To What Extent Did the Alliance System Cause the First World War?

This is an essay I wrote as part of my final exam for History in May last year. It is an analysis of the question, “To What Extent Did the Alliance System Cause the First World War?” I later sent this essay to Oxford University as part of my application, and they offered me a place! Enjoy!

Pre-First World War Europe was a mass of complex and sometimes shaky alliances, constantly being strengthened and under-mined by over-zealous rulers for whom war was little more than game of chess with living pawns. It has been said by some that WWI was caused by this system of alliances however this is over simplistic, alliances in Europe were far from absolute, often changing on the disposition of statesmen. in this essay, it will be argued that although World War One was to a larger extent caused by the alliance system, particularly the Franco-Russian Alliance and the Dual Alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany, peace could have been preserved were there great statesmen at work. Were it not for the errors in judgement and arguably rash actions of statesmen such as Kaiser Wilhelm II and his policy regarding Morocco and failure to renew the Reinsurance Treaty, the alliance system need not have led to war.

Although Russia held no official treaty with Serbia, the historical, religious and ethnic bond between the two nations caused Russia to mobilize her troops in support of Serbia. The first alliance that ushered war into Europe was not between two of the so called “Great Powers” of Europe. On June 28th 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo. The Austro-Hungarians first sought to implicate the Serbian government in the plot with limited success. They demanded Serbian compensation and issued an ultimatum to Serbia on July 25th. When Serbia refused to unconditionally accept the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared War. This did not please the Russians. Russia and Serbia shared an historic relationship. They spoke a similar language, shared the same religion and many considered themselves to be of the same Slavic ethnicity. In 1903, the pro-Austrian Serbian government, such as it was, was overthrown and replaced with a pro-Russian Government. In order to protect fellow Slavs, Russia, having declared the Serbia government innocent of involvement in the plot, mobilized her troops on July 29th 1914 in support of Serbia.

There had been previous crises regarding Slavs in the Balkans, such as the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 and the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Russia had not gotten involved. During the Bosnian Crisis, Russia was still smarting from her defeat in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, and was not strong enough to contest Austro-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Regarding the Balkan Wars, Russia felt no need to come to Serbia’s aid, as these wars were conflicts involving only “Small Powers”, and Serbia instead found herself supported by alliances of other Small Powers. With Austria-Hungary, it was different. Austria-Hungary had a comparatively large and powerful army, seemingly capable of annihilating Serbia. With another Great Power involved, Russia felt unable remain neutral and with Russian mobilisation, Europe was brought an irreversible step closer to war.

For the alliance system to preserve peace in Europe, Germany needed great statesmen. The greatest of these statesmen was Otto von Bismarck, whose realpolitik allowed Germany to strengthen, whilst ensuring she was never without allies. In March 1890, with a new Kaiser on the German throne, Bismarck was replaced by Leo von Caprivi and the great statesman of Germany was replaced by altogether rasher diplomats. The rashest of statesmen in Pre-War Europe was the Chancellor’s “boss”, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

During the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Germany had been allied with Russia and Austria-Hungary since 1873. This was after Bismarck negotiated the formation of the Dreikaiserbund or Three Emperors League. This alliance ensured that Germany was allied with two of the Great Powers of Europe and also ensured that France – Germany’s only real “enemy” at this time – was kept politically isolated. As a result, Germany only had enemies on one side, meaning that in the event war did break out, she would not be fighting a war on two fronts. Though this alliance was shaky officially disbanded more than once, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia were essentially allies until 1890. By this time, Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary as part of the Triple Alliance involving Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. She was allied with Russia due to the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887. The Reinsurance Treaty was set to expire in 1890. By this time Wilhelm (and his successor Frederick III) had died, and despite the staunch protests of Otto von Bismarck, the new ruler of Germany Kaiser Wilhelm II refused to renew it as he believed that his personal relationship with Russia’s Tsar Alexander III would be enough to ensure peace was kept. It was not. Bismarck was dismissed and Russia was left politically isolated, causing her to seek an alliance with another politically isolated country: France.

The unlikely Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892 had massive repercussions for Germany. It was unlikely because of the seemingly incompatible political systems the two nations had, but once it took effect it meant that Germany was surrounded by enemies, France to the west and Russia to the east. This caused Germany to feel she had to act defensively and cautiously, which in turn led to the adoption of Einkreisungspolitik, a political fear Germany felt by being encircled by enemies. This meant, among other things, that Germany had to put on shows of military strength. Which eventually had a negative effect by raising tensions with Britain. When the Dreadnought class of battleship was launched in 1906, Britain had to build many so that Britannia could rule the waves and Germany had to build Dreadnoughts because Einkreisungspolitik dictated Germany must show that she was strong. This “Anglo-German Naval Race” is often cited as cause of the First World War, yet it only became an issue because of the deterioration of the carefully constructed European Alliance system.  This arms race further contributed to the tense rift between Britain and Germany. The Franco-Russian alliance led to Einkreisungspolitik, and an aggressive political philosophy which caused tensions to rise in the run up to the First World War.

Another isolated country at this time was Britain and after the 1898 Fashoda Incident (a fracas in the Sudan which almost succeeded in causing a war between Britain France) Britain realised that her policy of “Splendid Isolation” towards European affairs she had adopted since the Napoleonic Wars was perhaps not the most prudent policy for the 20th century. British and French statesmen realised that were they to go to war over their colonies, it would be neither Britain nor France who emerged as the dominant power, but rather Germany. The Entente-Cordiale developed between 1904 and 1907. This was not an official alliance, but an understanding of, if not friendship, respect for each other’s colonies between Britain and France. This enraged Wilhelm II, as this not only contributed to the existing encirclement that Germany had been fearing, but further removed Germany from the possibility of having Britain as an ally, a possibility that Kaiser Wilhelm who has been very much desired.

If Kaiser Willhelm II truly did desire to have Britain as an ally, he picked a strange way of showing it. Described by historian Alan Farmer as “immature, erratic and prone to errors of judgement”, on January 3rd 1896, Wilhelm II sent a telegram to Stephanus Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic. Kruger and his forces had recently repelled a British attack on the Transvaal, and this “Kruger Telegram” was one of congratulations. This was the first inflammation Anglo-German relations (which were later further aggravated by the aforementioned Anglo-German Naval race) and a serious failure on the part of Kaiser Wilhelm II as a statesman.

Hoping to undermine the Entente-Cordiale, in 1905 Wilhelm II declared support for the Independence of the Moroccan people and antagonised French rule in Morocco. This is known as the Tangiers Crisis. This had the opposite desired effect and made the Anglo-French relationship stronger, whilst creating tension between Germany, and France and Britain. This result was reinforced in 1911 with the Second Moroccan Crisis, which had a similar cause and consequence to the first Tangiers crisis, further isolating Germany. Had Kaiser Wilhelm II been a more patient and understanding leader and not been so rash in his decisions, then the complex alliance system could have preserved peace in Europe.

Though the Entente-Cordiale was not an official alliance, a country Britain did hold an official alliance with was Belgium. The 1839 Treaty of London ensured Belgian neutrality. When Germany invaded Belgium as a means to attack France on August 4th 1914, Britain had just reason to declare war on Germany in retaliation. This further demonstrates the failure of statesmen in preventing this conflict, as German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg declared his disbelief that Germany and Britain were to go to war over a “scrap of paper”.

Despite these Ententes and Minor Alliances, the Dual Alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany of 1879 was possibly the greatest example of an alliance causing World War One. After Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, Austria demanded retribution from Serbia, and prepared to launch an invasion. On July 5th 1914, Germany pledged its support to Austria-Hungary the so called “Blank Cheque” pledging German support for Austria. As a result of the Dual Alliance and the Blank Cheque, Germany declared war on Russia after she began to mobilize her troops on July 29th. As Germany was at war with Russia, German Generals reasoned they must quickly and effectively invade and conquer France, so as to avoid fighting a war on two fronts, which seemed likely due to the Franco-Russian Alliance. This infamous “Schlieffen Plan”, stated that the most efficient way to invade France was via Belgium. Germany invaded Belgium on August 4th, bringing France, Belgium, and before long Britain, into the war. With the Dual Alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany eliciting so began the First World War.


The complexities of the European alliance system were precarious and far from definite, as shown by the fact that once war broke out, Italy did not join her allies in the Triple Alliance, but later joined with Entente Powers. Integral to the success of the alliances were brilliant German statesmen. In the absence of great statesmen such as Otto von Bismarck, the alliance system in Europe deteriorated. A series of poor decisions by the new statesmen caused tensions to rise. Eventually, with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, they rose to a critical juncture. The alliance system had failed and war became inevitable.


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