World War I: Pre-War Alliances

Figure 1.--Germany launched World War I by invading neutral Belgium (August 1914). The German attack was based on purely military considerations. What the Germanns did not consider was the impact on world opinion, espcially American opinion. The United States with its large population and vast industrial power was not involved in the arms race or the European alliance system. If the Germans, as they hoped, won a quick victory, American opinion would not matter. If the Germans did not win a quick victory, however, the outcome of the war in all probability would be deternmined by the United States. The British understood this from the outset of the War while the Germans dismissed America's importance. Some Germans did not even consider America a real nation because had no common etnic base. Meanwhile in America, there was a widespread commitment to neutrality and staying out of the War. Only incredibly wreckless German diplomacy and war policy would eventually being America into the War resulting in Germany's defeat.

The alliance structure of pre-War Europe is quite complicated. All of the major world powers except one was participating in the arms race and part of the complicated alliance system. The only exception was the United States. Prussia's victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the formation of the German Empire fundamentally changed the balance of power in Europe (1871). This required the European countries to negotiate new security arrangements. Germany was the most powerful coutry in Europe. France was its major challenge and the annexation of Allace-Loraine meant that there was a deep emnity between the two countries. Culrturally there was a deep bond between Austria and Germany. There was also a political bond, both were monarchies and emperial powers. This would seem to provide a bond between Germany and Russia, but here nationalism intervened. While Germany and Russia had no real outstanding issues, there were issues between Austria and Russia, primarily over pan-Slavism and the future of the Balkans. Kaiser Wilhelm II by making the Dual Alliance with Austria the core of German security planning, essemtially bought into a rivalry with Russia. Thus the Franco-Russian allince was the core treaty defending against German hegenomy in Europe. The power of Germany overcame any quams that Republican France might of had with Tsarist absolutism. Prussia had been a traditional ally of Britain. Over time Kaiser Wilhelms belicose diplomacy and decision to build a high seas fleet drove the British toward recociluiation with their traditional enemy--France. Completely outside these and other treaties was the United States. By the time of World War I, the United States was the mpst powerful indistrial nation in the world. But an axiom of American fiplomacy, set by President Washington at the very outset of the Republic was to avoid entangling alliances.

Anglo-Belgian Treaty (1839)

Britain also had a long standing treaty with Belgium. This was not a military treaty as Belgium was neutral, but it guaranteed Belgian neutrality with out any recio=procal tion on the part of Belgium or the staioning of British military forces in Belgium. Britain pledged to defend Belgian neutrality (1839). Few understood at the time that the Treaty would be the linchpin in bringing about World War I. This was based on a long-standing British policy of preventing the Low Countries from being dominmated by a power which could threaten Britain. Despite this Treaty, the German Army decades later developed a war plan (the Scliffen Plan) that envisioned a strike through Belgium. This was not a rash decesion taken by the Germans in an emergency. It was a strateg developed through severalm and many interations. It became the foundation of German military strategy, fully endorsed by the Kaiser and civilian leadership. The Kaiser had worked Germany in a very dangerous situation when he dismissed Chancellor Bismarck and allowed the carefully orchestrated Bismarkian treaty system to unravil. He allowed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to lapse. Suddenly Germany faced substantial military forces in both the East and West. Count Alfred von Schlieffen, was appointed German Chief of the Great General Staff (1891). He worked on how to deal with the dangerous situation created by the Kaiser. It took him a decade and a half as the situation only worsened. He finally presented his sollution--what became known as the Schliffen Plan (1905). The basic Plan was a rapid attack through Belgium to avoid the French Border defenses and quickly defeat the Fench before the British and Russians could mobilize. The Schliffen Plan went through many interatins, but the basic Plan remained the same. The German assessment was that the German Army could defeat France before the British and Russians could significantly intervene. And if France was defeated quickly enough, the British and perhaps even the Russians might even not even declare war. It would be the Scliffen Plan that would be the basis for the German Offensive that launched the War. At the time the British guarantee was made, hiowever, it was mire aimed at France than Gemanhy, In fact, Gemany as a unified country did not yet exist.

German Unification (1871)

The European balance of power change fundamentally with the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the unification of Germany. France was no longe the dominant power in Europe. A rapidly industrializing united Germany at the heart of Europe was now the single most powerful country. And this required major adjustments. Chancelloe Bismarck carefully negotiated a system of alliances that would stablize the new Europe. Hi goal was to secure the relations between the three great empirs (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia) that controlled most of the Continent. He largely suceeded in his goals. As long as they wre united, the three great Empires could not be challenged. Only after Kaiser Wilhelm II disniss Bosmarck did the stable Bismarkian system begin to unravel; and a rival power block develop that could challenge German dominance.

Three Emperor's League (1872)

The Three Emperors' League was the first adjustment of European states to the substantial change in the European balance of power following the Franco-Prussian War and German unification (1871). Germany had replaced France as the dominant European power. But a Republican government in France was threatening to the three empires which dominated much of Europe. The Tree Emperor's League was an informal alliance among Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. The Three Emperor's League Dreikaiserbundwas officially in 1872 when the emperors met (Francis Joseph, William I, and Alexander II). The architects of the alliance were Julius Andrássy, Otto von Bismarck, and Prince Gorchakov. The League was an attempt to maintain the conservative social order of Europe and to prevent war. The three emperors dominated Euope and as long as the three leaders were in accord, a general European war was impossible. It was an effort to update the Congress of Vienna.

Dual Alliance (1879)

The German Empire was founded following the Franco-Prussian War (1871). German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck saw this as essentially securing Germany's goals in Europe. He had not even wanted to annex Alsace-Loraine. Bismarck wanted Germany to become a peacemaker and conservative preserver of the European status quo. He had two principal problems. First was Alsace-Loraine which had bought the permanent eminity and France and desire to change the status quo. Second was the Balkans where Russian and Austria differed over the future as the Ottoman Empire deteriorated. The process of Ottoman decline was hastened by the Russo-Turkish War. The Russiands decisively defeated the Ottomans. The Treaty of San Stefano ending the War greatly expanded Russian influence in the Balkans where Pan-Slavism was an important factor. Austria-Hungary which had desisgns of its own in the Balkans was disturbed by the Russian gains. Bismarck organized the Congress of Berlin in which the Great Powers could amicably settle some of the Balkan issues. The Treaty of Berlin that resulted from the conference reversed many of Russia's gains in the Treaty of San Stefano. It also provided the Austrians with compensation for lost territory. Bismarck's attempts to play the role of an "honest broker" at the Congress, but Russo-German relations were impaired by forcing Russia to surrender some of its gains on the battlefield. The Three Emperors' League was discontinued. This left Germany and Austria-Hungary to sign an alliance against Russia. But instead Bismarck's genious as a statesmen came through. Germany did sign at alliance with Austria-Hungary which became known as the Dual Alliance (1879). The Alliance was a defensive military alliance which was activated only if one of the two counties was attacked. Thus Bismarck was free to negotiate with Russia under the premise that the Dual Alliance was not aimed at Russia.

Triple Alliance (1882)

France and Italy had Mediterranean coasts and both countries had designs on North Africa. France had already created a colony in Algeria. The newly united Italian kingdom wanted to colonize Tunisia, only a few miles from Sicily. France acted first and seized control of Tunis (1881). Italy could not hope to challenge France by itself. As a result, the Italians turned to Germany and Austro-Hungaria. The result was the Tripple Alliance (1882). The signatories promised mutual support in the event of an attack by any other great power, or in the case of Germany and Italy, an attack by France alone. The Itakians had some second thoughts. In a subsequent declaration, Italy indicated that the Treaty could not be regarded as being directed against Great Britain. The sinatories renewed the Alliance (June 1902). Italy secretly extended a similar guarantee to France which had been the principal reasin that the Italians signed the Agreement in the first place. And a further undertaking was that either Austria–Hungary nor Italy would move unilatrally to change the Status quo in Balkan area without consultung with the other country. All these undertakings show a basic weakness of the Triple Alliance. The prijcipal flaw in the Alliance was that while Itlay had issues with France )Tunisia), it has far greater issies with Austruia Hungary (Tyrol, Triste, Dalmatia, and Vlore).

Russo-German Reinsurance Treaty (1887)

Chancellor Bismarck oversaw the Russo-German Reinsurance Treaty (1887). It was a critical, secret agreement between Germany and Russia to reassure the Tsar after the collapse of the Three Emperors' League. The League collapsed because of the competition between Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans. The two countries under the terms of the Treaty committed to remaining neutral if the other became involved in a war. After Wilhelm II became Kaiser (1888) he became impatient with Bismarck's diplomacy and wanted Germany to persue a more aggressive foreign policy. He dismisssed Bismarck who saw the maintwnance of an alliance with both Austria-Hungay and Russia as a connerstone of Germany security. The new German chancellor, Graf von Caprivi declined to renew the Reinsurance Treaty (1890). Kaiser Wilhelm did not object. This made possible a Franco-Russian rapprochement and the creation of the Triple Entente, an alliance system which for the first time presented a serious security challenge to Germany.

Franco-Russian Entente (1891)

Chancellor Bismarck as a core of his diplomacy maintained an alliance with both Austria-Hungary and Russia. As long as the three emperors were united, a European War was virtually impossible. The three empires dominated Europe, controlling almost all of Eastern and Cenbtral Europe. No other power or combination of powers could challenge their combined military forces on th continet. In particulat as long as Russia was allied with Grmany, France had no power which it could ally to challene German continental dominance. Kaiser Wilhelm became emperor when his grandfather and father died in the same yea--the year of the three emperors (1888). Wilhelm was a young man with an expansive view of his capabilities. (This was a in part because of the flatery of his grandfather and Bismarck who attempted to influence him against his liberal parents.) Thus when he became Kaiser he did not easily accept the advise of Bismarck who he tended to see as a plodding relic of the past without his own 'keen' insights. He proceeded to both dismiss Bismarck and allowed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to lapse--a step of collosal incompetence. The French immediately seized on the opportunity to negotiate an alliance with the Russians, establishing a more equal European power ballance. The Franco-Russian Entente was signed (1891) and became a formal alliance (1894). This created two major alliance systems. It meant that Germann military planning would have to djust to powerful threats on two fronts. Germany had the single most powerful army on the continet, but in the comng world wars would be stimed by the need to fight two front campaigns. The existence of two powerful alliances created the possibility of a major European war for the first time since the Napolonic Wars (1800-15). It was an unlikely allince tieing the liberal French Republic to the absolutist Tsarist Empire.

Anglo-French Entente Cordiale (1904)

Britain and France had been at each other's throats for centuries. Even at the turn of the 20th century, their were major imperialtic issues. Fear of Germany, however, drove the two togther. The two formed the Entente Cordiale (1904). The treaty was, however, loosly worded. It placed a "moral obligation" upon Britain to defend France, but did not require that Britain declare war if France was attacked or to commit land firces. Kaiser Wilhelm II's incredibly illconceived bombastic behavior and decission to build a major high seas fleet were major factors in pushing Britain and France together.

Anglo-Russian Entente (1907)

Britain and French fought a war as the Russians extended their territory south and moved to destroy the Ottoman Empire--the Crimean War (1846-48). This began a wider colonial conflict as the Russians moved into Central Asia, threatening the British Raj. British policy focused on resisting the Russians in what became known as the Great Game. Britain also began a naval assistance program with Japan. The gowth of German power and the behavior of the eratic Kaiser finally as with the case of France drove Britaina and Russia together. The two countries settled their colonial differences in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. They negotiated spheres of influence in Persia and agreed that neither country would interfere in Tibet’s internal affairs. Russia recognized Britain’s influence over Afghanistan. The agreement and the similar accord with France led evebntually to the formation of the Triple Entente.


Completely outside the European alliance system and not participating in the arms race was the United States. By the time of World War I, the United States was potentially the most powerful nation in the world with the greatest industrial econommy as well as vast agricultural production and extensive natural resources. America did not particpate in the European arms race. Thus it had a smaller army that many small European states. As a result, many Europeans especially the Germans) did not take America seriously. An exception here was Chancellor Bismarck who understood that the cultural ties and common language of America and Britain was a circumstance of emense geo-political significamce. Kaiser Wilhem, however, dismmissed Americans as naive. The British unlike the Germans preceived the potential importance of the United States. American at the time did not have a substantial or well equipped army. Apparently this was critical to the German assessment, both of American importance and the need for a foreign policy that took America's potential power intom affect. And across the Atlantic, an axiom of American diplomacy, established by President Washington at the very foundation of the Republic was to avoid entangling alliances and envolvement in foreign wars. Demonstrations large and small accross America reveal the opposition to the War. There is a mountain of images in the photiographic record attesting to the depth of Ameriacan determination to stay out of the War (figure 1). This was what the British set out to change and which the Germans decided there was no need to placate.


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Created: 9:15 PM 11/27/2013
Last updated: 5:23 AM 4/8/2014