Causes of World War One and the Treaty of Paris

Causes of World War One and the Treaty of Paris

The causes of World War One are both intricate and nuanced and it is difficult to point to a single cause or even a few collective causes which led to this war. Rather a complexity of problems and issues are what caused the outbreak of World War One. In many ways World War One was an utter surprise to the entire global community. The century following the end of the Napoleonic wars was marked with peace, perhaps the most peace since the Roman Empire had fallen. As one scholar remarks, “In the first years of the twentieth century, Europe believed it was marching to a golden, happy, and prosperous future. But instead, complex personalities and rivalries, colonialism and ethnic nationalisms, and shifting alliances helped to bring about the failure of the long peace and the outbreak of a war that transformed Europe and the world” (MacMillan, 1). This paper will examine how it was in fact a system of mutual defense alliances, imperialism, militarism, nationalism along with the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand which all worked together to cause this great war. This paper will finally examine how the treaty of Paris was well-intentioned at keeping the peace and punishing Germany for its offenses.


The system of alliances which existed in Europe at the time had a strong influence in the development of world war one. At the time, nations around Europe made mutual defense agreements that would pull them into battle. This means that if one nation was attacked, the allied nations were compelled to defend them; at this period the follow alliances existed, many of which made a certain amount of logical sense upon examination. For instance, Russia and Serbia made an alliance, as did Germany and Austria Hungary. Fundamentally, one major alliance was the triple alliance: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The triple entente included Britain, France and Russia. As one can clearly see, aspects of these alliances made sense — for example, the alliance among Germany and Austria was organic: both had a shared language and culture, along with a shared history (Afflerbach, 104). Many of these alliances were also based on fear: nations were afraid of the might and growing power of other nations and thus they formed these partnerships to underscore the sense of necessary defense. For instance, Austria had feared the growing power of Italy and considered Germany’s might a necessary partnership. The triple alliance forged a promise to support one another if any of the nations were ever attacked by another country. One could argue that the very fact that these alliances existed in the first place underscored a high level of fear that categorized the mentality of the day. The alliances pointed to a tension that pervaded Europe at this time. In fact, one could assert that these alliances were just a manifestation of the tension and fear that cruised throughout the continent at the time. It’s possible to argue that the war didn’t break out because of the alliances; rather the alliances were a symptom of the overwhelming tension that coursed throughout these countries.

On the other hand, the Triple Entente represented a less structured partnership than the Triple Alliance. It’s important to realize that in this case, “entente” can be defined as “better understanding” or “improvement” and that this partnership was shaped around a desire to foster such improvement. In this case, Britain, France and Russia did not have to swear to help the other two if they got attacked by other nations, but was built on the comprehension that each member would help in supporting the others in a manner which was not fixed or absolute. France had long harbored suspicions regarding Germany, as did Britain. Neither country liked the fact that Germany was amassing a larger and more powerful Navy. France and Britain forming a partnership also made sense as France had a massive army, but a small navy and Britain had the most powerful navy in the world, but a small army. Thus, France and Britain were balanced partnership and a natural one. The inclusion of Russia might seem odd at first glance but it actually made sense in the larger scheme of things as Russia’s royal family was related to the British Royal family. Furthermore, the Russian army was massive. Also, the inclusion of Russia sent a powerful message to Germany: it meant that Germany was surrounded on either side (France on the west and Russia on the east) two nations were surrounding it with their completely massive armies. Thus the overwhelming message sent by the triple entente that it would be in Germany’s best interest to not start up trouble for the rest of the continent. “Within this context it is very important to realize that detente before 1914 was not a matter of simply a few isolated cases in a limited timeframe, represented primarily by the well-known relaxation of tension between Britain and Germany. On the contrary, phenomenon of detente was discernible across the gamut of relationships between the European Great Powers in different diplomatic camps. Between 1911 and 1914, for example, Austro-Hungarian leaders made several attempts to improve relations with Great Britain and similar attempts can be observed in relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia” (Afflerbach, 185). However, these attempts were all failed. Essentially, the alliances of the day underscored a tremendous amount of strain and apprehension which riddled throughout Europe.


Already existing ties of imperialism were another major factor in the causes of World War one. For instance, certain specific problems also played a hand in fostering a pervasive sense of suspicion throughout Europe. One of these major factors was connected to the incredibly massive structure of the British Empire and Germany’s fear of the power of this Empire. Imperialism is nothing to underestimate. Imperialism is a state of structure which is founded in inequality and oppression. These two negative attributes mark a fundamental state of being among nations which is unsustainable and which builds resentment over time. Imperialism means that one country is forcing themselves on another culture, resulting in domination and the subordination of culture, territory and financial structures. Historians often disagree on whether or not the need for imperialism comes from a more cultural impetus or a more economic one, on the part of the domineering culture, but regardless of the reasons exactly, Britain was a major imperialist force in 1900 and this couldn’t help but cause resentment to thrive: this resentment coupled with the intensive amounts of tension which pervaded through Europe at the time couldn’t help but create an environment which was somewhat trigger-happy when it came to waging war (Louis, 206).

It’s vital to bear in mind just how powerful Britain was in 1900: during this time, the British Empire owned 25% of the entire world, with massive sections of land of countries like Canada, India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand being colonies or owned in part by the British Empire. These colonies made Britain tremendous amounts of money, allowing Britain to foster its military presence up to an even more aggravated degree. It was obvious to many that Germany desired to increase its might via the accumulation of territories overseas and had decided to collect as many as possible, with African being a major target. The colonies that Germany did acquire in Africa really weren’t big money makers; however this was not the point. One could make the argument that the very move that they were beginning to acquire territory at all, and territory so close to Britain’s South Africa was enough to cause tensions to flare even more, making tensions between Britain and Germany more fragile than ever.

All of these factors, in conjunction with the very immediate factor of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand are precisely what pushed the world in to war. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand marked a form of conflict and confrontation which simply couldn’t be ignored: it meant all these nations had to immediately make good on their alliances.

Treaty of Paris 1919

The nuances of the treaty of Paris were indeed complex, but the goal of this particular treaty was fundamentally simple: to establish the terms of the peace process for the nations involved in World War One. The treaty was meant to be collaborative agreement among these nations so that all could understand what the specific of the peace process was going to be. The Treaty of Paris was a difficult process and one which involved over 30 nations, though Great Britain, France, America and Italy were known as the “big four” who dominated the entire peace process.

The goal of this particular treaty was to create a certain number of compromises among the nations and to establish and promote peace under no uncertain terms. One of the major goals of this treaty was to create what Woodrow Wilson referred to as the “League of Nations” as a means of serving as an international forum and an international collective security arrangement. Wilson was one of the massive supporters of this League of Nations as he felt it would help in being responsible in preventing subsequent wars. One major aspect of the treaty of Paris in 1919 was that it contained the Treaty of Versailles, one which has a major goal of disciplining Germany and forcing a sense of punishment and finality of Germany. For instance, Germany lost many colonies and investments in lieu of this treaty and their ability to forge a military was crippled and limited to a fraction of its original size; the German air force was also similarly crippled. Germany was also further bankrupt in the reparations that it was ordered to pay — the equivalent of $132 billion gold marks. These intense punishments were a major aspect of the treaty and were something that did cause a deadlock at certain points in the negotiating process (MacMillan, 195). The treaty of Paris was also finalized with Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Wilson’s Fourteen Points first debuted in a speech in 1918 but were also used as a reference and overwhelming guideline for international peacekeeping. The fourteen points sought to abolish some of the trends which had caused World War One in the first place. For example, elements like secret agreements, economic barriers, high numbers of weapons among nations, and intense imperialistic goals were all things which had contributed to the state of tension and war and were all elements that Wilson sought to avoid in the name of keeping the peace in the future.


This paper has looked at some of the more overwhelming factors which led to World War One. While imperialism and alliances were two of the major pillars which led to the war, one could argue that it was the tension, fear and lack of trust that pervaded among nations that was most prominently the aggravated reason for the war. The treaty of Paris sought to maintain peace among the nations while punishing Germany, and by establishing the League of Nations, but World War Two is a manifestation of that ultimate failure.


Afflerbach, H. (2007). An Improbable War?: The Outbreak of World War I and European Political. New York: Berghahn Books.

Louis, W. (2006). Ends of British Imperialism. New York: I.B.Tauris.

MacMillan, M. (2007). Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House Publishers.

MacMillan, M. (2009). The War that Ended Peace. New York: Random House Publishers.

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