From 1870 to 1890 the German chancellor
Otto von Bismarck dominated European diplomacy. He built a foreign policy
devoted to the diplomatic isolation of France by depriving it of potential
He reasoned that the French would try to take revenge on Germany and regain Alsace and Lorraine, but he knew they could do little without aid from the Austrians or Russians.
In 1873 Bismarck made an alliance, known as the Three Emperors' League (Dreikaiserbund), with Russia and Austria-Hungary.
The System Of Shifting Alliances
Under Bismarck's shrewd hand, Germany kept diplomatic control for twenty years. Bismarck chose his goals carefully and understood the states with which he worked. He made every effort to avoid challenging Britain's interests and to continue isolating France.
As a result, Germany was not surrounded
by enemies. The chancellor kept from alienating Russia while maintaining
his ties with Austria.
In the 1890s, however, the rash actions of the new kaiser, William II, destroyed Germany's favorable position.
He dismissed Bismarck in 1890, took foreign policy in his own hands, and frittered away the diplomatic advantages the chancellor had built up.
France had been attempting to escape from its isolation for some time, and through its loans had begun to make important inroads into Russia, even before Bismarck retired.
When the kaiser allowed the Reinsurance Treaty to lapse, the Russians sought new allies. By 1894 France got what it had wanted for twenty years - a strong ally. The Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary was now confronted by the Dual Alliance of Russia and France. Germany's worst fears had come to pass as it was now encircled by enemies.
Britain Ends Its Isolation
At the end of the nineteenth century Britain found itself involved in bitter rivalries with Russia - both in the Balkans and in the Middle East -and with France in Africa.
During the Boer War, all of the great powers in Europe were anti-British. However, the supremacy of the British fleet helped discourage intervention.
As the new century began, London became concerned that its policy of splendid isolation might need to be abandoned. In these circumstances, the most normal place for Britain to turn would be to Germany.
On the surface, nothing seemed more natural than that these two dominant European powers should adjust their national interests to avoid conflict. From the 1880s to 1901 both sides made several approaches to investigate an "understanding" between the major sea power, Britain, and the strongest land power, Germany.
Tradition and dynastic relations spoke in favor of a closer tie between the two. By 1900, Berlin and London may have competed in economic and imperialistic terms, but they were far from any major strife in any either area.
The two countries could not, however, come together in an alliance. Even though important figures on both sides could see the advantages of an alliance, strong forces worked against this development. German and British interests did not match sufficiently to permit equal gain from an alliance.
The kaiser's numerous bellicose statements
and clumsy actions - such as his meddling in British colonial affairs with
his telegram to South African President Paul Kruger in 1896 - offended
many British leaders. Germany's expanding influence in the Middle East
and the Balkans worried the British as did Germany's tremendous economic
[See Kaiser As Spider: Dutch artist Louis Raemaekers depicted the German kaiser as a spider whose legs reached throughout Europe and whose predatory eye is cast as far away as Baghdad, Algeria, and Morocco.]
Most threatening for London was Germany's plan to build a fleet that would compete with Britain's. In 1900, Germany initiated a huge naval program providing for, within a twenty-year timetable, a fleet strong enough to keep Britain from interfering with German international goals.
The British knew that the German program was aimed directly at them. For the island nation, the supremacy of the Royal Navy was a life-or-death matter. Since food and raw materials had to come by sea, it was crucial that the navy be able to protect British shipping.
Challenged by Germany, Britain looked elsewhere for allies.
In 1904 officials from London and Paris began to settle their outstanding differences and proclaimed the Entente Cordiale ("friendly understanding") setting aside a tradition of hostility going back to the fourteenth century. The Entente, and an alliance with Japan in 1902, ended Britain's policy of diplomatic isolation and brought it into the combination that would be pitted against Germany's Triple Alliance. In 1907 London settled its problems with Russia, thereby establishing the Triple Entente.
The British made no definite military commitments in the agreements with France and Russia. Theoretically they retained freedom of action, but they were now part of the alliance system.
The Balkan Crises
The two rival alliances came to blows over the Balkans, where the interests of Austria-Hungary and Russia directly collided. In that complex area, the forces of local nationalism drew the great powers into a military showdown.
Austria and Russia had long kept a wary eye on each other's policies in southeastern Europe. During the nineteenth century each country had had an obsessive interest in the Balkan holdings of the Ottoman Empire. Neither side could afford for the other to gain too great an advantage in the area.
Throughout the last part of the nineteenth century the two had occasionally disagreed over issues involving Macedonia, railroads, and boundary revisions.
In 1908 a crisis erupted that threatened to draw Europe into war. The issue that increased hostility was the Dual Monarchy's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Austro-Hungarian monarchy had administered the two areas since the 1878 Congress of Berlin, so the annexation actually changed very little. But the Slavs perceived the annexation as humiliating to them and their "protector," Russia.
The fact that the Russians, through an ill-considered plan, had initiated the train of events that led to the annexation made the whole affair doubly frustrating for the Slavs.
Bosnia and Herzegovina were annexed, but the Russians never got their part of the bargain. Serbia was outraged by the incorporation of more Slavs into the Habsburg domain and expected its Slavic, Orthodox protector, Russia, to do something about it.
The Russians had been badly bruised in their war with Japan and the Revolution of 1905. Aside from making threatening noises, they could do little, especially in the face of Germany's support for Austria-Hungary.
Austro-Hungarian interests in the Balkans were primarily concerned with defense and keeping Serbia under control.
The Dual Monarchy was experiencing serious domestic strains as the multinational empire limped along under the terms of the renegotiated Ausgleich. Austro-Hungarian pretensions to great power status increasingly outdistanced its ability to play that role.
Germany's motives in the Balkans were largely strategic in the long term and diplomatic in the short term. The Germans envisioned a Berlin-based political and economic zone stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Persian Gulf.
Berlin could not afford to alienate its Austrian ally through lukewarm support.
After 1908 tensions remained high in the Balkans. The Austrians looked to increase their advantage, knowing they had the full support of Germany. Serbia searched for revenge, while Russia found itself backed into a corner.
The Russians in the future would be forced to act strongly and encourage aggressive policies on the part of their Balkan allies or lose forever their position of prestige.
The 1908 crisis changed relatively few of the major features of the competition for influence in the Balkans, except to limit further the major powers' options.
In 1912 Serbia and its neighbors, especially Greece and Bulgaria, formed an alliance with the objective of expelling Turkey from Europe. The First Balkan War began later in the year and came to a quick end with the defeat of the Turks.
Each of the Balkan allies had its own particular goals in mind in fighting the Ottomans. When the great powers stepped in to maintain the balance, problems arose.
Serbia had fought for a seaport and thought it had gained one with the defeat of the Turks. However, the Italians and Austrians blocked Serbia's access to the Adriatic by overseeing the creation of Albania in the Treaty of London of 1913.
Denied their goals, the Serbs turned on their former ally, the Bulgarians, and demanded a part of their spoils from the first war.
Bulgaria refused and, emboldened by its successes in the first war, attacked its former allies, starting the Second Balkan War.
The Serbs were in turn joined by the Romanians and the Turks. The Bulgarians were no match for the rest of the Balkans and signed a peace which turned over most of the territory that they had earlier gained. The Turks retained only a precarious toehold in Europe, the small pocket from Adrianople to Constantinople.
Had the great powers found a way to place a fence around the Balkans and allow the squabbling nations to fight their miniwars in isolation, then the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 would have had little significance. As it was, however, they added to the prevailing state of tension.
The two competing alliances effectively tied their policies to the narrow constraints of the Balkans. In effect, the tail wagged the dog, as the alliances reacted to every flareup in the turbulent peninsula.
By the end of 1913 no permanent solution had been found to the Balkan problems. Austria was more fearful than ever of Serbia's expansionist desires. Serbian ambitions had grown larger since its territory had doubled as a result of the recent wars.
The Serbian prime inister declared: "The first round is won: now we must prepare the second against Austria." Russia's dreams of Balkan grandeur had not been blocked but only interrupted. The rest of Europe lay divided.
Assassination At Sarajevo
The spark that set off World War I was struck on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand.
The archduke and his wife were visiting the Bosnian town of Sarajevo which his realm had recently annexed. While they were driving through the narrow streets in their huge touring car, a nineteen-year-old Bosnian student named Gavrilo Princip, one of seven youthful terrorists along the route, shot them.
Princip had been inspired by propaganda advocating the creation of a greater Serbia and assisted by Serbian officers serving in a secret organization.
The direct participation of the Serbian government was not proved; even so, the Belgrade authorities were likely to have been involved, at least indirectly.
The legal details of the case were lost in Vienna's rush to put an end to the problem of Serbia. Count Leopold von Berchtold, the foreign minister, believed that the assassination in Bosnia justified crushing the anti-Austrian propaganda and terrorism coming from the Serbs.
The kaiser felt that everything possible must be done to prevent Germany's only reliable ally from being weakened, and so he assured the Austrians of his full support.
Berchtold received a blank check from Germany. Vienna wanted a quick, local Austro-Serbian war, and Germany favored quick action to forestall Russian intervention.
On July 23 the Austro-Hungarian foreign
ministry presented an ultimatum
to the Serbs.
Expecting the list of demands to be turned down, Berchtold demanded unconditional acceptance within forty-eight hours.
On July 25 the Austro-Hungarian government announced that Serbia's reply, which was conciliatory, was not satisfactory.
The Austrian authorities immediately mobilized their armed forces.
The Alliances' Inevitable War
The Germans, having second thoughts, urged their ally to negotiate with Russia, which was anxiously following developments.
Russia realized that if the Austrians succeeded in humbling the Serbs, Russia's position in the Balkans would suffer irreparably.
The French, in the meantime, assured the Russians of their full cooperation and urged full support for Serbia. The British unsuccessfully advised negotiation.
Europe had reached a point of no return: the Austrians had committed themselves to the task of removing a serious opponent, and the Russians could not permit this removal to happen. Neither side would back down, and each had allies ready to come to its aid.
Fearful that Serbia would escape from his clutches, Berchtold succeeded on July 27 - thanks in part to deception - in convincing the Habsburg emperor that war was the only way out. On the following day the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war against Serbia.
As the possibilities of a general European war loomed, Berlin sent several frantic telegrams to Vienna. The German ambassador was instructed to tell Berchtold that "as an ally we must refuse to be drawn into a world conflagration because Austria does not respect our advice."
Had the Germans spoken to their ally
in such tones a month earlier, war might have been avoided. But Austria's
belligerence moved the Russians to act. The tsar ordered mobilization on July 30.
Germany was caught in a dilemma that Bismarck would never have allowed.
Surrounded by potential enemies, the Germans had to move decisively or face defeat. The Russian mobilization threatened them, because in the event of war on the eastern front, there would also be war on the western front.
The best plan to Berlin, one that had been worked out since 1905, seemed to be to launch a lightning attack against France - which could mobilize faster that Russia - crush France, and then return to meet Russia, which would be slower to mobilize.
To allow Russian mobilization to proceed without action would jeopardize this plan. In the wake of the crisis, the Germans set into effect their long-planned strategy to gain European dominance.
On July 31 Germany sent ultimata to Russia and France, demanding cessation of mobilization from the former and a pledge of neutrality from the latter. Failing to receive satisfactory replies, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 and on France two days later.
On August 2, the German ambassador in Brussels delivered an ultimatum to the Belgian government announcing his country's intention to send troops through Belgium, in violation of the 1839 Neutrality Treaty. The Belgian cabinet refused to grant permission and appealed to the Triple Entente for help.
A majority of the British cabinet did not want war, but with the news of the German ultimatum to Belgium, the tide turned.
Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, sent an ultimatum to Germany demanding that Belgian neutrality be respected. Germany refused, and on August 4, Great Britain declared war.
Because Germany and Austria-Hungary were not waging a defensive war, Italy declined to carry out its obligations under the Triple Alliance and for a time remained neutral. In the latter part of August, Japan joined the allies. Turkey, fearing Russia, threw in its lot with the Central Powers.
In the last days of peace, diplomats tried desperately to avert general war. Through confusion, fear, and loss of sleep, the nervous strain among them was almost unbearable. Many broke down and wept when it became apparent they had failed.
Grey himself noted in his autobiography that one evening, just before the outbreak of the war, he watched the streetlights being lit from his office window and remarked: "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
World War I
Although the terrible struggle that racked the world from 1914 to 1918 was fought mainly in Europe, it is rightly called the First World War. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries European powers had competed across the globe; however, never had so many fighters and such enormous resources been brought together in a single conflict.
Altogether twenty-seven nations became belligerents, ranging the globe from Japan to Canada and from Argentina to South Africa to Australia. The Central Powers - German, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey - mobilized 21 million men. The Allies eventually called 40 million men to arms, including 12 million Russians.
The two sides were more equally matched than the numbers would indicate, however. Since the Russian divisions were often poorly equipped and ineffectively used, the Allies' apparent advantage was not so great as numbers would indicate.
In addition, in the German army the Central Powers boasted superb generalship and discipline. Another advantage was that the Central Powers fought from a central position and were able to transfer troops quickly and efficiently to various fronts.
The Allies had the advantages of greater resources of finance and raw materials. Britain maintained its naval dominance and could draw on its empire for support. In addition, because Germany was effectively blockaded, the United States, even though officially neutral for most of the war, served as a major source of supplies for the Allies.
The warring nations went into battle in
a confident mood. Each side was
sure of its strength and felt it had prepared carefully. Each nation's propaganda machine delivered reassuring messages of guaranteed victory. All expected that the war would soon be over, concluded in a few decisive battles.
It was generally believed that the war would be over by Christmas. [See Southeastern The First Two Years Of War
All of the general staffs had been refining their war plans for years. The Germans knew that Allied naval supremacy would cut them off from needed sources abroad. They realized that they were potentially surrounded and that they should strike a quick knockout blow to end the war.
Following the plan devised by Chief of the General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen, the Germans aimed to push the Belgians aside and drive rapidly south into France.
The plan then called for the German forces to wheel west of Paris, outflank the French forces, and drive them toward Alsace-Lorraine, where they would be met by another German army. Within six weeks, the French would be destroyed, caught between the western hammer and the eastern anvil.
Meanwhile, a small German force would be holding the presumably slow-moving Russians on the eastern front, awaiting the arrival via the excellent German rail system of the victorious western forces. The plan nearly worked.
The Germans marched according to the plan until they got so close to Paris that they could see the top of the Eiffel Tower.
They were hurled back by a bold French offensive through a gap that opened between their armies in the First Battle of the Marne, fought between September 5 and 12. With the assistance of a small British expeditionary force and Parisian taxi drivers providing transportation, the French then marched north in a race with the Germans to reach and control the vital ports along the English Channel. After much desperate fighting, the enemies established battle positions that stabilized, creating the "western front."
This solid line of opposing trenches, which stretched from the Channel to near Nancy, was the scene for a grisly new war of attrition.
By the end of 1914 all sides knew that they were trapped in a new type of war, one of horrible consequences. Single battles claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the toll during the first few months of the conflict ran as high as one and one-half million dead and wounded.
In 1915 the British attempted a major campaign to force open the Dardanelles, closed by Turkey when it joined the Central Powers.
This plan, attributed to Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, was designed to open up the sea route to Russia, which was badly in need of war supplies, and to take the pressure off the western front.
After heroic and costly attacks, Allied Australian and New Zealand troops, known as Anzacs, were forced to withdraw from their landing positions on the Gallipoli peninsula in European Turkey.
Another major Allied setback in 1915 was the defeat of the Russian forces in Poland. More than 1,200,000 Russians were killed and wounded, and the Germans took nearly 900,000 prisoners. Although Russia somehow remained in the war, fighting well against the Dual Monarchy, it was no longer a concern for the Germans. These defeats generated rising criticism against the tsar's government, and Russian morale deteriorated.
Serbia was the next Allied victim. In September 1915, Bulgaria, still aching from its defeat in the Second Balkan War, entered the war on the side of the Central Powers.
Surrounded by enemies, Serbia was helpless, and resistance was quickly crushed. The Austrians had finally gained their goal of the previous summer, but in the context of the continental tragedy, this achievement no longer seemed significant.
The Allies' strategy on the western front was to restrict attacks in France to intermittent nibbling, thus saving manpower and at the same time concentrating on their naval blockade. Denied badly needed imports, it was assumed, the German war effort would be seriously weakened. Countering this tactic, the German high command launched a massive offensive against the strategic fortress of Verdun in the spring of 1916.
This forced the Allies to throw hundreds of thousands of men into battle. The slaughter brought on by massed artillery and infantry charges between the trenches was horrible. The total loss of wounded and dead from this battle came to some 700,000 men.
To ease the pressure against Verdun, the British army began an offensive along the Somme River along the western front.
The attackers' losses were catastrophic: 60 percent of the officers and 40 percent of the men became casualties the first day of the battle.
Despite these awesome figures - which included the British firing 2 million shells at the first battle of the Somme - the attacks continued for three months without any substantial gains. Total German losses at the Somme were about 450,000, while the British and French lost about 600,000 men.
The only major naval engagement of the
war, the Battle of Jutland (May
31-June 1, 1916), reaffirmed British control of the seas.
The Germans maneuvered brilliantly and took risks. They could afford to gamble, because defeat would in no way worsen their existing position. The British fleet, on the other hand, had to act cautiously and absorbed greater losses. However the Germans retreated to their base and remained there for the rest of the war. ^3
On the eastern front in 1916 the Russians continued their generally successful campaigns against the Austro-Hungarian forces. But the Germans were always there to save their allies from destruction. Romania, impressed by the Russian victories, finally joined the Allies and launched an attack on the Hungarians. After an initial success, the Romanians were soon knocked out of the war by a joint German-Bulgarian invasion.
Total War And The Home Front
At the close of 1916, after more than two years of fighting, neither side was close to victory. Instead, the war had turned into a dreary contest of stamina, a far cry from the glories promised by the propaganda of 1914. War was no longer fought between armies, it was fought between states and every component within the state participated. ^4
On the home front, rationing was instituted to ensure sufficient supplies for soldiers at the front. As men went off to fight, women took over their jobs in the workplace. Intensive propaganda campaigns encouraged civilians to buy more bonds and make more weapons.
Nations unleashed a barrage of propaganda inciting total hatred of the enemy, belief in the righteousness of the cause, and unquestioned support for the war effort.
Civil liberties suffered, and in some cases distinguished citizens were thrown into prison for opposing the war effort. In Britain, for example, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell was imprisoned for a short time for his pacifist views.
Governments took over control of their national economies, gambling everything on a victory in which the loser would pay all the expenses incurred in the war. The various states outlawed strikes and rigidly controlled currencies and foreign trade.
At the beginning of the war, all
was flag-waving and enthusiasm. The international socialist movement, whose
policy it was to promote international proletarian unity, fell victim to
the rabid patriotism that infected the continent.
Workers of one country were encouraged to go out and kill workers of the enemy country in the name of the state.
There was much idealism, sense of sacrifice, and love of country. At first there was no understanding of the horror, death, and disaster that comes with modern, industrialized war.
By the end of 1916 a deep yearning for
peace dominated Europe. Sensing
this mood, leaders on both sides put forth peace feelers. But these half-hearted overtures achieved nothing.
Propaganda was used effectively to continue the war and support for it.
The populations of the warring states were made to believe that their crusade was somehow divinely inspired. In reality, the Dual Monarchy and France fought for survival; Russia, German, and Italy all fought to improve their respective positions in Europe; while Britain fought for Belgium and a renewed balance of power on the continent.
Allied Fatigue And American Entry
In 1917 British and French military strength
reached its highest point,
only to fall precipitously.
Allied commanders were hopeful that the long-planned breakthrough might be accomplished, but a large-scale French attack was beaten back, with huge losses.
The growing effectiveness of the German submarine menace deepened Allied frustration. By 1917 Allied shipping losses had reached dangerous proportions. In three months 470 British ships fell victim to torpedoes. Britain had no more than six weeks' supply of food on hand, and the supply situation became critical for the Allies.
As it turned out, the very weapon that seemed to doom their cause, the submarine, was the source of the Allies' salvation: Germany's decision to use unrestricted submarine warfare brought the United States openly into the war.
The Americans had declared their neutrality in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson announced that the American people "must be impartial in thought as well as in action." The events of the next two years showed that this would not be the case. American sentiment was overwhelmingly with the Allies from the first.
France's help to the colonies in the American Revolution was warmly recalled. Britain and America were closely tied by language, literature, and democratic institutions.
Because Britain cut off communications between Germany and the United States, British propaganda and management of the war news dominated public opinion.
These attitudes were reinforced by the fact that the United States had made a substantial investment in the Allied war effort. As the war progressed it became apparent that the British blockade would permit American trade to be carried on only with the Allies.
Before long, American factories and farmers were producing weapons and food solely for Great Britain and France. Industry expanded and began to enjoy a prosperity dependent on continued Allied purchases. Between 1914 and 1916 American exports to the Allies quadrupled. Allied bonds totaling about $1.5 billion were sold in the United States in 1915 and 1916. It was quite apparent to the Germans that there was little neutrality on the economic front in the United States.
The immediate cause of the U.S. entry into the war on the Allied side was the German submarine campaign.
Blockaded by the British, Germany decided to retaliate by halting all shipping to the Allies. Its submarine campaign began in February 1915, and one of the first victims was the luxury liner Lusitania, torpedoed with the loss of more than a thousand lives, including one hundred Americans. This tragedy aroused public opinion in the United States.
In the fall of 1916 Wilson, campaigning with the slogan "he kept us out of war," was reelected to the presidency. Discovery of German plots to involve Mexico in the war against the United States and more submarine sinkings finally drove Wilson to ask Congress to declare war against Germany on April 6, 1917.
Submarine warfare and a wide range of other causes brought the president to the point of entering the war. Once in the conflict, however, he was intent on making the American sacrifice one "to make the world safe for democracy." Wilson's lofty principles caused a great surge of idealism among Americans.
With the aid of U.S. troops, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme Allied commander, began a counterattack. The badly beaten and continually harassed German troops fell back in rapid retreat. By the end of October, German forces had been driven out of France and Allied armies were advancing into Belgium. The war of fixed positions separated by "no man's land" was over.
The Allies had smashed the trench defenses and were now in open country.
Already on October 1 the German high command urged the kaiser to sue for peace, and three days later the German chancellor sent a note to President Wilson seeking an end to hostilities. Wilson responded that peace was not possible as long as Germany was ruled by an autocratic regime.
The German chancellor tried to keep the
monarchy by instituting certain liberal reforms, but it was too late. Revolution
broke out in may parts of Germany. The kaiser abdicated and a republic
At five o'clock on the morning of November 11, 1918, in a dining car in the Compiegne Forest, the German delegates signed the peace terms presented by Marshal Foch. At eleven o'clock the same day hostilities were halted. Everywhere except in Germany, the news was received with an outburst of joy.