In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section World War I Origins

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • European Factors
  • Global Issues
  • Attitudes to War
  • Art and Literature
  • Militarism
  • Antimilitarism and Pacifism
  • The Arms Races
  • War Plans
  • The Schlieffen Plan
  • France
  • Britain
  • Austria-Hungary
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Russia
  • Balkans

Military History World War I Origins
Dennis Showalter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0006


The origins of World War I are best summarized in two contexts. The first stresses long-term issues such as nationalism, materialism, and militarism. It critiques a diplomatic system that devolved into rival alliances that risked turning any conflict into a doomsday machine. This structural approach incorporates the domestic tensions generated by industrialism, a shift that led to the emergence of an upper class of old aristocrats and new bourgeoisie willing to risk war to maintain their position. The second context of the war’s origins emphasizes volitional elements. The states of Europe, Great Powers and lesser ones, interacted according to decisions that were made by relatively small groups of politicians, officials, and soldiers so that relatively small events, such as the assassination of Habsburg archduke Franz Ferdinand, could set off a chain reaction of events leading to a war no one wanted. Taken together, these contexts inform most of the literature on the origins of World War I but that is not to say plenty of debate still goes on over the events that precipitated the first shot.


In an increasingly visual age, the structure and the sources of the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Péronne, France, set the standard for establishing the war’s atmosphere. In the world of print, several well-known and well-respected overviews directly address the origins of World War I. The first one hundred pages of Strachan 2001 are close to definitive on the war’s origins, and they can be read separately from the rest of the book by anyone with a basic background. Schroeder 1972 and Remak 1971 have helped many a graduate student through orals, and they can be recommended to general readers as well. Martel 2008 is a concise and sophisticated presentation that contains a well-chosen sample of significant documents and an updated reading list that makes it an ideal book for undergraduates. Lafore 1981 begins with the mid-19th-century wars of German unification and emphasizes the Balkans. Stressing political factors, it remains a useful general introduction. Geiss 1990 focuses on the economic subtext. It is a well-executed and typical example of the “industrial capitalism was responsible” school that from the 1930s to the 1970s shaped, and arguably dominated, interpretations of the war’s origins. Stevenson 1997 focuses on the discussions surrounding the war’s outbreak and is still useful as a summary of the main lines of causes and responsibilities. The website of the recently established International Society for First World War Studies is an essential clearinghouse for news and information on current developments on the subject.

  • Geiss, Immanuel. Der lange Weg in die Katastrophe: Die Vorgeschichte des Ersten Weltkrieges, 1815–1914. Munich: Piper, 1990.

    Well-executed and typical example of the “industrial capitalism was responsible” school that from the 1930s to the 1970s shaped, and arguably dominated, interpretations of the war’s origins.

  • Historial de la Grande Guerre.

    The Historial de la Grande Guerre still sets the standard for visuals that define a site of memory, mourning—and understanding.

  • International Society for First World War Studies.

    Official website of the International Society for First World War Studies, the central clearing-house and meeting point for scholars on every aspect of the war, its origins, and its aftermath.

  • Lafore, Laurence. The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981.

    Eschews discussion of war guilt in favor of analyzing Europe’s changing structure and mentality as central to the war’s outbreak. First published in 1965 (Philadelphia: Lippincott).

  • Martel, Gordon. The Origins of the First World War. Rev. 3d ed. London: Longman, 2008.

    Latest edition of a book first published with James Joll in 1987. Its conciseness (196 pages), sophisticated presentation, well-chosen sample of significant documents, and updated bibliography continue to make this an ideal “backpack book” for undergraduates.

  • Remak, Joachim. “1914 The Third Balkan War: Origins Reconsidered?” Journal of Modern History 43 (1971): 353–366.

    DOI: 10.1086/240647

    Asserts the war’s initial Balkan provenance and its segue into a study in falling dominoes. Best read along with Schroeder 1972, which offers an opposing perspective.

  • Schroeder, Paul W. “World War I and Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak.” Journal of Modern History 44 (1972): 319–345.

    DOI: 10.1086/240800

    Brilliant theoretically structured analysis emphasizing the comprehensive overstraining of Europe’s diplomatic structuring in the decades preceding the war, to a point where the stabilizing factors worked in reverse.

  • Stevenson, David. The Outbreak of the First World War: 1914 in Perspective. Studies in European History. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

    Focuses on the discussions surrounding the war’s outbreak, still useful after more than a decade as a summary of the main lines of causes and responsibilities. Ideal for classroom use.

  • Strachan, Hew. The First World War. Vol. I, To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Includes a brilliantly presented analysis of the war’s origins, a state-of-the-art synthesis of evidence and approaches. The first one hundred pages are definitive and provide a useful overview.

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