How did the assassination of Franz Ferdinand lead to World War I?


I’m not a history buff, and all I know is that his death set off a Rube Goldberg machine of Politics that led to everyone fighting everyone else. Can someone simplify it for me?

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I’m no historian, but my personal take is that many countries had a bunch of really efficient, new and shiny ways to kill each other and the entire world was just waiting for an excuse to use them on each other. Might as well be that reason.

1. Franz Ferdinand is the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, an Empire in Europe.
2. He is shot by a Serb, so to get revenge Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
3. Serbia is in an alliance with Russia. To honor the alliance, Russia declares war on Austria-Hungary.
4. Germany is in an alliance with Austria-Hungary. Once Russia declares war on A-H, Germany declares war on Russia to honor the alliance.
5. France is in an alliance with Russia. Once Germany declares war on Russia, France declares war on Germany to honor the alliance.
6. Germany wants to get around French defenses and so invades Belgium, who claimed to be neutral.
7. Britain sees the invasion of Belgium as the first-stage of an attack on them, they are also allied with both Belgium and France. They declare war on Germany to honor their alliances and protect their sovereignty.
8. All of Europe is now at war, along with their colonies all over the world. Japan is also somewhat involved due to being technically allied with the UK.

So you have gangs, let’s say the green gang (UK, France, Russia) and the blue gang (Germany, Italy, mid-Europe, specifically Austria-Hungary). These gangs had policies in place to protect each other although the blue and green gangs got a long lightly and cautiously pre-War. These gangs or members also had associates (ex. Serbia) that they had interests in protecting.

Ferdinand led Austria-Hungary, part of the blue gang. He was assassinated by Serbians and Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for this and went to war with them. Russia came to the defense of one of it’s associates. This caused other members to come to the defense of their members and associates and war happened.

Very simplistic explanation of a very complex set of actions.

Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was assassinated by members of The Black Hand, a secret society of Serbian nationalists who wanted to unite all Slavic countries, which would first require independence from Austria-Hungary. The Black Hand had support from many higher ups in the Kingdom of Serbia, if not necessarily the government itself.

Austria-Hungary accused Serbia of supporting the assassination, and issued an ultimatum with very harsh terms to Serbia to “investigate” but would actually put them into the A-H sphere of influence.

MEANWHILE, Russia had recently suffered a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and was looking to restore its prestige and influence. The Tsar decided he would be “Protector of the Slavs” and thus back Serbia against Austrian aggression. This gave Serbia confidence to defy A-H.

MEANWHILE Germany had an alliance with A-H, and had told them basically “we trust you, do what you want and you have our support.” This gave A-H the confidence to threaten war even if it would anger Russia.

MEANWHILE the unification and rapid rise of Germany in the previous decades had the other European powers very nervous, and France and Russia made an alliance to protect themselves in case one of them had to fight Germany. This was also supported by Britain, though not officially. France in particular was arguably looking for a reason to fight Germany.


A-H threatens Serbia, Serbia refuses. A-H declares war on Serbia. Russia declares war on A-H. A-H calls for help from Germany. Germany declares war on Russia, which also means declaring war on France because they are allies.

Germany decides to attack France first because they think Russia will be slow to mobilize. They move their army through Belgium to get around the border defenses in France, expecting Belgium to simply let them rather than fight. Belgium does NOT let them! Belgium calls for help from Britain, citing an old treaty that supposedly guarantees their independence. Britain considers Germany their greatest rival, and so decides to come to Belgium’s aid.

Italy and the Ottoman Empire both see the chaos in the Balkans and each decide to take advantage to gain more territory, joining the war on opposite sides. (Italy had been allied to A-H before but invaded them anyway, since that was the territory they wanted.) Japan did the same thing, except in the Pacific, since Germany had no means to protect its colonies while Britain had naval supremacy.

MEANWHILE, the United States was busy loaning money to fund the war, primarily to Britain. Germany was pissing them off because their naval strategy relied on submarines to attack merchant shipping, which ended up killing Americans. Germany feared the Americans would join the war against them and tried to recruit MEXICO to invade America to keep them busy. When this plot was discovered, America finally had enough of neutrality and declared war on Germany too.

Europe at the time was a web of international alliances, where basically if one country attacked another country a third country would attack the attacker, resulting in a rapidly growing conflict.