The Extent at which the First World War was caused by Imperial Rivalries

The Extent at which the First World War was caused by Imperial Rivalries





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The Extent at which the First World War was caused by Imperial Rivalries

The First World War, often called World War I or WWI started on 28 July, 1914 and lasted until 11 November, 1918. The confrontation is sometimes called the Great War. The participants mostly comprised of European countries, the U.S., Russia, and Turkey, with the battle also stretching into parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (Zagare, 2015). The war could be termed as one of the deadliest confrontations in history where about nine million people lost their lives as a result of indulging in the combat while another five million civilians losing their lives as a result of the conflict. The Spanish flue that struck in 1918 also contributed towards the high number of fatalities reported during the incident (Zagare, 2015). For history students and researchers, knowing the origins of World War I are equally are essential as comprehending the war’s adverse implications. Though the unanticipated killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Carl Ludwig was the leading cause of leading to the emergence of the conflict, there were various other compelling reasons that also played a role in contributing towards the emergence of the war. Evidence suggests that the urge by European powers to want to expand their territories due to economic and political reasons contributed significantly towards the development of the war that progressively spread to other parts of the world. It happens that as imperial powers like France and Britain sought to broaden their empires, it caused an upsurge in tensions among the European nations. The paper argues that the imperial rivalries contributed significantly towards the emergence of WWI with each side seeking to safeguard its interests and desires. It describes how rivalry developed as a result of the scramble for territories, and how this determined the formation of alliances, which also worsened relations approaching WWI. Other factors related to imperial rivalry that contributed towards the development of WWI include the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Also part of the analysis is how the Moroccan crises created enmity between the German-led side and the France-Britain relationship. The argument in the paper is that imperial rivalries played major roles in hastening the emergence of WWI.

Scramble for Colonies

In the 1900s, various European countries had empires across the world, where they had authority where they had authority over large tracts of land. Prior to WWI, imperial powers such as the French and the British were the globe’s most influential, colonizing places such as North and West Africa, Vietnam, and India (Aniveas, 2011). The broadening of European countries as empires, also called imperialism, can be viewed as a major cause of the war, because as colonial powers like France and Britain broadened their empires, it resulted in heightened tensions among European states. The tensions were often triggered by the act of acquiring colonies through coercion. Then, once a territory had been dominated, it was administered by the imperial country – most of the colonial states were not treated by their mother countries and were largely exploited, and resentment and dissatisfaction became rampant (Aniveas, 2011). As French and British expansionism developed further, tensions and apprehension grew between conflicting sides, encompassing the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Germany, resulting in the formation of the Allied Powers that brought together France and Britain and the Central Powers that united the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Germany during the First World War (Aniveas, 2011). The elaboration affirms that imperialism played a fundamental role in facilitating the emergence of the First World War due to the conflicts that emerged when imperial powers scrambled for colonies overseas.

It is imperative to acknowledge the crises that ensued following the Europeans’ scramble for territories in Africa. According to the paper by Zagare (2015) the incident caused serious stalemates in Morocco that attracted global attention. Though not a colony of France the position of Morocco in north-west Africa put it within the control of France’s domination. The French sought to stablish its rule over Morocco but Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany who ruled from 1888 to 1918 interjected and countered the move. Wilhelm II himself took the initiative to visit the capital of Morocco in 1905 where he gave a powerful speech encouraging the idea of Moroccan autonomy. German’s intervention angered the French administration, and triggered a series of harsh diplomatic reactions and harsh press reports. The second crisis based on the writing by Zagare (2015) emerged in 1911 when the French faced stiff rebellion from the Morrocans who valued their autonomy more than anything. The Germans launched an armed attack against the French while trying to defend their territory in a bid to back up the Moroccans. The article by Zagare (2015) describes how the German forces made surprising attacks by landing and damaging France’s key strategic point that gave it dominance over the African colony. The event prompted an even stronger response and soured the relationship between the two imperial nations. The actions by the Germans to halt the France’s progress were not aimed at encroaching into Morocco or broadening its territory. Instead, it aimed at driving rivalry between Britain and France (Zagare, 2015). However, the Germans did not excel in this act because the plan resulted in a counter-effect. The Anglo-French pact became stronger contrary to the expectation of the Germans and intensified counter-German ideologies became stronger in Britain and France. The rivalry between the two sides determined their affiliations moving into the First World War and aggravated the varying reactions witnessed when indulging in the combat.

Alliance-related Conflicts

Moreover, in the age of imperialism before WWI, nations all over Europe has formed alliances. The coalitions promised that each country would support the other in the event of war between a friendly party and another member of the Great Power. Before World War I, the alliances of Serbia and Russia, Russia and France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Germany, Belgium, France, and the British, Russia, Britain, and France, and the Britons and the Japanese were strongly in place. The one that caused the most impact among nations was the association between Russia, Britain, and France that was enacted in 1907 and referred to as the Triple Entente (Gerwarth & Manela, 2014). Germany in particular, raised concerns that the Triple Entente was a considerable threat to the Great Power and its existence. As tensions continued to escalate over alliances, the already existing pacts ventured into other nations declaring attacks against one another in the face of tensions. These clashes over alliances – which forced countries to come to each other’s defense – resulted in the establishment of the two conflicting sides of WWI, the Central and the Allied Powers (Gerwarth & Manela, 2014). By the commencement of the war, the U.S. and Italy had joined the Allied Powers, which brought together other nations, including Great Britain, France, and Russia. On the other hand, the Central Powers brought together the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Austria Hungary, and Germany (Gerwarth & Manela, 2014). Based on this analysis, it is evident that the imperial rivalry that surrounded the formation of alliances before the war contributed significantly in the emergence of the battle that saw like-minded nations coming together.  

The Death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Examining the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria further helps to show how the rivalry among imperial powers contributed towards the development of WWI. Gavrilo Princip was responsible for the assignation that claimed the lives of Ferdinand together with his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg (Kowalski, 2010). The Archduke was a principle target because he was destined to be the rightful heir of their Austria-Hungarian Empire (Kowalski, 2010). On the fateful day, Ferdinand had gone to oversee a parade by the military in Bosnia and Herzegovina that became under the leadership of Austria-Hungary in 1908 following their acquisition from former Ottoman territories (Kowalski, 2010). While the Archduke was travelling in a car along Sarajevo, his killer fired into the automobile, killing the target and his wife. Following the death, Austria-Hungary gave an ultimatum to Serbia, which the latter rejected and led the former to wage war against Serbia. Germany came in to support Austria-Hungary with Russia coming in to support Serbia, a feud that culminated in World War I (Kowalski, 2010). Thus, examining the cause of the war from this perspective, it becomes apparent that imperial rivalry witnessed prior to the conflict contributed significantly towards its emergence.

Fall of the Ottoman Empire

The fall of the Ottoman Empire marked imperial instability, which contributed significantly towards tensions in Europe that determined alienations moving towards the time WWI started. According to Penix (2013) critical instabilities and concerns in the Ottoman Empire brewed uncertainty in a significant part of southern Europe and threatened to affect balance of power. Termed as the Sick Man of Europe in the late 1800s by satirists, the Ottoman Empire was in constant economic, military, and political depreciation. The Ottomans were overpowered in various battles encompassing the First Balkans War (1912-1913), Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), and the Crimean War (1853-1856) (Penix, 2013). These loses, together with escalating nationalism and revolts in places controlled by the Ottoman, resulted in slow but substantial fall of territory. With the Empire falling at the risk of becoming extinct, the other imperial powers in Europe worked hard to safeguard their territories and influence in their regions (Penix, 2013). For example, Austria-Hungary hoped to widen its territories into the Balkans. Russian moved in quickly to counter Austria’s expansion while safeguarding its reach to the Black Sea. Germany on its part wanted to safeguard the completion and security of the Berlin-Baghdad railway. France and Britain also had trade and colonial interests in the region. A concern that increasingly attracted the attention of many countries and which generated varying reactions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the Eastern question, which looked at what would be the scenario in the event the Ottoman collapsed (Penix, 2013). The ensuing clashes for colonies following the depreciation of Ottoman’s influence intensified moving towards the time of the WWI and determined how the clashing sides aligned to counter each other.


The paper reaffirms that imperial rivalry prior to WWI contributed significantly towards the materialization of the battle. The pre-war period saw imperial powers in Europe scramble to get new colonial possessions. Much of this happened in Africa, where imperial powers such as Germany, France, and Britain all attempted to secure land and gain control. The rush for colonies intensified rivalry and resulted in the formation of alliances that would determine how countries intervene in the case of another in times of problem. The other issue that shows imperial rivalry caused WWI is the challenges that engulfed the formation of alliances prior to the conflict. Nations, particularly from Europe came together to form alliances based on shared ideologies. These formations generated fears among the others who feared that they could be attacked because of their views and desires. The analysis reveals that the Great Power felt that the Triple Entente was a major threat to its existence. The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand also triggered imperial rivalry that contributed towards the development of WWI. Austria-Hungary moved in to attack Serbia blaming it for the Ferdinand’s death with the support of Germany. However, the coming in of Russia to intervene for Serbia’s case fueled imperial rivalry that proceeded all the way to WWI. The Moroccan crises is another factor, which affirms imperialism contributed towards the development of WWI. The Germans did not excel in its goal of fostering enemy between the French and the British, a relationship that only grew stronger. Another aspect related to imperial rivalry that contributed towards WWI was the issues surrounding the collapse of the Ottoman Empire because other imperial powers in Europe took the opportunity to fill the gap left by the once influential imperial power. The scramble for colonies previously owned by the Ottoman Empire intensified rivalry and determined alliances moving towards the war.


Aniveas, A. (2011). 1914 in world historical perspective: The ‘uneven’ and ‘combined’ origins of World War I. European Journal of International Relations, 19(4), 721-746. doi: 10.1177/1354066111427613

Gerwarth, R., & Manela, E. (2014). The Great War as a global war: Imperial conflict and the reconfiguration of world order, 1911–1923. Diplomatic History, 38(4), 786-800.

Kowalski, M. (2010). Russia and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Histories, 2(2), 1-7.

Penix, M. (2013). The Ottoman Empire in the First World War: A rational disaster.

Zagare, F. (2015). The Moroccan crisis of 1905–1906: An analytic narrative. Peace Economics, Peace and Public Policy, 1-24. doi:10.1515/peps-2015-0003

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