World War I: Alliance System


Figure 1.--This German post card shows three boys dressed in Austrian, German, and Ottoman uniforms sympolizing the comined effort of the Central Powers. It was mailed in February 1915 and thus made before Bulgaria entered the War with a joint attack on Serbia (October 1915). The caption reads, "Wir müssen--und wir werden siegen!!" That means, "We must -- and we will triumph!!" We are not sure why the boys were pictured with cigarettes, it gives the boys a rather disreputable look which surely was not the intention. We do not see similar war propraganda from the Allies who were somewhat embarassed with their Tsarist ally. Put your cursor on the image to see the message on the back.

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 Bulgaria 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 Germans 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.

The Central Powers

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. Germany before the War was allied with Austria-Hungary and Italy in the Triple Alliance. Italy did not, however, follow Germany and Austria-Hungary into the War. In fact Italy would eventually join the Allies. Germany and Austria-Hungary became known as the Central Powers. Taking advantage of Ottomon animosity toward Russua, Germany convinced the Ottomons to join the Cental Powers (November 1914). The next year Bulgaria entered the War (October 1915). Germany at the time was the most powerful single country in Europe. Its allies, however. proved to be rather weak and required German support on their various fronts.

The Allies

The core of the Allies was the treaty between France and Russia. Once Kaiser Wilhem II allowed the Treaty with Russia tolapse, 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 lesson fron the Franco-Prussian War. Never again would they face the Gemans without allies. The Franco-Russia Treaty was the core of the Allied war effort in the opening year of the War. Yet an alliance with absoltist Tsarist Russia was an embsarassment for the Allies, making it difficult to advance any higher principles for the War. (After the Russian Revolution both Britain and France refused to grant the Tsar and his family refuge despite the request of the Provissional Government.) The question as Europe moved toward war was how Britain react. Britain and France overcame imperialistic conflicts because of the increasingly beligerant Germany. Britain and France signed the Entente Cordiale (1904). Russia formed an Entente with Britain (1907). This required Russia to reach an understanding with Britain's Asian ally Japan. (The two had fought the Russo-Japanese War a few years earlier.) The alliance between Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Triple Entente. Still it was not clear if Britain would enter a continental ground war with Germany. Germany attacked France through neutral Belgium. This activated the treaty between those two countries. Austrian invasion of Serbia brought that country into the Allied sphere. While the British treaties were loosely written, there was no doubt about Britain's treaty obligations to Belgium. The British declaration of war automatically brought the Empire and Dominions into the war (Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and others) into the War. These countries made a very substantial contribution to the Allied cause. The Germans believing that victory wold come quickly in a massive suumer offensive did not factor in the Empire or A,erica in their pre-War calculations. (A mistake Hitler would repear in 1939.) The lure of territorial gains brought Italy into the War on the Allied side (May 1915). Greece was also offered territorial gains. While Germany was the most powerful country in Europe, the combined strength of Russia and France was a formidable challenge. Britain had only a small army, but the powerfil Royal Navy meant that the Allies could enact a naval blockade. 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 (April 1917).

Neutral Countries

Many countries were determined to stay out of the War abd succeeded in doing so. They did not enter either of the two major alliance systems. Belgium did not want war with Germany. It was, however, the path to Paris and the German invasion of Belgium launched the War. The violation of international War was to haunt the German war effort. It brought Britain into the War and created an image of lawlessness and war making that was indelibly impressed on America. The Netherlands and Switzerland were able to remain neutral. Spain also stayed out of the War. As did the Scandinavian states (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). None of these countries, however, would have had a major impact on the fighting had they entered the War. The only major country which held back from the War. Any assessment by historians would show that the entry of such a large, industrial power would clearly have a major impact on the War. The British understood this from an early pont. The Germans did not. It would be a mistake that another even more malvelolent generation of German leaders would repeat.





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Created: 12:52 AM 3/20/2006
Last updated: 6:04 AM 5/6/2013