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The reasons which led the nations of Europe and later the world to go to war in 1914 are complex, and it is not possible to point to one single cause. Rather, there are a number of reasons, originating in the early 19th century, that allow Princip's action in Sarajevo to trigger a series of events which by August 4th engulfed most of Europe.

In the early 19th century Germany had been a collection of competing small states. By 1871, however, Otto von Bismarck had created the German Empire, which stretched from the boarders of France to the boarders of Russia and was dominated by Prussia. In the process, Prussia had fought three wars - against Denmark, Austria and France. Each war added territory to the Empire, and the last of the three wars - the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, left France humiliated and bitter.

In 1879, Austria - with only the Balkans into which to expand after her defeat by Prussia, and fearful that this would bring an inevitable clash with Russia - allied with Germany in the Dual Alliance. For Germany, this was a welcome move in case of a war of revenge by France. Bismarck further isolated France within Europe when he encouraged her to seize Tunisia in North Africa, well aware that Italy coveted it. As a result, Italy joined Germany and Austria in 1882 to form the Triple Alliance.

In 1890 the German ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, dismissed his Chancellor (Bismarck) when they disagreed over the issue of colonial expansion and sea power. For years Bismarck had kept Germany out of the scramble for overseas colonies, realizing that this would inevitably lead to conflict with Britain as naval rivalry ensued. Bismarck had also pursued policies which did not alienate Russia. Kaiser Wilhelm not only wanted colonies and a navy to rival that of Britain, but also was very anti-Russian. It was not surprising therefore that France and Russia, feeling threatened by the powerful German Empire, concluded an Entente in 1894.

Britain, a traditional enemy of France, had until now pursued a policy of "splendid isolation," not getting too closely involved with European affairs, preferring to support Turkey as a means of keeping the Russians out of the Mediterranean, where Britain had important trading and strategic interests. In 1885, however, British policy changed after a series of massacres by the Turks. German influence began to increase in the Turkish Empire with the provision of economic aid and the building of railways. Britain, meanwhile, was experiencing a loss of industrial and commercial supremacy in the world with the rise of the United States of America and Germany, and was unpopular because of the South African war (Boer War). In 1904, therefore, the old enemies - France and Britain - signed the Entente Cordiale, settling their differences over Egypt and North Africa. In 1906 Britain guaranteed support for France in the event of a German naval attack, and  began military staff talks. In 1907 Britain and Russia signed an Entente, thus creating the Triple Entente. Now two power blocs existed in Europe, formed for protection against each other, but thereby making the likelihood of war greater.

It was in the Balkans that the ambitions of Austria and Russia clashed. Both nations had only the Balkans in which to expand, following their defeats by Prussia and Japan respectively. Unfortunately, Serbia lay directly in the path of Austrian expansion, and Serbia had strong religious and ethnic links with Russia.

With the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his desire to have a navy which would rival that of Great Britain, there began a naval race which was to be a major cause of the war. Admiral Tirpitz made it clear that such a navy must one day be equal to the task of challenging Britain in the North Sea. From 1900 on, both countries began building the new Dreadnought class of battleships, which made all previous battleships obsolete. Germany built the Kiel Canal to allow her fleet to move into the North Sea, and fortified Heligoland as a naval base. Britain felt these moves threatened her sea lanes, trade and security.

On land, France and Germany were engaged in a competition in armaments. France constructed a series of strong fortresses along its border with Germany and developed an offensive strategy based on a fast mobile army designed to attack. Its equipment and strategy were, however, outdated and inferior to that of Germany. The latter's Schlieffen Plan, intended to bypass the French defences by swinging around through neutral Belgium, was backed by a large and well-equipped army. Neither side, however, was prepared for the trench warfare which followed.

Relations between the two opposing power blocs were also bitter because of trade and colonial rivalries. In the "scramble for Africa," the African continent had been divided up between the European powers, each wanting a greater share of the world's trade.

A series of crises, beginning in 1905, in which France annexed Morocco, Italy annexed Tripoli, and Austria took the Serb areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina, only served to bring tension between the Alliance and Entente powers to a flashpoint. Then the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars resulted in a more powerful Serbia blocking any future Austrian expansion in the Balkans. In Bosnia there was violent agitation against Serbia. It was against this background that the assassination took place at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.