The path that led to the Eastern front of World War I was complex and long. Imperial ambitions, coupled with ethnic and economic problems, contributed to the start of the conflict. A series of regional crises preceded the war.
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To Austria-Hungary in particular, Germany seemed unable to follow a steady course. This was partly due to the fact that Germany continued both to affirm the alliance and yet at the same time undercut Austria-Hungary's economic position in the Balkans. Furthermore, Germany's efforts could as often reflect dynastic sympathies — there were Hohenzollerns on the thrones of Greece and Romania — as Austrian interests.
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Russian involvement in the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria and Serbia, was not in harmony with Austrian objectives in the region. In the Balkans, imperial rivalries intersected and overlapped with the cold war of the alliances. The Balkans were also the point where three empires — Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian — came face to face with the imminent prospect of their own decline as great powers.
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Russia was plagued by the spectre of revolution, dragged down by her systematic internal problems and in desperate need of modernization. The Russo-Japanese War had demonstrated that quantity was not enough: there had to be quality too. The Russians needed a well-trained army equipped with modern weapons, a strong naval presence on every coast and a total reorganization of the logistical sinews of war. It was clear however that, given time, Russia would be a valuable ally to France.
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Turkey was in a dangerous position, since it was nearly bankrupt. It was difficult to see how war could benefit such a country. Certainly Turkey could not afford to be on the losing side: that would surely mark the final dissolution of her tottering Empire.
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The origins of the tensions in the Balkans which became the immediate cause of the First World War lie not so much in Austrian aggression — although in time this came to play its part — as in the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
Russia was the most enigmatic of the Great Powers. Possessed of staggering potential, she remained a fitfully dozing giant. Her land mass was enormous, while her armies seemed inexhaustible, fuelled by a population of some 170 million. Yet Russia was a country only slowly feeling its way into the twentieth century. Although there had been some acceleration in her slow industrialization, she was still by no means a modern state and was deeply reliant on the financial assistance offered by France to develop her infrastructure. Yet Russia was by no means just a tool of the French, and had her own distinct territorial and geopolitical ambitions.
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An enduring Russian ambition in foreign policy, although better described as an obsession, lay in securing control of the exit from the Black Sea, via the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, to the Mediterranean. This aim would ultimately require the conquest of Constantinople and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Several wars had already been triggered by this aggressive intent, most notably the Crimean War of 1854-6 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.
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The Russian balance of trade, particularly the bulk export of grain, was dependent on its safe passage through the Dardanelles. Government ministers were all too conscious that any closure of the Straits would cause severe economic damage. Russia was naturally extremely concerned about any threatened augmentation of Turkish naval strength in the Black Sea. But there was also a jealous determination to prevent any other country from securing control of the Straits. However, it was considered that, if the power was not held by Russia herself, then better the Turks than some more virile challenger such as Bulgaria or Greece.
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Russia had also sought to spread out to the east, expanding beyond Central Asia, pressing into Siberia and eventually seeking a port to provide access to the Pacific Ocean. These ambitions led Russia into conflict with Japan, a hitherto little considered nation which had successfully acquired many of the trappings of a modern nation state. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the Russians had been badly beaten and forced into a humiliating defeat. This, however, was only a temporary halt to the Russian programme of imperial expansion across borders not shared with a fellow Great Power.
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Industry, though growing fast, had come late to Russia, and an industrial working class existed in only a few cities. Peasant discontent over land tenure was matched by industrial unrest over low wages and poor working conditions. But as war approached, patriotic fervor erupted, and when the Tsar appeared in Palace Square, the crowd fell to its knees.
Path to World War One in the West
Naval and military technology, colonial rivalries, economic competition and irreconcilable national ambitions were some of the factors that led to the outbreak of the Great War.
World War One - the Spark
World War I was sparked by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne, by a Bosnian Serb. This event triggered an international crisis that led to the outbreak of the Great War.
- Peter Hart, The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013
- Hew Strachan, The First World War: To Arms (Volume I ), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001
- Peter Simkins, Geoffrey Jukes, Michael Hickey, Hew Strachan, The First World War: The War to End All Wars, Osprey Publishing. Oxford, 2003
- Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011