Examination of Territorial Issues in Pre-World War One Europe

With World War One having started 100 years ago this week I decided that it would be appropriate to posts portions of my thesis: The Pacific Seas Region: Primed for Conflict? A Historical Comparison. In my work, I compare the state of pre-World War 1 Europe to the modern South China Sea/Eastern Pacific region and attempt to extrapolate the risk for conflict given historical the historical precedent. At this time I only plan on posting the historical portions of the thesis. I hope you enjoy it. Please note, that this is cut from a much larger pieces an as a result the no conclusions are drawn from this piece.


2.2 Examination of Territorial Issues in Pre-World War One Europe

The causes of the First World War as with any war are numerous and contentious with no single causal factor being identified as the universal trigger. That being said, territorial issues and to a lesser extent the competing spheres of influence both within Europe and the expanding imperial holdings of the continent’s great powers did play a major in shaping and igniting the war that was supposed to end all wars.

2.2.1 French Territorial Issues

Arguably one of the most important territorial issues in the lead up to the First World War erupted between France and Germany. Following the defeat of France at the hands of Prussia in the 1870s, the newly formed German Empire annexed the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine as partial reparations for the conflict. As a result of this, a cold war of sorts developed between the French and Germans over the following decades in the lead up to the First World War with the two countries staking positions on opposite sides of nearly every incident and crises between the nations in 1875, 1887 and the Moroccan Crises of 1906 and 1911.[1]  As a result of this defeat and annexation, France was considered a subordinate (although still great) power to the Germans in Europe and the territorial integrity of France had be violated with the loss of any area of approximately 14,452 square kilometres and about 1.55 million people.[2] As a result of this damage to French honour and the nationalistic fervour that erupted at the outbreak of fighting the regaining of the “lost provinces” became one of France’s principle objective for the First World War.

The aforementioned the Moroccan Crises of 1906 and 1911 illustrates the impact of competing spheres of influence outside of Europe that nearly brought these nations to war. In these two incidents Germany directly challenged Frances claim to rule and administer Morocco. After an initial settlement that allowed for the entry of German trade and finance into Morocco the second crisis erupted around an ongoing rebellion within the country and French desire to intervene. Germany was opposed to French military intervention against the rebellion but eventually backed down its demands on France (after British intervention) and was compensated for its loses by gaining control of French portions of the Congo while acknowledging France’s protectorate status over Morocco. The French for their part seemed to be prepared to go to war over the issue before British intervention forced Germany to back down.[3]

2.2.2 Austria-Hungry Territory Issues

Since its defeat at the hands of Prussia in the summer of 1866, the Austrio-Hungarian Empire had seen a great decline in its status on the continent and as a result had taken up a position of subordination to the German Empire. Arguably the only imperial power within Europe which was declining faster than the Austria-Hungarian Empire, was the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman’s precipitous decline had resulted in the loss of much their European territory in the decades leading up to the First World War meaning that much of the Balkan region of Europe was now without imperial oversight. As a result of the Ottoman’s collapse both Austria and Russian attempted to capitalize and increase their direct control and their spheres of influence over the Balkans. Following the signing of the Treaty of Berlin, which established various territorial boundaries within the Balkan region, Austria announced its annexation of the provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina in October 1908.[4] The annexation eliminated Bosnia as an independent state and it did not return as a sovereign entity until the 1990s. The treaty and annexation also geographically separated the newly independent countries of Serbia and Montenegro who often allied against Austrian interests, while also recognizing the newly independent Bulgaria[5]. In the years following three “minor” wars were fought in the area, (Italo-Turkish War 1911-12, First Balkan War 1912-1913 and Second Balkan War 1913) further destabilizing the Austrian Empire as nationalistic and the ethnic furor reached fever pitches and began to spill across borders and effect the multiethnic population of the empire.[6]

The Austro-Hungarians also faced its own territorial internal challenges. As their name implies the Austro-Hungarian empire was in fact made up of separate kingdoms that had been merged through conquest and marriage.[7] The result was a large multi-ethnic empire that featured numerous distinct ethnic groups and languages. To place it in modern context, this empire was made up of what would become parts of a nearly a dozen modern European nations and as a result the internal structure of the empire was both unwieldy and prone to strife resulting in weak territorial integrity.

The eventual assassination of Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the summer of 1914 was the spark that lit the fuse leading to war. Following the assassination, the Austria’s ultimatum was tantamount to demanding the subjugation of Serbia and its absorption into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although Russia and Serbia both tried to negotiate lesser terms, the Austro-Hungarians would have none of it and on July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia plunging Europe into conflict.[8]

2.2.3 German Empire Territorial Issues

The German Empire seemed to have little desire for territorial aggrandizement within Europe itself instead its eyes were turned to the wider world and gaining colonial possessions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Following the unification of Germany after the defeat of France in 1870, the newly formed German Empire joined the race for colonies in Africa and Asia quickly gaining possessions on both continents. As it has been previously mentioned, Germany used its influence in continental Europe to gain colonial concession from the other Imperial powers. A perfect example of this comes from the Morocco Crisis where in response to French attempts to put down a rebellion, the Germans demanded territorial concessions in the Congo as compensation for their loss of influence.[9]

The principle focus of German territorial efforts outside of colonization was directed on the declining Ottoman Empire. This effort to influence was not pursued via direct territorial expansion rather a competition between spheres of influence between the Germans and British. Germany never apparently wanted direct territorial control the Ottoman Empire rather they saw the flagging empire as a potential subordinate power that could enhance their economic and geopolitical influence within the region without the need for direct colonization or conquest.[10] This approach in dealing with the Ottoman Empire mirrored those of the British who long seen the Ottoman Empire as a means for a secure overland trade and passage from Europe to India and the Orient and as a stabilizing element in an unstable region.[11] In contrast for the Germans, the Ottoman Empire was not only a place of potential trade expansion but also a method for which they could threaten British holdings in the Near and Far East should conflict ever arise between the powers. This potential threat was one of the driving forces behind German-Ottoman military cooperation in the decades before the Great War. It was this dominance of German influence of the Ottoman armed forces that had the British observers state in 1914 following the start of the war: “Have [sic.] the Turkish Government told their Army to expel the 3,000 German officers and men who have audaciously gained control of Turkey and are turning the country into a German province.”[12] The failure of the British to counter the Germans expanding their sphere of influence in the Ottoman Empire, resulted in the Ottoman’s joining the Germans and Austro-Hungary as a late entry into the Central Powers alliance and into the war.

2.2.4 British Empire Territorial Issues

Great Britain had been the dominant imperial power in Europe and around the world for the better half of a century leading up to the First World War. As a new century dawned the rise of the German Empire (and to a lesser extent the United States amd Japan) had slowly cut into the hegemonic power and the power disparities between the potential rivals were quickly shrinking.[13] As an island nation, Great Britain had few direct territorial ties to the continent of Europe itself; rather it was its vast imperial holdings and efforts to maintain the status quo of the great powers that were its primary concerns.

Great Britain attempted to maintain the balance of power within Europe by offering itself as mediator and balancer in various conflicts on the continent. The British (along with the French) intervened in the Crimea War between the Russia and the Ottomans Empire in an effort to block Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea and prop of the declining Turks.[14] It was British acceptance of the terms of the Treaty of Berlin that allowed the Austro-Hungarians to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina over Russian and Serbia objections.[15] Britain’s refusal to become involved in the Franco-German crisis of 1875 and 1887 is seen by some as a principle reason why peace was maintained in those periods, as the French were not strong enough to act alone. While British support for the French in the Moroccan Crises was an effort to hedge growing German power and influence.[16]

            Arguably the most important effort to balance German power by the British can be seen in their support for Belgium in the lead up to the Great War. Although Belgium refused to join any formal alliance, the British offered them a guarantee of protection and sovereignty under which should Belgium be attacked by another party, Great Britain would enter the conflict to defend Belgium’s neutrality and sovereignty. After the outbreak of War on August 1st 1914, Great Britain pressed on the Germans to respect the Belgian Neutrality Treaty but by the end of the week German forces entered the small nation as they attempted to march on Paris and by doing so bring Britain into the war.[17]

2.2.5 Imperial Russia Territorial Issues

The Russian Empire confronted its own unique territorial challenges in the lead up to the Great War. Due to its geographic size, Russia faced challenges to its territory and influence from the Far East to the borders of India and the Middle East to Balkans as well as divisive internal struggles within the Empire. Following Russia’s defeats in the Crimea War and the embarrassment of the loss during the Russia-Japanese War in 1904-1905 many of Russia’s territorial ambitions were lost. In the case of Russia-Japanese war, Russia in fact lost vast tracks of territory and influence in the Far East which caused its standing in the eyes of other European powers to decline markedly.[18]

Despite these setbacks, Russia still had territorial ambitions within Europe. Ottoman-Turkish control of the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara prevented Russian seagoing access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. As a result of this lack of access, Russia became deeply involved in the politics of the Balkan region in an attempt to hedge against growing Austrian influence in the face of a disintegrating Ottoman control. Russia became directly involved in the Balkans just prior to the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria and the Balkan Crisis.[19] During this period, Russia became seen as the protector of the Slavic peoples within the Balkan region and it was this mantle that was taken by the rulers of Russia as a means to placate an increasingly restless and discontented population that brought Serbia and Russia into an alliance prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Conflict may have in fact come sooner as a result of the territorial tensions in the region but the previous defeats suffered by Russia and the corresponding effort to modernize their armed forces had prevented the Russians from providing military forces to support their allies or their claims.[20]

A separate territorial issue that Russia faced came in the form of its own internal issues. Russia is a vast nation geographically, which is home to numerous ethnic and religious groups.  In the lead up to the First World War it faced numerous internal calls from these groups for political, economic and social reform which cumulated in a smaller revolution in 1905. Although it is beyond the purview of this paper to examine the lead up to and consequences of the Russian Revolution in detail, the inability of the Tsars to maintain the territorial integrity of Russia in the face of protests and strikes during the war, was likely a major contributing factor to the revolution. This revolution eventually ended the Tsars reign; marked Russia’s withdraw from the First World War, the initiation of the bloody civil war and the founding of a nation (the USSR) that would shape world politics for much of the twentieth century.

[1] David Stevenson “The First World War and International Politics” Oxford, (Oxford University Press, 1988): pp. 18-19

[2] “Territorial Change Dataset” Version 4.1 from http://www.correlatesofwar.org/. Originally published in Jaroslav Tir, Philip Schafer, Paul Diehl, and Gary Goertz. “Territorial Changes, 1816-1996: Procedures and Data” Conflict Mangagement and Peace Science. Vol. 16 no.1 (1998): pp. 89-97

[3] “The Moroccan Crisis” The Independent … Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921) Vol 71. No.3271 (Aug 10, 1911): p. 286

[4] Luigi Albertini. Origins of the War of 1914. Trans. Isabella Massey. Enigma Books. New York (2005): pp. 218-219

[5] Ibid., pp. 206-207

[6] Cashman and Robinson. The Causes of War. pp. 47-51

[7] Ibid., pp. 31

[8] Ibid., pp. 55-68

[9] “The Moroccan Crisis” pp. 286

[10] Niles Stefan Illich “German Imperialism in the Ottoman Empire A Comparative Study” Diss. Texas A&M (2007): pp.126-127

[11] Ibid., pp. 65-66

[12] “The Betrayal of Islam,” Times (London) 3 November 1914, p.7:a.

[13] David S. Geller & J. David Singer. “Nations at War: A Scientific Study of International Conflict” Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. (1998) pp. 173-175

[14] Cashman & Robinson The Causes of War. pp. 74

[15] Luigi Albertini. Origins of the War of 1914.pp 218-219

[16] “The Moroccan Crisis” pp. 286

[17] Cashman & Robinson The Causes of War. pp. 74

[18] Ibid, pp. 31-32

[19] Ibid., pp. 44-45

[20] Ibid., pp. 47-48

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