The Alliance System And The Outbreak Of

Wwi Essay, Research Paper

The Alliance System and the Long Fuse

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed column (10/12/00), William Safire drew an analogy between Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. In both of these instances the press and the general public have found a answer to the question of “who started it?”. In Sharon’s case, the recent crisis in Israel and in the other, World War I. Safire was using these two seemingly non-related incidents to show how often people will place the blame on a specific incident rather than seeing the greater whole, and how in many cases a single action rarely leads to a mass conflict.

With this in mind, the question of who or what caused the First World War is now left unanswered. The primary catalyst is Bismarck’s ability to juggle with three balls and his successor, Caprivi’s, ability to only handle two, this is Caprivi’s own explanation as to why the alliance system fell apart under him.. It was the alliance system more than anything else that took what should have been a local Austrian war and turned it into a world war. The great powers involved themselves with what should have been an internal empire issue for the Austrians. This meddling was what would throw the continent into war.

Emperor Wilhelm II’s dismissal of Bismarck in 1890 sealed the fate of the world. Bismarck had been creating “his Europe” solely to ensure Germany would not have to fight a two front war. He realized as did Karl Marx, shortly after the Franco-Prussian War) that “If Alsace and Lorraine are taken, then France will later on make war on Germany in conjunction with Russia.” (Joll). Bismarck’s intention from the start was to isolate France when the inevitable conflict began. He recognized that the French would be out to destroy Germany for the Franco-Prussian War and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. He sought to ensure that the Germans would not be vulnerable on both sides. Bismarck would create a system of treaties and alliances he hoped would ensure against exactly what would happen.

The first of the alliances, in 1879 between Austria-Hungary and Germany was established to protect Austria from Russian attack. The fear was that if Austria fell the Russians would be at the Germans door. This was clearly a defensive pact on the German’s part. The very fact that starting back in 1880 that Germany was already preparing for and “eventual” war demonstrates a the very least partial blame on Germany.

The Three Emperor’s league between Vienna-Berlin and St. Petersburg of 1881, created the situation that would spiral into WWI. Germany attempted to create some sort of East European block thereby ensuring themselves of a one front war, but the flare up in Bulgaria and the subsequent instability between Russia and Austria destined the Emperor’s League to fail. The Russians had the self-image as the champion of the Slavs that would generate a world was out of Austria’s Serbian problem. The Russians had a long standing ambition to control the outlet of the Black Sea, and this was the root of the Austrian’s distrust of the Russians that would lead to the failure of the Triple Alliance.

It is here that Caprivi’s inability to fill Bismarck’s diplomatic shoes is most visible. Caprivi had to choose either Russia or Austria, he chose the weaker of the two, in Austria. The initial impetus for the creation of the Three Emperors league was to create a conservative coalition against the British, yet Britain was at this time an ally of Italy and the Italians were in treaty with the Germans, thereby creating a vicarious relationship between Germany and England.

France, quickly beginning to feel both isolated and vulnerable, rapidly began looking for help, and found a willing ally in the recently slighted Russians. The Russians had refused to renew the Three Emperor’s League in 1887, and signed the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1892. It was this treaty that created the specter of a war on two fronts for the Germans. All the while, the Germans were alienating the British who should have been their [the German's] natural ally against Russia. Wilhelm had begun the ambitious reconstruction of the German navy through the Tirpitz plan, which both shocked and instigated the English, who saw the seas as their sole possession. This sent the British into the Triple Entente with Russia and France. Russia’s paternal feelings towards the Serbs involved Russia in the growing Balkan Crisis.

The Russians more than anyone else were responsible for the death of the Archduke. They apparently knew of the plot and did nothing about it, in addition, they had been aiding the Serbs all along (Erik Kennedy). Once the Archduke was murdered the Germans saw the opportunity to take advantage of the situation and pushed Austria towards war. The Russians had been mobilizing in the immediate weeks following the assassination and for the Germans “mobilization meant war” . The Schleiffen plan called for the Germans to cross the border into Belgium within days of mobilization, it was this speed that the generals saw as an advantage they could sacrifice. “Thus it was that Alfred von Schlieffen’s dead hand pulled the trigger that started World War I.” (

Once Russia began it’s mobilization, Germany had no other choice but to declare war, thereby dragging Austria and Italy in, and since Russia was now involved France and England had to follow. It was the alliance system, or more likely the failure of the earlier alliance systems, that dragged the whole of Europe into conflict.



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