Alliance System

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bismarck's alliance system
rival alliance systems
the alliance system and the outbreak of war

The European alliance system that was in place prior to World War I is often seen as one of the long-term causes for the outbreak of war in 1914. On the eve of war, Europe was divided into two opposing camps, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy on one side and France, Russia, and Britain on the other. The roots of this division reached back over thirty years and its origins can be traced to Bismarck's foreign policy from the 1870s to 1890 and can only be explained with reference to Bismarck's complicated system of alliances.

bismarck's alliance system

Bismarck's alliance system laid the foundations for the alliances of 1914 and had its origins in the so-called German wars of unification (1864 against Denmark, 1866 against Austria, and 1870–1871 against France). Following the German defeat of France in 1871 and the annexation of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, the German Empire was founded, with a kaiser, William I, at its helm. Germany was one of the strongest military powers in Europe and was fast becoming the leading industrial power on the continent, and this newly powerful country at the heart of Europe, having emerged from a decade of success in war, seemed a tangible threat to the other great European powers, whatever its policies. Imperial Germany's first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was concerned to avoid further conflict and to consolidate the gains the country had made in its three successful wars and its subsequent unification. His foreign policy eventually resulted in a complicated alliance system designed to ensure that what he considered a "nightmare of coalitions" against Germany would not threaten the new status quo. Bismarck declared that Germany was "satiated" following her recent unification and that it sought no further conflict with its neighbors. Historians now believe that his foreign policy was not always driven by the desire to establish a system of alliances, but that it amounted initially to a "system of stop-gaps." Underlying this policy, however, was Bismarck's desire to keep Germany allied to at least two other major powers and to prevent alliances from being forged against Germany. His particular concern was to keep France isolated and prevent it from forming closer ties with any of the other great powers.

During Bismarck's time in office, the alliance system that resulted from his policy successfully preserved the peace between the major European powers and prevented Germany's neighbors from drawing up alliances against it. Germany was allied to Austria-Hungary in the Dual Alliance of 1879 (Bismarck forced the aging Kaiser William I to agree to the alliance despite the latter's opposition to a treaty with Germany's former enemy), which became in practice the Triple Alliance when Italy joined in 1882. In 1883, Serbia and Romania established separate links with the Triple Alliance. In 1879, Germany had effectively abandoned its previously close ties with Russia in favor of Austria-Hungary. However, Bismarck had been able to balance his alliance with Austria-Hungary with friendly relations with Russia, primarily through the Three Emperors League between Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, which William I signed in October 1873 and which was renewed twice in 1881 and 1884. A few years later, in 1887, Bismarck encouraged the formation of a Mediterranean entente among Britain, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and in the same year Germany concluded the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, in which Germany promised to support Russia's Balkan interests (contradicting its Dual Alliance agreement with Austria-Hungary).

Britain and France remained, for the most part, diplomatically isolated during this time, the former by choice, pursuing a policy of "splendid isolation" and reaping the benefits of being the world's largest imperial power. Britain had turned down Bismarck's offer of a defensive alliance in 1889 and there seemed to be little chance that either of them would settle their colonial differences. With Kaiser William II's 1888 accession to the throne in Germany, however (and particularly following Bismarck's dismissal in 1890), this carefully constructed system of alliances began to be dismantled. Bismarck's successors were less concerned to preserve the status quo in Europe and envisaged a more powerful role for the new German Empire, both on the continent and worldwide. As a result, German foreign policy under William II became more erratic and began to threaten the balance of power that had kept Europe relatively peaceful since 1871. Even without this radical policy change, however, it is unlikely that Bismarck's system of stop-gaps could have lasted indefinitely; he believed that alliances could be reneged on as easily as they had been concluded, and he did not feel bound by the agreements that Germany had signed. It would probably have been only a matter of time before the other great powers united against Germany. However, Berlin's policy change certainly sped up this process.

rival alliance systems

Under William II's leadership and in pursuit of the goal of becoming a Weltmacht (world power), the powerful new Germany soon began to challenge its neighbors, who were quick to react by forming defensive alliances. When Germany allowed the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to lapse in 1890, the consequences were especially grave. Somewhat unexpectedly, republican France (which still begrudged Germany the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine) and autocratic Russia overcame their substantial differences and united in a defensive alliance against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Their initial vague agreement of 1891 was expanded by a military convention in 1892 and culminated in a military alliance that was ratified in 1894. The conclusion of this military alliance gave rise to a feeling of encirclement in Germany. Given its geographic position, Germany, although allied still to Austria-Hungary and Italy, now faced potential enemies both in the west and the east and felt encircled by envious and potentially dangerous neighbors who were forming alliances against her.

Britain only joined the alliance game late when it gave up its "splendid isolation" and allied itself to Japan in 1902. Its main rivals at the time were France and Russia, rather than Germany. Between 1898 and 1901, further half-hearted attempts had been made to conclude an Anglo-German alliance, but the two countries' interests were too divergent to make this a viable proposition. Threatened by France in Africa and Russia in the Far East, Britain met its need for diplomatic support in Asia by concluding an alliance with Japan in January 1902.

Worse still for Germany, which continued to fear diplomatic isolation, France and Britain overcame their substantial differences concerning the territories of Morocco and Egypt, and France (which Bismarck had tried so hard to keep isolated) secured an Entente Cordiale with Britain in 1904. Although the Entente was not a formal alliance, it was a potentially threatening development for Germany, whose political leaders tried in vain to break up the new Entente during the first Moroccan crisis (1904–1905). Their actions only served to strengthen the emerging Anglo-French accord, however, and the Entente Cordiale remained in existence until the outbreak of war and was one of the reasons Britain joined France in its fight against Germany.

Germany's Kaiser William II also attempted to extend existing Russo-German trade agreements into an alliance, but the defensive treaty he negotiated personally with the Russian Tsar Nicholas II was vetoed by the Russian foreign minister and as a result the Treaty of Björkö of July 1905 never came into effect and Germany was unable to forge closer links with Russia at this crucial time.

Instead, Britain further abandoned its isolation when it entered into negotiations with Russia in 1906. Such an accord had been coveted by some British ministers since the late 1890s, but only following its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) was Russia willing to negotiate the areas of mutual interest and potential conflict: Persia, Tibet, and Afghanistan. Agreement was reached in August 1907 with the conclusion of the Anglo-Russian convention. This led, in effect, to a Triple Entente among France, Russia, and Great Britain, competing with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. However, Britain was not formally allied to either France or Russia and its commitment to the other powers was limited. This gave Germany's decision makers hope, until the last days of July 1914, that Britain might decide to stay neutral in the coming war.

Germany's political leadership feared the threat of political isolation once its primary potential enemies—France, Russia, and Britain—had joined forces. The origins of German fears of encirclement can be traced to this time. With only one reliable ally (Austria-Hungary), Germany's politicians were even forced to turn their previously defensive agreement into an offensive one during the Bosnian annexation crisis, when Germany pledged unconditional support to Austria-Hungary. In the following years, Germany tried to escape its diplomatic isolation not only by attempting to reach agreements with Britain as part of Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg's foreign policy, but also by testing, once again, the Entente's stability, this time during the second Moroccan crisis, known as the Agadir Crisis, in 1911. As a result of its posturing, Germany only forced Britain firmly onto the side of its Entente partner, France, thus demonstrating the strength of the Franco-British agreement. Further German attempts at reaching a détente with Britain failed (for example, in February 1912 during the Haldane Mission), although when the two great powers came to amicable agreements over the future of the Portuguese colonies in August 1913 and the future of the Baghdad Railway in June 1914, some hope for friendlier relations remained. Ironically, on the eve of World War I, Anglo-German relations were better than they had been for years.

the alliance system and the outbreak of war

When the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serbian terrorist on 28 June 1914 and the leadership in Vienna used this event to unleash a war against Serbia, the full effect of the alliance system became evident. Germany, Austria-Hungary's alliance partner, was if anything even more bent on war against its main potential enemies, France and Russia, than was Austria-Hungary and promised to support Vienna in any action it might undertake. At the same time, France and Russia pledged to make good on their agreement for mutual military action in case one of them was attacked by Germany or Austria-Hungary. Thus, a war in the Balkans ended up embroiling the major powers of the two opposing alliances, and soon involved the other powers that were more or less loosely allied to one side or the other. Although it is often maintained that the alliance system contributed to the outbreak of World War I, the alliances of the prewar years were largely defensive and their members regarded them as arrangements that could be (and frequently were) canceled if necessary. A good example of this is Italy, which remained neutral in 1914 and eventually even joined the fighting on the side of the Entente even though it had been allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Bismarck himself also believed that national interests should, if necessary, supersede international treaty obligations, and British statesmen felt the same way when the question of Belgian neutrality arose. In 1914, however, when faced with a war on the continent in which one of Britain's greatest potential rivals, Russia or Germany, was likely to be victorious, abandoning its Entente partners was not an option for Britain. The Triple Entente powers went to war against the Dual Alliance partners and it seemed to contemporaries that one of the root causes for the catastrophe that followed was the system of secret alliances. Little wonder that "secret diplomacy" was condemned by commentators after the war and that many people hoped the League of Nations (established in 1920) would prevent such secrecy and alliance systems in the future.

See alsoBismarck, Otto von; Metternich, Clemens von; Moroccan Crises; Naval Rivalry (Anglo-German).


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Annika Mombauer

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Alliance System

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Alliance System