What were the geopolitical realities of Europe at the end of the 19th century? What alliances were the result? What destabilized the alliance system? Between 1870 and 1914, European states were locked in a competition within Europe for territorial dominance and control. In the years 1871 to 1914, European diplomacy involved an increasingly precarious balance of power. The politics of geography combined with rising nationalist movements in southern Europe and the Ottoman Empire to create an increasingly confrontationist mood among Europe’s great powers.
The European balance of power, so carefully crafted by Bismarck, began to disintegrate with his departure from office in 1890. By 1914, a Europe divided into two camps was no longer the sure guarantee of peace that it had been generation earlier. By 1871, Europe consisted of five great powers, knows as the Big Five; Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, as well as a number of significant lesser powers, such as Italy. National boundaries appeared fixed, with no great power aspiring to territorial expansion at the expense of its neighbors.
But the unification of Italy and Germany had legitimated nationalist aspirations of many European peoples and minorities. The two great unifications had also legitimized the militarism needed to achieve national self determination. The newly unified Germany, under Bismarck, led the way in forging new alliance system based on a realistic assessment of power politics within Europe. in 1873, he joined together the three most conservative members of the Big Five; Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, into the Three Emperors’ League.
The key features of the Three Emperors’ League were consultation over mutual interests and friendly neutrality. One of Bismarck’s goals in forming this alliance was to banish his worst military and diplomatic nightmare, which was a two front war that was directed against Germany. The League would help do this by isolation France diplomatically. One of the driving factors behind Bismarck’s creation of the Three Emperors’ League was the weakness of the Great Powers. Germany had two vulnerabilities were that Germany had only one sea coast, which was the Baltic Coast on the north, and the threat of encirclement.
Since Germany only had one seacoast, the German navy and merchant fleet could be easily bottled up, cutting off German trade and access to key natural resources. Germany’s central location meant the possibility of being surrounded by potential enemies. France hated Germany after its loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Bismarck had to find some way to prevent France from allying with Russia. Austria-Hungary had two weaknesses that in reality functioned as one, its size and its ethnic diversity. Austria-Hungary was Europe’s second largest state and had many ethnic groups in it.
It lacked a sense of unity, and in the world of increasing desire of national self determination, Austria-Hungary seemed on the verge of splitting apart by centrifugal force. It was also partially industrialized and remained agriculturally backward. Out of all Europe’s great powers, it seemed the one most likely to collapse from social and political pressures. Although no longer one of Europe’s great powers, the Ottoman Empire, had many weaknesses which threatened the peace of Europe.
The Ottoman Empire was militarily weak, was politically feeble, one the verge of bankruptcy, and was plagued by increasing social unrest and a variety of nationalist bids for independence from the vast array of national and ethnic groups in its borders. Policies of the great powers toward the Ottoman Empire took two positions, to keep it alive in its current weakened form rather than seeing some other countries get parts of it, and to pick it apart for a countries own nationalist or imperialist interests. Britain had lopped off Egypt, Aden, Cyprus, and the Sudan.
Russia had grabbed the Ottoman lands around the Black and Caspian Seas. Germany had no taken land but had financed the Baghdad Railway, insinuating itself into Ottoman Empire economic affairs. All of the Ottoman possessions were more likely to cause trouble. The Volatile lands of the Balkan Peninsula, riven as they were with nationalist sentiments and religious hatreds, appeared most likely to upset Europe’s peace. The system of alliances formed between and among European powers was guided by two realities, tensions between France and Germany, and Russia’s obsession with the Straits.
France had lost its dominance on the Continent by its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the devastating loss of Alsace-Lorraine. France felt isolated and in need of powerful alliances to counterweight Germany’s power. Russia for centuries had been obsessed with free access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean via the straits, Dardanelles and Bosporus. Possession of the Straits by the Ottoman Empire meant Russia’s fleet could at any time be bottled up. Russia’s foreign policy had for centuries focused on the Straits, and its slow nibbling away at Ottoman lands always had had this goal in mind.
With the crumbly weakness of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century, Russia believed that the time it could control the straits was near at hand. In addition to grabbing Ottoman lands, the Russians also encouraged pan-Slavic nationalist movement in the Balkan Peninsula. The Russians had a couple of motives, to control the straits by a friendly, Slavic satellite state would be nearly as good as outright Russian ownership of the Straits, and beyond the straits, Russia saw a chance to increase its power in the region at the expense of the two diminishing empires, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian.
In 1822, Italy was invited to join the Dual Alliance, eventually forming the Triple alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. This alliance would survive until the outset of World War I, when Italy refused to honor it. In 1915, Italy would join the allies Britain and France. Germany, was still led by Bismarck, signed various treaties with Russia, Austria- Hungary, and Italy. He also established friendly relations with Britain. Bismarck was a supremely skilled diplomat who served his Fatherland well. In 1888, Germany got a brash new Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who resented Bismarck.
Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck in 1890, appointing less capable, compliant foreign ministers who would do the Kaiser’s will in foreign affairs with little question. As a result, German diplomacy was conducted far less capably. The Reinsurance Treaty with Russia was allowed to lapse. In 1894, Russia allied itself with France. by this point, France, seeking to break out of its German-imposed isolation, had also made an alliance with Britain. With the Anglo-Russian Understanding of 1907, Russia, France, and Britain became the Triple Entente.
This would be the second alliance that would take Europe into World War I was now in place. In 1908, Austria-Hungary kicked off another Balkan Crisis when it unilaterally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, two Turkish provinces it had occupied since 1878. Serbia was furious, believing that these mostly Slavic provinces with lots of Serbs should belong to Serbia. Russia backed Serbia’s demands. But Russia was unwilling to risk a general European war over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Under German pressure, Russia backed down.
The events helped further fuel Germany’s worst military nightmare, which was a possible two-front war with France and Russia. A pair of Balkan Wars began in 1912. The precipitating event was when Italy and Turkey went to war over possession of Tripoli in North Africa. While Turkey was distracted, the Balkan states took advantage and attacked. The First Balkan War occurred on October 1912 to May 1913. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro went to war with the Ottoman Empire in an effort to grab Macedonia. It was ended by the Treaty of London in 1913.
The Second Balkan War happened on June to August 1913. It arrayed Serbia, Greece, and Romania against Bulgaria over how to divide up Macedonia. It was ended by the Treaty of Bucharest on 1913. In the midst of all this, in January 1913, a group of reforming Turkish rebels, the “Young Turks,” staged a coup d’etat which overthrew the government of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Led by Mustafa Kemal, who chose the name Ataturk, the rebels replaced the corrupt Ottoman government with a modern democracy. It was the beginnings of modern, democratic Turkey.
Peace was restored to the Balkans by the autumn of 1913, but it was a precarious peace at best. Russia and Serbia were still closely allied to one another. The Serbs bitterly resented Austro-Hungarian control of Bosnia-Herzegovina and this anger festered. Britain, secure in its island, also had reason to fear war. Britain had a powerful navy and highly productive industry, but industrialization had come at the expense of agriculture. Britain relied on imported food, and a war with the powerful German navy might threaten those food supplies.