The route which led the major powers of Europe to war was long and tortuous, with many complex and interwoven factors eventually combining to drive them into a protracted and cataclysmic struggle. Among these factors were new naval and military technology, colonial rivalries, economic competition and irreconcilable national ambitions.
Perhaps the most important and obvious turning point towards a general European conflict was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. That limited confrontation saw the humiliating defeat of France and the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. The sudden emergence of the German Empire, which took the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from France as part of the spoils of victory, brought about a fundamental shift in the European balance of power. Germany's subsequent and accelerating progress towards economic ascendancy only intensified the anxieties of her neighbors and competitors.
Bismarck devoted himself to avoiding any further wars and trying to maintain the international isolation of France. This policy reached its peak with the formation of the League of the Three Emperors between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. This inherently unstable alliance soon collapsed.
Bismarck secured the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary, a defensive arrangement which promised support should either be attacked by Russia, or a benevolent neutrality if one was attacked by another European power – which at that stage clearly meant France. This alliance was augmented by the newly unified Italy to form the Triple Alliance. As a further precaution Bismarck also signed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, guaranteeing neutrality unless Russia attacked Austria-Hungary. The accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II led quickly to Bismarck’s downfall.
A rapid deterioration in Russo-German relations and a rapprochement between Tsarist Russia and Republican France compelled Germany to strengthen her existing links with the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, thus ensuring that she possessed an ally to the East. With the departure of Bismarck, the belligerent and erratic Wilhelm II soon spurred Germany to follow a more aggressive path in international relations.
France was Germany’s most committed adversary, still smarting from her defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and bitterly resenting the loss of the province of Alsace-Lorraine. Recently defeated countries are rarely content with their lot and violent conflicts thrived in the Third Republic established after the fall of Napoleon III.
The first, and probably the most significant crack in the edifice erected by Bismarckian diplomacy came in 1892 with the removal of its cornerstone - the isolation of France. That year, Russia and France concluded a military agreement under which each promised to come to the other's aid if attacked by Germany.
France did have a second powerful motivating force in determining her foreign policy. This was an unwavering desire to maintain and expand her large global empire. It is worth reflecting, then, that France was still an aggressive colonial power; Germany was not the only country seeking its place in the sun.
The change from Bismarck's Realpolitik–politics of realism–to the Weltpolitik–world policy or politics–of Kaiser Wilhelm II ultimately forced Britain to review her relations with other leading players on the European and world stage. Germany was not the only power that made Britain uneasy. Recurrent tension in her relations with France and Russia, previously her chief naval competitors, had caused Britain to pass the Naval Defence Act in order to safeguard the supremacy on which her national security and prosperity rested.
Britain was, however, content to stick largely to her policy of 'splendid isolation' so long as the balance of power in Europe was not imperilled and no single nation became too dominant or threatened Britain's security by making a hostile move into the Low Countries towards the Channel ports. Britain was, in fact, relatively friendly with Germany for much of the last quarter of the 19th century. The end of British isolation in relation to Europe was determined by the relative position of the European powers in Africa and Asia, not within Europe itself.
At the turn of the century it was the German Naval Laws that did most to alienate Britain. Shaped by the German Naval Secretary, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, with the Kaiser's enthusiastic support, these measures disclosed Germany's intention to construct a fleet, including 38 battleships, within 20 years. Regarding Britain as Germany's 'most dangerous naval enemy', Tirpitz envisaged the German fleet as a political pawn which would strengthen his country's hand in world affairs.
German backing for the Boers during the South African War of 1899-1902 hastened the demise of Britain's earlier isolationist policy.
Since the US Navy was not obviously aimed directly at her interests, Britain deliberately abandoned any attempts to compete with growing American naval power. An Anglo-Japanese treaty was signed, considerably reducing British anxieties in the Far East and enabling Britain to concentrate more warships in home waters.
The Entente Cordiale greatly strengthened British diplomatic and later military ties with her traditional rival, France. A similar understanding was reached with Russia once Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War had all but removed the long-standing Russian threat to India. Thus, before the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Britain had swung noticeably towards the Franco-Russian alliance.
The years leading up to the outbreak of the Great War were characterized by a series of diplomatic incidents and general sabre-rattling between the Great Powers as they tested the limits of what they could achieve without actually resorting to war. The tensions originating in German jealousy of French influence in North Africa were most evident in the First Moroccan Crisis. France was determined to acquire Morocco to complement her existing North African colonies. The Kaiser opposed such a move. An international conference resolved the situation with a compromise which left France in de facto control of Morocco.
The Second Moroccan Crisis broke out when the French sent a small military force to ‘defend French citizens’ in Morocco during a revolt by the indigenous population against the rule of the Sultan. Germany believed that this was merely a step on the road to French annexation. Germany therefore despatched a gunboat, the Agadir. This action in turn exacerbated the anxiety of the British, who sought to deny Germany an Atlantic port. For a while the diplomatic temperature was dramatically raised, but gradually fell away as none of the protagonists took further provocative action.
The next big threat to the status quo came when the Italians declared war on Turkey and tried to seize Tripolitania and the Dodecanese Islands in a blatant attempt to take advantage of the fast-decaying Ottoman Empire. However, this action was in turn swallowed up by the outbreak of the Balkan Wars.
Germany’s ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a rather ancient institution that had grown up over hundreds of years of strife and miscellaneous dynastic marriage settlements. The latest incarnation was the Dual Monarchy created by an agreement whereby the Austrian Empire and the neighbouring Hungarian Kingdom would share the same monarch – Emperor Franz Joseph I, who had ruled the Austrian Empire and who also became King of Hungary.
Germany’s other ally in the Central Powers was Italy, but this was a far more dubious relationship. Desperate for allies to guarantee safety in a dangerous world, Italy had joined the Triple Alliance in 1882. Yet they were always unlikely bedfellows, for Italy had fought several wars against the Austro-Hungarian Empire during her tortuous process of unification and there remained serious outstanding border disputes relating to the Austrian occupation of the Trentino, Istria and Trieste regions.
Diplomatic manoeuvres, opposing alliances and naval rivalry were not the only ingredients which rendered the European powder keg more explosive and conditioned nations and peoples for armed conflict. The spread of education and adult literacy in the decades before 1914 also saw the rise of a popular press ready to glamorise deeds of military valour. Since most political and military leaders erroneously thought that should war come, it would be short, statesmen were generally more willing to solve international disputes by military rather than diplomatic means.
As Europe slowly evolved into two gigantic armed camps, the years leading up to war were marked by an upsurge in the arms race which came to dominate the economies of the Great Powers. Each had their own gigantic arms manufacturers churning out weapons of war at an unprecedented rate. Nobody could afford to be left behind; but it wasn’t just about weapons. Huge conscript armies had to be raised, fed and clothed, armed, accommodated in barracks, trained and regularly exercised in field manoeuvres.
In the often savage debate that has raged since the work of Professor Fritz Fischer in the 1960s, historians have disagreed about the extent to which Germany positively sought and planned the conflict in advance. For Prussian aristocrats, the officer class and industrialists, war held great attraction as a means of negating or diverting attention from the increasing internal influence of the Social Democratic Party. However, Britain and France were all too eager to wage war on Germany.
On the 8th of December 1912, the Kaiser summoned his senior military advisers to a war council. The fact that some of the conclusions reached on this occasion coincided with the actual events of 1914 has caused historians to view the meeting as evidence that Germany's leaders took a conscious decision there and then to go to war within 18 months. The importance of the meeting in this respect may have been exaggerated, but there is no doubt that the Kaiser and the military-political-industrial elite wanted hegemony in Europe and were fully prepared to contemplate war as the quickest way of realising their ambitions.
As the Central Powers and Triple Alliance became more deeply established competing entities, so their respective military establishments constantly updated their plans for war. That, after all, was their function: they could not allow themselves to be taken by surprise by the vagaries of international politics.
When German General Alfred von Schlieffen took over as Chief of General Staff he commissioned plans for every conceivable eventuality: war with France, war with Russia, or war with both – a situation rendered a probability, rather than a possibility, by the removal of Bismarck. As Schlieffen estimated that in a war with both France and Russia the German forces would be outnumbered, he sought to avoid a lengthy war. This meant that, despite all the difficulties, Schlieffen was determined to seek a quick decision, or risk destroying Germany both militarily and economically. The Schlieffen Plan was above all of its time.