In 1882, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary signed a Triple Alliance. Britain was nervous about Russian expansion, but was allied with France, who was allied with Russia, so eventually Britain also agreed to an alliance with Russia; the alliance between those three nations became known as the “Triple Entente.”
By the time that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the alliances were so complex that any act of aggression by any nation toward any other was almost guaranteed to set off a conflict across all of Europe.
Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He went to visit Sarajevo, where he was not very popular. Sarajevo was the capital of Bosnia, one of the provinces of Austria-Hungary. But many Bosnians had no interest in being part of the empire, and there were radical militant groups like the Black Hand Gang trying to unite the various Slavic territories under their own rule. The archduke’s assassin, Gavrilo Princip was a 19-year-old member of the Black Hand. Another member of the Black Hand had tried to assassinate Franz Ferdinand earlier that morning, but the grenade he threw had a 10-second delay, so it exploded under a car behind the royal couple, seriously injuring several other people. The archduke changed his parade route so that he could go visit the victims in the hospital, but his driver took a wrong turn. The driver stalled the car while he tried to back up, and Princip just happened to be on that street close to the car. So he pulled out a pistol and shot Franz Ferdinand and Sophie from just a few feet away. Both of them died before they made it to the hospital.
Austria-Hungary immediately blamed the attack on Serbia. The assassination was the excuse that Austria-Hungary needed, and Emperor Franz Joseph declared war on Serbia. Serbia was a small nation, but it called on a powerful ally, Russia, who agreed to fight its side. And suddenly, all the allies were falling into line: Germany sided with Austria-Hungary, and after Germany declared war on France and invaded neutral Belgium, England declared war on Germany.
From the beginning, there were staggering death tolls during what was called “The Great War.” In the Battle of the Somme, close to 60,000 British soldiers died the first day, and by the time the four-month battle was over, more than 1.5 million soldiers had died. The 10-month Battle of Verdun ended with 540,000 French and 430,000 Germans dead. There are no exact death tolls, but an estimated 115,000 American soldiers died, 1.4 million French soldiers, 1.7 million German soldiers, and 1.7 million Russian soldiers.
On top of that, there was a huge financial cost, estimated at between $180 and 230 billion on direct military costs alone.
World War I is often represented as a pointless war — a war started by a relatively minor event, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and marked by long deadlocked battles. But historians are now examining the ways that the conflict had been building for years. There were already strong tensions among the European nations, not only from conflicting alliances and naval competition, but also from competing stakes in colonial territories — Germany wanted to undermine the British and French empires; and empires like Austria-Hungary were weakened by ethnic conflict and rebellion.
These days, the most famous literature from World War I depicts the horror and the futility of the war — poems by Siegfried Sassoon and Owen Wilson, and the novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) by Erich Maria Remarque, all of them soldiers as well as writers.
The historian Niall Ferguson wrote: “1914–18 was one of the great watersheds in financial history. The United States emerged for the first time as the rival to Great Britain as a financial super power. … It’s the point at which the United States firmly ceases to be a debtor and becomes a creditor nation — the world’s banker.”