Causes of WWI: Was it just an accident?


The first page of the edition of the Domenica del Corriere, an Italian paper, with a drawing of Achille Beltrame depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. Source: Wikimedia commons.

It might seem odd that after 100 years of research, reflection, discussion and debate the causes and origins of WWI are still a hotly contested issue among historians. The standard four contributors cited—the dynamic intersection of the forces of global imperialism, strategic militarism, patriotic nationalism and the alliances between various European nations and dynasties—have not adequately addressed the question of why Europe slid into war in 1914, and why that war escalated into a world-wide conflict that lasted for four years with devastating consequence. What is not in dispute is that WWI was a watershed moment that changed the world irrevocably. Multiple accounts and perspectives need to be considered to build a comprehensive and objective analysis. A whole range of historical skills are required in the study of the causes of WWI, and in the interpretation of different perspectives.

The dominant view is that there was no single cause of the First World War but rather that its origins lay in the ‘seismic shifts in the balance of power’ * in Europe over the previous 50 years. Some historians argue that no one nation, leader or event was to blame, but that Europe simply slid into war as a result of entrenched rivalries, suspicions and mistrust. In the course of my research over the last few days I have found Geraldine Doogue’s ABC podcast on the topic to be highly illuminating.

While the podcast format might not be ideal for the average Year 9 history student, it does provide an excellent insight into the complexities of historical analysis and the sophisticated nuances of different perspectives. The program is certainly worth a listen for teachers interested in teaching critical historical skills.

There were also a number of slideshare presentations I came across that might be useful in the classroom.

An examination of the causes of the war is a useful starting point for raising the big issues around how wars begin and escalate, particularly the dangers of military strategy and brinkmanship. We want our students to better understand the value of learning from history the mistakes that may have been made. If WWI was, as some historians argue, ‘an accident’, then we need to understand how that occurred and the consequences that ensued. This issue will be further discussed at War’s end when other decisions were made that had unforeseen consequences.

How are you handling the causes of WWI with your students?


*Reference: Heywood, S. & Steel, N. The WWI Centenary Exhibition, Imperial War Museum, London, 2015) Chapter 2, p 47

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