To what extent can it be said that the First World War was caused by

How can we begin to explain the causes of the First World War?
Why an obsession?
Amount of evidence is enormous e.g., Governments opened up the archives
after 1919. Variety of approaches endless.
It was the Great War, a turning point, the end of the age of progress. ‘An event
of such magnitude, which left so deep an impression, cries out for explanation’.
The problem of ‘guilt’, who started it, has remained and remains politically
alive. Germany was blamed.
‘The sheer richness of the material made the task difficult and rewarding though the
results seemed to confirm the old adage that important historical questions are never
finally answered.’
Zara Steiner – Britain and the Origins of the First World War (1977)
Causes as a set of events, incidents, facts are conveniently divided as we have seen into
background or long-term causes and short-term causes.
Long-term Causes
These start at different points dependent on the thesis
German-French rivalry as central cause will start in 1871
Balkans as central cause 1878 Treaty of Berlin
Alliance system 1892/4 Franco-Russian
Imperialism 1890s in general
Two descriptive themes:
 Whatever the account the alliance system will be important to the description
and two key dates will be central:
1879 – Dual Alliance (G-AH)
1904 – Anglo-French Entente (Difference between entente and alliance? – entente
was simply a commitment to diplomatic support and consultation)
 All long term surveys will describe the series of crises in the years leading up to
1905-6 – First Moroccan crisis = Franco-German confrontation strengthened the
1908-9 – Balkan crisis begins with Austrian annexation of the Bosnia-Herzegovina
– Russia decides not to support Serbia
1911 – 2nd Moroccan crisis another F-G confrontation
1912-13 – two series of wars in Balkans. Serbia emerges strengthened at the
expense of Turkey and now turns attention to Austria.
Three major consequences
‘Never again’ mentality in Russia and Austria
Rise in Balkan nationalism directly threatened Austria
Moroccan crises led the French to expect British support
And yet… in all four crises a diplomatic way out was found without a war.
Short Term Causes
Six weeks from the assassination of 28 June 1914 and early days of August. Have any
other six weeks of human history ever been subjected to such intense analysis? Luigi
Albertini (Italian Historian) has dedicated two massive volumes to the study of these
days. And there is plenty of evidence to go on (Opening up of the archives) but to
presume an answer can be found is an interesting assumption.
What stands out?
A certain inevitability about the whole narrative that seems to take on a life of its own.
Described by contemporaries through a metaphor of a river, approaching rapids and
eventually a waterfall. It was a series of perfectly rational decisions in the narrow
context of the decision making process itself; an apparent collective failure to predict
the nature of the warfare to come. If they had only known… but this leads to a cardinal
historical sin of not judging the characters on their own terms.
The story…
Austria holds Serbia responsible for the death of the Archduke and sends a wholly
unrealistic ultimatum.
Russia supports Serbia and unlike in 1908-9 is prepared to mobilise and fight.
Germany offers unconditional support to Austria – The Blank Cheque
At this point the alliance system and the military plans come into play – Schlieffen Plan
meant whatever happened in the east, a widespread European war was likely. The
invasion through Belgium proved to be the decisive factor for the British Cabinet.
The rest came down to railway timetables and the lessons of the Franco-Prussian war…
‘The lesson of 1870 was burnt into the mind of every staff-officer in Europe: the nation
which loses the mobilization race is likely to lose the war’.
M Howard ‘Reflections on the First World War’ Studies in War and Peace (1970)