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IST 605: WWI Origins

A guide to researching the origins of the First World War

Purpose of this Guide

This guide is intended for undergraduate and graduate students in history who are conducting research on the origins of the First World War. It offers a curated selection of resources arranged according to potential topics of research. Each topic is introduced by a series of questions to guide your reading and prompt you to reflect on your contribution to the debate surrounding the origins of the war. The literature on this subject is vast, so the sources recommended in this guide are meant to assist you with gaining an informed perspective of the historiography and with determining your research question. If you are unsure about how to proceed in your search for additional resources, do not hesitate to browse the suggestions on how and where to look, in the “Going Further: Locating Primary and Secondary Sources” tab. 

Why the Origins of the First World War ?

Why did war break out in August 1914?

This is a question which has long sparked controversy amongst historians searching to understand Europe's march towards "the war to end all wars".

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The gradual escalation of reactions to the assassination led to the July crisis, a month of diplomatic maneuvering involving Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain. The succession of declarations of war from August 1st to August 4th marked the failure of diplomatic proceedings and Europe's engulfement by a historic conflagration, which will later span across continents, thus becoming the first world war. 

Nonetheless, the questions remain: 

Why did war break out at this particular time? The Great Powers had found themselves at odds on multiple occasions in the preceding decades but the apparatus of the "old diplomacy" had always prevailed. 

Why did this particular war break out? The Great War was unlike any armed conflict previously experienced, both in scale and warfare, and it marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. 

Research Approaches

Possible topics to consider when developing your research question: 
  • The July Crisis
  • 19th Century Europe, Alliances and Diplomacy
  • Imperialism and Nationalism
  • Militarism, Arms Races and War Plans
  • Governing Elites, Domestic and Foreign Politics


HINT: It is helpful to familiarize yourself with the long debate over the origins of the war. Here are some recommended resources: 


Readings Summarizing the Debate