European Relations and Rivalries

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In 1914, the Great Powers of Europe—Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, and France—had enjoyed that status for over a century. However, the power relationships between these nations had changed. In 1814, Prussia was the smallest of the Great Powers. By 1914, Germany, the nation Prussia created in 1871 after defeating the Austrian Empire and France in war, had become the strongest. Between 1871 and 1913, Germany surpassed Britain to become Europe’s leading industrial power. These developments dramatically altered the balance of power in Europe.

By 1914, Germany had surpassed Britain as the leading industrial power in Europe. Germany’s increasing industrial strength destabilized Europe’s balance of power.

European Relations and Rivalries Following its 1871 defeat, the Austrian Empire reorganized as Austria-Hungary, and accepted Germany’s leadership in Central Europe. France’s defeat in 1871 caused it to lose status, as well as territory to the new German nation. The French resented both results. Germany was surrounded by potential enemies. Tensions with France continued, and German leaders were suspicious of Russia to the east. These concerns caused Germany to use its new industrial might to build a powerful army and navy.

In the late 1800s, however, Russia was expanding in Asia. Not until its defeat by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 did Russia refocus on European affairs. Even then, Russia was less interested in Germany than it was in the Balkan Peninsula in southeast Europe, much of which was under Turkish control as part of the Ottoman Empire.

Great Britain also was largely uninvolved in Europe in the late 1800s. Britain’s main focus was on preserving its vast, worldwide empire. As long as a balance of power existed in Europe, the British had little interest in events there. By about 1900, however, developments on the continent were arousing Britain’s concern. The British viewed Russia’s expansion in Asia as a possible threat to their control of India. Germany’s naval buildup was also serious. Britain’s naval supremacy was vital to protecting its empire in a time when communication and trade still relied mainly on the sea. Britain responded to the German buildup by increasing the size of its own navy.

France began trying to match the 600,000-man German army, even though its population was only about two-thirds of Germany’s 68 million. Russia, with a population nearly triple the size of Germany, faced no such challenge. In fact, its army of 1.3 million was of great concern to the Germans.

Shifting Alliances Germany was a monarchy, but its affairs were led by its first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, until 1890. Bismarck’s foreign policy was shaped by his goal to protect Germany from the two potential enemies on its borders—France and Russia. He reduced the threat from Russia in 1881 by forming an alliance with Russia and Austria-Hungary called the Three Emperors’ Alliance. The following year, to protect Germany against France, Germany formed an alliance with Italy and Austria-Hungary. Together these countries formed the Triple Alliance. These alliances hurt France by depriving it of possible allies.

When the Three Emperors’ League dissolved due to tensions between Russia and Austria-Hungary, Bismarck kept France isolated by forming a separate German-Russian alliance called the Reinsurance Treaty. However, a new kaiser (the German title for emperor), Wilhelm II, took the throne in 1888. Kaiser Wilhelm and other German leaders were more interested in creating an overseas empire. To help achieve this goal, Germany began strengthening its navy. Bismarck was forced to resign and the Reinsurance Treaty was allowed to expire. These developments increased tensions with both Russia and Great Britain.

France took advantage of the Reinsurance Treaty’s end by forming an alliance with Russia in 1894. The French also provided money and other assistance to help Russia build railroads and modernize its army. Britain’s growing concerns about Germany prompted it to join with France and Russia in 1907 to create the Triple Entente.

The Great Powers were now aligned in two rival alliances. Should a member of either alliance become involved in a conflict, the other members were pledged to support it. In addition, fighting between any members of the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente would pull the other four nations into war. The alliance system made it possible for a minor dispute to produce war throughout Europe. In 1914, in the Balkans, this possibility became reality.

Unrest in the Balkans The growing tension between Germany and Russia mainly resulted from Germany’s support of Austria-Hungary in its rivalry with Russia for control of the Balkan Peninsula. Balkan peoples sought their freedom as Ottoman power declined. The Great Powers recognized the independence of Serbia in 1878 and put Austria-Hungary in charge of Bosnia-Herzegovina—a multi-ethnic region of Croats, Turks, and Serbs on Serbia’s border. Russia quickly formed close ties with Serbia and took on the role of Serbia’s protector.

Many Serbs believed that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be part of Serbia. Russia supported this goal, hoping to weaken Austria-Hungary and increase its own influence in the Balkans. Russia also supported Serbia in two short Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. The first war ended Ottoman rule on the peninsula, and the second war divided the former Ottoman lands among the Balkan nations. Serbia doubled in size as a result.

This development heightened tensions with Austria-Hungary, which feared that Serbian expansion would stir nationalism and unrest among the empire’s ethnic minority groups. In fact, organizations in Serbia, supported by leaders in Serbia’s government, had been doing just that since Austria-Hungary officially annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. In June 1914, an act of Serbian nationalism led to the murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb who had been trained by a Serbian secret terrorist organization called the Black Hand, shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 was greeted with enthusiasm and patriotism. Crowds in Paris celebrated France’s declaration of war. This same scene played out in all the capitals of Europe. No one anticipated the horrors that were to come.

The Rush to War Austria-Hungary saw Franz Ferdinand’s assassination as a chance to crush Serbian nationalism. After making sure it had Germany’s support, it made a series of harsh demands on Serbia. Austrian leaders expected Serbia to reject these demands, which would give Austria-Hungary an excuse for war. When Serbia agreed to most of them, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia anyway on July 28, 1914.

Russia, which was pledged to protect Serbia, began to mobilize, or ready its army and other resources, for war. On July 31, Germany gave Russia 24 hours to halt its mobilization. The Germans also demanded that France pledge neutrality[neutrality: the position of not favoring or supporting either side in a dispute] in the event of war between Germany and Russia. When these demands were ignored, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, and two days later declared war on France. Because of the alliance systems, nearly all of Europe was at war within two weeks.

Many Europeans greeted the outbreak of war in August 1914 with a wave of patriotic confidence and celebration. They believed that their side would be victorious in just a few months. Few could have predicted or imagined just how long and terrible this war would be.

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