World War I: Alliance Systems


Figure 1.--Here we see a group of German boys with the flags of the Central Powers. It would be easier to identify the flags of course if they were in color, but I think it coan be done even in black and white. We note the Austria-Hungarian (black and yellow), Bulgarian, German, and Turkish flags. Strangely they seem to be few German flags. This looks to be a school group. We are not sure when the photograp was taken, but would guess 1916. (Bulgaria did not join the Central powersw until October 1915). There is scribbling on the back of the photo postcard. I have no idea what it says. /i>

Europe in 1914 was divided into arm camps through a series of bilateral treaties. After the War, these treaties described as "entangling alliances" were seen to be a major cause of World War I. France as a result of German seizure of Alscae and Loraine in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) was Germany's mortal enemy, but without allies did not dare to challenge the Germans again. Germany and Austria-Hungary became known as the Central Powers. Germany's major ally was Austria in part because they were both German speaking nations. Austria and Germany formed the Triple Alliance (1882). Bismarck also managed to maintain close relations with the Russians, but with increasing difficulty because of the conlict between Austria and Russia over the Balkans. After firing Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II foolishly allowed the reinsurance treaty with Russia to lapse. The French seized on the opportunity to negotiate an alliance with the Russians, establishing a more equal European power ballance. 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). Kaiser Wilhelm II's bombastic behavior and decission to build a major high seas fleet were major factors in pushing Britain and France together. Russia formed an Entente of its own (1907). These two armed camps ngaged in a major arm's race. Largely because of Kaiser Wilhem's incompetance, France was no longer isolated and still intent on recovering Alscae Loraine. It was widely thought after World War I that the alliance system had caused or at least played a major role in the outbreak of the War. The alliances are no seen as less important than the underlying causes, especially xenophobic nationalism.

Entangling Alliances

Europe in 1914 was divided into arm camps through a series of bilateral treaties. After the War, these treaties described as "entangling alliances" were seen to be a major cause of World War I. It was widely thought after World War I that the alliance system had caused or at least played a major role in the outbreak of the War. The alliances are no seen as less important than the underlying causes, especially xenophobic nationalism.

Pre-war Diplomacy

European diplomacy in the late 19th century was dominated by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. His principle goal was to keep France isolated. Kaiser Wilhelm's considered Bismarck to old and to cautious. Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck (1890) and allowed the key Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapsed and French diplomats negotiated an alliance with Russia. Within only a few years of Bismarck's dismissal, Germany was faced with a formidable alliance system--the Triple Entant.

French Diplomacy

France as a result of German seizure of Alscae and Loraine in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) was Germany's mortal enemy. Bismarck had argued for a softer peace so as not to create an antagonistic France, but his advise was not accepted. France realized that challenging Germany again without allies was national suiside.

German Diplomacy

German diplomacy included two destinct phases, one dominated by Bismarck and the later phase after the news kaiser, Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck. Germany's major ally was Austria in part because they were both German speaking nations. This was in large part Bismarcks doing. Prussia had defeated Austria in the Ausrto-Prussian War (1866). Bismarcks assistance on a soft pease, however, allowed friedly relations to develop between the two countries after the War. Bismarck's central policy was to keep France isolated diplomatically. Bismarck oversaw the formation of the Three Emperor's League (1872). This was an alliance between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, all three monarchies in contrast to republican France. This was followed by the Triple Alliance with Italy and Austria-Hungary (1882). Bismarck took advantage of Italian resentment when France occupied Tunisia. Italian natiojnalist had dreamed of a empire in North Africa. Italy agreed to stay neutral if war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Russia. In return, Germany and Austria-Hungary pledged to protect Italy from France. The problem with this agreement was that Austria-Hungary controlled substantial areas with ethnic Italian populations. Bismarck devoted all his efforts to maintain relations with the Russians, but this wasmore and more difficult because of the deteriorating relations between Austria and Russia over the Balkans. Tensions between Russia and Austria-Hungary escalated (1887), but Bismarck managed to temporarily defuse the situation. He negotiated the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, allowing both powers to stay neutral if the other was at war. After firing Bismarck (1890), Kaiser Wilhelm II foolishly allowed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to lapse. Here the Kaiser's incompetence was only part of the problem. The dislike of the Slavs by many Germans was also a factor. The loss of the Russian alliance met that France was no longer isolated. But Wilhelm's diplomatic blunders did not stop with this. He also drive Britain into France;s arms. This is virtually inexplicable. Wilhelm's mother was English and his grandmother was Queen Victoria. The British royal family was essentially a German family had had close ties with Germany. There were no real territorial conflicts between Germany and Britain and in fact the two had been historic allies for centuries. German troops fought under the British flag (incliding during the Revolutionary War. It was Prussian troops that had saved Wellington at Waterloo. Kaiser Wilhelm managed to change all that. (Bismarck's Danish war (1864) had begun the process, making an enemy of the Princess of Wales--Alexandra.) The list of diplomatic gaffs is long indeed. Wilhelm's telegram (The Kruger telegram)sent to congratulate the Boer President outraged Britain (1896). He instructed German soldiers to behave like Huns in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Perhaps more than anything it was his decession to build a high-seas fleet that built anti-German feeling in Britain. And the Kaiser did not stop here. Wilhelm managed to also alienate the United States. Much of this was done during the War. America was even more difficult to alienate than Britain. There was considerable anti-British feeling in America. The most anti-British group were the Irish, but Britain and British colonialism had traditionally been seen as America's great antagonist. There was war talk in the 1840s over Oregon. British construction od Confederate raiders was widely resented. There was even the poosiblity of war as late as the 1890s over Venezuela. In addition, large number of Americans were of German origins. The Zimmerman Telegram and the resumtion of unrestricted submarine warfare finally pushed America to join the Allies.

Russian Diplomacy

Tsarist diplomats persued a Pan-Slavonic plicy much like Soviet diplmats after the War used Commuism. Russia viewed Austria-Hungary as the most antagonistic country on its borders because both empires desired to expand into the Balkans as Ottomon power weakenrd. It was not lost on the Russians that Austria had joined the British and French in the Crimean War (1853-56). The Russians signed a treaty with Serbia which was concerned with Austria-Hungary. The Russians had no real territorial conflicts with Germany as both had shared in the destuction of Poland. Germany was, however, the most powerful nation on Russia's borders. Thus an alliance with France was a powerful step in defusing the potential threat from Germany. A complication was a low-level conflict with Britain in Central Asia--the Great Game.

Pre-war Treaties and Alliances

The alliance structure of pre-War Europe is quite complicated. 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.

Arms Race

These two armed camps engaged in a major arm's race. Largely because of Kaiser Wilhem's incompetance, France was no longer isolated and still intent on recovering Alscae Loraine. Germany was the single most powerful continental power. To ballance the German threat other countries built up their militaries, resulting in a costly arm race in the years preceeding World War I. The other countries (except Britain) introduced military conscription to build large standing armies and trained reserve forces. The Prussian system was widely copied. General staffs develped involved war plans. Again Britain was an exception as it had no intention in fighting a major war on the continent. The continental powers expanded their armies. Both France and Germany doubled the size of their armies between 1870 and 1914. Important new weapons were developed, especially machine guns and improved artillery. Naval building programs were expanded. This was an especially costly undertaking. Only one European power had the capability of financing a fleet to rival the British Royal Navy. Kaiser Wilhem's interest in naval affairs caused him to do just that. Both countries as well as others devoted huge sums to naval construction. The British established a naval doctrine that they would need a navy two and a half times as large as the second-largest navy. This proved to be extremely costly, especially because of German construction. After the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) it was glar that all big-gun battleships were the key to naval victories. The smaller guns wre of little significance. The Royal Navy's response under Admiral Sir John Fisher was HMS Dreadnought (1906). This vessel was the mpst powerful battleship in the world. It was a demonstration of Royal Navy superority. It had the effect, however, of rendering all existing battleships obsolete. This this provided an opportunity to Germany. Germany began building dreadnoughts of its own. There were attempts to limit the arms race, such as the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907. Neither succeeded in steming the arms race.

World War I Alliance System

World War I was fought by two alliances, the Central Powes and the Allies--intially called the Tripple Entent. The core of the Central Powers was the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria. The central principal of Bismarkian diplomacy was to maintain an alliance with Tsarist Russia and Austria. Kaiser Wilhelm II upon rising to the throne saw Chancellor Bismarck as a relic of the past and not up to the job of guiding Germany into the future. He disnissed Bismarck and allowed the treaty with Russia to lapse. The Kaiser turned rather to Austria and Italy for its alliance system. After the War began, the OIttoman Turks and Bugaria joined the Central Powers. The core of the Allies was the treaty between France and Russia. Once the Kaiser allowed the trearly with Russia lapse, the French immediately seized the opportunity and negotiated a treaty with the Tsar. Republican France and Tsarist Russia may seem unlikely allies, but the French had learned their lessob fron the Franco-Prussian War. Never again would they face the Gemans without allies. The question as Europe move toward war was how Britain react. The German invasion of neutral Belgium settled this question. Although Italy was allied with Germany and Austria. The Allies managed to convince them to enter the War on the Allied side. The only major power not engaged in the War by 1917 was America. Britain understood the importance of America. Germany did not. The Kaiser's Government engaged in reckless policies that eventually brought America into the war on the Allied side.







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Created: 12:52 AM 3/20/2006
Last updated: 9:01 PM 11/27/2013