The underlying causes of World War I, which began in the Balkans in late July 1914, are several. Among these causes were political, territorial, and economic conflicts among the great European powers in the four decades leading up to the war. Additional causes were militarism, a complex web of alliances, imperialism, and nationalism. The immediate origins of the war, however, lay in the decisions taken by statesmen and generals during the July Crisis of 1914 caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip, an ethnic Serb and Yugoslav nationalist from the group Young Bosnia, which was supported by the Black Hand, a nationalist organization in Serbia.

The crisis came after a long and difficult series of diplomatic clashes among the Great Powers (Italy, France, Germany, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia) over European and colonial issues in the decade before 1914 that had left tensions high. In turn these public clashes can be traced to changes in the balance of power in Europe since 1867.[2] The more immediate cause for the war was tensions over territory in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary competed with Serbia and Russia for territory and influence in the region and they pulled the rest of the Great Powers into the conflict through their various alliances and treaties.

Some of the most important long-term or structural factors were the growth of nationalism across Europe, unresolved territorial disputes, an intricate system of alliances, the perceived breakdown of the balance of power in Europe, convoluted and fragmented governance, the arms races of the previous decades, previous military planning, imperial and colonial rivalry for wealth, power and prestige, and economic and military rivalry in industry and trade – e.g., the Pig War between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Other causes that came into play during the diplomatic crisis that preceded the war included misperceptions of intent (e.g., the German belief that Britain would remain neutral) and delays and misunderstandings in diplomatic communications. Historians in recent years have downplayed economic rivalries and have portrayed the international business community as a force for peace. War would hurt business.

Mark Albertson is an historical research editor at Army Aviation magazine. He has been a member of the United States Naval Institute for more than twenty-five years, as well as being a member of the Navy League.

Arranged by Alex Garnett