There is an endless literature on the diplomatic circumstances leading up to the outbreak of war between the two great European power blocks in August of 1914. The period between the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 and the beginning of the war in early August might be THE most studied period of diplomatic history of all time. For our purposes, the key elements to understand are: 1) the creation of the two alliance blocks and 2) the European powers’ perceptions of each other. The imagination of European leaders (and to some extent citizens) played just as great (or perhaps greater) a role in the outbreak of war than any real, direct threat.
The central principle of European politics since the Westphalia Peace of 1648 was balance. This principle of great power balance was reaffirmed in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. No continental power was to grow too strong to threaten its neighbors. Any increase in power within one state would precipitate movements of others to check it. Such was the rationale behind the European intervention to block Russian advancement in the Crimean War. By the middle of the 19th century, the key relationship in this balancing act was between France and Prussia.
The unification of Prussia and surrounding Germanic states into the German Empire in 1871 significantly shifted the balance of power equation in Europe. With Prussia’s easy victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the newly unified Germany (under Prussian dominance) was now without doubt the strongest continental land power. Such a status was confirmed by the terms of the peace in 1871, which, among other things, gave the formerly French territories of Alsace and Lorraine, highly industrialized areas, to Germany. Though Germany was an empire and was ruled in large measure by traditional elites, it was also a modern power. It had a well-developed civil bureaucracy. It had strong professional and labor organizations. It had the premier level of educational and technological sophistication in the world by 1900. Though its navy was still dwarfed by England’s, its land forces were the strongest in Europe. Moreover, its historical alliance with the Austro-Hungarian dual empire created a powerful block in the heart of the European continent.
Along with the rise of a powerful and united Germany, the late 19th century witnessed two other important developments from a balance of power point of view. First, the Ottoman Empire—that Early Modern behemoth, which as recently as the late 17th century was threatening to take Vienna—was in the midst of a slow but steady disintegration. North Africa had already begun to break away from Ottoman control, including the strategically important Egypt. By the last decades of the 19th century the Ottomans’ European possessions in the Balkans were peeling away. Second, Ottoman disintegration prompted Russia and Austria to try to expand their influence and/or control over southeastern Europe. These two historic, large, but also relatively outmoded and fragile empires were now embroiled in a region seething with nationalistic ambitions and ethnic and religious rivalries.
Leaving Italy aside for the time being, the constellation of alliances in August, 1914 pitted Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire (the Triple Alliance or Central Powers) against England, France, and Russia (the Triple Entente). The formation of these particular alliances
against the immediate backdrop of German unification and Ottoman disintegration, and a power vacuum in the Balkans, and against the wider backdrop nationalism, imperialism, and the growth of the modern state is key to understand if we are to grasp how war came when and between whom it did.
Understanding all of the dynamics of European alliance-making in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a daunting task. For our purposes, I will first briefly outline the strategic positions of the major continental powers (England, France, Germany, Russia, Austria) and then how it is that the alliance system resulted in the two opposing camps. The move from the first consideration (strategic position) to the second (alliances) is a twisted path to say the least!England
: The main thrusts of England’s foreign policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were principally twofold. 1) England wanted to maintain control over (and productive economic relationships with) its vast network of colonies. The central colonial relationship for England was with India, as we discussed in chapter one. 2) England wanted to use its naval supremacy to control (and keep open
) global trade. Who posed threats or challenges to England? In terms of colonial conflicts, the main threats came, ironically, from Russia and France. Since the mid-19th century, England had been at odds with Russia in central Asia and the Indian borderlands, including Afghanistan. England and Russia squared off in Persia and fought on opposing sides in the bloody Crimean War. England viewed Russia as an expanding imperial land power—one that could have ultimate aims on India and large sections of China. England’s late support for the aging Qing Dynasty in China was in large measure to counter Russian designs on an Asian warm-weather shipping and naval port. Beyond central and western Asia, France was England’s greatest colonial competitor. This had been the case for centuries. The French and British had squared off in a global war of conquest in the 18th century, a war that left the French crown nearly bankrupt. The French had supported the Americans against the British during the Revolutionary War. The two nations fought each other in the Napoleonic wars. By the late 19th century, disputes about numerous colonial possessions fueled new hostility—in Egypt, in central Africa, in West Africa. In both Egypt and Nigeria, colonial conflict nearly led to war.
For an interesting account of the Fashoda Incident written for the American public by a young Winston Churchill, click here
: Despite the long history of anti-British sentiment in France, the unification of Germany forced a new diplomatic calculus to emerge in Paris. The central pillar of French foreign policy after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War was to establish an alliance to deter future German aggression. This meant, first and foremost, luring Russia out of the so-called Reinsurance Treaty with Germany and Austria and into an alliance with France. Beyond this immediate danger, the French were intent to continue building their colonial empire, which now consisted of a sizable portion of northern and western Africa. This, as noted above, put France primarily in conflict with England.Russia
: The Russian position in the late 19th century was complex—especially given that Russia bordered or was within a quick march from Germany, Austria, the Ottoman Empire, China, and Japan, as well as many British colonial possessions. The only “natural” ally of the Russians might have been the French, though there was little reason why Russia would alienate the Germans by concluding a separate treaty with the French, all things being equal. Of course, all things were not equal and Germany’s steadfast commitment to Austria made the Germans potential enemies by default, especially as tensions heated up around the Balkans. Beyond Europe, the Russians’ chief antagonist was England.Germany
: German motivations, like those of Russia, were complex and shifting. Under the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the German Empire operated under the guiding principle of avoiding encirclement. This meant, principally, that France and Russia should never be allied against Germany, forcing it into a two-front war. Such was the thinking that led to the diplomatic success (from the Bismarckian perspective) of the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. At the same time, however, interests in Germany were shifting. Bismarck’s focus on European power balance started to give way to additional concerns and ambitions. The Germans wanted to forge a colonial empire like the other European powers, which rose tensions with both England and France. The Germans wanted to develop naval power, which struck fear into the heart of Englanders, whose power rested on its control of the seas.Austria
: Austria had perhaps the simplest but also the most perilous foreign policy dynamics. First and foremost, Austria wanted to hold and expand its territory in the Balkans, which put it at direct odds with Russia. Why? Because Russia had formed an alliance with its little brother, the newly independent—and fiercely independent—Serbia. Serbia was not only nationalistic, it was also imperialistic, viewing territories in the Balkans as part of “historic” Serbia, which needed to be liberated from the “tyranny” of Austrian rule. It is no surprise that the clearest antagonism in the European spectrum would ultimately be the fuse that lit the fires of war in 1914.
If Germany’s main goal was not to be encircled, if Britain’s main issues were with Russia and France, if France’s main combatant in world diplomacy was England, if Russia allied with France in order to oppose British coziness with Germany, how on earth do we get the alliances of war in 1914? Far from inevitable, the war as it happened in 1914—at least from the perspective of the late 19th century—was as much counter-intuitive as it was ultimately counterproductive (or a total disaster!).