The causes of the Great War have been studied for decades and “continued to pose challenging questions”. Nationalism, imperialism, Darwinism, militarism, arm races, to name a few, have been discussed as the causes. This paper will discuss two well-known factors that led to the war. The alliance network that involved in European international relation starting decades before the outbreak and the crises that led the powers close to the war prior to 1914.
European foreign policies and alliance system
European order of power was changed dramatically after the unification of German Empire and the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71 in which France lost two provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, to Germany. German rapidly developed industrial and military power became “potential for destabilizing the balance power in Europe” . However, in 1971-90, under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s leadership, Germany was success in avoiding direct conflict with other powers. In fact, Germany became the new “balancer in European international relationship”. Germany started great power activities in European international relations.
The first League of the Three Emperors
The decline of Ottoman Empire in the Near East and Balkans gave an opportunity for other great powers, Russia and Austria-Hungary, to increase their influences in the region. Russia was taking advantage from weaken Ottoman Empire, while Austria-Hungary was making effort to prevent Russia’s expansion to dominate in the region. The two powers came into a conflict of interest. In the mean time, Bismarck’s objective was to maintain German position in the European newly established order of great powers. His vision was to make friend with the neighbours in the east, Russia and Austria-Hungary, and isolate France in the west. In 1872, Bismarck implemented his goal by holding the League of the Three Emperors to bring Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia together with the main objective to against the social movement Marxist International. France had not recovered from the war in 1871 now facing pressure from three great powers.
The Congress of Berlin
In 1875-78, tension between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Near East and Balkan region culminated after Austro-Hungarian revealed its policy in south-east Europe and Russia supported five Balkan state to gain independence from Turkey. Bismarck made the move to “stable balance between Austria-Hungary and Russia” in the Balkan interest by calling for the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The Congress tried to come with the agreement that was Austria-Hungary occupied the west and Russia dominated the east of former Turkish territories in Balkan.
Dual Alliance and the second League of the Three Emperors
However, Bismarck recognized that such an agreement could not last for long since Russia lost its share in Balkan as a result of the Congress and on the other hand, Austria-Hungary, not tying down to a serious commitment, could possibly seek for support from France in the future. In 1879, Germany signed the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary. Each country would support the other if attacked by Russia. Furthermore, Bismarck’s vision was still to preserve the friendly relationship with both Australia-Hungary and Russia. In 1881, following the event of Czar Alexander ascended the Russian throne; Bismarck succeeded to restore the League of the Three Emperors. Germany remained being friend with both Russia and Austria-Hungary, and kept France isolated. Three empires agreed to stay neutral if one of them was in war with a fourth power; in this case France was the main concern.
The Triple Alliance and secret treaty
In 1881, France expanded its colonial ambition to Africa threatening interest of Italy in this continent. Italy turned to Germany seeking for support in event of a conflict in the future. In 1882, the Triple Alliance was formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Although the bonding with Italy in the alliance was not as strong, Bismarck at least succeeded to maximize support from one more great power to isolate France, in this case was Italian support. More over, in 1887, Germany secretly signed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, which contradicted to the dual alliance with Austria-Hungary, committed to remain neutral in a future war that Russia would involve. During the time Bismarck was taking power in 1871-90, he was a successful diplomatic architecture that helped Germany stood as a great power in central Europe. Germany was in friendly relationship with its south and east neighbouring powers and kept France isolated.
Change in German foreign policy
Despite German success in its foreign policy, some historians argued that Bismarck’s creation stabilized conflicts of interest in central Europe in short term but caused a larger war in the future. Nevertheless, German foreign policy was changed dramatically by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who accessed to the German Empire throne in 1888 and dismissed Bismarck from power in 1890. Not as diplomatically skilful as Bismarck, Kaiser started to fail the well established stabilization when Bismarck was in power. Kaiser calculated that sooner or later German growth of power would conflict with Russia. Germany strengthened the friendship with Austria-Hungary and abandoned Russia. In turned, Russia started to negotiate with France. A large amount of loan France gave Russia starting in 1892 firmed the two country’s relationship. In 1894, Russian and France formed a military alliance, Dual Entente, promising to support each other if a war with a country in Triple Alliance would happen. From getting support from Russian (and from Austria-Hungary) in the east to against France in the west, Germany faced two potential enemies from both sides.
Wilhelm II’s ambition was to make Germany “a place in the sun”: German position in the world power must reflect “its economic predominance on the continent and its population’s size” . Germany began to challenge to the world powers.
Britain had been following its isolation policy in European international relationship since its main interest was “the vast worldwide empire and the expansion of overseas trade”. However, the France-Russia alliance made British diplomats reconsider their policy. In Europe, France and Russia were the traditional threats to Britain. “Britain approached the United States and Germany for alliances”. Considering “American policy makers were civil but noncommittal”, only “Anglo-German treaty seemed to be a possibility”. However, Kaiser’s ambition was clear that Germany was going to expand not only in Europe but also to other parts of the world. Germany started building its naval force in the late 1890s. Britain argued “Given that Britain had the most powerful army in the world, why Germany needed a navy at all” if it was not to against the Royal Navy. Britain was evidently threatened by Germany while it was trying to be friend with.
In 1902, Britain allied with Japan to prevent Russian expansion and to enforce the Royal Navy in Asia facing “the Franco-Russia naval combination”. The Russian-Japanese war starting in 1904 brought Britain and France together. Both powers did not want to fight each and realized it was essential to collaborate. They came to an Entente agreement and settle the remaining conflicts in Africa. Germany felt the need to challenge the “alliance” as its early state. In 1905, Germany demonstrated its naval power in Morocco. Its intension was to gain support from Britain thus weaken Britain-France relationship. However, seeing the aggression from Germany, the Entente even became stronger.
The Triple Entente
Britain allied with Japan in 1902 against Russia to strengthen its power in the Far East. Now, it was facing an aggressive Germany in Europe. In its calculation, Britain could not effort to support its military power in both Asia and Europe. An alliance with Russian was the option to encircle German power. In 1907, Russia lost the war over Japan and needed more support other than French. In the same year, weakened Russia easily accepted the agreement with Britain on conflict in Persia and Afghanistan. As the result, the Britain-France entente now became Triple Entente with Russia newly recruited.
Crises prior to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914
The first Morocco crisis
Morocco before 1905 had been officially an independent state. However, in the late nineteenth century, “France and Spain intervened there, each taking a piece” . With the consent from Britain, Italian and Spain, France extended his control over Morocco. Although only a few German companies were doing business in Morocco thus Germany had “no vital interests in Morocco”, Germany determined that was an opportunity to challenge France, hence its entente with Britain. Wilhelm II came to Morocco and made the statement that confirmed the independent status of Morocco and demanded France to compensate for German lost in the country. Facing a threat of war, Algeciras Conference of 1906 was called. The result was summarized as “France got what they wanted, and Germany found itself isolated except for the support of Austria-Hungary”13.
The first Morocco crisis helped Germany realized that it could not solely rely on Austria-Hungary and Italian was not fully truthful. Moreover, its target was to weaken the France-Britain Entente was not archived. In fact, the entente became stronger as German now exposed as a real threat even on non-European matters. Russian long conflict with Austria-Hungary over Balkan now recognized the obvious strategy that was to further secure its relationship with France and Britain.
In 1908 Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. This caused Serbia nationalist anger since a large portion of Bosnian population were Serbs. The dream of the Serbs, also known as the Great Serbia movement, in Europe was to unite all together. Russia had been also interested in Balkan thus had been in long conflict with Autria-Hungary. However, Russia was just defeated the war by Japan the year before and had not recovered. Moreover, Austria-Hunagary was backed by Germany. For Russia “it was a serious loss of prestige” but no action was taken. Serbia was a small state that was not strong enough to directly face against Austri-Hungary. However, anti-Austrian movement accelerated. For example, the Black Hand, which was responsible for the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in and triggered the Great War outbreak in 1914, was founded and sponsored by Serbia.
The second Morocco crisis
In 1911, France landed troops into Morocco. Germany, still had not forgotten how it diplomatically failed in 1906 Algeciras Conference, once again sent its battle ship, the Panther, to Morocco and demanded France compensation. “France resisted and Britain reacted with strong support”. Germany finally agreed to settle for French Congo. This crisis, once again rang the alarm of an aggressive Germany. Russia, specially, France and Britain predicted a war would likely happen in the near future. Military planning between France and Britain and arm race were accelerated.
The Balkan crisis
Nationalism movement was at peak in Balkan in the beginning of twentieth century. Under pressure of organizations such as Supremeists, and Black Hand, Serbia and Bulgaria settle their conflict in Macedonia to moving forward to against Ottoman. Russia after losing the war to Japan in 1905 and backing down from the Bosnia crisis in 1909 started influencing Serb and Bulgaria to gain back its position in Balkan. In 1911, Italia attacked Ottomans in Libya. Balkan states determined that were the opportunity to completely sweep out Ottoman Empire. With encouragement from Russia, the Balkan League, a coalition consisting of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro was formed. Ottoman was defeated in the first Balkan war in 1912 and pushed out of most of the areas in Balkan. However, after the defeat of the common enemy, Bulgaria turned back to its alliances Serbia, Greece. Bulgaria could not win the war in 1913 to gain back Macedonia. In fact it lost other territories instead in the Peace of Bucharest.
Some historians argued that the Balkan crises directly caused the outbreak in 1914. Serbia with two successive victories became stronger thus Greater Serbia movement further encouraged. Austria-Hungary had been observing the Balkan wars and saw the need to stop revolutionary Serbia. Since Serbia did not follow the agreement in Bucharest to evacuate from Albania, Austria threatened to use force. Serbia pulled its troops out from Albania. Austria-Hungary learned that using force was the ultimate solution to resolve conflict from this. After the assignation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia and triggered the Great War. One can argue that Austria-Hungary exercised the lesson it learned after Balkan wars.
Two major causes of the World War I have been discussed in chronological order. German Empire became challenge to other European great powers since it was founded. Bismarck had planted the seed of a larger war during two decades controlling German foreign policy. To isolate France, Bismarck built the Triple Alliance. His well constructed alliance system and secret treaties helped to avoid conflict in the short run but eventually posed a greater threat. Defending an aggressive Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II’s leadership, France, and Russia came together. Germany, consequently, was encircled. Germany tried to separate the enemies by the moves as seen in two Morocco crises. However, its poorly calculated moves had negative effect. European powers recognized a real threat and arm race was further increased. If the Germany-Austria alliance did not exist, there might have no such agreement between Russia, France and Britain so that when Germany declared war with Russia, France and Britain would not join the war. On the other hand, if was not backed up by German, Austria-Hungary might have not attacked Serbia as it was well aware that a war with Russia was unavoidable. Balkan was a hot spot because of nationalism movement. A supposed regional war became the Great War because of the present of two opponent alliance systems.
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