We all know the story. In Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip -a Bosnian-Yugoslav Nationalist- shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary- the event that escalated the world into war. This was however, merely the match thrown onto the gasoline-soaked woodpile that was Europe in the years leading up to The Great War.
The geopolitical wrangling that went on in the decades leading up to outbreak of hostilities is complicated. Germany felt they were being economically oppressed and excluded politically by the other European powers, namely France and Britain. They were a relatively new nation, having coalesced from the unification of the separate states of Bavaria, Prussia and so forth. And because they weren’t a colonial power like Britain and France they didn’t have the depth of resources to draw on or the room for expansion as did those two. Here is a brief background on how things got to this point. Bear in mind that massive and numerous books have been written on the subject, so this really is just the basics.
Germany as we know it did not exist in the early 1800’s. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the independent German territories were bound together into The German Confederation. The confederation that would eventually become The German Empire in 1871, was made up of constituent territories, including four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities, three cities and one imperial territory.
With the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the states of Germany had shifted from a rural agrarian economy to an industrial one, with strengths in coal, iron/steel and chemical production, and railroads. With this change came urbanization and the movement of its population from the countryside to the cities. During this time, Germany became an industrial, technological and scientific giant.
With economic changes came political changes too. Economic wealth led to German nationalism which then resulted in a shift from a liberal democratic coalition among the states to imperialism and a united German Empire. During his tenure, Prussian Prime Minister, Otto Von Bismarck, engineered three successful wars, including the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which resulted in France’s loss of the region of Alsace-Lorraine and the final unification of all the German states under an Emperor (Kaiser Wilhelm I). Bismarck’s influence was instrumental in establishing the House of Hohenzollern (a Prussian dynasty) as the reigning monarchy over the newly formed empire.
Nevertheless, economic power failed to give the German Empire the political status to which it felt it entitled within the European community. Additionally, since the Empire had failed to establish alliances with the other European powers, it found itself with only Austria-Hungary as its ally. And while the rest of Europe had embraced the concept of democracy and self-determination, Germany’s Wilhelmine Westpolitik was a powerful conservative force opposing revolution, supporting old dynastic tradition, second only to Tsarist Russia.
The Germans felt that the British Empire had dominated the scene for too long and it was time for the rise of Mittel Europe -namely The German Empire to take its rightful place at the table alongside the other powers of Europe. It was with this idea that German growth and expansion were being strategically and maliciously restrained, that led the German military commander Count Alfred Von Schleiffen to formulate a plan for the invasion and defeat of France by way of Belgium. The Schleiffen Plan was completed in 1906, eight years before the outbreak of hostilities.
Meanwhile, the French, anxious about this new shift of military and economic power within Europe, and having been humiliated in 1870 by the German conquest of their territories, were developing their own plans to retake the regions of Alsace-Lorraine. So when the shot was fired in June 28, 1914, it was the match that set the woodpile of Europe ablaze.