3 Lesser Known Causes of Tension in Europe at the Start of World War One

Peter Curry

3 mins

20 Oct 2018

Image credit: King’s Academy

The First World War is one of the history’s greatest cataclysms, ushering in a new era of industrialised warfare and dramatic social and political upheaval. But its exact causes are difficult to pin down; while there are some broad theories on how it started, there is a long list of factors and incidents that may have contributed.

The German Schleiffen plan, increasing militarism or nationalism and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand are all famous flashpoints, but there are many more. This article explains some of the lesser known causes of tension in Europe before World War One.

Moroccan crises

In 1904, France had partitioned Morocco with Spain using a secret treaty. France had given Britain room to manoeuvre in Egypt in exchange for non-interference in Morocco.

However, Germany insisted on Morocco independence. Kaiser Wilhelm visited Tangier in 1905 in a show of force, confounding French intentions.

A column of French troops on the move in a tented encampment in Morocco. Credit: GoShow / Commons.

The consequent international dispute, often called the First Moroccan Crisis, was discussed and resolved at the Algeciras Conference in early 1906.

German economic rights were upheld and the French and Spanish were entrusted with the policing of Morocco.

In 1909, a further agreement recognised Morocco’s independence, whilst recognising that the French had ‘special political interests’ in the area and the Germans had economic rights in North Africa.

Germany triggered further tension by sending their gunboat, Panther, to Agadir in 1911, ostensibly to protect German interests during a local native uprising in Morocco but in reality to harass the French.

The Agadir Incident, as it came to be known, caused a second bout of international disputes, prompting the British to even begin preparations for war.

International negotiations continued, however, and the crisis subsided with the conclusion of the convention of 4 November 1911 in which France was given rights to a protectorship over Morocco and, in return, Germany was given strips of territory from the French Congo.

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This was the end of the dispute, but the Moroccan crises demonstrated the ambitions and capabilities of some powers, in ways that would have meaningful consequences later.

Serbian nationalism

In 1878 Serbia became independent from the Ottoman Empire which had held sway in the Balkans for centuries. Despite its small population of under 5 million the new nation was ambitiously nationalistic and espoused the view that ‘where dwells a Serb there is Serbia’.

Naturally, this prompted suspicion from other countries, who were concerned what Serbian expansionism might mean for the balance of power in Europe.

This nationalism meant Serbia was outraged by Austria-Hungary’s 1908 annexation of Bosnia both because it violated Slavic independence and because it denied them the use of Bosnia’s sea ports.

Serbia did not, however, attract a great deal of international sympathy as, although they were under threat from the Austrians, their own repression of Muslims and other Serbian minorities undermined their position.

Serbia was also plagued by nationalist terrorism and political violence. In 1903 for instance, King Alexander of Serbia was murdered along with his wife by senior military figures. One of these men, under the alias Apis, went on to found another terrorist group, The Black Hand.

Wanted Poster for members of the Black Hand Gang, for a kidnapping in New York City. Credit: The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America / Commons.

By 1914 it had thousands of members often in high places in the military and civil service. The organisation arranged assassinations and funded guerrilla warfare, to the point where even the Serbian government was trying to shut down its activities.

It ultimately funded Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

The Balkan Wars

The Balkan Wars (1912-13) were initiated by the Balkan League, a body comprised of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro, in response to the Moroccan crises.

During the Moroccan crises, France and Italy had taken North African territory from the Ottoman Empire, highlighting Ottoman vulnerability in the Balkan states.

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The Ottomans were ultimately repelled from the Balkans and Serbia doubled in size, despite having to relinquish Albania to Austro-Hungary.

Although their oppression of their minorities and constant wars had deterred most potential allies, Serbia attracted Russian support.

This was in direct conflict with Austrian expansion in the region and also concerned Germany, who feared growing Russian power.

All these tensions would play into the escalation of conflict in July and August, and would lead to the bitterness of the First World War.