History #14: How WWI Started

On June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated while visiting a freshly annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. A month later, on July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia. By August 4, 1914, a week later, Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Austria, and Serbia were at war.

In about the span of a month, what started as a localized terrorist attack in Southeastern Europe, grew into a continent-wide war that still resonates today. Looking back, it’s easy to connect the dots, but for the diplomats living at the time, the outcomes of their actions were anything but clear.

We study World War I to remember this. To remember that we are always one month away from possible catastrophe – one misunderstanding away from World War III. We do what we can to reduce the likelihood of that outcome.

Setting the stage

The world in 1914 looked a lot different from the world today. For example, the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires existed. In fact, empires were a pretty big deal at the time. Today, state borders are mostly drawn along ethnic and religious lines, but before 1914, state borders were mostly drawn around which empire you belonged to.

This led to an empire building arms race. The Germans, French, Russians, Italians, etc. were all playing catch up with the British Empire who had a large head start. Remember, Germany and Italy didn’t even exist as a unified state until the mid 19th century.

As you can imagine, many ethnic groups didn’t enjoy being part of an empire that shared none of their cultural history. The Serbians were one such group who had aspirations of unifying the Yugoslav (southern Slavic) people. These aspirations hit a snag when the Austrian-Hungarian empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. When the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he had this to say:

I am a Yugoslav Nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria.

Alliance system

In setting the stage, we also need to discuss the alliance system leading up to 1914.

In 1839, Britain pledged to protect the neutrality of Belgium (Treaty of London). In 1879, the new German empire and Austria-Hungry pledged to defend each other if Russia attacked (Dual Alliance Treaty). In 1892, Russia and France – seeing the German Austrian alliance – decided to make an alliance of their own (Franco-Russian Military Convention). In the early 1900s, Britain formed alliances with France and Russia, and Italy formed alliances with Germany and Austria-Hungry.

It is important to point out that none of these alliances were really binding. In fact, Italy didn’t end up honoring their pact with Germany and Austria, instead joining the war on the side of the allies. Britain didn’t really need to defend Belgium. Germany didn’t need to go to war with Russia for something that happened in Southern Austria. But in the end, for whatever ulterior motives they may have had, they did.

The Great War begins

As we already talked about, the Austrian-Hungarian empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 and on June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Austrian-Hungarian empire didn’t like the idea that Serbian nationalists could threaten part of their empire, but they also didn’t like the idea of Russia attacking them if they invaded Serbia. It turns out that Russia had a significant geopolitical stake in Serbia, as it was their main access to the Mediterranean sea.

The Austrians spent a month talking to Germany in order to make sure they would have their back if Russia attacked. Germany gave the Austrians a blank check, and the Austrians used it to issue an untenable ultimatum to the Serbs. The Serbs couldn’t comply, and the Austrians declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

The domino effect of the alliance system began. On July 30th, Russia officially mobilized their troops. On August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia. On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France knowing they had an alliance with Russia. Germany planned to hit France hard and fast, so they marched through Belgium. On August 4th, Britain honored their pact with Belgium and declared war on Germany.

From assassination to world war in less than 40 days.

A butterfly flaps its wings

It is worth going a little deeper on the assassination plot in Bosnia. These would-be assassins were not very competent. In fact, the initial assassination plan was completely botched. The guy who made the attempt took a cyanide pill and jumped into a river. The cyanide pill didn’t work and the river was only a few inches deep. He was caught and interrogated.

The eventual assassin, Gavrilo Princip, gave up at this point and went to get some lunch. The people planning Fran Ferdinand route through the city, aware of an assassination attempt at this point, happened to send Fran Ferdinand right past the cafe that Gavrilo Princip was having lunch at.

Princip puts his sandwich down and walked over to the car carrying Ferdinand, which at this point had stalled on the road, and shoots him. A group of inept terrorists had set off the events that led to World War I.


I only focused on the how World War I started in this post, but the battles and eventual outcome of the war were equally interesting – even setting the stage for World War II.

So why did World War I start? I offered an explanation centered around an alliance system dominoing out of control. But the alliance system could have just been an excuse to expand empires in a militaristic arms race. Nationalism played a part, “us vs them” propaganda played a part, the glorification of war played a part, diplomats taking gambles played a part, resources played a part. The big bang 13 billion years ago played a part. There is no simple answer.

The better question is what can be done to prevent this from happening again? There will always be incompetent terrorists, there will always be “us vs them”, but there doesn’t always need to be a global war. Except for the Hitler thing, war works well for the Hitler thing.



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