To What Extent can it be said that the First World War was caused by The Alliance System?

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To What Extent can it be said that the First World War was caused by The Alliance System?
The alliance system was a cause of mistrust and belligerent attitudes in Europe before World War One. By the summer of 1914 Europe had been divided into two distinct groups. The Triple Alliance was centred in Berlin and incorporated Austria-Hungary and Italy. At the core of The Triple Entente was the Franco-Russian Alliance with Britain as an entente partner of both. The alliance system was also responsible for the military plans that led to the spread of war. It was also influential on the way in which countries acted. It is undeniable that the alliance system was partly responsible for the outbreak and spread of war but to say that it was one of the most important factors could be considered an oversimplification. The German wars of unification during the 1860s and 70s were just as, if not more important than the role of the alliance system. Home fronts throughout this period were faced with nationalism, which increased tension between nations. The problems that arose in 1909 and 1912-13 were two things largely responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914.
The Alliances forged at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th created mistrust and inspired aggression amongst countries. These treaties were often devious and secret and were one of the factors that led to war in Europe. Each alliance was formed to either isolate or be aggressive towards an excluded country. The Emperors League in 1881 was aimed to be anti French. The Triple Alliance of 1882, was only created by the pure hatred of Italy willing to forge an alliance against France. Franco-Russian agreement of 1898 was in fact initially anti British. Each alliance that was created added to the tension between countries, which forced them further apart. This was aided by the several crises that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century.

Military discussions and plans came hand in hand with the alliances that had been created. Leaders had to choose how best to combine their forces in the event of war. However these defensive tactics soon were translated into methods of attack. Unalterable mobilisation plans forced countries to distinguish between friend and foe from a very early stage. The Schlieffen Plan is just one example of the military plans that were created. It was started in the 1890s. This suggests that Germany already had a fair idea of who her enemies were from this early on. The alliance system there fore had a considerable effect on the outbreak of war. The military plans also prevented countries from reconsidering their actions. Once implemented they were virtually unstoppable as Germany found in 1914 when deciding that diplomatic victory would suffice as opposed to war.

During June and July of 1914 the alliance system proved to be influential on the way in which countries acted. After the assassination of the archduke Ferdinand on the 28th of June 1914, the Austrian government was split. The Chief of Staff urged war while the Count Stephen Tisza and the Hungarian minister were opposed to war and still members of parliament hesitated about the actions that should be taken. However these attitudes changed on the unprecedented arrival of a German unconditional support of Austria’s actions. Similarly Russia received full support from France in the event of Austrian invasion of Serbia. This support offered by the alliances influenced the declarations of war however the alliances cannot be classified as the principle cause of conflict.
The alliance system was undoubtedly a cause of war. Its very existence ensured that the conflict would become a wider war the moment the rigid military mobilisation plans were implicated. However other factors described below demonstrate that the alliances were not the most important cause of war. The ability for countries not to fulfil the requirements of their alliances represents the flexibility of international relations. The treaties between European nations can be seen to preserve peace right up to 1914. Trade amongst nations and their international awareness were not hindered by these often-described aggressive alliances.
Many historians have considered the alliance system to be rigid and inflexible. It is easy, as many historians have done, to exaggerate how the alliance system dictated the rapid spread of war. We must bear in mind the actions of Italy, Britain, France and Germany during 1914. On 1st August the Italian Prime Minister declared that under the specifications of the treaty, Italy was not obliged to back Austria or Germany in the event of a war over the Balkans. Sir Edward Grey the foreign secretary for Great Britain entered the war without being bound to any country. Even Poincaré did not fulfil the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance when Germany declared war on Russia. And finally the unconditional offer of support made by Germany and her quick declaration of war exceeded all obligations set down by any of the treaties. This suggests that leaders were not bound to any other country and felt able in the event of not wanting war, to avoid involvement within the terms of the alliances. “Leaders decide what course of action suits their countries’ interests at any given time,” (Vyvyen Brendon, page 6). There is much evidence of this during the build up of war. Austria Hungary despite the full support from Germany still dithered about the declaration of war. Despite the French verification of Russian support little encouragement was necessary as she already had justifiable motives to be in full support of Serbia.

How can we say that the alliance system was a main factor which caused war when it was a one of the ways that peace maintained leading up 1914? The First Moroccan Crisis of 1905 was solved peacefully due to the power of the Entente Cordiale and the Franco-Russian alliance. Germany was confronted by Britain and Russia in 1906 at the Algeciras Conference in defence of France’s position in Morocco. Similarly to the First Moroccan crisis, the Second Moroccan crisis’s outcome was just as peaceful. In November Germany recognised French protectorate of Morocco in exchange for a piece of the French Congo. This evidence suggests that in fact the alliance system was a way of keeping peace in Europe. The Bosnian Crisis during 1908 and 1909 is also evidence that demonstrates the peacekeeping effect of the alliance system. Russia was unable to fight and the power of the central powers meant that war was prevented. As many have argued before, alliance systems acted as a deterrent that prevented and maintained a balance within Europe.

The insignificance of the alliances created during this period is also emphasised by the ability of countries to form other bonds. This is evident from the relationship between France and Italy in 1899, 1900 and 1902. Austro-Russian relations continue right up to 1912 where they are seen working together to prevent the Balkan League from attacking Turkey. London - Berlin relations were also improving right up to 1914 where they came to an agreement over the Bagdad-Berlin Railway. Trade links are also evidence of the casual organisation of the alliance system. Austrians ordered weapon from Russians, the British built ships on demand for European powers, Germans sold weapons and were regularly engaged in trade with Russia and finally France who sold her weapons to anyone. Despite the naval race, Britain and Germany still valued each other as important trade partners.

Alliance partners seemed almost non-existent on the home front of nations where other news was of more importance. Each power that was to be incorporated in a future world war was oblivious to their surrounding allies. Britain was preoccupied by the mutiny of senior officers over the prospect of enforcing Home Rule in Ireland. Russia’s main headlines were of the strikes that were paralysing its main cities. The whole of the Austrian government had been adjourned due to clash between Czechoslovakians and Germans during the month of March. Finally Serbia’s civilian government was under a military attack, as they wanted a virtual state within the Serbian State. Army officials had also pushed the Prime Minister Nikolai Paise out of office in June.

The complex causes of the First World War cannot be simply blamed on the alliance system. Other more important origins of this conflict can be dated back to 1860s and 1870s where the German wars of unification caused huge unbalance in Europe. The constant conflicts between Balkan nations for independence, pride and prestige had huge impacts on international relations leading up to the summer of 1914.
The German Unification wars on the 1870s however created repercussions throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century and can be argued to be a more significant cause the First World War. The creation of this new power was responsible for the misrepresentation of warfare, the isolation of France, Weltpolitik that led to the alienation of Britain and Russia and increased support of Austria.

The wars of the 1870s were mainly complete within weeks, sometimes only months and usually depended on only several major battles using quick and forceful frontal attacks. Many military leaders throughout Europe drew from Germany’s excellence and copied many of their tactics. The importance of rapid mobilisation and sweeping plans of attack were lessons learnt from these wars. These aspects encouraged the creation of detailed mobilisation plans that were unstoppable after having been implicated and false believes that the war would be “over before the leaves fall.” Countries of Europe had been lulled into a false sense of the nature of warfare and therefore were more likely to enter in on war. “The lesson of 1870 was burnt into the mind of every staff officer in Europe: the nation which loses the mobilisation race is likely to lose the war.” (M Howard ‘reflections on the First World War’ studies in War and Peace.1970)

The creation of this new power created imbalance within Europe. More importantly was the isolation of France that was a direct consequence of the wars. The occupation of Alsace Lorraine was a source of French anger and occupied her foreign policy and fuelled her anti German feelings. The wars therefore influenced the alliances forged with Russia, Britain and the agreements with Italy. Germany had created an enemy, which later due to polarisation would end up on the opposite side in a very powerful position.

The New state of Germany created from smaller states and under the rule of the Prussian emperor was ruled by a divine right monarchy. In effect the future of Germany from 1888 was in the hands of Kaiser II whose policies were chaotic and unpredictable. The new course of Weltpolitik – Germany required a place in the sun – created suspicion and unease throughout Europe. His relentless attempts to gain land in Africa such as in 1896, which deliberately insulted Britain is just one of the examples of his ever-growing aggressive policy. The deliberate violent attempts to take advantage of France in 1905 and 1911, Russia in 1909 only accomplished alienation of these powers. The attempt to take on Great Britain in a Naval Race only succeeded in increasing tension between the two nations. These events in alienating these countries increased the probability of war. Each country due to these increased tension concentrated on the construction of military plans, armies and armament levels. As Bethmann Hollweg stated “We have neglected our army and our naval policy has created enemies around us.” This isolation of Germany led to the necessity to please Austria-Hungary and secure their alliance.

More importantly the situation in the Balkans was even more influential on the cause of war. The increased tensions between Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Russia and the “never again” mentality that was initiated after the Bosnian crisis made war inevitable.

The Bosnian crisis of 1908 to 1909 was an easy victory and turned out to be a major triumph for Austria-Hungary and Germany. The hardships of war left Russia weak and defenceless giving her no choice than to back down against the force of the central powers. The outcome of this victory was a never again mentality of both Russia and Serbia, next time Russia would fight. Both powers turned to consolidating their power. Russia started to help Bulgaria to pay turkey the compensation required as a result of the declaration of independence and built up support in the Balkans. Serbia who was forced to announce publicly a declaration of good behaviour towards Austria was considerably more furious than Russia and moved to more drastic methods. She allowed extremist groups to be formed. One of the leading movements was called the Black Hand that was devoted to the “liberation of all Serbs living under foreign rule by secret and terrorist means.” And later would be seen to commit the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 also had serious consequences on international relations during the build up to war. By the end of the conflict each of the new Balkan powers had gained considerable amount of land and prestige. These successes challenged Russian and Austrian influence in the area. However more importantly Serbia had doubled her population and had increased her influence in the Balkan area, which ultimately threatened the Austrian southern boarder. A popular opinion was formed from then onward by Austro-Hungarian officials that is was essential to “smash” Serbia. The tensions between these nations formed the basis of events that would take place the following year. It is impossible to suggest that the wars of 1912-13 did not contribute to war the following year. What was also a direct consequence of these wars the arms race that ensued. Germany increased its forces by 20%, Russia added 500,000 men to its army and France increased the period of conscription from two years to three.
In conclusion it is evident that the alliance system was not one of the most significant causes of the World War One. However it can be said that the mobilisation plans of the allies played a significant role in the spread of war. Nonetheless the organisation and function of the alliance system may remind one of the world of Alice in Wonderland:
I don’t think they play at all fairly Alice began, in rather a complaining tone and they all quarrel so dreadfully one can’t hear oneself think – and they don’t seem to have any rules

(Lewis Carroll).”

At the out break of war that countries such as Italy, Britain, Germany and France were in fact not following a set of rules but were reacting to events around them. The priority given to maintaining trade and bonds that were created emphasise the superficial nature of the alliances. More importantly there were other more significant causes such as the increased tension created by each Balkan crisis that undoubtedly led to war. The German wars of unification during the 19th century created an imbalance within in Europe and created immediate tensions that were not going to disappear.






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