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The outbreak of World War I: causes and generators

Analysis of the reasons for the outbreak of an inevitable war (or not...)


Author: Antonio Seoane. University of Salamanca
Translation: Antonio Jiménez-Martín. IES Campo Charro (Salamanca)
Editing: Alicia García-Holgado. University of Salamanca


Notice the changes which are produced in the European political map between 1913 and 1921. You can zoom and move the map to see the area with more detail.

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Age and course level

15-16 years. 4th year Compulsory Secondary Education


In your book you are going to get information about World War I: causes, outbreak and evolution of the conflict, stages, end of war and peace treaties, consequences, etc.

The Great War is the result of a complex interrelation of economic causes (Industrial growth and control of commerce), political and territorial causes (territory demands and colonial rivalry), ideological causes (strong nationalist feelings), diplomatic and military causes (creation of alliances and weapons race), which produce a growing atmosphere of tension in Europe since the end of the nineteenth century.

The report of events of the war usually starts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo, in June 1914. From then on, the following declarations of war among countries, being in favour of either one or other side in conflict, lead to a war of proportions unknown until that moment.

But, could the war have been avoided? Which countries had the greatest responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict, and why? About to reach a century of its beginning, historians from different countries reflect on these questions. The analysis of different points of view enables us to get an open and critical view about the reasons which caused it.

This module will let you approach some of these views about the outbreak of the Great War through the study of articles which are published in history magazines like those you can find at any newsagent’s, but from different countries. You will be able to study this topic through the documents and activities proposed in this module, or with the help of your teacher, who is also offered some suggestions to propose this topic in the classroom. Go through this module tabs in the student view to access the contents and activities which have been prepared for you.

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Presentation for teachers

The learning object presented here deals with the topic of the close causes of the outbreak of the Great War. Textbooks show the different general causes of the conflict (territory demands colonial and economic rivalry, creation of alliances and weapons race, ideological causes and nationalist exaltation). They also relate the evolution of the facts which triggered the war, from the assassination in Sarajevo, going through the gradual inclusion of the European powers and the war stages, until its end and the consequences of the conflict.

Nevertheless, when we are about to reach a century of the beginning of the Great War, it turns out to be interesting to bring up an analysis from the different perspectives about the origin of the conflict. The study of popular history magazines from different countries let us observe some differences about the degree of responsibility which is given to each country in the outbreak of the conflict, as well as the inevitability of it (or not).

Taking some articles from foreign and Spanish magazines as a starting point, the view and activities which are proposed in this module enable the teacher to:

  • propose the students a critical approach to the different hypothesis about the responsibility of the different powers in the outbreak of the Great War.
  • present in the classroom a variety of standpoints which the magazines from different countries approach a controversial topic with;
  • introduce the problem of the historical narrative building, analyzing the reasons why some hypothesis arise precisely in exact historical contexts and with particular interests.

In this module you are going to find teaching material and suggestions to introduce this topic in the classroom. These activities are going to enable you to introduce a historic problem to your students form a critical perspective and with its full controversy, as well as to approach the topic perception from the different national points of view. Remember this module has a teacher´s view and a different one for the student, where you´ll also be able to find some suggestions for activities which could be useful for you.

Reference to the curricula

The contents of this module have been developed for students in 4th year of Compulsory Secondary Education (15-16 years). The subject curriculum for Social Sciences: History establishes in content block 2. Historical basis for present society a topic about "great changes and conflicts in the first half of the 20th century. Imperialism, war and social revolution" (RD 1631/2006, 29 December, Ministry for Education and Science).

The different Autonomous Communities regulate the inclusion of these minimum contents in their own curricula. In the case of Castile and Leon, this content is included in the topic "Great changes and conflicts in the first half of the 20th century. The Great War and the new map of Europe. The Russian Revolution. The 1929 crack and the economic depression. The rise of totalitarianism. The second World War" (Decree 52/2007, 17 May, Junta of Castile and Leon). Castile and Leon´s curriculum distinguishes another immediately previous topic, with the title of "the Imperialism time and the colonial expansion at the end of the 19th century". However, most textbooks usually tackle imperialism and the Great War in a single unit.

This module helps to reinforce the acquisition of basic competences, in accordance with the Spanish legal framework in the following way:

  • As the module is aimed at the comprehension of the characteristics of present societies, their plurality, common elements and interests of the society where we live contributing to create common feelings which encourage coexistence, it is related to social and civic competence.
  • Through the relation and comparison of sources or the integration and analysis of the information in a critical way, it is related to the information processing and digital competence.
  • The encouragement to look for multicausal explanations and the building of different types of reasons through the gathering of information and its analysis encourages the learn how to learn competence.
  • Finally, the development of making decision processes through debating and works, both personal and in group , encourages the personal initiative and autonomy competence.

Learning objectives

The standpoint of the activities in this module agrees with the following aims of the subject Social Sciences and History, according to the Spanish legislation.
  1. Identify the processes and mechanisms which govern the social features and the interrelations among the political, economic and cultural features and use this knowledge to understand the variety of causes which explain the evolution of the present societies
  2. Value the cultural diversity showing attitudes of respect and tolerance towards other cultures and opinions which do not match the own ones, but without renouncing a judgement of them because of it.
  3. Acquire a historical view which enables to elaborate a personal view of the world.
  4. Search, classify, understand and relate information from different sources, included that given by the Mass Media.
  5. Carry out group tasks and participate in debates with a constructive, critical and tolerant attitude.

In relation to the topic to be dealt, the following aim of the subject in the course (4th year Compulsory Secondary education) is expected to be reinforced.

  • Explain the causes, development and consequences of the World War I.

Finally, the specific teaching objectives of this resource are indicated:

  • To get the students closer to the views of history which are set out from traditions and different national perspectives, through the use of popular history magazines as a source of information.
  • To encourage the setting-up of a certain intercultural dialogue bringing about a critical understanding of the interests which influence the building of different historical narratives.
  • To compare the information from these sources and the student textbook contents.
  • To know the view of the historic events from the perspective of the student textbooks of different countries.

Spanish textbooks perspective related to the outbreak of World War I.

The outbreak of the Great War appears in the Spanish textbooks in a topic entitled "Imperialism Time", "The Empire and the War", "Imperialism and the World War I" and the like. In some textbooks it is also included, in this same unit, the Russian Revolution, while in other this topic is left for the next unit, "Time between wars". There is much information about imperialism and its colonial expansion in the textbooks, the world distribution and the consequences of colonization, the causes of World War I, the evolution and characteristics of the conflict, its stages, the peace treaties and the consequences of war.

The situation of tension which is reached at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe due to all the mentioned causes is the ideal condition for the war to be inevitable. In the textbooks the assassination in Sarajevo is pointed out to be the trigger of the war. However, while some books point at the Austria-Hungary interest to blame Serbia for the assassination (to have this way an excuse to justify the ultimatum and the following declaration of war, so as to spread their domination on the Balkans this way), other books simply mention the attempt and the following declaration of war, which apparently gives the assassination enough strength to unleash the conflict.

On the other hand, the textbooks explain the process of involvement of the different powers in the conflict, supporting Austria-Hungary and Serbia, respectively, according to their respective alliances, but they do no stop to analyze each country particular motivations to get involved in the conflict, further than their condition of allied of each one of the contenders.

After explaining the conflict stages and their development, the textbooks explain the peace treaties, mentioning specifically the hard conditions the Treaty of Versailles imposes on Germany, being considered the responsible for the war.
Finally, the textbooks enlighten the consequences of the war and the result both in human and material losses, and regarding to geographical, economic, social and political changes which are experienced by the European continent. In the extension sections of the books additional information about rivalries among powers or the assassination in Sarajevo is given as well as the soldiers equipment or the war at the trenches, propaganda or the role women played during the conflict, etc.

Other countries' textbooks perspective related to this topic

EHISTO project has produced five modules on World War I taking as a reference the national curricula of the participating countries.

In every module a comparative analysis among national and international popular history magazine articles on the same topic is made. This way, the teacher may know and present different national perspectives on the same question to the students, getting, at the same time, an enriched analysis of an article of popular history magazines of his/her own country which has been seen from the point of view of historians from other participating countries.

It is possible to access the corresponding modules on the same topic clicking on the country or flag below:

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License