14 Reasons WWI Happened (And Four Things That Could Have Stopped It)

Ypres via Wikimedia
Ypres via Wikimedia

For the past few years, Erik Sass has been covering the events that led to World War I exactly 100 years later. Here's a look back at how we got here.

In mid-June 1914, Europeans were preparing for a beautiful summer. In the mansions of the mighty, servants covered the furniture and packed heaps of luggage for a season at country retreats, while ordinary folks looked forward to holidays at the seaside, hiking in the mountains, and long afternoons at beer gardens or bistros. Behind the scenes, however, on June 16, 1914, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg wrote to the German ambassador to Britain, Prince Lichnowsky, warning “any insignificant conflict of interests between Russia and Austria-Hungary may set the torch of war alight.” Within a matter of weeks his prediction came true. But was the Great War inevitable?

Well, the final answer to that depends on questions like whether free will exists. But here are a bunch of reasons the First World War happened—and a few reasons it didn’t have to.

1. Nationalism

Outline of History

In the medieval period, Christianity united Europeans across language and culture—but then the Reformation fractured the “universal” Catholic Church and the Enlightenment undermined religion’s hold on the collective imagination. Nationalism emerged to fill the spiritual void with an idea of community based (loosely) on shared language and ethnicity. By the 19th century Europeans took it for granted each nation had a distinct “character” and inhabited sacred, inviolable territory. So when Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, it injured French national pride and provoked “revanchism” (desire for revenge). At the same time, nationalism threatened Austria-Hungary, an old-fashioned medieval empire with a dozen nationalities who wanted out.

2. Racism and Social Darwinism

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Nationalism was never particularly rational, but any contradictions could be papered over with racism and Social Darwinism. Racism, another product of the Enlightenment, linked human cultural differences to variations in appearance that supposedly corresponded to fundamental biological traits, like intelligence. In the 19th century, racism got a more scientific gloss from Social Darwinism, which applied the theory of natural selection to human races locked in a “struggle for survival.” Front and center was the rivalry between the Slavs and Germans.

3. Imperialism

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Technological progress during the Renaissance and Enlightenment gave Europeans a big advantage over less advanced societies, enabling conquest and colonization around the world. By the 19th century, European nations were competing to amass global empires—but Britain, France, and Russia had a head start on latecomers like Germany, whose desire for a “place in the sun” was yet another source of conflict.

4. German Growth

While Germany lagged behind in colonies, its incredible growth at home scared France and Britain. From 1870 to 1910, Germany’s population soared 58 percent to 65 million, while France edged up just 11 percent to 40 million, and from 1890 to 1913 German steel production increased nine-fold to 18.9 million tons—more than Britain (7.7 million) and France (4.6 million) combined. Germany also had the best rail network in Europe, enabling more mobility and growth. With all this the Germans understandably felt they deserved a bigger role in world affairs … but they went about it all wrong.

5. Naval Arms Race

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Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pet project was the German Imperial Navy, created in collaboration with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, a sailor who happened to be Germany’s most skilled politician. But their naval obsession alienated Britain, an island nation that simply couldn’t afford to yield control of the seas. In the first years of the 20th century, Britain responded by building more ships and entering an informal alliance with its traditional rival, France—the entente cordiale (friendly understanding).

6. German Fear of Encirclement

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Even though it was Germany’s own stupidity that caused Britain and France to pull closer together, the entente cordiale (on top of the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892) inspired German fear of a conspiracy to “encircle” Germany. This triggered more German belligerence, which—like any good self-fulfilling prophecy—just made Britain, France, and Russia pull closer together, forming the “Triple Entente.”

7. Arms Race on Land

German paranoia about encirclement triggered an even bigger arms race on land, pitting Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Russia, and Britain (later, Italy got sucked in too). From 1910 to 1913, total military expenditures by Europe’s Great Powers increased from $1.67 billion to $2.15 billion per year in contemporary U.S. dollars. And more increases were on the way, prompting both sides to wonder: would it be better to just fight now before their enemies grew even stronger?

8. Russian Growth

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Just as Germany’s economic expansion scared Britain and France, a few years later Russia’s rapid growth terrified Germany and Austria-Hungary. From 1900 to 1913, industrialization sent Russia’s gross national product rocketing 55 percent to $388 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. Over the same period its population soared 26 percent to 168 million—more than Germany and Austria-Hungary combined. In July 1914, the German philosopher Kurt Riezler, a close friend of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, wrote gloomily, “The future belongs to Russia…”

9. Turkish Decline

As Germany and Russia grew more powerful, the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, creating instability across the Balkans and Middle East. In the First Balkan War, 1912-1913, the Balkan League (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro) carved up most of the empire’s remaining European territories. Serbia’s conquest of Albania put it on a collision course with Austria-Hungary, which didn’t want Serbia to gain access to the sea. Meanwhile, Russia was plotting to conquer Armenia, Britain and France were eyeing Syria and Iraq … and Germany feared it would be left out yet again.

10. Secret Treaties

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Europe’s complex alliance system was even more confusing because many of the agreements were secret, which prevented key players from making informed decisions. For example, if Britain had announced its promises to France it might have deterred Germany from going to war, and Italy had a secret non-aggression pact with France which even Italy’s top generals didn’t know about. The treaties didn’t even have to exist to cause trouble: German fear of a possible secret Anglo-Russian Naval Convention fueled paranoia about encirclement, even though no agreement was reached.

11. International Law? No Such Thing

vredespaleis.nl

Despite the development of a truly global economy in the 19th century, there was no real system of international law that might be used to restrain one state from using violence against another state. There were institutions, like the Peace Palace (above), which were intended to serve as forums for arbitration of international disputes, but these had no power to enforce their decisions, so they were basically a joke. Not much has changed. 

12. Trouble at Home

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WWI wasn’t just the result of international conflict; domestic tensions played an important role too. In Germany, the conservative elite was frightened by the steady political gains of socialists opposed to militarism (above), and tried to use foreign policy to drum up patriotism and distract ordinary Germans from problems on the home front. In Russia, the Tsarist government embraced Pan-Slavism to shore up its own legitimacy and draw attention away from its own failure to institute democratic reforms.

13. No Going Back

In the 19th century, it became common practice for Europe’s Great Powers to draw up detailed war plans in order to avoid getting caught unprepared—and hopefully get the jump on their enemies. These plans focused on logistics, especially the use of railroads to deploy armies rapidly. This, in turn, required elaborate schedules coordinating the movements of thousands of trains; Germany’s Schlieffen Plan (above) is the classic example. As result, war plans became so complicated it was impossible to modify them or improvise new ones “on the fly.” It also meant there was no going back: Once mobilization began, your enemies were bound to respond in kind, so there was no way to stop the cycle of escalation without leaving yourself vulnerable.

14. Don’t Fear the Reaper

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This one’s a little out there, but worth thinking about. After WWI, Sigmund Freud theorized the existence of a “death drive” pushing humans to annihilate themselves and others. It exists alongside other drives that may hold it in check, like the desire for pleasure, but the death drive is always there in the subconscious, guiding our actions at least some of the time. Destruction is also linked to creation; it’s worth noting how many young people welcomed the war as the “dawn of a new era,” sweeping away Europe’s “old,” “stale,” “stagnant” civilization and laying the foundations for a new, better world (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

Four Things That Could Have Stopped WWI (Maybe)

1. Nobody Wanted It

The greatest irony of WWI was that none of the key decision-makers wanted it to happen (and death wish or no, neither did most ordinary people). Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II prided himself on his reputation as peacekeeper and frantically tried to avert WWI at the last minute. Previously Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef went to extraordinary lengths to keep the peace, and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II was known for his peaceful nature. Although this obviously wasn’t enough to stop the war on its own, it shows the will for peace was there, if only circumstances would allow.

2. Better Instructions

One of the most foolish moves Germany made in July 1914 was giving Austria-Hungary a “blank check,” promising unconditional support for whatever measures Vienna proposed to take against Serbia. The Germans could have benefited themselves (and everyone else) by being a little more, well, German—for example by dictating exactly when, where, and how Austria-Hungary could chastise Serbia; how far to go in trying to call Russia’s bluff; and what their fallback plan should be in case they encountered real resistance from Russia, France, and Britain. Instead Germany just kind of said “go for it!” Very un-German.

3. A Word to the Wise

In July 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary faced off with Russia and France over Serbia, while Europe’s other Great Powers—Britain and Italy—mostly remained on the sidelines. If Britain’s Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and Italy’s Foreign Minister San Giuliano intervened earlier and more forcefully by warning that they would fight, it might have persuaded Germany and Austria-Hungary to back down (San Giuliano had already warned Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia in 1913, and Grey could have informed the Germans of Britain’s commitment to protect France).

4. What If…?

Gavrilo Princip could have missed. But he didn’t.

See the previous installment or all entries.

This Gorgeous Vintage Edition of Clue Sets the Perfect Mood for a Murder Mystery

WS Game Company
WS Game Company

Everyone should have a few good board games lying around the house for official game nights with family and friends and to kill some time on the occasional rainy day. But if your collection leaves a lot to be desired, you can class-up your selection with this great deal on the Vintage Bookshelf Edition of Clue for $40.

A brief history of Clue

'Clue' Vintage Bookshelf Edition.
WS Game Company.

Originally titled Murder!, Clue was created by a musician named Anthony Pratt in Birmingham, England, in 1943, and he filed a patent for it in 1944. He sold the game to Waddington's in the UK a few years later, and they changed the name to Cluedo in 1949 (that name was a mix between the words clue and Ludo, which was a 19th-century game.) That same year, the game was licensed to Parker Brothers in the United States, where it was published as Clue. Since then, there have been numerous special editions and spinoffs of the original game, not to mention books and a television series based on it. Most notably, though, was the cult classic 1985 film Clue, which featured Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren.

As you probably know, every game of Clue begins with the revelation of a murder. The object of the game is to be the first person to deduce who did it, with what weapon, and where. To achieve that end, each player assumes the role of one of the suspects and moves strategically around the board collecting clues.

With its emphasis on logic and critical thinking—in addition to some old-fashioned luck—Clue is a masterpiece that has stood the test of time and evolved with each decade, with special versions of the game hitting shelves recently based on The Office, Rick and Morty, and Star Wars.

Clue Vintage Bookshelf Edition

'Clue' Vintage Library Edition.
WS Game Company

The Vintage Bookshelf Edition of Clue is the work of the WS Game Company, a licensee of Hasbro, and all the design elements are inspired by the aesthetic of the 1949 original. The game features a vintage-looking game board, cards, wood movers, die-cast weapons, six pencils, an ivory-colored die, an envelope, and a pad of “detective notes.” And, of course, everything folds up and stores inside a beautiful cloth-bound book box that you can store right on the shelf in your living room.

Clue Vintage Bookshelf Edition is a limited-release item, and right now you can get it for $40.

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How the Doughnut Became a Symbol of Volunteerism During World War I

National WWI Museum and Memorial
National WWI Museum and Memorial

If you’ve ever eaten a free doughnut on the first Friday in June, you’ve celebrated the Doughnut Lassies—whether you realized it or not. National Doughnut Day was established to honor the Salvation Army volunteers who fried sugary snacks for World War I soldiers on the front lines. Some Doughnut Lassies were even willing to risk their lives to provide that momentary morale boost. One story from The War Romance Of The Salvation Army (written by Evangeline Booth, daughter of the Salvation Army’s founders) describes a volunteer serving doughnuts and cocoa to a troop under heavy fire. When she was told by the regiment colonel to turn back, she responded, “Colonel, we can die with the men, but we cannot leave them.”

Frying on the Front Lines

The decision to serve doughnuts on the battlefield was partly a practical one. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the Salvation Army, a Christian charity organization, sent roughly 250 “salvationists” (who were mostly women) to France, where American troops were stationed. The plan was to bring treats and supplies as close to the front lines as possible. But the closer the volunteers got to the action, the fewer resources they could access.

“It was difficult creating the pies and cakes and other baked goods they thought they might be making,” Lora Vogt, curator of education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, tells Mental Floss. “Instead, they realized the doughnut was a very efficient use of both the time and the ingredient resources. And you could make thousands of doughnuts in a day to feed all the men serving.”


Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance are credited with bringing doughnuts to the Western Front. They had a handful of ingredients at their disposal, including flour, sugar, lard, baking powder, and canned milk. Doughnuts were one of the few confections they could make without an oven, and once they had a fire hot enough to heat the oil, they could fry them up fast. The women had the pan to cook them in, but for other parts of the recipe, they had to get creative. In a pinch, grape juice bottles and shell casings became rolling pins; an empty baking powder can became a doughnut cutter; and a tube that had come loose from a coffeemaker punched the holes.

Sheldon and Purviance's pan could fit seven doughnuts at a time, and on day one, they made just 150 doughnuts for the outfit of 800 men. Those who were lucky enough to grab a morsel were smitten, with one exclaiming “Gee! If this is war, let it continue!” according to The War Romance Of The Salvation Army. The salvationists fine-tuned their operation, and were eventually making 5000 doughnuts a day. The snacks were so beloved, the volunteers earned the nickname Doughnut Lassies, while the soldiers they served were dubbed Doughboys.

The All-American Doughnut

The Doughnut Lassies’s impact didn’t end with World War I. Prior to the war, Americans hadn’t fully embraced the doughnut. Dutch immigrants enjoyed doughnuts in the country for decades, but they weren’t considered an integrated part of American cuisine. It was the U.S. soldiers’s experience with doughnuts overseas that popularized them back home. “You have millions who are serving on the front lines who then have a really lovely association with the doughnut who may not have had one before,” Vogt says.


World War I also contributed to doughnuts' popularity in a less direct way. The dessert appealed to U.S. bakers during wartime for the same reason the salvationists chose it: Recipes were adaptable and didn’t call for a ton of hard-to-source ingredients. “Crisco was putting out recipes for wartime doughnuts, and they suggested using Crisco as an alternative to lard because lard should be saved," Vogt says. "So you have this movement both on the front line and on the home front that let all Americans realize how delicious doughnuts could be.”

The Rise of National Doughnut Day

In 1938, the Salvation Army took advantage of its unofficial, sugary symbol and established National Doughnut Day to raise awareness of its charity work. Today, brands like Dunkin' and Krispy Kreme use the holiday as a marketing opportunity, but according to Vogt, the day is meant to be more about the Lassies’s service than the doughnuts they served. “National Doughnut Day is actually not about the doughnut. It is all about the Salvation Army volunteerism,” she says. “That concept of service and being able to share and build your community is part of what doughnut day is about.”

National Doughnut Day isn’t the only day dedicated to the treat in the U.S. A second National Doughnut Day falls on November 5, but the origins of that holiday aren’t as clear. If you want to enjoy some fried dough while commemorating a lesser-known part of World War I history, the first Friday in June—June 5, in 2020—is the day to remember.