Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

War is Life Itself: The Causes of WWI

World War I

K20 Center, Aimee Myers | Published: May 6th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 10th, 11th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course U.S. History, World History
  • Time Frame Time Frame 180 minutes
  • Duration More 4 class periods


In this lesson, students will move through a series of primary source documents, maps, and graphs to explore the underlying causes of World War I. After analyzing the documents, students will use a graphic organizer to connect new information to historical concepts: militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism. Students will later evaluate and debate concepts in class through the instructional strategy Four Corners. The lesson ends with a writing component that requires forming a stance and supporting that stance with textual evidence.

Essential Question(s)

Is war between nations inevitable?  



Students pretend to be detectives and read a "case file" covering the incident that sparked World War I, the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to engage them in an exploration of how the death of one man (and his wife) could pull the entire globe into a massive war.


Students conduct a Gallery Walk or stations activity in which they physically move around the room while using a series of guided questions to analyze different primary source documents, maps, and graphs and determine the underlying causes of World War I.


Students organize the documents under the popular World War I framework, M.A.I.N. (militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism), to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying causes of World War I. Students then collectively review this framework and tie these underlying causes to the assassination of the archduke and the outbreak of World War I.


Students analyze an Emile Zola quote on war and participate in a Four Corners activity in which they respond to the statement "World War I was an inevitable result of European nations’ prosperity or competition for prosperity."


Students write an essay responding to the essential question as it applies to World War I. Was World War I an inevitable result of European prosperity? They must cite evidence from the documents to support their responses.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Case File for Franz Ferdinand Assassination (attached)

  • Gallery Walk documents (attached)

  • Guided Questions handout (attached)

  • M.A.I.N. Graphic Organizer (attached)


Tell students that they are going to begin class today by investigating a murder. Using the attached Lesson Slides, display a photo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and distribute the "case file" (located under Attachments). Have students work with a partner to analyze the case file and determine, as if they were detectives, the (1) location of the murder, (2) the victims, (3) the murderer, (4) his or her motive, and (5) the aftermath. You might have them do this by simply Why-Lighting the document—highlighting the appropriate places and writing comments/explanations in the margins (click the link for more information)—or you may have them write this information on a separate piece of paper.

After the students have explored the case file, review the information with them. Ask: Why was the Archduke assassinated, and what happened afterward?

Go deeper with their thoughts by asking students if one person’s murder seems like enough of a reason for a world war. Furthermore, ask if an alliance, or just promising to have someone’s back, is really enough to drag all these nations into a war. Ask students to speculate about what other reasons might be for countries to engage in war. You might wish to list these ideas on the board to refer to later.


Create 12 stations in your classroom using the 12 documents provided in the "Gallery Walk Documents" file (located under Attachments). Students will examine each document separately to determine its meaning. Depending on the size of your class, you may wish to group students to ensure that they can use the documents efficiently. Then, pass out the "Guided Questions" document (also found under Attachments) to each student.

Explain to students that they will be investigating other factors, namely the underlying causes of World War I, through a Gallery Walk or stations activity (click the link for more information on this activity). Instruct them to move about the room examining different documents that will help them develop a deeper understanding of these underlying causes. Tell students that they should answer the questions about the documents as they visit the stations.


Once students have completed the Gallery Walk activity, have them sit down. Inform them that all of the information they learned from the documents can be split up into four major categories that most historians believe are the underlying causes of World War I: militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism (M.A.I.N.). Discuss these terms through a class discussion, and address the original ideas students had in the Explore activity. You can use the PowerPoint provided under Attachments, if needed, to review what these terms mean with students.

Handout the "M.A.I.N. Graphic Organizer" (under Attachments), and have students work in partners or small groups to fill out the chart using the documents and the guided questions they answered during the Explore Gallery Walk. Like the sample below, students can cite the document that refers to the information used.

Sample Responses for Students' M.A.I.N Graphic Organizer

After students have completed the M.A.I.N. graphic organizer, review them collectively. You may do this by filling out the chart together using a Smart Board/projector or simply by eliciting student responses through a round-robin, class sharing technique.


Display the Emile Zola quote, which has been provided for you toward the end of the Lesson Slides (or you can write it on the board).

Have students talk with an elbow partner about what the quote means. After several minutes, ask for volunteers to discuss the quote as part of a whole group. Guide students to an understanding that Zola is suggesting that war is necessary for countries to be powerful, and that powerful countries will ultimately have to fight to stay powerful. Point to the sentence, "We must eat and be eaten so that the world may live," if necessary.

After students have reached an understanding of Zola’s message, connect his message to World War I by displaying the statement "World War I was inevitable for the nations involved to survive and thrive." Have students participate in a Four Corners activity about this statement.

Summarize by comparing positions and reasons provided by the groups.


Have students write an essay responding to the essential question as it applies to World War I: Was World War I inevitable for the nations involved to thrive and survive? When responding to the essential question, instruct students to address how militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism created tensions between the European powers that erupted after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Remind students that they must use evidence from the documents in their responses.