When the World War I ended, it was the most destructive war ever seen by the world. It was a total war and its scope and scale was gigantic. The world had never seen a war which was so destructive in terms of men and material. Millions of people died, and it was hard to calculate the exact cost of property lost in the war.
The World War I continued for four long years (1914-18) and all major powers of the world participated in it. All these factors make it imperative that we study what happened before the World War which precipitated in the war of such proportion.
Inter Imperial Rivalries
Congress of Vienna of 1815created an order in the Europe which was able to keep peace in Europe for the next three decades. Till the time Metternich remained in power, he did not allow the peace of Europe to be disturbed by either the forces of revolution or by Imperialistic ambitions of the rulers. With the ouster of Metternich, Europe witnessed a period of uncertainty.
In the next two decades short but decisive wars were fought andItalian and German unification took place. In this process, on one hand Germany emerged as the most powerful nation of continental Europe and at the same time France and Austria-Hungary lost their prestige and territories. These developments had a bearing on future events which created animosity and bad blood between European powers.
Some of these events which were a result of inter imperial rivalries have been discussed below.
Annexation of Alsace – Lorraine by Germany
Alsace-Lorraine was a French territory before the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Before that, these territories were part of the Holy Roman empire. These areas were added to the French empire during the reign of Louis XIV and XV.
These areas had people speaking different German dialects and German nationalists had aspirations to merge these parts in united Germany.
In 1871, when the war ended with the Treaty of Frankfurt, France had to cede Alsace and Lorraine to the German empire. Many German Generals considered this as a strategic move because this area was thought to give the Germans a strategic buffer against future French attacks. This annexation of the Alsace and Lorraine created bad blood between France and Germany.
The Treaty of Frankfurt gave the residents of the area an option to choose between emigrating to France or remaining in the region and having their nationality legally changed to German. Under the German empire, the area was administered directly from Berlin, although the area was granted limited autonomy in 1911.
German statesmen were always remained fearful of French aggression over the issue of annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. Bismarck adopted the policy of French isolation in international affairs so that France would not take aggressive actions against Germany. It was also one of the reasons that peacetime military alliances came into existence which gave birth to arms race in Europe.
Therefore, annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Germany was an important and major event which contributed to the war of 1914. When the war broke out in the 1914, recovery of the two lost provinces became the top French war goals.
Weakening of Ottoman Empire had made the situation in Balkan problematic. It had given rise to the aspirations and ambitions of different empires and nationalities (Habsburg Empire, Russian Empire, Serbs, Croats and Slavs). Serbian nationalism presented the most serious challenge in keeping the Balkan Peninsula peaceful.
Serbs began their struggle in 1804 under the leadership of Karageorge. The movement was supported by Russia up to 1812 when Czar had to make peace with Turkey on account of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. The Turks took advantage of this and re-established its control over Serbia. When Russia declared war on Turkey in 1877 over the question of prosecution of Christians in Balkan by the Turkish government, Serbia assisted Russia along with Montenegro, Rumania and Bulgaria. Russia emerged victorious and by treaty of San Stefano (1878),Sultan recognized complete independence of Serbia, Montenegro and Rumania with increased territories.
Serbian nationalists had resented the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, although Serbian independence was recognized by the Berlin Treaty. Through this treaty, Russia had to surrender Treaty of San Stefano and as compensation, Austria was given the right to administer Turkish province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. When in 1885, Serbia was defeated by Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary intervened and Serbia was saved. However, as a result, Serbia came under complete control of Austria after 1885. This state of affairs continued till 1903 when the revolution took place and the pro Austrian King of the Serbia king Alexander was murdered.
Henceforth Serbia began to collaborate with Russia for the realization of her dreams of uniting all the Serbs under her leadership.
In 1908, Bosnia and Herzegovina were annexed by Austria. Annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an area desired by Serbia, by Austria in 1908 made the situation more volatile and complicated and one of the causes of the war of 1914.
The Serbian ambition of creating a large South Slav Kingdom was posing existential threat to the Habsburg Empire, which was an amalgamation of many different nationalities. If the Serbs and Croats were allowed to leave the fold, it was expected that many other nationalities within the Habsburg Empire would demand their independence as well. Russian support for Serbia had made Serbia more aggressive.
Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 had made Serbia stronger and more determined to challenge Austrian occupation of Bosnia. It had made Austrians equally determined to end Serbian ambitions through military means. Assassination of Austrian Archduke in 1914 did provide an opportunity to end Serbian aspirations and Austria was determined to use it for its benefit.
Germany was one of the most powerful nations in the continental Europe. But her colonial empire was not extensive and economically rewarding compared to most of the European nations. Germans resented this and when Kaiser Wilhelm II became emperor, the Germans started perusing colonies aggressively. In an attempt to expand their empire and to test Anglo-French ‘Entente Cordiale’ (1904), the Germans announced they would assist the Sultan of Morocco to maintain the country’s independence.
France was also interested in Morocco. To discuss the issue, an international conference was held in Algeciras in southern Spain (January 1906). The Germans believed that most of the countries would not contest her claims, but to her amazement Britain, Russia, Italy and Spain supported the French demand to control the Morocco bank and police.
It was a serious diplomatic defeat for Germany and it also highlighted the strength of recently signed Anglo French ‘Entente Cordiale’.
Bosnia was a province of Turkey. In 1878, the Congress of Berlin gave the permission to Austria-Hungary to administer the province, but officially Bosnia was to remain a part of Turkey.
In 1908, Austria annexed Bosnia after a new government was formed in Turkey. At that time, the Turkish government was determined to assert their control over the province of Bosnia. The Austrian action was a deliberate move and against Serbian aspirations to take control of Bosnia. Serbian aspirations were not devoid of merit, since there were three million Serbs in Bosnia among its mixed population of Serbs, Croats and Muslims.
The Serbs appealed for help from their ally and fellow Slavs, the Russians. The Russians called for a European Conference but no conference took place and Austria kept Bosnia, since Britain and France were unwilling to get involved in the Balkan conflict. It was a triumph for the Austrian-German alliance, but had unfortunate consequences.
Serbia became extremely hostile to Austria, which eventually led to the outbreak of war. Russia did not support militarily because they recently lost a war with Japan and was not prepared for another war. However, the humiliation to desert the cause of fellow Slav, Serbia, made the Russians determined to support Serbia in any future conflict. Russia embarked on a massive military build-up and modernization of army, together with an improvement in their railway system to allow quicker mobilization.
Agadir Crisis (1911)
A rebellion broke out against the Sultan of Morocco in Fez, the capital city of Morocco. On the pretext of helping Sultan, French troops occupied Fez. The Germans sent a gunboat, the Panther, to the Moroccan port of Agadir, to pressurize the French into giving Germany compensation. The British were concerned about safety of their trade routes in case the Germans acquired Agadir. British supported French and Germans withdrew their gunboat.
The Germans agreed to recognize the French protectorate over Morocco. In return, they got two strips of territory in the French Congo. It again proved the efficacy of ‘Entente Cordiale’ and gave a further push to anti-British sentiments in Germany. It is also known as the second Moroccan crisis.
Turkey was known as the sick man of Europe and Balkan countries wanted to take advantage of this situation. They wanted to expand their territories at the expense of Turkey. This situation resulted in the Balkan wars. In the first Balkan war (1912) Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria launched a series of attacks on Turkey. To avoid the spreading of the conflict, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, arranged a peace conference in London, with the German government.
The resulting settlement divided up the former Turkish lands among the victor Balkan powers. However, to prevent Serbia becoming more powerful, Albania was made an independent state. Serbia wanted Albania, to get an outlet to the sea, but Austria prevented this with support from Germany and Britain.
Like Serbia, Bulgaria was also unhappy with their gains from the first Balkan war. Bulgaria was hoping to get Macedonia but most of it was given to Serbia. During the second Balkan war, Bulgaria attacked Serbia to get what it desired, but the plan could not be successful. Greece, Romania and Turkey supported Serbia. Bulgaria lost the war and by the Treaty of Bucharest (1913), they forfeited most of their gains from the first Balkan war.
Balkan wars had serious consequences for the Europe and the world. Serbia gained from the war and emerged as a stronger nation. It strengthened her resolve to use war as a means to achieve her national objectives. It also made Austrians determined to put the brakes on Serbians ambitions of creating Grand Serbia.
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
During an official visit of Serbia, the Archduke and heir to the Austrian Emperor was shot dead with his wife of Sarajevo, the Capital of Bosnia on June 28, 1914 which led to the immediate outbreak of the World War I. Consequently, the Austrians sent a harsh ultimatum to the Serbian government.
Austria-Hungary, with the German support, used the opportunity to annex Serbia by presenting a series of demands with a set deadline. On July 28th, Australia- Hungary declared war on Serbia. The Russians, anxious not to let Serbia down again, ordered a general mobilization (29 July). The German government demanded that this should be cancelled (31 July), and when the Russians failed to comply, Germany declared war on Russia (1 August) and on France (3 August ) thus, sparking the World War I.
Formation of Alliances
The emergence of Germany as a single state substantially changed the balance of power in Europe. Her army was more efficient and her industrial base was also large compared to the other continental powers. That is why it is necessary to understand the German aspirations and foreign policy during the period under consideration to get a better idea of the events.
Otto Von Bismarck was the Chancellor of unified Germany from 1871 to 1890. To make rise of Germany more palatable, he insisted that Second Reich was a sated power and further additions of territory were therefore undesirable. His primary concern was to maintain status quo since German interests were best served in maintaining the status quo.
Bismarck’s intention was to solve all continental disputes amicably without any country taking recourse to war. His primary concern was to anticipate and neutralize any forces which might disrupt the balance of power in continental Europe. Bismarck, therefore, kept a close watch on the situation in both Eastern and Western Europe.
On the Eastern front, Bismarck was aware that his Realpolitik and deliberate aggression, used in the process of unification of Germany, had undermined the understanding which had previously existed between Russia, Prussia and Austria.
Bismarck was wary of two things on Eastern front:
first, a collaboration of Austria and Russia against Germany and
second, an Austro-Russian war in future into which Germany might be dragged.
That is why Bismarck worked to prevent relations between Austrian and Russian governments from becoming too close or too strained.
On the Western front, the task was more specific. Bismarck knew that a great nation France was humiliated in the process of German unification. Bismarck feared an attempt by France to avenge her defeat of 1871 and the cession of Alsace-Lorraine. Bismarck rightly calculated that by herself, France constituted little military danger to Germany. That is why isolation of France became a cornerstone of German foreign policy till the time Bismarck remained the Chancellor of the Germany.
According to Bismarck, France was the most eager European State for war and peace was almost assured with isolation of France. At the same time, Bismarck felt that Germany needed to be integrated into an effective defensive system so that German supremacy could be maintained in the continental matters and the peacetime alliance system was a result of this policy.
League of Three Emperors (1872)
Initially, Bismarck used ideological factors to isolate France and to restore rapprochement between Germany, Austria and Russia. Fear of revolution was exploited and in 1872, the League of Three Emperors was formed which committed the three governments to cooperate in their measures against socialism and other radical influences.
It was also a device to foster monarchical unity against republican France ( France again became republic in 1870). Bismarck ’s attitude against France was typically double-edged. Bismarck feared republican France, but at the same time wanted it to remain a republic. According to him, the republican France would be easy to isolate compared to a monarchical France. Bismarck was convinced that a republican France would ensure its own isolation. But, the League of Three Emperors soon faced problems over the Eastern Question. Relations between Russia and Austria deteriorated after Russia declared war against Turkey over Balkan issue and defeated her. It aroused Austrian fears of Russian expansion into South-Eastern Europe.
Now Bismarck had an opportunity and a problem.
It was a problem that ongoing Balkan crisis could lead to a war between Austria and Russia and Germany could be dragged into it.
On the other hand, it was an opportunity that Balkan crisis could be used as an irritant to prevent Russian and Austria from coming together.
In an attempt to solve the problem, Bismarck convened the Congress of Berlin (1878). The Berlin Treaty reversed the Russian gains from the Treaty of San Stefano and as compensation gave Austria permission to administer the Turkish Province of Bosnia, but officially Bosnia was to remain a part of Turkey. The outcome was far from satisfactory. It could not diffuse the tensions between Russia and Austria and at the same time the Russian emperor attacked Bismarck’s apparent support for Austria at the congress. The League became ineffective and Bismarck had to find another initiative in the form of Dual Alliance.
Dual Alliance (1879)
When League of Three Emperors became ineffective Bismarck formed a defensive Dual Alliance with Austria. This alliance was directed specifically against Russia. The two powers promised each other support in case of an attack by Russia. They also promised to remain neutral in case one of them is attacked by another European power. It served two purposes: first, Germany would not be isolated in Europe and secondly, Russia would not wage a war against Germany or Austria.
Triple Alliance (1882) – Germany, Austria, and Italy
North African territory of Tunisia was annexed by French government. The Italian government had regarded Tunisia as being within its sphere of influence. Italian government started searching powerful partners so that in future, her aspirations would not suffer the same fate as they had in case of Tunisia.
When Italy approached Bismarck for help in 1882, Triple Alliance was formed between Germany, Austria and Italy. By Triple Alliance, Bismarck achieved two objectives.
First, the long standing enmity between Austria and Italy was ended thus removed the threat from Austria’s southern flank.
Second, France was deprived of a potential ally who would have given her an immense psychological boost.
Three Emperors’ Alliance (1881)
Dual Alliance with Austria did cause some complications for Bismarck in his foreign policy goals. He was particularly concerned about the possibility of an alliance between France and Russia and tried everything to prevent it. To prevent the Franco-Russian alliance, Bismarck revived original League of Three Emperors in the form of the Three Emperors’ Alliance. This laid less stress on ideological unity and more on specific territorial compromise between Austria and Russia.
This arrangement was again renewed in 1884 but soon was on the verge of collapse due to Bulgarian crisis. Again, Austria objected to the Russian involvement in the Balkans. This time, the issue was over the Bulgaria. To neutralize the threat and to avoid direct involvement of Germany, should an Austro-Russian war breaks out, Bismarck concluded the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia.
Reinsurance Treaty (1887)
Bismarck concluded the secret agreement in the name of Reinsurance treaty with Russia in 1887. By the Reinsurance Treaty, Bismarck promised Russia full diplomatic support over Bulgaria. In return, Russia promised to remain neutral in the event of a French attack on Germany, subject to a similar undertaking by Germany not to assist an Austrian attack on Russia.
Triple Entente – Russia, France, Great Britain
Bismarck was replaced as German Chancellor in 1890 and in the same year Russia requested for renewal of the Reinsurance treaty with the Germany. But with the resignation of Bismarck, German foreign policy also changed its course. The feeble connection with Russia was abandoned and Reinsurance treaty was not renewed. It resulted in the formation of the Franco-Russian alliancein 1894.
Throughout the 1890s, the main target of Germany’ new policy wasBritain. A key element of this design was to increase Germany’s battleship strength, thereby forcing Britain to protect home waters at the expense of her far flung imperial commitments. But soon, this strategy took its toll. The strategy of forcing British attention back to Europe did work, but in a way was least expected by Germany or if expected not desired by Germany. The British government by taking the German threat seriously abandoned its continental isolation policy and formed the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904.
Worst was yet to come for German policy makers. In 1907, the Britain and Russia settled their colonial disputes by signing the Anglo-Russian Convention. At the same time, connection of both countries with France was reaffirmed by signing the Triple Entente in the same year.
Thus, these alliances in the end involved all the major European powers and it became evident that in case of escalation of any tension, if war was started, it would be quite difficult task to keep it localized. So when the war was started in 1914, it soon expanded its horizon and became a world war.