What Were the 4 Main Causes of WW1?

Among the most frequently asked questions in history, are Why did World War 1 Start? and Who Was to Blame for WW1? It is generally believed that there were in fact 4 main causes of WW1 – that is to say four longterm reasons for the war – as well as a number of immediate causes.

In this article, we shall look at the 4 M.A.I.N. longterm causes of WW1 in turn, as well as the immediate causes of the war, in order to try and better understand just why and how did World War 1 start.

What Were The Four Main Causes of WW1?

Historians generally agree that the four main longterm causes of World War One were Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism.

One way to remember these 4 main causes of WW1 is through the acronym M – A – I – N, where:

M = Militarism, A = Alliances, I = Imperialism, and N = Nationalism

In the next few paragraphs, we shall look at each of these longterm causes in turn. Please note that you are also able to link through to more in-depth articles for each of the M.A.I.N. causes.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was a period of intense military competition between the major European powers, as each nation sought to outdo their rivals. The budget spent on the strengthening of armies and navies increased at an alarming rate, and came at the expense of other aspects of society.

Although nearly all of the European countries were committed to stockpiling weapons and increasing the size of their standing armies, perhaps the most striking example of militarism at this time was the arms race that took place between Germany and Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

Germany looked enviously at the size of the Royal Navy, which was by far the largest and most powerful in the world. She was determined to catch Britain up and in the eighteen nineties passed a series of naval acts to raise the incredible amounts of money needed to build a fleet of battleships.

To begin with, Britain turned a blind eye towards Germany’s efforts of building up her navy, but by the turn of the century she had become concerned enough to commission the building of a new super battleship, HMS Dreadnought.

Germany retaliated by passing two further naval acts, raising the money to build dreadnoughts of her own, which resulted in a fierce naval arms race between the two European powers.

4 Main Causes of WW1 - Militarism
4 Main Causes of WW1 – Militarism

This militarism culture was not restricted to governments. The need to have the biggest army and navy had also seeped into the consciousness of the general public—egging on their country to spend more and more, in order to ensure their nation’s military superiority.

For a more in-depth look at militarism as a cause of WWI, go to How Did Militarism Lead to WW1? 


By 1914, Europe had become a hotbed of alliances and political intrigue. Two nations in particular stood out: Germany, an economic Goliath, with the largest army in the world, and Great Britain, who still very much ruled the waves and had built up an empire that Germany was incredibly envious of.

Royal family ties did not seem to make the uneasiness in Europe any better; if anything they probably made the situation worse. Three cousins now held the power in Europe: King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, and although the British King and Russian Tsar had quite a warm relationship, the same could not be said of their German cousin, Wilhelm.

4 Main Causes of WW1 - Alliances
4 Main Causes of WW1 – Alliances

Queen Victoria’s attempt to ensure peace through family matchmaking in the 19th Century seemed to have badly backfired. Her eldest grandson, Wilhelm had grown up resenting all things British, in particular George’s father, King Edward VII. The Kaiser’s jealousy towards his uncle Edward had certainly helped spur him on to build such a great army, as well as the building of a navy, which he hoped would one day rival the Royal Navy.

Wilhelm had also been furious with his uncle for seemingly encircling Germany within a web of alliances, the most noticeable of which was the Entente Cordiale, a series of agreements signed on the 8th April 1904, between Britain and France. When added to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892, it is understandable to see Wilhelm’s concerns of being boxed in.

Meanwhile, Germany’s strongest ally was fast becoming her greatest liability. The once mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire was beginning to weaken, both militarily and economically. Furthermore, it was involved in a number of border disputes with the Balkan countries, which were becoming embarrassing to Austria-Hungary, and in turn to Germany itself.

For a more in-depth look at alliance as a cause of WWI, go to How Did Alliances Contribute to WW1?


By the second half of the nineteenth century, many of the major powers in Europe had expanded their empires around the world, through a policy of imperialism—gaining political and economic control of territories across the globe. Great Britain, in particular, had become rich and powerful thanks to her new colonies, much to the envy of the other European powers, and none more so than Germany.

Following his ascension to the throne in 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm II adopted a particularly aggressive policy towards imperialism, known as Weltpolitik. A relatively new nation-state, having only been unified in 1871, Germany was late to the imperial game and so was desperate to begin building up her own empire.

4 Main Causes of WW1 - Imperialism
4 Main Causes of WW1 – Imperialism

One of the few continents left to colonise by this time was Africa, and soon a “Scramble for Africa” began in earnest. This resulted in a number of conflicts between the European powers, with Germany in particular, stepping on a number of toes.

It is worth noting that Germany’s erratic behaviour while pursuing her imperialistic policies, during the eighteen nineties and the beginning of the twentieth century, actually played a big part in improving the political relationship between Britain and France, which eventually led to the Entente Cordiale between the two nations and then finally to The Triple Entente, along with Russia.

For a more in-depth look at imperialism as a cause of WW1, go to How Did Imperialism Lead to WW1?


The second half of the nineteenth century saw a huge rise in nationalism throughout Europe, as more and more nation-states were created on the continent, in the decades following the Springtime of the Peoples, in 1848.

While the likes of Germany, Italy, Bulgaria and Serbia were recognised as new nation-states, citizens of other European countries looked on enviously, hoping that they too might one day gain independence. Nowhere was this cultural revolution of national identity more apparent than in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Bosnians and Poles all sought self-rule to some extent or the other.

Meanwhile, amongst the major powers in Europe, a very different type of nationalism was rife.

4 Main Causes of WW1 - Nationalism
4 Main Causes of WW1 – Nationalism

Intrinsically linked to militarism and imperialism, this type of nationalism was an extreme form of patriotism, which at its worst manifested itself as negative attitudes towards other nations, as well as feelings of superiority over other peoples.

For a more in-depth look at nationalism as a cause of WWI, go to How Did Nationalism Lead to WW1?

What Was The Spark That Started World War 1?

There is no doubting that the four M.A.I.N. long term causes of WW1 all contributed to a tense situation on the continent, and perhaps it was just a matter of time before a major conflict broke out between two or more of the European powers. However, on the 28th June 1914, an incident took place in Sarajevo, which would ignite the powder keg that Europe had become and trigger a series of seemingly unstoppable events.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was visiting Sarajevo, amid rising tensions in the Balkans—especially in neighbouring Serbia. Surprisingly, the Archduke, who had been accompanied by his wife, Sophie, drove through the streets of the Bosnian capital in an open sports motorcar with its top folded down.

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Security provided for the Archduke during his stay in Sarajevo was altogether rather lax, especially considering the failed assassination attempt on his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, a few years earlier, by the Serbian secret military society, Unification or Death—colloquially known as the Black Hand. And the Black Hand just so happened to be in town on that fateful day, in the summer of 1914.

The Black Hand actually had a number of assassins positioned along the planned route of the Archduke’s motorcade, and on the way to the Sarajevo Town Hall, a first assassination attempt took place on Franz Ferdinand’s life.

A Bosnian Serb called Nedeljko Cabrinovic attempted to throw a bomb into the Archduke’s car, but fortunately for Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the bomb bounced off the car and exploded under the car behind. The motorcade then sped up, quickly making its way to the safety of the town hall, and foiling any other attempts the would-be assassins had planned.

However, having left the town hall with a revised plan, to visit the injured victims of the failed assassination attempt at a nearby hospital, the driver of the Archduke’s car unfortunately took a wrong turn, and they found themselves back on the original route.

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

As the driver attempted to reverse the car back onto the correct road, a second Bosnian Serb, called Gavrilo Princip, happened to be right next to the car and took advantage of this opportunity by firing his gun twice into the motorcar, killing both the Archduke and his wife, Sophie.

Austria-Hungary believed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to be a direct attack on the country and they were also convinced that it was Serbia who had masterminded the Bosnian terrorists’ attack.

Get A Fictional Account of the Assassination

A great way to learn more about what happened on that fateful day in Sarajevo is by reading A Point In Time, a prequel novella to the Time Travel Historical Fiction series, Time Band. Indeed, the entire content of the History Just Got Interesting website is based upon the exhaustive research that was carried out for the novels and novellas which make up the Time Band series.

You are able to purchase a paperback or hardcover edition of the novella from the Books section of the website, but you are currently able to get the eBook edition for FREE.

Time Band - A Point in Time Novella: Hardcover
Time Band – A Point In Time

A Point In Time

While testing the time band, a new form of interactive time travel, Adam Amicus is transported back to Sarajevo, on the 28th June 1914. And as a sixth-form pupil at Time Immemorial High, Adam knows full well that a time historian cannot change the past—especially today of all days.

But the time band has changed all the rules, and as Adam soon discovers on his maiden trip, there will come a point in time when difficult choices must be made for the greater good.

Other Immediate Causes of WW1

Such was the importance of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination as a cause of WW1, the M.A.I.N. acronym is sometimes rewritten as M.A.N.I.A. to include Assassination as one of the causes, where:

M = Militarism, A = Alliances, N = Nationalism, I = Imperialism and A = Assassination

However, although it is true that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand created a major political situation in the Balkans, it is not known for certain whether this act on its own would have been enough to start a world war. There were also a number of other immediate causes, which when taken together with the M.A.I.N. long term causes and Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, catapulted the major European powers into a First World War.

The Blank Cheque

Following the assassination of the Archduke, events took place at a frightening rate. Emperor Franz Joseph was outraged that his nephew had been killed and demanded quick retribution, but the once mighty Austria-Hungary declaring war on lowly Serbia was not as easy as it may have appeared and Emperor Franz Joseph knew fine well he would need Kaiser Wilhelm II’s permission.

What became known as the July Crisis of 1914, began with an exchange of letters between Franz Joseph and Wilhelm, beginning on the 5th July. The Austrian Emperor wrote informing the German Kaiser that Austria-Hungary were considering taking military action against Serbia, following the assassination of his nephew.

Although there was no actual proof at this point, the Emperor Franz Joseph and his top officials were convinced that it was neighbouring Serbia who was behind the assassination of his nephew, providing the assassins with intelligence and weapons.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Franz Joseph I
Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Franz Joseph I

Wilhelm and Franz Ferdinand had themselves been close, and the Kaiser was deeply saddened at his friend’s murder, but he was warned by his ministers that Serbia had a powerful ally of it’s own in Russia. Even so, he had his Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, reply to Franz Joseph in a telegram, which later became known as the Blank Cheque.

The final two paragraphs, of what was a long reply to the Austrian Emperor, stated the following:

Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence.

The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

Rightly or wrongly, Austria-Hungary took the line “faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance” as carte blanche to go ahead and declare war on Serbia. Rather than doing that immediately, however, Austria-Hungary instead sent an ultimatum to Serbia with a list of ten demands, which she believed that Serbia could not possibly accept.

The Schlieffen Plan

When Russia fully mobilised its army in response to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, it actually threatened both Austria-Hungary and Germany (a partial mobilisation only against Austria-Hungary was considered by the Russian generals to not be practical from a military point of view). However, while Russia’s mobilisation was considered as a possible pre-cursor to war, legally speaking it was not an act of war. The Schlieffen Plan, on the other hand, was most definitely an act of war.

If Germany had matched Russia’s move, mobilising her troops towards Russia, there may well have been a stand off. The bravado between the nations might have cooled down and diplomacy and common sense may have prevailed.

The Schlieffen Plan

However, Germany’s plan of mobilisation in the event of a possible war against the alliance of France and Russia, was to deploy troops into Belgium as part of their Schlieffen Plan, in order to defeat France quickly, before then turning her attentions to Russia. This was so Germany didn’t end up fighting a war on two fronts. The trouble with this strategy though, was the fact that a full mobilisation of Germany’s army was automatically a declaration of war—as it involved the invasion of Belgium.

Final Thoughts on Why WW1 Started and Who Was to Blame

There is no doubt that the four M.A.I.N. longterm causes of WW1, namely Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism, all played their part in the road to war; as did the infamous spark of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, and even the Blank Cheque and the Schlieffen Plan, as mentioned above.

Despite all of the aforementioned causes, it must be noted that there were still plenty of opportunities during the July Crisis for war to be averted, which is why many historians now believe that in the end, the major European powers actually went to war, because of a deliberate choice by each side, and in effect it was statesman on both sides who were ultimately to blame for WW1—and that probably the main cause of war came down to an issue of timing.

Gavrilo Princip’s actions on that fateful day in Sarajevo had presented the major powers with the perfect excuse for war, and perhaps it was felt by governments on each side that if war was inevitable, then maybe now was a better time than later.

We have already spoken about the Blank Cheque Wilhelm had given Franz Jozef, and Austria-Hungary would have probably felt this was their best opportunity to solve the Balkan problem once and for all, believing that Russia would not dare interfere while the mighty Germany was supporting her.

Meanwhile, Germany was concerned that Russia’s army was getting bigger and stronger with every passing year and perhaps felt it would be better to have an inevitable war in Europe now, while the German army was still the most powerful one.

Likewise, Russia and France may have felt that thanks to their military alliance, and together with their much improved relationship with Great Britain during this period, that now was the best time to fight an inevitable war with Germany, thinking it unlikely the Germans could win a war on two fronts.

Finally, Britain may have felt that there was no choice but to join in the war, despite not having any military alliances forcing her hand. After all, if Britain did not come to France’s aid when she needed her to, and France and Russia ended up defeating Germany, then Britain would find herself in a very different looking Europe, with no friends. Worse still, if Germany ended up defeating France and Russia, there was the very real possibility that the balance of power in Europe might swing in Germany’s favour, which might prove costly to Britain and her empire in the future.

Quiz, WebQuest Worksheet, Lesson Plan and Jigsaws

Below are links to a number of FREE fun and educational resources (and a premium lesson plan), which are intended to help students gain a better understanding of the causes of World War One.


Click on the link to play the 4 Main Causes of WW1 Quiz

WebQuest Worksheet

Click on the link to view the 4 Main Causes of WW1 WebQuest WorkSheet

Premium Lesson Plan

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Jigsaw Puzzles

Click on a link below to solve one of our 4 Main Causes of WW1 Jigsaw Puzzles.