Section 1: Why did war break out? International rivalry 1900-14



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Section 1: Why did war break out? International rivalry 1900-14

This file contains additional notes to supplement the Modern World Unit 1 Student Book (9781846908033), offering further development on the following topics:



  • The Alliance System before 1900: The Entente Cordiale and the Triple Entente

  • Great power rivalry: the German threat

  • The Balkans: the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, Balkan nationalism and the Balkans Crisis

The Alliance system before 1900

Pages 8-9 of the Student Book explain the alliance system before 1900. This section provides some further information about the Entente Cordiale and the Triple Entente.

The Entente Cordiale and the Triple Entente

The Entente Cordiale was an agreement made between Britain and France in 1904. It happened in 1904 because the new British King, Edward VII, favoured an alliance with the French and the new French Foreign Minister, Declassé, wanted an alliance with Britain to isolate Germany. Features of this agreement were:

  • it was made because both Britain and France felt threatened by the growth of the German empire and Germany’s rise as an economic power

  • both Britain and France felt threatened by Germany’s alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy

  • the French did not seek to avenge themselves for the 1871 defeat, but they were keen to ensure a ‘buffer’ against further German aggression

  • meaning ‘friendly understanding’, it was an agreement not to quarrel over colonies rather than an agreement to defend each other if attacked. The French did not want Britain to drag them into a war before they were ready – they felt their armed forces were too weak.

The Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia developed in stages. Russia had been an ally of Germany, but Germany let this lapse in 1890 then allied with Austria (a rival of Russia), which made Russia feel threatened.

  • In 1891, Russia began secret talks with France and the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed in 1894 (before the Entente Cordiale).

  • Britain and Russia had been colonial rivals in Persia, Afghanistan and China, but Britain came to see Germany as more of a threat, and Russia as less of a threat following its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1905). In 1907, Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Entente.

  • Britain, France and Russia then agreed the Triple Entente which, like the Entente Cordiale, was not an agreement to defend each other if attacked.

Great power rivalry

German threat

Pages 10-11 of the Student Book discuss the rivalry between the great powers. The following additional note should be considered.

Germany also felt threatened. The Kaiser felt that Germany was hemmed in, encircled by the threat of France and Britain.



The Balkans

Pages 16 to 19 of the Student Book cover the Balkans 1900 to 1913. The text below provides some further information about the Ottoman Empire in 1900, Balkan nationalism and the Bosnian Crisis of 1908.

The weaknesses of the Ottoman Empire in 1900

By 1900, the Ottoman Empire was very weak. This was especially true in the Balkans – the part of the Empire in Europe. Various factors contributed to this weakness:



  • The Balkans was made up of many ethnic groups with their own languages and their own sense of nationality. Among these were Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. Added to this, the Ottoman Empire was Muslim and most of the people in the Balkan countries they had taken over were not.

  • The Ottoman Empire was too big for the army to keep control everywhere. In the Balkans, different Balkan states wanted their independence. Austria-Hungary and Russia both wanted to increase their influence in the Balkans, and push the Ottoman Empire out of Europe.

  • The Ottoman Empire was retreating:

    • it had already given some states their independence

    • some states were semi-independent states within the Ottoman Empire

    • the sultan (ruler) had been forced to let Austria-Hungary ‘administer’ Bosnia-Herzegovina in his name. He could not control it so the alternative was to allow it to be independent.

  • The sultans of the Ottoman Empire had long been inefficient and corrupt. The sultan in 1900, Abdul Hamid II, spent most of his time hidden in his palace, drinking heavily and fearing a revolution.



The Balkans in 1900. The areas inside the red line were part of the Ottoman Empire, but had their own rulers who were supposed to rule the land for the Ottomans.

Balkan nationalism

The various Balkan ethnic groups had a strong sense of their own national identities. But they were small and not powerful. Most were ruled by either the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary. Their boundaries were redrawn to suit these rulers. So, for example, several million Serbs (estimates vary from 2 to 6 million) were living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Balkan nationalism was encouraged to grow by:



  • the fact that Greece (1832), Serbia (1878) and Romania (1878) became independent and other states (e.g. Bulgaria) were given semi-independence within the Ottoman Empire

  • the increasing weakness of the Ottoman Empire

  • the encouragement of Russia – which would benefit from the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary being weakened.

The Bosnian Crisis, 1908

In 1908, there was a revolution in Turkey. An army group called ‘the Young Turks’ replaced Sultan Abdul Hamid II with his brother, Mohammed V. The Young Turks actually ran the country, not the new sultan. The Young Turks began to introduce reforms. It seemed as if they might make the Ottoman Empire stronger. This set off a crisis in the Balkans.



  • Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, which it had been ruling for the Ottoman Empire.

  • Serbia, which had a very strong nationalist movement, objected to the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It could not fight Austria-Hungary alone, so asked Russia, an ally, to help stop the annexation. Russia objected to Austria-Hungary’s action.

  • Germany made it clear to Russia that Germany would help Austria-Hungary if Russia tried to help Serbia to take back Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austria-Hungary agreed to pay the Turks compensation, which was accepted. Russia backed down, so Serbia had to back down as well.

The Bosnian Crisis was over, but it had several effects:

  • some Serbian nationalists formed a group, called ‘the Black Hand’, specifically to oppose Austria-Hungary in the Balkans

  • Austria-Hungary began to see the Serbs as a real threat

  • it was the first real test of the Triple Alliance – and Germany had come to the aid of Austria-Hungary; it showed the alliance system could work.



© Pearson Education Ltd 2012. Copying permitted for purchasing institution only. This material is not copyright free.


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