In 1914, World War I exploded into a major conflict as the great powers of Europe went to war with each other. By the end of the month the conflict would escalate into the most destructive in human history to-date. The war would last for four years, and result in more than twenty million killed.
The foundation for World War I was laid in 1871, when the various German states united to form the German Empire. Over the course of the next four decades, this newly unified Germany built the largest industrial economy in Europe. It also built an enormous army and navy. German scholars, politicians, and other leaders openly called for the twentieth century to be the “German Century,” with Germany emerging as the most powerful state in Europe, if not the world. Many Germans openly called for war with other European nations if doing so would help achieve this goal.
The emergence of a powerful Germany caused tremendous fear among the other European states. Britain, France, and Russia were particularly concerned about the militaristic attitude of the German leadership. Eventually these nations formed a military alliance, promising to fight together in a possible war with Germany. Germany also formed an alliance with her neighbor, the Austrian Empire, and with Italy.
By the early twentieth century these nations had significantly increased their military strength. Many European leaders were hoping for a war, which they believed would ease the tension and resolve the question of which nation would lead Europe in the new century. Nobody predicted the catastrophic destruction that modern, industrialized warfare would bring. Rather, military experts thought any war would be quick with relatively low casualties.
The first step toward war occurred on June 28, 1914 when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, in Sarajevo. Austria responded with an invasion of Serbia, as the Austrians accused the Serbian government of complicity in the crime. Russia, which vowed to protect Serbia, threatened war with Austria, and moved its army to the borders of Austria and Germany.
By late July the alliance system that had been created had led all of the major powers to mobilize their armies and prepare for war. Although this crisis could have been averted with negotiation, no nation was willing to reach out and seek a diplomatic solution. In early August Germany invaded Russia, Belgium, and France. Britain responded by sending a large army into France to assist her ally. Expectations for a short war were quickly dashed when neither side was able to gain an advantage, and new weapons began to kill soldiers by the thousands.
The war remained a stalemate for almost three years, as neither side was willing to seriously discuss peace despite the horrific casualties. The turning point came in April, 1917, when German submarine attacks on ships trading with Britain drew the United States into the conflict. With America on their side, the British and the French were able to decisively defeat the war-weary Germans by September, 1918.
Unfortunately, the end of World War I did not bring a lasting peace. The victorious British and French severely punished Germany, which played a key role in the emergence of the Nazi Party and the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. Additionally, the destruction of the war led to the collapse of the Russian economy and government, and placed Russia on a path toward Communism.