By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe political conditions in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century
- Analyze the nature of the alliances made among European powers by 1914
- Explain how the desire for colonies destabilized the balance of power in the early twentieth century
- Describe the competition to build modern navies in the early twentieth century
By the early twentieth century, Europe had achieved outward stability through a series of alliances. Such accords were a hallmark of nineteenth-century diplomacy and had maintained peace for decades on the continent, compressing the wars that did occur into finite conflicts. In the 1900s, these alliances had solidified two opposed groups, each with major powers that allied with one another and then developed relationships with smaller nations. Germany’s territorial ambitions put it in direct conflict with other imperialistic powers as it sought to expand its colonial holdings. Its desire to be taken more seriously and become a force in global affairs threatened to destabilize the peace when its goals brought it into competition with other countries hungry for land and power, notably Great Britain, and led to military buildups. A specter of war soon hung over Europe.
The Long Peace
The decades before the world erupted into the Great War, as World War I was known, were generally marked by great stability. The work done in 1815 to create a balance of power among European nations in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars had been quite successful. The Concert of Europe—an informal agreement to maintain the status quo—had been able to absorb some internal conflicts and the growth of more liberal political thoughts without incurring political or territorial instability. There were occasionally military conflicts, but these were usually of short duration and limited in scale.
Prussia, however, with its militarized culture, clearly did still see warfare as a means of achieving its own ends, as did other nations such as France. Austria-Hungary and Prussia went to war in 1866. The conflict lasted only about seven weeks and was handily won by Prussia, which had invested in better military technology and weaponry and now annexed several German states. Austria was effectively barred from participating in German affairs from that point forward, and Prussia became the dominant German state. The war also forced Austria into accepting the dual monarchy system, an unwieldy alliance with Hungary. Austria agreed because it needed allies after being ousted from German affairs, but it and Hungary had separate national governments and parliaments (and different goals) despite being part of the same empire.
The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and 1871 was another fairly brief conflict that resulted in major change. France declared war against Prussia after a dispute over who would inherit the Spanish throne. The fighting lasted only a few months, but Paris was besieged by the Prussian army, and Napoléon III was captured. The treaty that ended the conflict forced France to pay a large war indemnity to Prussia. France also had to pay for the occupation forces, while losing the territories of Alsace and Lorraine (which changed hands again several times during the first half of the twentieth century). This was a humiliating defeat for France, though it paved the way for the unification of the German Empire. The signing of the treaty in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles cemented Prussia’s leadership of the new empire and its successful achievement of what had been left undone by the revolutions of 1848: Germany automatically emerged as a major power in Europe.
The fighting in these wars was localized, and because they were short, the conflicts did not require the mobilization of a country’s economy or full resources. They did not involve numerous countries either, and the fighting rarely spilled over into other nations’ lands. With the exception of the Franco-Prussian War, their impact on civilian society was minimal, with little loss of civilian life or destruction of property. In a sense, their very nature lulled much of Europe into expecting that although there might be future wars, they would be swift and small affairs.
Treaties and Alliances
Since he first rose to power in 1862, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had pursued conservative policies that strengthened first Prussia and then Germany itself. In particular, Bismarck hoped to check the power of Russia and France by developing a series of alliances that would keep them from growing more dominant and presenting a threat to German leadership in the region. A military alliance with Austria-Hungary was created to stand up to Russia. This alliance later grew to include Italy and became formalized as the Triple Alliance. In 1894, Russia and France signed a treaty pledging military support for one another if attacked and requiring each to mobilize its armies if the other did so. In 1907, the Triple Entente was created between Russia, France, and Britain, growing out of a shared distrust of German aims.
By the early twentieth century, then, a series of alliances had effectively divided Europe into two blocs of power. A bloc is a group of countries united for a common purpose. One bloc included Russia, France, and Britain, and the other Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. While these two groups stood opposed to one another, there were nuances in the arrangements. Britain, for example, had not promised any mutual aid in times of war when it signed its initial agreement with France, nor had it done so in its agreement with Russia, while France was bound to provide military support for Russia if Russia were attacked and not the aggressor.
What these new alliances also did was provide fuel for the German emperor Wilhelm II’s growing concern that he was surrounded by hostile nations (Figure 11.4). Some of this preoccupation was undoubtedly justified. Germany faced a hostile France to its west and Russia to its east. But Wilhelm’s fixation on it drove him and Germany to adopt even more aggressive stances toward their “enemies” that helped create the cataclysm of World War I.
Colonies and Conflict
The view that imperial strength should be devoted to colony building was still very much in place in the late 1800s. Still industrializing, and having unified as a country only in 1871, Germany soon felt the pressure to build an overseas empire, just as the other industrializing nations of the world—Britain, France, Belgium, the United States, Russia, and Japan—did. But there were limited locales it could target.
Germany began to look to the Pacific as a place where it could establish itself as a colonial power. The United States, Britain, France, Japan, and the Netherlands already held extensive territory in the Pacific. Germany soon claimed part of New Guinea, part of the Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands. In 1899, Germany’s growing power in the Pacific led to the partitioning of the Samoan Islands with the United States. Germany also gained some of the smaller island groups—Palau, Caroline Islands, and Mariana Islands—by the beginning of the twentieth century. In addition, it planned to join the “Scramble for Africa” in which European nations were engaging to shore up their colonial holdings on the African continent.
When Germany went in search of African colonies, there was not much left. Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal had already seized control of most of the continent and did not welcome the claims of yet another European nation. Germany took a portion of East Africa and Southwest Africa, which had a large border with the British colonies. Togoland and the Cameroons also became part of the German colonial empire (Figure 11.5).
In 1905, Germany clashed with both France and Britain in North Africa. Kaiser Wilhelm II arrived in Morocco that year and made a speech in which he threw his full support behind its being an independent state led by the sultan. He also voiced his expectation that Germany would enjoy the same benefits of trade in the region that France and England did. Wilhelm hoped to divide Britain and France by thus claiming a place for Germany in North Africa equivalent to that held by other European nations. Instead, in response to this First Moroccan Crisis, Britain and France established stronger bonds of friendship.
A few years later, another crisis erupted over Morocco, though this one was more media driven and involved more national posturing. The Second Moroccan Crisis started in 1911. France and Germany had been negotiating over what say Germany would have in rail lines under construction in Morocco and over some territory in the French Congo that Germany wanted. Britain and France had earlier become alarmed by Germany’s plans to build another railroad in concert with the Ottoman Empire that would link Berlin to Baghdad. This railway would provide Germany with more direct access to both Persian Gulf oil and its African colonies. Moving oil and other goods by rail would also make Germany less vulnerable to potential British naval attacks.
In May 1911, France, fearing rebellion in Morocco, sent troops to the city of Fez. In July of that year, Germany sent a gunboat to Agadir, a Moroccan port on the Atlantic, to ensure that it would be compensated for any loss of control over Moroccan territory that resulted from French intervention. Germany also undoubtedly intended to frighten Britain and force it to back out of its alliance with France. Soon British politicians and the media seized on the opportunity to attack Germany for its demands. The British said they were not yet sending in the Royal Navy but would be monitoring the situation. In the end, France and Germany held successful negotiations over the issues, with Germany receiving territory in the French Congo in exchange for acknowledging French dominance in Morocco, but the international effect of the crisis was broader. Britain was reinforced in its view that Germany posed a threat to its own colonial ambitions. On the German side, the military leadership gained greater political influence in the capital in Berlin.
The Growth of Militaries
Naval power assumed a greater role in world affairs in the late nineteenth century. As more of the industrialized nations embarked on empire building, and as reaching international markets became an expected part of their strategy, the value of having strong navies to protect commercial trade only grew. Maintaining supply and fueling stations around the world to service these navies and fleets of merchant ships became a key argument in favor of developing more colonies.
At the start of the twentieth century, Great Britain was still the unmatched naval power in the world. Kaiser Wilhelm II was determined to counter Britain’s sea power by building up the German navy. In this, he was ably assisted by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Tirpitz had similarly grand dreams for the navy, and through his various positions in the naval high command, he set out an ambitious building program for new battleships.
This website has statistics on the naval ships that Britain and Germany possessed prior to World War I. England contended that it saw Germany as a viable threat. Do the numbers back up its claim?
Germany’s fear of naval inferiority became especially strong after 1906. In that year, Britain debuted an entirely new class of ship when the HMS Dreadnought set sail. What made this ship different was its ten 12-inch guns, some of them mounted on rotatable turrets, and its faster speed, powered by steam turbines. Other ships of the period had only a handful of guns and not all of this size. No other warship could match it in battle. Germany tried to keep pace by constructing ships similar in size, but although it clearly hoped to one day outbuild Britain, at no point before or during the war did its fleet ever match the British numbers (Figure 11.6).
A German Perspective
In 1911, General Friedrich von Bernhardi, a German military commander, published a book entitled Germany and the Next War in which he asserted that Germany was correct to establish itself as a major power and defend its rights in Europe and the world. This translated passage addresses the situation in which Germany believed itself to be in the years before the war.
When a State is confronted by the material impossibility of supporting any longer the warlike preparations which the power of its enemies has forced upon it, when it is clear that the rival States must gradually acquire from natural reasons a lead that cannot be won back, when there are indications of an offensive alliance of stronger enemies who only await the favourable moment to strike – the moral duty of the State towards its citizens is to begin the struggle while the prospects of success and the political circumstances are still tolerably favourable. When, on the other hand, the hostile States are weakened or hampered by affairs at home and abroad, but its own warlike strength shows elements of superiority, it is imperative to use the favourable circumstances to promote its own political aims. The danger of a war may be faced the more readily if there is good prospect that great results may be obtained with comparatively small sacrifices. [. . .]
Thus in order to decide what paths German policy must take in order to further the interests of the German people, and what possibilities of war are involved, we must first try to estimate the problems of State and of civilization which are to be solved, and discover what political purposes correspond to these problems.
—Friedrich von Bernhardi, Germany and the Next War
- What does it sound like Germany is contemplating? Explain your answer.
- Who are the “hostile States” Bernhardi mentions? What are the “warlike” preparations to which he refers?
Germany’s army, however, was much larger than Britain’s. Compulsory military service was the norm in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany placed high reliance on its active military units, which totaled close to four million soldiers, and had numerous units on reserve as well. Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary had a smaller force of under 500,000. In reaction to the growth and power of the German army, other nations also built up their armies.
In Russia, military service was required. Although its armies were poorly trained and outfitted, its peacetime forces numbered nearly 1.5 million, and millions more could be called up as part of military mobilization. France had also adopted compulsory service (at the time it required three years of service from all men) and fielded an active army of almost 1.3 million. Those who had already done their compulsory service were classified as reservists and could be mobilized as well.
The British army, which relied on volunteer troops, was still relatively small at the onset of the war. The Old Regulars, as they were known, numbered only a little over a quarter-million. The strength of Britain lay rather in its navy. The British reveled in what they called the “splendid isolation” of their island, an acknowledgment that issues on the European continent did not directly touch it.
The United States, which did not enter the war until 1917, had also chosen to keep a small military force, numbering fewer than 130,000. It had built up its navy beginning in the 1890s, when its imperial advances necessitated a more efficient and up-to-date force, though it did not have the ship numbers that European powers possessed. For the United States, keeping a small force was compatible with the isolationist tendencies it had maintained through the 1800s. With oceans on two sides, the country was relatively protected from overseas entanglements and had diplomatically tried to avoid them.
Besides building up their armies and navies, military planners in several European countries also began designing how operations would occur in the next war. Germany anticipated that, encircled by enemies, it would have to fight on two fronts—against Russia on one side and France on the other. Developed by Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen in the early 1900s, the Schlieffen Plan held that Russia would be slow to mobilize, so Germany should use that time to attack Belgium and France and then pivot to fight Russia. This plan would make the conflict a short one. The French designed Plan XVII, which called for a major French offensive through Alsace-Lorraine to target the industrial heartland of Germany. Russia developed Plan 19, which would order Russian attacks on East Prussia once Germany was engaged against France.