Documents of Diplomacy

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Documents of Diplomacy

Secret Treaties…53

The Willy-Nicky Telegrams…61

Germany's Passage through Belgium…71

When people think of war, they usually think of battles won and lost, of shooting and killing, of the glory of victory and the terror of defeat. But World War I, like all wars, was also a war of words. Leaders of the major European countries formed alliances with other countries in order to protect themselves from their enemies. These leaders and their diplomats—government officials who negotiated with officials from other countries—tried to present their positions clearly to other countries so that they might avoid war. And when war began, diplomats and generals used words to explain and justify the military action. Diplomats signed treaties, exchanged letters and notes, and issued ultimatums. These documents of diplomacy are essential to understanding how and why World War I took place.

Historians agree that the existence of treaties and alliances between the major European powers was one of the key reasons that World War I became such a large-scale conflict. In the late nineteenth century, Europe was composed of a number of countries with relatively equal levels of power. No single country was strong enough to dominate the continent, so each of the major countries made alliances, or formal friendships,

with other countries in order to gain strength. In 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary pledged their friendship in what became known as the Dual Alliance. (Italy joined this alliance in 1882, making it the Triple Alliance, but withdrew once World War I began.) Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy promised to come to each other's aid if they were attacked by another country. In 1892, France and Russia signed a secret treaty that created bonds similar to those forged in the Dual Alliance. England signed a less formal agreement with France in 1904. From the moment those treaties were signed, a large-scale war became practically inevitable. If one country attacked another, all of Europe would be drawn into combat. That is exactly what happened in 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863–1914), the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, Countess Sophie, were assassinated by a member of a Serbian terrorist group on June 28. Austria-Hungary threatened to attack Serbia; Russia came to the aid of Serbia; and by August every major European power found itself involved in the conflict.

The Dual Alliance —between the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian empire—and the Franco-Russian Alliance Military Convention seemed to promise that each country would go to war to protect its ally. But this didn't mean that those countries wanted to go to war. In fact, leaders in Germany and Russia wanted very badly to avoid war. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II and Russia's Czar Nicholas II wrote a series of telegrams to each other in which they tried to think of any way they could avoid complying with the terms of the treaties that they had signed. The Willy-Nicky Telegrams, letters between blood relatives (the two were distant cousins), show a different side to European diplomacy.

By August 1, 1914, Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia were all committed to war. But for Germany to enact its war plan—which called for an attack on France from the northeast—German troops had to cross neutral Belgium. The German ambassador to Belgium sent a confidential note to the Belgian foreign minister on August 2, 1914, asking for permission to cross Belgium. The German Request for Free Passage through Belgium and Belgium's Response to the Request for Passage offer insight into the ways countries justify their actions.