To what extent was the alliance system responsible for the outbreak of World War One in 1914
To what extent was the alliance system responsible for the outbreak of World War One in 1914?
In the Treaty of Versailles after World War One, the Triple Entente immediately placed blame on Germany's aggression and scheming tactics for the outbreak of war. However, over time, the causes behind the war began to become more obviously complex. One of the most commonly citied reasons is the alliance system. Prior to the war, the countries of Europe had formed complex alliances and, with their empirical statuses, this apparently created a chain that a single trigger (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) would set into inevitable motion. But how important was the pre-1914 alliance system in causing World War One?
Firstly, we must come to understand exactly what the alliance system comprised of. Indeed, many of these 'alliances' were not really alliances at all, but mutual agreements in relation to trade or colonial territories. One of the most prominent and important alliances was that of Russia to Serbia. Russia had promised to protect the Serbian people and their rights. Austria-Hungary had control over areas where Balkan people were prominent, conflicting Russian policy and ultimately leading to war. Another vital alliance was that of Austria-Hungary and Germany. In July, 1914, Germany had given a Carte Blanche to Austria-Hungary, promising unconditional support in case of war. This encouraged Austro-Hungarian aggressive policies, contributing to the problems in the Balkans. France and Russia had numerous agreements, many financially based. These treaties turned anti-German as war became more and more plausible, and tied Russia and France together. The final alliance that needs mention is that of Britain and Belgium. The British public saw it as their duty to protect the Belgian people1 and, following the execution of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, the British Government saw it as their duty to follow their agreement on protecting the neutrality of the country and joined the war.
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The effects of the alliance system are apparent to the observer. The agreements between France and Russia left Germany encircled. Despite claims that this was purely for defence purposes2, the German government believed that it was necessary to create the Schlieffen Plan. This was a plan designed in order to remove the threat of French forces prior to the mobilization of Russia. Immediately, the alliance system had set German mindset into one of inevitable warfare. The numerous alliances also caused rivalry and tension between nations. In the Balkans, Austria-Hungary felt the need to display her dominance. Italy had broken free from her control and the peoples of South-East Europe were becoming more nationalistic. In particular, the recently formed Serbia displayed to the other Balkan people that independence was possible. Russian support worried Austria-Hungary. Bosnia was annexed in 1908, angering both Russia and the Serbians. However, this annexation was only possible as Austria-Hungary believed Germany was on her side due to the Moroccan Crisis of 1905 (n.b. This was before the Carte Blanche 1914). Many of Austria-Hungary's aggressive policies stemmed from the belief in German support. Both wanted empirical status; Germany to gain an empire, Austria-Hungary to preserve one. Their alliances allowed policies that were openly aggressive to take place, helping to spark tension and aggression. In particular, Russia felt the need to protect the Serbian's interests, and so when Austria-Hungary attacked in 1914, they saw it as their duty to follow their promises and join the war effort. From all this, we may deduce that the alliances set up chains, through which war would become increasingly more likely.
The accumulation of these agreements was the July Crisis of 1914. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an ultimatum3 was sent on the 23rd of July to the Serbian government by Austria-Hungary. It stated that Serbia had to condemn all movements of independence and punish numerous citizens, including various important ministers. If this was not complied to, the Serbian administration would have to step down. They had forty eight hours to comply. Serbia refused. With the German Carte Blanche to support them, Austria-Hungary declared war. Russia, having been disgraced on the political stage once before by allowing the Bosnian annexation, pledged to aid Serbia and fight against the Austro-Hungarians. Fearing Russian mobilization, Germany launched the Schlieffen Plan, bringing France into the war. By moving through Belgium, Britain said they had broken their pledge of neutrality and joined France and Russia, relying on the Entente Cordiale4 to create the Triple Entente. In this way, we can see that the alliance system did have big implications.
However, is it really true to say that the alliance system was the principle cause behind World War One's outbreak? Other factors were just as, if not more, important. Austria-Hungary and Germany both wanted a war. As previously mentioned, Germany wanted to increase her empire, and thus implemented 'Weltpolitik', an aggressive foreign policy that aimed to increase the German Empire, particularly in Morocco and other parts of Africa. Furthermore, war would serve as a perfect distraction for domestic problems; the SPD, the German socialist party, was rising in popularity, and the Kaiser was losing the power he once had. A war could silence the SPD's complaints temporarily and provide good propaganda for the Kaiser. Likewise, Austria-Hungary also wanted a war as a way of demonstrating her power on the political stage and maintain her rapidly shrinking empire. It might also be said that other nations wanted a war; Russian pride had been hurt by the Bosnian Annexation and she herself was experiencing domestic problems, with the new industrialist class coming into existence and power slowly working its way from the Czar to the people5, as well as a huge growth in socialist secret groups6. France wanted land that had been taken by Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s. Britain, who had not been involved in any major European conflicts since the Napoleonic Wars, wanted to maintain the empire and demonstrate her continuing dominance over the other empiric powers. Clearly, war would have been favourable to some of the European nations, if not all of them. The alliance system itself was not comprised of binding agreements that had to be followed. Not long after the war started, Italy, who had originally pledged to aid German-Austro-Hungarian forces, broke their promise and joined France. Other 'alliances' were simply sorting out territory in the empires; Britain had numerous agreements with Russia and France relating to boundaries, but very few actual alliances. Any anti-German sentiments in the alliance system appeared after they had been formulated, especially after incidents such as the Moroccan Crises. It is not right, therefore, to place the entirety of the blame of World War One on the alliance system.
And so, how important was the alliance system in causing the outbreak of war in 1914? It is fair to say that the alliance system operated on two levels. Firstly, the Carte Blanche from Germany to Austria-Hungary encouraged aggressive foreign policies, leading to the attacks on Serbia and angering other nations. Secondly, the alliance system acted as an excuse for various nations to engage in war whilst hoping for support from their 'allies'. However, the most important cause of World War One is not the alliance system, but Russian pride. If the Russians had not agreed to fight with Serbia, Germany would not have executed the Schlieffen Plan, thus France and Britain would never have been involved. Therefore, the alliance system acted more as an excuse for the European powers' actions, rather than act as a cause.
1 Telegram August 1st 1914, Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Office) to Sir E. Goschen, No. 256
5 Seton-Watson, Hugh; The Decline of Imperial Russia, Butler & Tanner LTD, 1964 (pg. 118)
6 Seton-Watson, Hugh; The Decline of Imperial Russia, Butler & Tanner LTD, 1964 (pg. 155)
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This is a well balanced and thorough response that stays focused on the question throughout and demonstrates excellent knowledge. The author should avoid asking rhetorical questions and advance judgments at the start of paragraphs instead. 5 Stars.