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Age of Realism

Survival of the Fittest:
Drifting towards war

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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By 1871 Germany was united, but at considerable cost. Bismarck had succumbed to pressure of Prussian colleagues in annexing the two French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine but, in doing so, had created a spirit of resentment and desire for revenge that just wouldn't go away. The Chancellor had therefore to turn his attention to foreign policy, performing an amazing juggling act to ensure that France would remain isolated and would therefore hesitate before embarking on yet another war.

Bismarck also turned his attention to a possible alliance system to make France even more afraid of war. There were three possible avenues for alliances: Britain, Russia and Austria. A first choice might have been Britain but for the fact that she, being essentially a maritime nation, was hesitant to become militarily involved on the continent.

Russia, on the other hand, had much in common with Germany. Both were conservative monarchies and opposed to democratic and socialist ideals. Austria, of course, was a prime choice. It was also a German state and, despite having been defeated by Prussia in 1866, was on amicable terms with its former enemy because of clever diplomacy at the Treaty of Prague.

Both Austria and Russia were aware of the dangers of a treaty between Germany and any other power and, to avoid such a possibility, each allowed itself to be wooed into a three-way alliance with Germany. This was the Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors League - 1873), a somewhat vague agreement in which each promised to co-operate in maintaining peace in Europe.


It became clear after 1875, however, that Germany would have to rely more on Austria than on Russia. In the first place, Austria and Russia were dubious co-operators in any alliance because the two countries had conflicting interests in the Balkan Peninsula and eventual confrontation appeared inevitable. Secondly, it appeared that Russia was more likely to support French interests when these clashed with German.

The inevitable clash between Austria and Russia seemed imminent in 1878, after a short and sharp war between Russia and Turkey. The resulting Treaty of San Stefano brought protests from both Austria and Britain, both of whom feared that Russia would gain a springboard for entrance into the Mediterranean Sea.

Austria suggested a conference and Bismarck offered himself as an "Honest Broker", Germany being the only nation which had no direct interests in the Balkan Peninsula but the resulting Berlin Conference (1878) was a disaster because Russia accused Germany of siding with Austria. By the end of the conference Russia declared that the Dreikaiserbund no longer existed.

Bismarck therefore turned to Austria and in 1879 concluded the Dual Alliance, a military agreement directed primarily against Russia but also protecting Germany against France. In terms of the alliance, if either ally was attacked by Russia, the other would aid but if either power was attacked by any other nation, the other would remain neutral unless Russia was somehow involved, in which case the other would aid. The terms of the alliance were to be kept a secret although Russia was notified that an alliance had been made.

The Dual Alliance was essentially a defensive treaty. Germany would not back Austria in an attack on Russia and Austria would not defend Germany in the event of her attacking France. It did nevertheless present two problems: how to ensure that Russia did not now turn to France as a possible ally, while the existence of a secret treaty only served to intensify fears in Europe.

Since no-one knew the terms of the treaty, how was anyone to know that it was purely of a defensive nature? Indeed, the veil of secrecy led to the conclusion that the alliance was a direct threat to peace in Europe.


Although Bismarck managed to renew the Dreikaiserbund in 1884, further conflicts in the Balkan Peninsula caused its total collapse in 1887. By then, however, a new deal was on the cards. Tension between France and Italy over parts of North Africa drove the latter into Germany's arms, leading ultimately to the Triple Alliance.

Germany and Austria agreed to assist Italy if she were attacked by France, while Italy agreed to assist Germany in a similar attack. The three nations agreed to give mutual aid if any were attacked by two or more powers while the others would remain neutral if one were forced to attack either Russia or France. The treaty did not apply to Britain because Italy felt herself vulnerable to British naval power.

By 1887 the Dreikaiserbund was shattered by further conflict in the Balkans. On top of that, in 1886 Bulanger had become French Minister of War and France again became intent on revenge. The possibility of an alliance between France and Russia, Bismarck's nightmare, was now very strong and Bismarck therefore turned again to Russia.

A Reinsurance Treaty involving Russia alone was signed which laid down that if either of the partners was attacked by a third power, the other would remain neutral, unless Austria was attacked by Russia or France by Germany.

The alliance was to be short-lived. In 1888, during the Bulgarian dispute, Bismarck had to put pressure on Russia by publishing the terms of the Dual Alliance. The truth was now out and Russia knew that the Reinsurance Treaty did not hold in the most likely case of war against Austria. It is probable that Russia would not have allowed herself to be tricked again.


The rift between Germany and Russia came to a head after 1890. Emperor Wilhelm I had died in 1888 and his successor, Wilhelm II, resented the aging Bismarck's prerogative of policy-making without his consent.

He furthermore disagreed with Bismarck on three major policies: he preferred to give Austria unlimited support rather than the compromise of Russian friendship; he wanted to use German military strength to create a colonial empire; he wished to build up a navy strong enough to challenge British naval supremacy.

Bismarck's resignation in 1890 led to a totally new German foreign policy. Wilhelm II refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. The latter then found herself isolated and threatened by Austria in the Balkans. There was also fear of Germany's new imperialist policy. As a result, Russia began to search for an ally and found in France a ready-made partner. The two countries therefore began negotiations towards closer co-operation.

Russia wished to borrow money and was also in need of armaments. France agreed to supply both, while Russia guaranteed that the armaments would never be used against her. In 1891 an agreement was reached that France and Russia would confer on all matters which were considered a danger to the peace of Europe, and would assist one another if peace was threatened.

In 1893 the agreement was further cemented in the form of a military alliance, known as the Franco-Russian Dual Alliance, whereby each country undertook to help the other if either was attacked by Germany, Austria or Italy.


Russia proved to be a weak ally, shown in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 where she was soundly defeated. France therefore turned to Britain for further support. The latter was France's traditional enemy and had, for more than a century, maintained a policy of "splendid isolation".

By the turn of the century, however, British politicians were beginning to question the wisdom of that policy in the light of Germany's imperialistic threats, especially her decision to build up the German navy in competition to the British. As a result, Britain too had begun to find herself in need of friends and in 1902 turned to Japan for an alliance.

A war between France and Britain had been narrowly avoided during the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 and the Delcasse Government realised that France could not tackle the superior British navy. Furthermore, a war between the two countries would serve only to destroy the French colonial empire.

Hostilities were therefore settled and colonial agreements were drawn up, culminating in the Entente Cordialle of 1904. It was not a military alliance but simply a friendly agreement to provide for the settling of colonial differences.

Although Britain and Russia had been enemies for more than a century because of their conflicting aims in the Middle-East, the two countries now began negotiations towards closer co-operation. The fact that Britain and France had managed to smooth over their differences, coupled with the military alliance between France and Russia, facilitated in the process. As a result, a friendly agreement was made in 1907 in which Russia and Britain also agreed to settle colonial differences.

Although the Entente Cordialle and the Triple Entente were not military alliances, they did form a bond of friendship between the two countries. If war were to break out, therefore, the three "friends" would be likely to support one another. For the next seven years, therefore, the two "armed camps" of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente opposed one another whenever a crisis arose and the threat of a great war became ominous.


The once powerful Ottoman Empire had started to disintegrate early in the 18th Century and the situation was aggravated by the presence of powerful Christian groups within the Balkan Peninsula and conflicting interests of the Great Powers.

National consciousness was on the increase among the Balkan peoples, a situation heightened through continued persecution of Christians by Moslems which led to a series of rebellions against what was seen as tyrannical rule by the Turks. No united action could be taken, however, because of the multitude of national groupings, especially the Greeks, Rumanians, Bulgarians and Serbs.

Russian and British interests also conflicted. While Russia was interested in using the volatile situation to gain a route to the Mediterranean Sea, Britain wished to prevent Russian expansion in that direction because it endangered her trade route to India. At various times France became involved in the disputes for reasons of her own.

Although Turkey attempted to bring in reforms during the period from 1856 to 1871, these had little effect because the Ottoman administration was so corrupt that it did not allow easy reform. The Moslem religious rulers also resented reform and resisted them while none of the Great Powers was anxious to see a thoroughly renovated Ottoman Empire. (Why?)

Nationalism in the Ottoman Empire was slowly gaining ground and would soon cause further troubles for the disintegrating empire. Each national group aimed at independence of the oppressive Turkish rule. This was further complicated after 1866 when Austria was excluded from German and Italian affairs and turned eastward. Her "drang nacht oosten" in turn served only to intensify Russian interests there.

The period from 1875 to 1880 was one of revolt and warfare which threatened to engulf both Russia and Austria into the hostilities. It was also a period when Bismarck began to realise that Germany had to rely more on Austrian support than on Russian.

There was a period of comparative peace in the Balkans between 1880 and 1908. By then, however, circumstances had once again changed, largely because of the attitudes of new foreign ministers in both Austria and Russia.

Both were forceful, strong-willed men, who aimed at strengthening the prestige of their countries, especially in the Balkans. Although Austria wanted a policy of friendship with Serbia, this was becoming difficult to achieve because of the pro-Russian Serb king, as well as the rise of a more radical political party in Serbia. That, combined with a bitter economic conflict between Austria and Serbia, drove the latter into a Russian friendship.

A crisis arose in 1908 when Austria decided to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although Austria already had German and Italian support for the plan, her foreign minister decided to gain Russian support as well. Russia agreed on condition that the straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea be opened to Russian warships.

There was, however, a misunderstanding. While the Russian minister was touring Europe in an attempt to enlist French and British support for the opening of the straits, the "Young Turk" revolution broke out in Turkey, and Austria used this as a pretext to annex both Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A major European crisis then erupted as Russia accused Austria of treachery. Outcry also arose from the Russian pan-Slavs, and from Italy, Britain, Turkey and Serbia. Although Germany disapproved of Austria's action, she nevertheless decided to support her ally.

Since neither France nor Britain were prepared to go to war, Russia and Serbia found themselves isolated and helpless to act. Austria therefore came away from the crisis in a strengthened position while Russia and Serbia were humiliated.

To stop any further Austrian advance into the Balkans, Russia thereupon created a Balkan League of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro. Although ostensibly for defensive purposes, the League soon used the chaotic political conditions within both the Ottoman Empire and Europe to declare war on Turkey.

The Great Powers thereupon stepped in to restore order and prevent the Balkan nations from dividing the spoils of war as they wished. Austria, in particular, wanted to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea and Russia was concerned lest Constantinople fall into the hands of a Balkan state. Soon, however, the League members began quarrelling among themselves. Bulgaria declared war on Greece and Serbia, and was in turn attacked by Rumania and Turkey.

These Balkan Wars heightened the existing tension. Turkey had now been almost completely expelled from Europe but that increased the threat to Austria. Both Serbia and Rumania, larger and more powerful than before, triumphant in recent wars, now renewed their efforts to be united with their fellow nationals within the Austrian Empire.

Both looked to Russia for support, while Austria turned increasingly to Germany for backing. The belief was slowly growing that an international war was inevitable and the military leaders of each nation speeded up military preparations.


There seemed to be only two possibilities for peace in the Balkans: either the Austrian Empire had to be broken up or Serbia had to be destroyed. On 28 June 1914 Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was assassinated at Serajevo, capital of Bosnia, by a group of Serbian radicals.

Austria decided to settle things once and for all, and accused Serbia of complicity in the murder. Serbia was thereupon issued with an ultimatum which seemed designed as to make acceptance impossible.

Attempts at mediation by Britain failed. On 28 July Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia, which had backed down to Austria in 1908, was not prepared to do so again and so on 31 July ignored a German ultimatum and mobilised.

Germany in turn responded to the terms of the Dual Alliance by declaring war on Russia, attacking France three days later, invading Belgium to do so. Britain thereupon declared war on both Germany and Austria. The long expected Great War had happened.

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