Perhaps the best known cause of World War I was the alliance system that developed in Europe in the half-century before World War I. An alliance is a formal political, military or economic agreement signed by two or more nations. Alliances are binding under international law, though they are frequently annulled or broken. Many alliances require signatory nations to provide support to other signatory nations in the event of war with an enemy power. This support may range from financial or logistic backing, such as the supply of materials or weapons, to military support or even a full declaration of war. Alliances may also contain economic conditions, such as trade agreements or investment. Alliances were hardly new in Europe. The continent had for centuries been a melting pot of old rivalries, political intrigue, competing territorial ambitions, military threats, nationalistic suspicion and paranoia. France and England were antagonists for centuries; several times this rivalry had erupted into open warfare. Bilateral relations between the French and Germans, the French and Russians and the British and Russians had also been strained. European leaders responded to these tensions by negotiating and signing alliances, both as a deterrent to war and to better protect their country should one break out.
The 18th century had been a time of shifting alliances, brokered by kings, princes and ministers. Many of these alliances and alliance systems were fragile or temporary; they often collapsed or were revised as new leaders emerged and political situations changed. Only rarely did alliances drag nations into an unwanted war. The early 1800s saw several European ‘super alliances’, chiefly to deal with French dictator and rampant imperialist Napoleon Bonaparte. The nations of Europe lined up either in support of Bonaparate, or to defeat him. Between 1797 and 1815 they formed seven anti-Napoleon coalitions, which at various times included Britain, Russia, Holland, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Spain and Portugal. The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 restored the continent to its normal state. In the 1870s, however, the chess pieces of Europe once again began to align into power blocs. Nationalist paranoia, imperial rivalry, military spending and intrigue all created a mood conducive to alliance-building. By 1914 many European governments had shuffled their nations into two opposing blocs, held together with stringent military alliances. In theory, any war between two opposing nations could mean war between them all. Some of the individual agreements that contributed to this situation were:
The Treaty of London (1839). Though not an alliance as such, this treaty was a commitment by Europe’s great powers – including Great Britain and Prussia – to acknowledge, respect and defend the neutrality of Belgium. When German troops invaded Belgium in August 1914 they did so in defiance of this treaty, which was still in effect.
The Three Emperors League (1873). A three-way alliance between the ruling monarchs of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. It was engineered and led, to a large degree, by Bismarck, as a means of securing the balance of power in Europe. Disorder in the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire undermined Russia’s commitment to the league, which proved very unstable.
The Dual Alliance (1879). A binding military alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, requiring both nations to support the other if it was attacked by Russia. This agreement was welcomed by nationalists in Germany, who considered that German-speaking Austria should actually be a part of greater Germany.
The Triple Alliance (1882). A complex three-way alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, containing anti-French undertones. Each signatory was committed to provide military support to the others, if they were attacked by two other powers – or if Germany and Italy were attacked by France. Italy was viewed as the weaker partner in this alliance (see main picture, above).
The Franco-Russian Alliance (1894). A military alliance between France and Russia that restored cordial relations between the two. This agreement also undermined the increasing power of Germany and allowed French capitalists to invest in Russian mining and industry, providing economic benefits to both nations.
The Entente Cordiale (1904). Meaning ‘friendly agreement’, this series of agreements between Britain and France ended a century of hostility between the cross-channel neighbours. It also resolved some colonial disagreements and other petty but lingering disputes. It was not a military alliance so neither nation was obliged to provide military support for the other.
The Anglo-Russian Entente (1907). An agreement between Britain and Russia which, like the Entente Cordiale, eased long-standing tensions between the two. It also resolved disagreements over colonial possessions in the Middle East and Asia. It did not involve any military commitment or support.
The Triple Entente (1907). This treaty consolidated the Entente Cordiale and the Anglo-Russian Entente into a three-way agreement, securing amicable relations between Britain, France and Russia.
Secrecy and hidden agendas
In most cases these alliances and ententes were formulated in secret, behind closed doors; they were only revealed to the public later. Some nations even entered into negotiations without consulting their other alliance partners. Germany chancellor Otto von Bismarck, for example, entered into alliance negotiations with the Russians in 1887 without informing Germany’s major ally, Austria-Hungary. Some alliances also contained ‘secret annexes’ that were concealed from the public and known only to signatory governments; many of these secret clauses were only revealed after the end of World War I. The clandestine nature of alliance formulation, along with the content of these agreements, only heightened suspicion and continental tensions. In the decade before 1914, the composition of some of these alliances was revised. Signatories agreed to small but important alterations, often to strengthen military obligations or commitments. The Dual Alliance, for instance, was modified in 1910 with the insertion of a clause requiring Germany to directly intervene if Austro-Hungary was ever attacked by Russia. These amendments further militarized existing alliances and increased the chances of war. The true impact of the alliance system, however, is often over-stated. Alliances may have facilitated a sense of duty or obligation – but they did not make war automatic or inevitable. The ultimate authority to threaten, mobilize for or declare war still rested with national leaders; it was their moral commitment to these alliances that proved the telling factor. As historian Hew Strachan put it, the real problem was that by 1914, “nobody was prepared to fight wholeheartedly for peace as an end in itself.”