Alliances in Europe prior to World War 1

The following is a portion of the third chapter of my thesis which examines the alliance structure in Europe prior to World War 1.

3.2 Examination of European Alliances Prior to World War One

The alliance system that developed within Europe prior to World War One were shaped by numerous factors and resulted in a pair of “grand alliances” the Triple Entente (United Kingdom, France and Imperial Russia) and the Central Powers (Imperial Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy and the Ottoman Empire) that played a major role in Europe descending into a war that devastated the continent and led to the collapse of four European empires. Neither of these alliances developed overnight, in fact their creation was as a result of a long term rivalries that spanned decades in the lead up to the First World War. The following section of this chapter will provide an overview of the development of these alliances.

3.2.1 The Central Powers

The alliance of Central Powers was originally conceived by Chancellor Bismarck even before the French defeat in 1870. Bismarck envisioned an alliance between the monarchies of Central and Eastern Europe as a natural extension of their interests while ensuring the new German Empire’s territorial integrity and preventing it from facing a coalition of hostile adversaries on multiple frontiers.[1] To that end, Bismarck approached both Austrian and Russian empires about forming an alliance.

3.2.2 The League of Three Emperors

It was in 1872, that Bismarck’s ambition was realized with the formation of the League of Three Emperors. This Bismarckian effort to tie together the principle powers of Central and Eastern Europe in order to prevent conflict between them and ensure protection against outside threats was an ingenious endeavor to secure German national interests. The three powers (Russia, German and Austria) all recognized each other as potential rivals and their fear that any two rivals would join forces against the third drove them towards agreement.[2] For the Austrians, their defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866 left the Austro-Hungarians in a subordinate position to the newly formed German Empire and they feared a future attempt to annex their Germanic populations. Meanwhile, Russia was Austria’s principle rival in the Balkan region and the distrust between the two empires made relations very difficult. For, Russia they feared facing a unified bloc in Central Europe and by tethering themselves to their rivals it ensured their security.

The terms of the League was renegotiated in 1881 following its expiration in 1878 and as increasing tensions between Austria and Russia that threatened to erupt in conflict over the Balkans. Yet again, the driving forces behind this second League of Three Emperors was an effort by the Germans to tether the members and prevent the tensions between Russia and Austria from leading to war, while still hedging against various external threats (France for Germany, Italy for Austria and Great Britain for Russia).[3] By the mid-1880s the strains of the Balkan rivalries began to show on the League and in 1887 Russia withdrew.

3.2.3 The Dual/Triple Alliance

The uncertainty over Russian’s position after the expiry of the first League and the ongoing tensions between Austria and Russia created an incentive for Austria and Germany to create a stronger bond between them.  In the creation of the Dual Alliance in 1879, what resulted was the longest lasting partnership in the lead up to the First World War. Unlike the earlier league, that was fraught with tensions between Austria and Russia, the Dual Alliance was a unified front with economic, social, cultural, political and most importantly military ties between the Germans and the Austrians.

In 1882, the Dual Alliance was expanded to include Italy forming the aptly named Triple Alliance. This addition of Italy was surprising to many observers of the time for two principle reasons: first Italy and Austria had a number of unresolved territorial disputes over the regions of Trento and Trieste and as a result there was mistrust of Austria by both Italian leaders and the broader populations. The second surprising factor was that Italy was not considered to be a “great power” within Europe. Italian unification had occurred relatively late (beginning in 1810 through 1870) and unlike Prussian/German unification it was not driven by a long periods of industrialization. As a result the new Italian state was relatively weak in many of the broad indicators of geo-political power on the international stage.

As a result of the tensions between Austria and Italy the only way Germany could keep the peace between them was to bring them together in an alliance.[4] This fact was reinforced by German acknowledgement that Italy would be unlikely to join a war to support Austria. Not surprisingly, the Italians defected to the Entente in 1915 and attacked Austria.[5]

3.2.4 The German-Ottoman Pact

The Ottoman Empire only entered the Central Powers after signing a secret military agreement with Germany in August 1914 just as hostilities began to spiral out of control. In late October/early November of that year, the Ottomans officially joined the conflict and carried out attacks on Russian positions on the Black Sea bringing declarations of war from the Entente members shortly thereafter.[6] The Ottoman’s decision to join the conflict on the side of the Central Powers was largely shaped the German influence over the Ottoman military and politics providing support for Walt’s hypothesis of alliances formed via transnational penetration. The German’s played on the beliefs of many officials within the flagging Ottoman Empire who saw the conflict erupting in Europe as a last chance for the empire to save itself and maintain its territorial integrity as well as a means to regain prestige and territory that had been lost in preceding the decades before.[7]

3.3 The Triple Entente

Unlike the Central Powers alliance, the Triple Entente was not a single formal agreement between the various countries. Rather the Triple Entente formed out of an evolutionary process over the decade and a half leading up to the First World War. The principle reason for the emergence of this alliance was out of the necessity of constraining and easing tensions between the Entente members of France, Russia and Great Britain and at least initially (the British involvement) was not geared towards balancing the threat posed by Germany.[8]

3.3.1 The Franco-Russian Alliance

Following their defeat by Prussia, a humiliated France was saddled with responsibility for the war and forced to give up territory (the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine) as well as repaying the newly formed German Empire for the costs of the war. France with a mind for revenge set out to find allies with the goal of reclaiming its lost provinces. At the time, France’s options seemed limited; the League of Three Emperors bound the Russian Empire in an alliance with hostile Austria and Germany. The Italians had a long history of rivalry with France and their own its aspirations for empire and great power status. Finally, Great Britain was by no means an ally at the time as Bismarck and the newly formed German Empire had made a concerted effort to foster close relations with the British and Russian Empires in an explicit effort to isolate France.

Fortunately for France, the political climate began to change in 1890 in response to the growing tensions in Europe. Following the end of the League of Three Emperors in 1887, both France and Russia faced growing isolation within Europe and the broader international stage.[9]  Russia feared its rivalry with Austria would result a war against both Germany and the Austrians, while France still desired an ally against potential Germany aggression. In this context, a concerted effort was made by the Germany and Great Britain to bring the British into the Triple Alliance (forming a Quadruple Alliance). The fear in Russia and France that Great Britain would join the Central Powers was real and as a result they turned to each other for support.[10]

In August 1891, the “Definition of Understanding” was signed between the Russian Empire and the French Republic which formed the basis of the alliance between the two countries. This alliance was formed strictly in an effort to balance the threat of the Dual/Triple Alliances of the Central Powers with the signatories offering each other assurances that should the other be attacked by an outside party, they would be supported. This alliance also represented Bismarck’s nightmare scenario Germany now faced two hostile adversaries on two different frontiers  meaning that its armed forces would have to be divided and its various strategic/military advantages would be mitigated. Although attempts were made to break up the alliance (particularly targeting Russia with Germany rebuffing British overtures of alliance) they found no success and as a result this alliance became the foundation of a much broader coalition.

3.3.2 The British Ententes

The Ententes between Great Britain with France and Russia were signed in 1904 and 1907 respectively. These agreements were not formal alliances per say, rather they were agreement on various protocols between the countries and how they would react to various actions on the international stage.[11] Unlike, the formalized and protocolled agreements between the Central Powers and France and Russia, the Ententes were intentionally elusive in nature as these agreements often spoke to other issues (such as colonial disputes between France and Great Britain or border issues between British held India and Russia) rather than specific military threats on the continent of Europe. This subtle nature was due to the variety of interests of the Ententes signatories and was a means to tether the countries together without facing harsh public opinion in various domestic arenas.

3.3.3 The Entente Cordiale

The Entente Cordiale was founding agreement between France and England. Following several decades of tensions, suspicion and antagonism leading up to the turn of the century the two nations nearly went to war over Fashoda (East African territory). What resulted from these tensions was a realization by the British that due to the size of its Imperial holdings and the threat of conflict with the Franco-Russian alliance; that they would face severe difficulties in fighting France and Russian while maintaining and defending its colonial holdings. This led Britain to make overtures to Germany from 1898-1901 about formalizing some form of defensive pact, or a joining of the Triple Alliance. Due to the dismissal of Bismarck in 1897, Germany was hesitant to allow Great Britain to join a formal alliance as it worried about Russia’s reaction to such an agreement; while some politicians in Britain saw such an alliance as tantamount to ensuring a future war with France and Russia and after initial rejections they gave up in their pursuit.[12] The eruption of the Russo-Japanese war in 1902 between Britain and France’s respective allies (Japan and Russia) the need for some sort for an agreement to claim and organize relations between the two powers became a top priority. The agreement that was signed in 1904, effectively tethered France and Britain together and allowed them to constrain their respective allies and prevented their disputes from spiraling out of control.

3.3.4 The Anglo-Russian Convention

The Anglo-Russian convention came about following the escalating tensions between the two powers during the Russo-Japanese war. This agreement was a direct result of the Cordial between Britain and France; as the French over the ensuing three years had begun to act as an intermediary between the two powers and effectively managed to reduce the overall tensions between them. Yet again the solution to solve the tensions between the two countries was to tether these nations together under a formal agreement as a means to constrain their ambitions and minimize their mutual fears. As a result the Anglo-Russian Convention dealt with issues far beyond the European continent and mutual defense such as colonial issues (borders between British colonial India and Russia), rites of passage on the high seas and trade.

This agreement along with the Entente Cordial made little mention of threats by other European powers and was not a guarantee of mutual protection or assistance in the face of attack. Instead, the Entente had effectively tethered Britain, France and Russia together which in turn allowed their mutual distrust and fears for each other to diminish over time resulting in the agreements to evolve into formal alliances in every manner but name.[13] Due to the lack of a formal agreement, the British position was misconstrued by the Germans who believed that Britain would remain neutral in the event of a conflict between them and as a result, they offered their full support to Austria in dealing with Serbia and Russia in the summer of 1914. This in turn lead to the chain of events that spiraled out of control and the German attack on neutral Belgium ensured British entry into the war.

[1] Seymour, Charles. The Diplomatic Background of the War. New Haven: Yale University Press, (1916): p. 16

[2] Weitsman. Dangerous Alliances, pp. 40-42

[3] Ibid p. 59

[4] Ibid p. 83

[5] Cashman and Robinson. The Causes of War. p. 69

[6] Stevenson, David. The First World War and International Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1988): pp. 44-47

[7] Stacy Bergstrom Haldi. “Widening War: Volume One and Two”. PhD Dissertation. Chicago: University of Chicago (December 2000):  pp. 269-272

[8] James Joll. The Origins of the First World War. New York: Longman, (1984): Pp 34-35

[9] Weitsman, Dangerous Alliances, pp. 101-102

[10] Ibid, pp. 109-110

[11] Partha Chatterjee. Arms, Alliances and Stability. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, (1975): p. 146

[12] Weitsman, Dangerous Alliances, p. 121

[13] Ibid, pp.118-119

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  1. Pingback: A Few Thoughts on Week 24 | gingerpolitics

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