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To what extent did the alliance system cause the First World War?

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The alliance system alone did not cause the First World War. It was the result of a combination of factors which together shaped a European climate which made the outbreak of a war inevitable. Assuming that the alliance system was one of the factors involved, we must also assess events within Europe which actually allowed the creation of the alliance system. The primary origins of the First World War lie in the emergence of nationalism and the new prominent power Germany, the Great Powers’ desire for colonisation and, ironically, a desperate longing for security which triggered the arms race and the alliance system. Germany’s foreign and naval policies, combined with other European developments, elicited an Entente of “defensive coalition” which, also because the terms of it were secret, heightened tensions within Europe. Therefore the alliance system was only an unsuccessful response to European developments which were foreshadowing an eventual war.

Whilst trying to inhibit war, the alliance system actually increased the likeliness of it and during later stages, when mobilisation had begun, destroyed the chance of peace within Europe. But it cannot be described as the cause of the First World War as such because other factors which were operating, and without which an alliance system would not have developed in the first place, were so severe that a war would have been probable with or without the alliance system. An important factor which we must assess as a factor of World War One is the legacy of the creation of the new German Empire which was established in 1871. The distribution of European Power was altered significantly and Bismarck sought to stabilize Europe around the new German Empire. He was aware of France’s inevitable desire for revenge and for the return of Alsace-Lorraine. Through skilful diplomacy he aimed to isolate France and possibly embroil her in conflict with Great Britain by encouraging her colonial expansion in Africa and Asia.

But he could not extinguish France’s resentment over defeat in war, her loss of territory and the manner by which she had been outmanoeuvred by Bismarck both diplomatically and militarily. Bismarck was aware, that this hostility would remain and France would use any opportunity to take revenge. In addition, Bismarck’s alliance with Austria-Hungary alienated Russia and paved the way for Franco-Russian understanding. Without taking much action, but just by being created, the German Empire established the preconditions for an alliance system which later contributed to Germany’s perception of being encircled. Although the Great Powers were interested in preserving peace, their clashing aims and interests were bound to create conflict.

In some regions their objectives clashed violently and neither power was prepared to see its influence weakened to the profit of the other. An important example of this was the Great Powers’ determination to win colonies. This resulted from a policy which was marked by the striving of the Great Powers for economic security. It caused the European governments to value the securing of markets and raw materials. The scramble for colonies in Africa and elsewhere ensued. The intensified international trading competition had both economic and ideological impacts as it became a symbol for power and Britain later found itself rivalling Germany in both trade and power.

According to Fischer, German history from 1871-1914 led to war. It is certainly true that Germany’s history did steer Europe towards war to some extent and if perhaps not so much German history itself did it, the consequences of it and the reaction of the European Powers to it caused the First World War. By 1914 the German Empire was clearly dominating Europe economically. She generated more electricity than France, Britain and Italy combined. Her dramatic economic expansion was bound to be viewed with alarm by Germany’s neighbours, particularly by France. By 1910 Germany produced three times as much iron as France, four times as much steel and seven times as much coal. The German government therefore based its policy on the assumption that France would use any opportunity to seek profit from any
crisis involving Germany by invading Alsace-Lorraine. Up to 1890 Bismarck’s policy of French containment minimised this threat but his successors were not as skilful as him and were not successful in continuing this policy.

Due to Britain’s large overseas territory and influence at the time, considerable jealousy and hostility was generated within Germany, who wanted to be a World Power at the same scale as Britain. These intentions of becoming a world leading power and taking full part in world affairs were symbolised by her naval construction. But this strategy proved to be misconceived as it stirred Britain’s fierce antagonism and strengthened forces of opposition to German ambitions. The foundation of the perception of the Great Powers’ that they would have to respond to a malign attempt at disturbing the balance of power (by forming the alliance system) lay in Germany’s naval expansion, colonial ambitions and outspoken diplomacy. Furthermore, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the German government held the key to the situation when an envoy had been sent to Berlin by Austria-Hungary to seek assurance of German support. Germany could have localized the conflict and forced restraint on Austria-Hungary and on Russia. But she chose to risk a general war instead by promising full support to her Austrian ally.

When evaluating the causes of the First World War we must also assess the importance of nationalism and the Balkan crisis. Like with so many other causes of the First World War, it had greater effects than it would have had if it had been dealt with in a different manner. It was a combination of Slav nationalism, other developments and events which allowed it to have such significant consequences. If the Hungarians had not pursued such an antagonistic racial policy, the Serbs would perhaps never have emerged as such a critical force in the Balkans. Also, if the actions taken by Italy and Austria-Hungary against this threat had been different, then the European climate might have been very different,too. Italy’s victory over Turkish forces in North Africa in late 1911, the subsequent seizure of the Dodecanes Islands combined with bombardments and naval raids on the Dardanelles paved the way for a Balkan explosion with possibly catastrophic consequences.

The Italian Prime Minister, Giolotti, was aware of this before the event, as his speech shows in which he asserts: “And what if, after we have attacked Turkey, the Balkans begin to stir? And what if a Balkan war provokes a clash between the power blocks and a European war?” If Austria had not desperately tried to cling on to power and not asked for support of Germany, then perhaps World War One could have been avoided. But on the other hand Austria’s actions are understandable because Serbian ambitions could only be realised at the expense of the territorial unity of the Habsburg Empire, which would have relegated the Monarchy to the status of a small power. Although the Balkan crisis was unlikely to be resolved without war at some stage, we cannot say what would have happened without the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, if Austria-Hungary had had no pretext for declaring war on Serbia in 1914. Or if Germany had not felt that it must “retain in Austria a true partner”.

The First World War was the result of a combination of factors and it is difficult to evaluate the importance of all developments, actions, events and conditions involved. The alliance system is partly responsible for the outbreak of the Great War. Although the intensions of the alliance makers were good and defensive this was not always apparent to the other Powers, especially because the terms of the treaties were kept secret. This raised suspicion and tension and even intensified the feeling of insecurity of those not involved. The establishment of the network of alliances developed into a vicious circle where each alliance paved the way for another one, each alliance increased a feeling of insecurity of the other Powers not involved and pushed those to create another alliance.

The alliance system had the consequence, that if one part in Europe was involved in war, the rest would immediately be drawn into it as well. But if certain developments, such as economic and naval rivalry, had not occurred, then the establishment of the alliance system had not been necessary at all. As before every war, the responsibility mainly lies with the Powers’ inability or reluctance to endure territorial, economic or loss of power by means other than war.

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