Towards 1914 (1)
For the complicated politics of the European alliances before 1914, I have been especially indebted to J. M. Roberts Europe 1880-1945, 2nd edition (Longman, 1989) and to Michael Rapport, Nineteenth-Century Europe (Palgrave, 2005).
'In the approach to the outbreak of the First World War, four factors were crucial: first, the ambitions and strategies of the great powers; second, the system of alliances, the danger of which was less to drag allies into the abyss than to make them concerned lest their opposite numbers renege on their commitments at the last moment; third, the balance of power in the decision-making process between military men and civilian politicians; last, the pressure of both nationalist and socialist anti-militaristic opinion, and the opportunity offered by the war to achieve the ultimate in national integration'. Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914, 3rd edn. (Oxford, 2003), 429.
Between the Berlin Congress of 1878 and 1900 the Concert of Europe in effect came to an end as new occasions of conflict arose.
The condition of the military
Among the great powers of 1880 only Britain was not a land power. To continental countries armies were more important than navies. Military thinking was still obsessed with the idea of winning a decisive battle soon after the outbreak of war. It was assumed that wars would be short (as they had been in 1866 and 1870) and the five year experience of the American Civil War was discounted.
The success of Prussia in the 1870 war led to a rethinking of strategy. The ‘Moltkean Revolution’ involved compulsory military service to provide a short-service army with a large trained reserve and the creation of a permanent highly trained general staff. The ideal, except in Britain, was the ‘nation in arms’. The railway became an indispensable part of military strategy, but once away from the railway lines the army was still the Napoleonic cavalry, infantry and artillery.
Navies had changed much more than armies. By 1880 warships were armoured, steam-driven and screw-propelled. The British Royal Navy was the strongest in the world. Lord Salisbury told a German, ‘Nous sommes des poissons’. However, the extent of the British Empire presented it with the problem of over-stretch.
The system of the 1880s
Between 1880 and 1890 international relations were dominated by the system Bismarck built on the Berlin settlement of 1878, which was to collapse in 1914. The two great factors in the new geopolitics were
(a) the ‘German question’ (the place of Germany in the new world order) andThe classical British attitude towards Europe was to intervene decisively only when there was a danger of one Power threatening the independence of others. But concern over the Straits of Constantinople and India made her suspicious of Russia.
(b) the persistent Eastern Question and the resultant rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.
Bismarck was the major player in the geopolitical game. He saw Germany as a ‘saturated’ power. She was the leading continental nation but in order to consolidate her position, he was determined to isolate France. In 1873 he formed the Dreikaiserbund, a conservative alliance designed to maintain good relations with Russia and Austria-Hungary and to prevent them from coming into conflict in the Balkans.
France was obsessed with Germany’s demographic and military superiority. French politicians were divided between revanchists and those who wanted to abandon the lost provinces and seek an overseas empire.
Excluded from Italy and Germany, Austria-Hungary had become a south-eastern power. The dominating concern of the Dual Monarchy was the need to check Russian influence in the Balkans, an area that was becoming increasingly disturbed because of the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
Following Russia’s humiliation at the Congress of Berlin, Russian nationalists (Panslavists) were gaining in influence. Russia felt let down by Germany and relations between Berlin and St Petersburg cooled in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination.
Bismarck saw the integrity of the Habsburg Empire as essential for the stability of Europe, so his policy was to back Austria-Hungary in any conflict with Russia. In October 1879 he persuaded the reluctant Kaiser Wilhelm I to agree to the secret Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Its terms were that if one of the signatories were to be attacked by Russia the other was to come to her support. Yet Germany was in no conceivable danger from Russia, so the assumption is that Bismarck’s aim was to attach Austria-Hungary to Germany so that he could prevent her from going to war with Russia. His over-riding aim was peace because he feared the unpredictability and revolutionary potential of war. The alliance was also a statement that the kleindeutsch solution of the German problem was permanent. There would be no re-run of the Austro-Prussian War.
Bismarck followed this up by making overtures to Britain, but nothing came of it. In 1881 and 1884 he renewed the Dreikaiserbund. In May 1882 Italy, furious at the French occupation of Tunis, came into the Dual Alliance, which then became the Triple Alliance. Germany and Austria-Hungary promised to help Italy against a French attack and vice versa.
Bismarck seemed to have made Europe more peaceful because he had contained the rivalries between Austria-Hungary and Russia and neutralized and isolated France. At the same time France was becoming more hostile to Britain because of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. This destroyed the chance of Anglo-French co-operation for twenty years.
The Bulgarian crisis
The Balkans continued unstable after the Congress of Berlin. In September 1885 the ruler of Bulgaria, Alexander of Battenberg brought Turkish-controlled Eastern Rumelia into Bulgaria. Russia refused to approve this independent action and Alexander III ordered the withdrawal of all Russian officers and advisors in the Bulgarian army. Later in the year Serbia declared war on Bulgaria, on the grounds that the balance of power in the Balkans was upset by Bulgarian unification. The Serbs were heavily defeated but the Bulgarians were stopped in their pursuit by Austrian intervention. In April 1886 the Powers recognized the new state under the ‘personal union’ of Alexander. A major war had been avoided but the 1878 settlement had been undermined.
In August Alexander was kidnapped by Russian officers and bullied into abdicating. The newly elected Bulgarian assembly turned out to be very anti-Russian, opening up the threat of a direct Russian invasion. Yet it was obvious that Austria-Hungary would not allow this to happen. Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary had become allies.
This crisis made the renewal of the Dreikaiserbund impossible. Instead Bismarck negotiated a Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887 though he knew this was a feeble substitute. His attempt at bridge-building between Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed. The Russians felt angry and resentful towards both Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian crisis showed that Austro-Russian rivalry in the Balkans was now the great destabilizing factor in eastern Europe. Bismarck was acutely aware of this fact. An even greater problem (from his point of view) was how to keep France isolated. Would he be able to prevent a Franco-Russian rapprochement? In 1888 the first Russian loan was floated in Paris and the dependence of Russia on the French capital market began.
The fall of Bismarck
In 1888 Emperor William I died and was succeeded by his son Frederick III, Queen Victoria’s son-in-law. But within three months he was dead of throat cancer and his son Wilhelm II became Kaiser. He wished to pursue his own policies both at home and abroad and saw Bismarck as a hindrance. In 1890 he forced his resignation over social policy. Punch saw this as 'dropping the pilot'.
Bismarck’s fall did not immediately change German foreign policy but it opened the way for the transformation of the European system which he had dominated since 1870. His achievements were thrown away in the next decade. German foreign policy became confused and dependent on the Kaiser’s unstable character.
The Dual Entente
The idea was not new as it had been advocated by panslavists and French nationalists, but it remained insignificant so long as Bismarck nursed Russia and encouraged France overseas. As Russo-German relations cooled, the Reinsurance Treaty was allowed to lapse.
This did not mean an alliance was inevitable as there was considerable dislike in Russia of France’s republican constitution. However, the two powers were becoming increasingly close economically and hostile to what they saw as Britain’s expansionism.
In July 1891 the French fleet paid a symbolic visit to Kronstadt and diplomatic notes were exchanged. In August 1892 Russia promised to go to war if France were attacked by Germany alone and in return France promised to come to Russia’s help if she were attached by Germany (but not if she were attacked by Austria-Hungary). This agreement was full of significance for the future: Europe was now on the way to being organized into two armed camps. At the end of 1893 a diplomatic convention was signed (and ratified in 1894) to reinforce the military one. In 1894 Nicholas II paid a state visit to Paris. So secret was this alliance that the public did not become aware of it until 1897 and most French ministers did not know its precise terms until war broke out.
Britain and Turkey
How did Britain come to abandon the support for Turkey that had been the keystone of its policy throughout the 19th century?
The deaths of Alexander of Battenberg in November 1893 and of Alexander III in 1894 eased Russian relations with Bulgaria. In 1895 another Balkan crisis loomed when a series of officially instigated massacres of Armenians took place in Turkey. Public opinion was greatly agitated in Britain though not in the rest of Europe. The British government wished to condemn the massacres but at the same time not allow a repeat of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. Britain had now become thoroughly disillusioned with Abdul Hamid II who had failed to implement the promised reforms. It now seemed morally impossible to defend Turkey. At the same time the old strategic arguments for defending the access to the Mediterranean seemed out of date:
(1) the Straits could no longer be defended successfully against the combined Franco-Russian fleets;On 19 January 1897 the British Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Lord Salisbury spoke in the Lords in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. This speech marked a dramatic reversal of British foreign policy by condemning the entry into the Crimean War.
(2) the route to India could be better secured by maintaining control of Egypt and was no longer dependent on the balance of power in south-east Europe.
‘The parting of the ways was in 1853 when the Emperor Nicholas’s proposals were rejected. Many members of the House will keenly feel the nature of the mistake that was made when I say that we put all our money on the wrong horse.’But this remarkable change in policy did not have an immediate practical outcome. In 1897 Britain was isolated. She was at odds with France over the Sudan and relations with Germany were worsening.
Britain and Germany
By the end of the nineteenth century Kaiser Wilhelm II's unpredictable behaviour was causing great concern in Britain.
In 1893 Britain had protested against German railway building in Asia Minor, which had begun in 1888 when a German syndicate obtained a concession from Turkey.
Germany took the side of Britain’s opponents in colonial disputes and wars. From 1889 Britain and Portugal were at odds over Delagoa Bay (Maputo Bay, Mozambique) which arose when the Portuguese seized the railway running from the bay to the Transvaal. In 1894 Germany sent two warships to) as a demonstration against British pressure on Portugal.
(The dispute was referred to arbitration, and in 1900 Portugal was condemned to pay nearly 1,000,000 pounds in compensation to the shareholders in the railway company.)
On 2 January 1895 news of the Jameson Raid, an excursion by British freebooters into the Transvaal, reached Berlin. On the following day the Kaiser sent a telegram to President Paul Kruger congratulating him on its suppression. British public opinion was outraged.
Bernard Heinrich von Bülow became secretary of state (and chancellor in 1900) and Alfred von Tirpitz (left) became head of the Admiralty.
This marked a new turn in German politics, the abandonment of Bismarck’s contention that Germany was a ‘satiated’ power. It coincided with increased anti-German feeling in Britain as newspapers whipped up a campaign against German goods.
In 1898 Wilhelm visited Abdul Hamid II and secured a Turkish concession to Germany to extend the Berlin-Baghdad Railway to Basra, thus giving Germany access to the Persian Gulf.
During the Boer War Britain’s sense of isolation increased. The one consolation was her naval supremacy which enabled her to ride out world opinion.
The world c. 1900
Was the First World War inevitable?
In some respects the world was more orderly than it had ever been. Much had been done to mitigate the disorder of international competition. Colonial disputes had gone to arbitration and had been peacefully resolved. More questions were decided by arbitration between 1880 and 1900 than in the previous eighty years. Many people believed, with reason, that the world was becoming more peaceful.
There was also acceptance of the need to limit armaments, however difficult this might be to achieve in practice. The first Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded in 1901.
In 1899, at the instigation of Nicholas II, a conference met at the Hague, where it was decided that a permanent court of arbitration should be set up to which disputes could be referred and the International Court was set up in the same year. It was agreed to prohibit some modern weapons such as dum-dum bullets and poison gas.
A second Hague Conference met in 1907.
The enhanced prestige of the United States can be seen in the success of the Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation which ended the Russo-Japanese War in August1905. The treaty recognized Japan’s paramount interest in Korea and marked the formal abandonment by Tsarist Russia of her Far-Eastern dreams.
In 1902 Britain ended its long period of isolation, which the Boer War had so strikingly demonstrated, by entering into an alliance with Japan. It was strictly limited and was inspired by concerns over Russian and German influence in China and Manchuria and was only to last for five years. This gave the Japanese the assurance of Britain’s neutrality if Japan went to war with Russia. But it did not address British concerns about Russian activities in Afghanistan and Tibet.
Relations with France were bad after the Fashoda incident and mutual hostility was inflamed by the Dreyfus affair and the Boer War. But Britain and France also had common concerns over Germany and the British and French Foreign Ministers sought ways to ease hostilities. In 1903 Edward VII visited France and tensions eased. The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 made the need for an agreement even more urgent.
Entente Cordiale was signed.
Britain was allowed to consolidate its hold on Egypt and France was allowed to establish a protectorate over Morocco; Siam would be left an independent buffer between Burma and Indochina This did not, in practice, give Britain a great deal. Nevertheless, it was a diplomatic turning point.