  • archduke = prince, who belonged to the Austrian royal family
  • argue = quarrel ; to have different opinions about something
  • artillery = large guns that are fixed in one position or can be moved around
  • attack = to start using guns and bombs against an enemy in a war
  • buildup = to make stronger and stronger
  • boundary = border; line between two countries
  • century = a hundred years
  • chancellor = leader of the German government
  • common = the same
  • consist of= are made up of
  • creation = the making of
  • development = things that happened
  • diminish = to become weaker
  • dispute = quarrel, argument
  • during the course of  = here: as the century went on
  • empire = group of countries that are all controlled by one ruler
  • especially = above all
  • gain control = to control with an army
  • govern = rule
  • independence = freedom, liberty
  • influence = power, control
  • intensive = with more power in a shorter period of time
  • join = to become a part of
  • nationalism = when a group of people of the same race or language want to have their own country
  • Ottoman Empire = large empire, based in Turkey, that included many parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa. It continued from the 13th century until the beginning of World War I. It had its most powerful period during the 16th and 17th centuries.
  • outbreak = start
  • pledge = promise
  • policy = the way of doing something or behaving towards other countries
  • possibly = maybe
  • powder keg = a very dangerous situation in a place where fighting could start at any time
  • prevent = stop something from happening
  • pride = to be proud of something
  • protect = stop, defend
  • separate = different
  • set up = start
  • settle = end an argument
  • splendid isolation = the British government did not care about what happened in other countries and they did not get involved in the affairs of others
  • spread = move
  • state = country
  • strength = power
  • strengthen = make stronger
  • support = help
  • technology = new machines that work in new and modern ways
  • thus = that is why
  • towards = near
  • unification wars = wars that were fought to bring many smaller countries under the control of one bigger one
  • unite = to bring together
  • weapon = something that you use to fight or attack someone with, like a gun, knife or bomb
  • vessel = ship or large boat