Why did war break out in Europe in 1914?
This page focusses on short term causes of the conflict. Look at 'Why were there two armed camps in Europe in 1914?' for long and medium term causes of the First World war.
Tension had been rising between the European powers for many years. The events that took place in Sarajevo in 1914, unleashed a series of events that finally lighted a fuse which would explode into the First World War. The key event, which started this chain reaction was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife just before he was
From the beginning of their visit the royal couple were cheered everywhere they went. They were visiting Sarajevo to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Security was lax as there were no soldiers on duty and only a few police. At 10.10 am a tall man wearing a long black coat and hat threw a hand grenade and at the Archdukes car. The driver saw the bomb coming and accelerated his car so it missed him. The bomb bounced underneath the next car in the procession and injured about 20 people. The damaged car was pushed onto the pavement.
Even though someone had just tried to kill him, the Archduke decided to carry on with his royal visit. Unknown to him there were at least two other men waiting to try and assassinate him. One man failed because he could not get the bomb out of his pocket. The people next to him were jammed against his side. However, the third assassin was lucky enough to succeed in killing the Archduke.
During the two failed attempts to kill the Franz Ferdinand another young assassin called Gavrillo Princip, a 19 year old Serb, was waiting for his chance to kill him. He was a member of the Black Hand and at first he thought that his other friends had been successful. When he saw the Archduke’s car go flying by he felt depressed and decided to have a cup of coffee in a nearby cafe . In his pocket was a revolver. He had fired a few practice shots the day before, but had missed the target. Besides, he had never been taught at a moving target.
At 10.45 am the Archduke decided to cut short his reception at the town hall and decided to visit a policeman injured in the bomb attack on his car. During the journey to the hospital the car with his bodyguards took a wrong turning. The Archduke’s driver slammed on the brakes.
They then needed to try and catch up with the other car. However, the car engine stalled outside the cafe where Princip was having his cup of coffee. Princip could not believe his luck. He pushed through the crowd and pulled out his revolver. A policeman saw him and tried to stop him but was hit by someone behind him. Princip jumped onto the car’s running board and fired at point blank range. He missed the Archduke and shot his wife. He tried again and finally succeeded. As he died the Archduke cried to his wife ‘Sophie, Sophie don’t die.
"Franz Ferdinand cried out. ‘Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Stay alive for the children!’ His plumed hat had fallen off, and now as his attendant tried to prop him upright he slumped over his wife’s dead body and died." Source: ‘The Habsburgs’ by McGuigan published in the 1970s.
"The main motive which guided me in my deed was the avenging of the Serbian people ... I am a Nationalist. I aimed to free the Yugoslavs, for I am a Yugoslav ... As far as Serbia is concerned, it is her duty to free us ... I aimed at the Archduke ... I do not remember what I thought at that moment. I only know that I fired twice or perhaps several times, without knowing whether I had hit or missed." Source: Princip’s statement at his trial, 1914.
Princip later died in prison after he had been badly treated by the authorities. His actions lead to a chain reaction that exploded into the First World War.
How did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lead to war?
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the catalyst for war. The Austro-Hungarian authorities had for some time wanted to exert their influence over Serbia. The assassination provided an excuse to do just that. They had two options, first, a military strike which could cause problems as Russia had an agreement to defend Serbia in the event of an attack, or secondly, diplomatic pressure.
On July 6th the German government stated that they would support Austria-Hungary's attempts to punish Serbia for the assassination. This is known as the "Blank Cheque". As a result of this support, the Austro-Hungarian government issued an ultimatum to Serbia on July 23rd 1914. The ultimatum (which can be read in full here) asked the Serbs to hand over much of its sovereignty to the Autro-Hungarian government. It was not expected that the Serbs would agree to these demands and was in essence designed to provide a legitimate reason for taking military action: with the hope that this would result in other nations not becoming involved.
Suprisingly the Serbs actually agreed to many of the demands with only a few minor points being disputed. This presented the Austrians with a problem. The Serbs had backed down, unexpededly. Now the Russians made it clear that they would support Serbia if any action was taken and the French stated that they would support Russia if such action was neccessary. On July 29th the Austrians declared war on Serbia.
The Russians responded to this by mobilising their army the following day. This led to the German government demanding that the Russian mobilisation stopped, with the threat of German involvement in the conflict if this was ignored. At the same time the French were asked for assurances that they would remain neutral should Germany go to war with the Russian Empire. The French gave no such assurance and the Russians ignored the ultimatum. As a result the Germans and the French mobilised their armed forces on August 1st.
On the 2nd of August the German government delivered an ultimatum to Belgium demanding right of way through Belgian territory in order to enable an attack on France. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, announed in Parliament that Britain would fight to defend Belgium should it be required. When the Belgians refused to agree to the German ultimatum and German troops entered Belgium anyway, the British responded by declaring war.
The main reasons therefore for the outbreak of war were:
The Alliance Systems. These resulted in countries being 'bound' to support one another in the case of a conflict, resulting in a 'localised' incident becoming a major conflict.
Imperialism: Austro-Hungarian wishes to dominate the Balkans region led them to take what they believed was a calculated risk. A short war in Serbia would ensure that it was they rather than the Russians or the Turks who were the dominant power in the area.
Self Belief: The Germans and Austro-Hungarians believed that they would easily defeat Russian and French forces. They considered the Russian army to be inferior and had easily defeated the French only 40 years earlier. They did not believe that the British would become involved in any conflict arising from the Serbian ultimatum as they didn't think that it was in Britian's best interests to get involved.