To What Extent Can it be Said that the First World War was caused by the Alliance System?

November 2013 PAPER 2  
Topic 1 Causes, practices and effects of wars
 “The role of alliances in the origin and expansion of the war in 1914 was greatly exaggerated.” With reference to the First World War, to what extent do you agree with this statement?



To what extent can it be said that the First World War was caused by the alliance system?

As stated by renowned Chinese strategist Sun Tzu in The Art of War, “we cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours”. This is especially significant given the context of the First World War, where mistrust and fear for one another tore through the thinly woven structures of the so-called ‘alliances’. Whilst Sir John Keegan himself would argue that the alliance system was the paramount factor contributing to the development of The Great War, AJP Taylor – amongst a plethora of other historians – would contend that other factors regarding the influence of rigorous militarism, nationalism, and imperialism present within the quondam society was far more impactful in the stimulation of global conflict. This essay will argue that the alliance system was indeed a crucial constituent to the rise of the First World War, albeit not a singular entity in driving the entirety of the conflict.

In order to properly grasp the underlying significance of the alliance systems in terms of provoking the First World War, one must understand the circumstances which led to their creation in the first place. Perhaps the most noticeable representations of this would revolve around the two core alliance systems present throughout The Great War: the ‘Central Powers’ and the ‘Triple Entente’. The Central Powers in question would consist of Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and The Ottoman Empire, with a history that could be traced back to the signing of the original ‘Dual Alliance’ in 1879. This binding alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary embodied a military pact which determined the nations’ provision of military support upon the condition of Russian attack (in response to Austro-Russian tension after the collapse of the Three Emperors’ League). In 1882, this would develop into the ‘Triple Alliance’ which served as the basis for the Central Powers post-1914. Whilst this evolution did eventually oversee the induction of additional nations, it should be noted that the military strength of the alliance as a whole was not greatly affected. The 1894 Franco-Russian alliance was seen as a response to the Triple Alliance and the resulting isolation of France, and would later develop into the ‘Triple Entente’ in 1907 with the incorporation of the British. As is already evident, the formation of military coalitions was largely based on reactionary strategic instincts, an ongoing struggle to balance out European power in a quickly modernizing world. In the words of Sydney Bradshaw Fay, “though this system of alliances in one sense tended to preserve peace, inasmuch as the members within one group often held their friends or allies in restraint for fear of becoming involved in war themselves, the system also made it inevitable that if war did come, it would involve all the Great Powers of Europe,” (The Origins of the World War, 1928) which illustrates the alliance systems as less of a defense mechanism, but conversely, a catalyst to the conflict through European polarization.

If one were to consider the more obvious implications of the ‘failure’ of the alliance systems as a moratorium to warfare, the Third Balkan War could be seen as a prime example. In retrospect, the aforementioned conflict regrettably translated into what is referred to as the ‘First World War’. The interesting aspect in this particular correlation would hinge on the collective influences of alliance systems. During the crisis, Germany provided Austria-Hungary with a ‘Blank Cheque’ — an assurance of unconditional military backing upon however Austria-Hungary wished to respond to the Serbian threat. As such, a retaliatory ultimatum in respect to the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand was issued to Serbia, implying swift military intervention in consequence to the refusal of terms. Serbia, under the immense pressure of humiliating conditions which threatened to abolish the nation’s progress towards independence from Austrian influence, rejected the ultimatum. The subsequent shelling of Belgrade on the 28th of July signified the beginning of the First World War, as the gears of the alliance systems were set in motion, and the crisis erupted out of Balkan territory. This is vividly demonstrated through Russia’s ensuing military mobilization to aid its ally, and similarly, Germany’s declaration of war upon Serbia as enforced by the Blank Cheque. This perfectly illustrates the magnitude to which the wartime coalitions contributed to the outbreak, as they forced the Balkan Crisis to exceed the domestic environment, and thereby engulf nations on a global spectrum. Sir John Keegan expresses the notion that “the effort of peace-making is motivated not by calculation of political interest, but by repulsion from the spectacle of what war does,” (A History of Warfare, 1993) which is pertinent in this case because. despite the underlying intention of perpetuating a balance of power in Europe — whether that be political, social, or even economic — the initiative to achieve peace from a purely humane and ethical standpoint would be absent until the populace was subjected to the shameful terrors of warfare.

On the other hand, one could argue that the ultimate consequences stemming from the presence of alliance systems was exceeded by the high degree of nationalism endured by society at the time, and the generally imperialistic- and thereby militaristic approaches ubiquitous in the nations in question. This is further justified as distinguished historian, AJP Taylor, writes that “[the German] bid for continental supremacy was certainly decisive in bringing on the European War…” (The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1954) which illustrates Germany’s nationalistic intentions, juxtaposing the holistic notion of operating within an alliance. Furthermore, this offensive disposition would create additional unrest for the other nations in the Central Powers (i.e. Italy, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and The Ottoman Empire), generating tension and distrust in an already fragile coalition. This in turn would suggest that individual nations would decrease their dependence on the various alliances, taking diplomatic matters with foreign governments into their own hands. AJP Taylor’s outlook on Germany’s influence on the war would easily be supported by that of Fritz Fischer, who largely blamed Germany as the core element to the upsurge of international conflict as opposed to conventionally blaming the alliance system. Moreover, one could appropriate the colossal focus on military expenditure prior to 1914 as evidence to the individualistic approach nations had towards the upcoming war. This serves as clear evidence upholding the notion that The Great War was being anticipated by the masses. According to Jacobson’s World Armament Expenditure (1935), Germany’s total military expenditure increased by approximately 62%, France’s expenditure rose by 68%, and Russia escalated its output by almost 50% between 1908 and 1913. Even Otto von Bismarck stated in 1888 that “one day, the Great European War [would] come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” advocating the inevitability of the entire situation. To simply blame the alliance system by itself as the sole cause for the First World War would be to neglect the indisputable readiness and eagerness for nations to wage war.

In conclusion, whilst the extent to which the alliance system can be denounced as a significant component to the cause of the First World War, one must consider the alternative factors contributing to this cataclysmic event. Whilst the more paradigmatic approach would be to rebuke the alliance systems in place as the fundamental origin of the conflict, the true cause of the Great War can arguably be found within the profusion of social, political, and economic issues the world faced at the time on a global scale. As Sidney Bradshaw Fay himself stated, “a peaceable sensible mass 500 million was hounded into war by a dozen incapable leaders. Imperialism, nationalism, militarism, and alliances- all these things meshed together to create a collective impetus to war,” which therein implies a more balanced criticism towards the various- equally significant aspects which inadvertently led to the outbreak of the First World War.

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            In an arguably already tense Europe, a new trend within the continent’s imperial nations aided in a panicked response, debatably leading to the outcome of the largest war the world had seen in centuries, possibly ever, being the great war. As a nation began witnessing surrounding powers joining forces in combat, a new crisis began: countries were being shoved into corners by the ever-growing allied forces, with their only way out being in an act of force. This essay will explore how, and to what extent, the Ally System in between several European nations led to the eruption of the first world war, and how a system designed for defense resulted in unwanted offense.

            The ally system came as an attempt to cease war through cold combat. Nations joining forces and coming to each-others aid was supposedly a procedure to end the “thirst for war,” as nations either stood alone or joined said alliances in fear of becoming a lesser counterpart. The leading positions in Europe were genuinely persuaded that the alliance system would come as an end to war, as interpreted in the diplomat Arthur Nicholson’s May 1914 statement: “Since I have been in the Foreign Office, I have not seen such clear waters.” In times of great tension, even the ‘brightest and loudest’ of Germanophobes believed Europe to be under control. The British had their colonial conflicts to work with, and with the French and Russian forces as allies these had little fear over the outbreak of a possible war. According to many historians as well as the bureaucrats of 1914, Germany would never engage in a war on two fronts. However, in July of 1914, Germany mobilized units to participate in the unthinkable: the infamous Schlieffen Plan. Germany’s enrollment within the war is nevertheless still questioned, as evidence suggests that the ally system was possibly abused by giants Russia as well as Austrio-Hungary in their attempt to ignite a war. As the German ally delivered their ultimatum to Serbian borders after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June of the same year, both members of the Triple Alliance were aware that involvement from the French or British was unlikely, possibly forcing Russia to retreat as well. German foreign ambassador, Gottlieb von Jagow, concluded that “France [and ally] too, desired a localization of the conflict.” European forces slowly began witnessing a switch in expectations, as it became less likely for the conflict to escalate. Germany, as the ally system had been intended for, stood in the midst of a debate, as the European giants (from British perspective) attempted to prevent the outbreak of a war; especially one over, debatably, such a small conflict. Europe was mistaken. As Austrio-Hungary declared war with Serbia, who had rejected the ultimatum allowing Austrian troops to enter the nation and demolish terroristic groups, rejected under Russia’s persuasion of doing so, the Soviets soon responded. Within days of the 28th July war declaration, Europe’s eastern powers were at war. Russia had managed to pull France into the conflict, distracting Germany on a second front as their forces mobilized. With the giant Germany forced into a corner, Russia had had their wish granted. It is therefore debated that Germany and Austria, two nations set on invading Serbia, would have been ignored without an alliance system, as no other nation’s would have gotten involved. This is why, as Russia came to the aid of the Serbian forces, an upcoming war was undeniable. With Europe’s greatest forces linked in promise of war-aid, backing down became lesser of an option for any nation still praying for peace. The alliance system, originally intended to secure a tense continent, became the final tipping point as it pulled Europe’s giants into an escalation of the largest kind.

            Although the ally system can be seen as a factor when analyzing the factual statistics leading up to the outbreak of the great war, it can also be seen as a shared ignitor for the outbreak of conflicts. In hindsight, events leading up to the war were massively misrepresented by either side: intentions of war had already initiated whilst others still believed that peace was a possibility. Either side, whether triple entente or triple alliance, knew that a war would act as a falling domino, to which all leading nations would be torn into battle. It was therefore attempted to subside any signs of upcoming conflict, as even Russia’s foreign minister, Sazonov, reassured the German ambassador, Pourtalès, that “the cabinet [will] decide not to issue [an order of troop mobilization] until Austrio-Hungary assumes a hostile position towards Russia.” Russia, in diplomacy with Germany, failed to mention the largest factor within the discussion: Serbia. In an unlucky turn of events, as Austro-Hungary assumed their hostile position towards Serbia, Russia immediately mobilized. As the New York Tribune wrote in their 1914 article, “Russia mobilized their troops; [and] Germany [are also] eager for war.” Russia’s mobilization wasn’t necessarily a disappointment to the triple alliance, as ‘hunger for war’ debatably hadn’t left the continent for centuries prior, yet complete miscommunication could be blamed for the outbreak of a war just as much as the alliance system itself. Even Austro-Hungarian foreign ambassador von Schoen, the same man who had delivered Germany her statement regarding France’s belief of war being unnecessary, concluded post-war that he had “no authority nor experience over French foreign policy.” Within complete misinterpretation as well as misguided trust in an enemy, either side believed to have been in control of the situation, whilst it had already pursued the intent of war. German deception, as later unveiled, had played a large role in the escalation of war also. British foreign secretary Grey issued a statement to Berlin, requesting Germany (believed to have been holding an anti-war position) to discuss relations to Serbia with the Austro-Hungarian government. Germany, who agreed to aiding the English, however allegedly recommended Austria ignore the British threat. In a single deceptive ordeal, Germany was falsely portrayed as another country disliking the idea of war, preventing Britain from possibly issuing an earlier threat to Berlin, which could’ve affected the outcome of the war. In a single massive misinterpretation in which neither entente member nor alliance member managed to comprehend and assume another nations position to this upcoming conflict, the war had already been brought to a point of no return. Although the alliance system clearly triggered an eruption of mobilization all across Europe, it can be debated that said system was completely abused, whether in accidental misinterpretation or in an attempt to start a war, as the real issue behind the outbreak of the war came through the deception of nations; all who intended to go to war in the first place.

            On the other side, however, to this date there is still possible lack of explanation as to why England joined the war. On the 4th of August, as German forces mobilized through Belgian territory during their execution of the highly anticipated Schlieffen Plan, the British King, along with prime minister H. H. Asquith, summoned a call to arms; a date, which historians claim to be the true ignition to the atrocities committed during the great war. It is debated that Britain felt a need to aid their allies in combat against a dominant European force, yet the multitude of backdoors within British contracts as well as personal interests for the nation actually speak against a required entrance into the war against the triple alliance. As the war became an anticipation in the eyes of many, the debate as to the necessity of British aid within the war became a thoroughly discussed topic within British walls. Foreign office mandarin, Eyre Crowe, thoughtfully issued his statement as to the outcome of the war: “Should the war come, and England stand aside, one of two things must happen. Either Germany win, crush France and humiliate Russia. What will be the position of a friendless England? Or, France and Russia win. What would their attitude towards us be? What about the Mediterranean?” As the largest imperial force on the globe, British colonies all across the globe became a threat. The British had no intent to sort out a collapsing Europe, as their main interests led back to the upkeep of the British empire. For much of the 19th century, Russian forces began advancing into the Dardanelles, a section of land leading into the Mediterranean. Russia’s colonization of the Dardanelles would have given British opposition access to the largest existing trade route in Britain’s economy: the connection between the United Kingdom and their largest associates, India. As Europe’s imperialistic nations began spreading across the globe, the British were struggling to keep their own colonies under a single rule. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II, the man who cursed the British as a foolish nation who had gone to war over a “scrap of paper” (Britain and Belgium’s 1939 Treaty of London), knew that Britain’s biggest interest concluded with equal power accommodation across opposing nations. The Englishmen’s biggest threat came through a possible single dominant leadership within Europe. As Germany rose to power, England’s new threat became the absolutely dominant force of Wilhelm II’s Germany. However, as Eyre Crowe did, nobody else mentioned what would happen if France and Russia won. If this were the case, Europe’s new leaders would come as a combination of two nations within the triple entente. The British had arrived at a single position: attack Germany and allow your neighbour and his ally to become unforeseeable forces, or, ignore the war and watch Germany finish the Baghdad Railway, coming unnecessarily close to British colonies. Furthermore, England’s choice to join the war left them praying that their allies commit to the Triple Entente. As the Entente formed in 1907, arriving with Germany’s escalation of forces, all three parties agreed to a non-mutual defence in the case of war. This meant that England had no necessity to join the war. This however also meant, that in the unlikely scenario of another upcoming war, in response to WWI, neither the French nor the Russians would need to aid the English. The British were putting their trust into two nations, which had before been designated as opposition, possibly enemies. In a non-mutual defence agreement with large backdoors for ‘unfriendly’ nations, the British were not only debating in irrational thought, yet simultaneously risking the wealth of their colonies over the fear of having a new possible neighbour; Germany.

            To conclude, the alliance system came as a large additional factor towards the eruption of the first world war, yet it is difficult to interpret it as one of the main causes. Although the alliance system aided those nations which wanted to go to war more than it did those who attempted to avoid it, manipulation and misperception all across Europe became one of the leading causes as to begin the great war. Similarly, the multitude of coincidences within poorly executed decisions leading into the war came as a great ordeal when analysing potential points of outbreak. As stated, England’s choice to join and escalate an already large war into a world war can be seen as controversial if not poorly justified. In a series of ‘unlucky’ events leading up to the great war, some already centuries prior, the ally system can only be seen as yet another heavy factor driving all of Europe to go to war.

References Cited:
·      Sass, Erik. “Austria-Hungary Rejects Serbia's Response.” WWI Centennial: Austria-Hungary Rejects Serbia's Response | Mental Floss, Mental Floss, 25 July 2014, mentalfloss.com/article/58008/wwi-centennial-austria-hungary-rejects-serbias-response.
·      Archives, The National. “Why Did Britain Go to War? Background.” The National Archives, The National Archives, 27 Jan. 2004, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/greatwar/g2/backgroundcs1.htm.
·      Mason, Emma. “Why Britain Was Right to Go to War in 1914.” History Extra, BBC, 1 Aug. 2014, www.historyextra.com/feature/first-world-war/why-britain-was-right-go-war-1914.
·       Kennedy, Maev. “Britain Entering First World War Was 'Biggest Error in Modern History'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Jan. 2014, www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/30/britain-first-world-war-biggest-error-niall-ferguson.


To what extent can it be said that the First World War was caused by the alliance system?
            Although most historians agree that the alliance system played a role in the development of the First World War, the opinions of to what extent it did so vary. For example, Sidney Bradshaw Fay summarizes the causes of World War One as, “They may be conveniently grouped under five heads: (a) the system of secret alliances; (b) militarism; (c) nationalism; (d) economic imperialism; and (e) the newspaper press.” However, when looking at the alliances that were formed, especially the agreements and the secrecy behind them, it becomes clear that even though alliances did play a role in the war developing, they were more of a symptom of the existing political tensions, than a cause of the actual war.  
            It is easy to blame the alliances for the initiation of the First World War. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the outbreak of a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Thereby Russia took sides with Serbia. Due to the Dual Alliance (formed in 1879) between Austria-Hungary and Germany, the German military was obligated to support Austria-Hungary against Russia. As a result of this alliance, and the “Blank Cheque” the German Emperor’s guarantee to support Austria-Hungary in the case of an attack on Serbia (issued on July 5th 1914), Austria-Hungary was able to declare war on Serbia with the confidence of being able to withstand a retaliatory Russian attack. Further alliances that can be seen to have led to an involvement of further countries in the First World War, was the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia (formed in 1907) in combination with the Franco Russian alliance. The Franco-Russian alliance was an alliance of mutual defense. Many believe, that this is what caused the World War to start because it forced Germany to go into a quick offence against France. The Germans devised the “Schlieffen Plan” to avoid a two-front war and in an attempt to overrun France before Russia was fully mobilized and capable of supporting the French. In retaliation to the initiation of the Schlieffen Plan, Britain entered the war. Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary of Britain, justified the British involvement by proclaiming he wanted to “honor the Triple Entente.” Thereby he aimed to strengthen the British-French relationship by acting beyond the call of duty and defending France, even though the Triple Entente was not an alliance of mutual defense. A final reason for which the alliances of the First World War may be seen as a cause is the balance of power that existed. When regarding the alliances before the start of the war, they were France and Russia against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. In this state the power of the alliances is relatively balanced. This led Germany to attack abruptly in order to gain an element of surprise. Alliances with a greater imbalance may have discouraged an attack. If Britain and especially Italy had made their intentions clear beforehand the war would most likely never have started because a German attack would have inevitably led to a defeat. The effectiveness of unbalanced alliances in preserving peace is demonstrated by today’s NATO. Since the NATO has been founded there have not been any major wars by the countries involved in the organization because an attack on the NATO would come close to a suicide attempt.
On the other hand, there are also arguments as to how the alliances did not act as a cause of the war. The main argument for this perspective is that, the Triple Entente between Russia, France and Britain was solely a friendly agreement and there were no military obligations in this entente from Britain’s point of view. Thus it is likely that the reasons for Britain’s involvement in the war extended beyond the intention of wanting to honor the Triple Entente and strengthening French-British relationships. As Britain is an island nation without an own oil source, a plausible motive for Britain’s involvement is that the British wanted to secure a supply source of oil. Oil was an especially important resource as their military fleet consisted largely of dreadnaughts which were dependent on oil as fuel. This potential motive is supported by the fact that Britain’s first move after the formation of an alliance between the Ottoman Empire and Germany was to send troops to Iraq, which was only partially in the Ottoman Empire. There the British obtained oil considerable amounts of oil from the Anglo-Persian oil pipeline. Another possible reason for the British participation in the war was the fear of Germany controlling the entirety of Central Europe. If Germany were to have achieved this dominance of Europe, they would eventually expand their colonies in Africa. This intention had been previously indicated by their involvement in the Moroccan crisis. They also feared that if Germany finished the railroad from Berlin to Baghdad, the Germans would be dangerously close to India (at the time a British colony), leading to possible invasion. This fear was further fueled by Kaiser Wilhelm who had declared that he wanted Germany to become an empire similar to Britain. Thereby Wilhelm initiated a significant expansion of the German military fleet. This in turn doubled the importance of oil for Britain as they needed to be mobile and at full strength in the case of a German attack.        
When regarding the alliances that were formed and especially the secrecy behind all of them, it is suggested that they were a symptom of the already lingering atmosphere of war, rather than a plan to start a war. The most evident example of this was the Franco-Russian alliance from 1894. Both countries feared that with Germany being unified since 1871 and a part of the “Triple Alliance”, they were looking to expand their empire, so they formed the Franco-Russian alliance to protect one another. Any other reason for their alliance is almost unimaginable, simply because the two countries were polar opposites. France had recently executed their king and abandoned the monarchy to turn into a democracy and had achieved almost complete freedom of speech and expression. Russia on the other hand, was still ruled by the Tsar, oppressed the peasants and the workers and completely rejected the idea of freedom of expression. This strongly implies that the Franco-Russia alliance was not an offensive alliance. In summary, even though it can be seen how the alliances caused the First World War, it is believed that the alliances were a symptom of the atmosphere of war that was already arousing than a cause or reason to start a war.
In conclusion, the alliances did to some extent cause the World War, however not as much as often said. Even though, the alliances caused Germany to become involved in the war, Italy and Britain proved that alliances didn’t mean very much and joined the war out of self-interest rather than because of their alliances. Furthermore, the secrecy behind the alliances and the alliances themselves show that they were planned solely for defensive purposes, because the countries felt that a war was on the outbreak. Overall, the alliances started out as a symptom of political tensions and then later developed into a cause for the escalation of the First World War.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
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To What Extent Can it be Said that the First World War was caused by the Alliance System?
                                                              
“1914 was an unbelievably complicated world.” Claims Professor Michael Neiburg of the US Army War College. This can be used to argue that the cause of the first world war cannot be so specifically pinpointed on such a reason as the Alliance system. Although the alliance system may be partly at fault for the cause of the first world war, there are various other aspects, which can also be viewed as significant main factors of the start of the war as well as certain factors of the alliance system. Historian Sidney Bradshaw Fay himself stated his viewpoint of the cause, which was that, “Imperialism, nationalism, militarism and alliances … create a creative impetus to war”. This essay will argue that although the alliance system is undeniably significant to the cause of such a conflict, it is frankly impossible to pinpoint such an accusation on only one specific aspect in regards to such a major war.

A common conception of the official start of the first world war was when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria occurred on the 28th of June 1914, which had no involvement of alliances nor any further countries other than Serbia. This assassination led the Austro-Hungarian empire to declare war on Serbia a month later. Sir Christopher Clarke, a famous historian and Cambridge University Professor argued that Franz Ferdinand would have returned to Vienna with his wife, had the assassination not occurred and that even though he was racist about the Balkan people, “he was someone who had absolutely consistently argued against any kind of military adventures in the Balkans, in particular against Serbia.” This supports the well-known argument and first line from Sir John Keegan’s book, The First World War, “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” The book was originally published in 1999, meaning that because it was such a long time after the end of the war, the source was considerably more reliable and less biased. Sir Christopher Clarke’s statement also proves that the declaration of war against Serbia was not a pre-planned decision, meaning that alliances had no involvement of such a pronouncement before the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand. Although the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand may have given Austria a reason for such a declaration, it can be argued that this was more of an act of nationalism, stemming from imperialism as Serbia was at the time imperialised by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria was very much affected and enraged by the assassination of their archduke, showing this in various ways, such as a propaganda poster showing an Austrian fist crushing a Serb with the words, “Serbien muss sterbien!”, which translates to “Serbia must die!”. Such propaganda shows that the Austrians were just as angry over the situation as the Serbs were enough to assassinate the archduke of Austria. After declaring war on Serbia exactly one month later, chaos was caused all over the world, which developed into conflicts between other countries and eventually advanced in the First World War. Altogether, although the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is a commonly known to be the starting point of World War I, the alliance system was not involved with this event.

On the other hand, there were considerable connections between alliances, which brought multiple countries into the war and therefore would be a worthy argument for the alliance system to have caused the First World War. At the time of the beginning of the First World War in 1914, the two main alliances were the ‘Triple Alliance’ between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy although the ‘Central Powers’ only consisted of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and a so-called ‘alliance’ between Britain, Russia and France, although Britain and France were only united through a past treaty, the Entente Cordiale in 1904. Russia also had an alliance with Serbia, meaning that when Austria declared war on their alliance, Russian troops then mobilised themselves in preparation for any further developments. Because of such an immobilisation, then angered Germans then declared war on Russia, causing its allies France and Belgium to begin full immobilisation. According to great historian Sir John Keegan himself in his book, The First World War when talking about the German declaration of war against Russia, “thus making, in the words of the German ultimatum to France ‘war inevitable’ unless Germany withdrew its ultimatum to Russia” However this would never happen as both Germany and Russia as it would be “incompatible with such status” for both great powers. Such a statement from Germany shows that they were unwilling to put aside their pride in order for peace, as neither ultimatum was made with any of Germany’s alliances. Although Austria was the country, which had declared war on Serbia, because of their close alliance with Germany, Germany had taken it upon themselves to go to such measures to aid and protect Austria. However, this act of alliances between Germany and Austria also caused issues with Serbia’s alliances, Russia, which led to Russia’s other alliances getting involved in the conflict. Overall, this proves to an extent that because of so many connections all over to alliance systems, it could be argued that the alliance system did in fact cause the First World War.

However, it can be argued that in some cases, although the alliance system was a powerful bind of unity between empires, it did not always bring conflict among certain countries. An example of this would be the United States of America. Even though the US was part of the allied powers during World War I, they did not actually join the conflict until 1917, only a year before the end of the war. This proves that the alliance system is not always valid because the US had alliances, which all had major rolls in the war, but on the 4th of August 1914, the same day of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States declared its neutrality, showing that they would not get involved in any conflict. Historian Jonah Goldberg made a statement, in which he called President Wilson a “fascist by nature” and that the president had been offended for himself and his country that the Central Powers sought to gain victory in World War I. Although Jonah Goldberg may not have been the most reliable source, as he is more commonly known for being a columnist and an author, it is clear that he was not being biased towards his country, the United States. His statement shows that he would argue, as many others would agree with him, that he did not agree with the decision of Woodrow Wilson to stay neutral during 1914 when the war was at its start. This shows that although it can be easy to put the blame on the alliance system as to why the First World War began, there are cases, such as the United States, where they did not get involved with the war, even though they had several alliances in the midst of the international conflict.

In conclusion, although the alliance system may have undeniable responsibilities for the cause of the First World War, it cannot be specifically identified as the only reason why the conflict occurred. The main causes of the First World War would be identified as militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism according to many famous historians, such as Sidney Bradshaw Fay, which have such a vast majority of events within those particular causes. There have been proved to be exceptions with the alliance system by not coming to aid alliances, and there have been other main cause, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, where the alliance system was not involved, but was still a major cause of the First World War.
                                                                                                                             

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To what extent can it be said that the first world war was caused by the alliance system?

As a European international student, it is evident that alliances similar to the ones in WWI exist nowadays. If this is in a form of the entente cordiale, Franco German brigade or the Islamic military alliance. However, the effect of these alliance systems differ significantly from the ones in the 18th-19th century. An alliance system is defined to occur when countries join forces or work together in order to achieve a certain goal. This was very popular in the 18th century, as having alliances that when one country is in need the other country/countries help them out. Nevertheless, the problem with alliances is that they were formed in secret most of the time and only revealed to the public later on. The major issue with alliances was that if one member of an alliance declared war on a country or a country within a different alliance, the conflict would quickly accelerate. At the time, war spread rapidly, due to the complex alliance system and forceful nationalism.

To a certain extent it can be said that the dual alliance system caused World War I. The alliance system consisted of two groups. The central powers comprised Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Turkey. The allied powers were made up of Russia, France, Great Britain and the US. It can be presumed that if Germany would have never allied with Austria-Hungary, then a “tragic and unnecessary conflict” could have been prevented as Sir John Keegan said. “Unnecessary because the train of events led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point”. The strong dual alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary was formed in secret in 1979, which promised to support each other if Russia ever attacked. This alliance is crucial, since Germany shared borders and language with Austria-Hungary, which connected the two allies during the war, in addition to promising each other safety for the other country. The influence which Germany had on Austria-Hungary, formed a strong bond between the two and resulted in causing the First World War. Due to the alliance system, over 10 additional nations got involved in the Great War. The triple entente were the allied powers, which became a formal alliance in the outbreak of the great war. The purpose of this alliance was to balance the growing power of Germany. However, even though Italy had a treaty with Germany, they decided to secretly ally with the allied powers. Consequently, when Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary (entering WWI) on the side of the allied powers, the Italian army immediately advanced into the South Tyrol region and the Isonzo River, where Austro-Hungarian troops met them with stiff defense. At the end of World War I, 615,000 Italians had been killed or died. When the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, Russia came in to aid Serbia, as they were allied. This caused Germany to declare war on Russia, as they were allied with Austria-Hungary. Germany was aware that France would go to war with them, therefore they decided to attack France quickly and invaded via neutral Belgium and Luxembourg, which caused Great Britain to step in and stop the Germans. It was a muddle of allegiances and old conflicts with two sides forming the allies and the central powers. As even Nicholas II to Kaiser Wilhelm said on the 29th of July 1914, “… I beg you in the name of our friendship to do what you can to stop you allies from going too far”, which underlines the influence which the allies had on each other. When the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, Russia came in to aid Serbia, as they were allied. This caused Germany to declare war on Russia, as they were allied with Austria-Hungary. Germany was aware that France would go to war with them, therefore they decided to attack France quickly and invaded via neutral Belgium and Luxembourg, which caused Great Britain to step in and stop the Germans. It was a muddle of allegiances and old conflicts with two sides forming the allies and the central powers.

On the other side, of all major powers, Russia was the first to mobilize its massive army and it was that mobilization which drew France, Germany and Britain into the war. This mobilization is considered to be unreasonable, as when Austria declared war on Serbia on the 28th of July, Austria was not able to mobilize their own troops for another two weeks due to the harvest break they were currently in. However, if theoretically Austria had attacked their initial plan was an attack on Belgrade and not on Russia. Nevertheless, if Austria would have launched an attack on Russia, Russia had already begun with their pre mobilization on July 25th, before the Serbs responded to the Ultimatum. This resulted in German’s and Austrian’s to receive reports of Russian troops massing on their borders, which seem like war to them. Regardless, Russia became the first power to essentially put its war machine in motion on the 30th of July. This mobilization could have been done, due to the Balkans being next to the Dardanelles, the straits which give access to the black sea, which Russia had to maintain influence over in order to ensure traffic through those strains. This was especially important if the Ottoman Empire was going to form an alliance with Germany, which they did. Another reasoning behind the early mobilization could have been that Russia was in danger of being a fool in European politics due to their humiliating loss to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, which was followed by their inability to stop Austria from occupying Bosnia from the Ottoman Empire in 1908. Consequently, Russia’s history of prior weaknesses meant that the foreign policy makers dreaded that without some significant action, Russia would not be taken serious anymore. Following Austria’s Ultimatum, Sergey Sazonov, Russia’s foreign minister decided that Russia: “could not remain a passive spectator whilst a Slavonic people were being trampled on. If Russia failed to fulfill her historic mission, she would be considered a decadent state and would henceforth have to take second place among the powers... If at this critical juncture, the Serbs were abandoned to their fate, Russian prestige in the Balkans would collapse utterly.”

Once the war ended, the conquering nations decided that Germany caused the first World War. The famous ‘war guilt’ clause in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, stated this: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments … have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies”. This argument is supported by the fact that Germany was the first to declare war on the 1st of August on a major power, Russia. However, this blame was revised by historians in the 1930’s as it was unclear to what extent Germany was responsible for the war. In 1934 in David Lloyd George’s War Memoirs, British Prime Minister acknowledged the responsibility: “We muddled into war”. Generally, the situation in Germany was very tense for over 30 years, “Kaiser Wilhelm II followed a policy based on strength instead of caution”, R.J. Unstead stated in Century of Change (1963). Kaiser Wilhelm was convinced that Germany was denied their ‘place in the sun’ and therefore he boarded a vast program of naval and military armaments, which drew France and Russia closer together for mutual protection. Another reason why Germany is partially responsible for the Great War, is that Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary and due to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand they did not have a choice but to fully support Austria-Hungary. Additionally, the blank cheque should also be considered, as Kaiser Wilhelm guaranteed Austria-Hungary that they will support them no matter what. However, this “deal” was never recorded and was a verbal agreement and no one was aware of this and therefore no one is certain if it happened and therefore the it is questioned if that was the reasoning behind Germany declaring war on Russia.

The complicated issue about who is accountable for the start of World War I, is that you can trace the causes back a lot of ways. Back then, the decision of going to war was in the hands of a group of diplomats. These diplomats kept detailed records of all of their dealings, which leaves historians with the responsibility of going through all these sources and making choices on which ones to emphasize, and sometimes even believe, since often these sources are in direct conflict. Additionally, it comes down to perception of the facts presented. In conclusion, the alliance system certainly contributed to the start of the First World War, however it cannot be said that this solely caused the war, since a lot of other factors like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the role of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia should be taken in consideration.

To What Extent Can it be Said that the First World War was caused by the Alliance System? 

Although the alliance system is often argued as over simplistic to be the cause of the First World War, looking into the tensions it caused one could argue the intentions Germany and its leaders had pushed Austria-Hungary to pursue war with Serbia resulting in the start of World War I. Fritz Fischer’s thesis on the cause of the war focuses on the aims and policies of Germany’s key leaders before the outbreak of the War and shows in laborious detail his claims that Germany’s expansionist aims encouraged them to start war with Serbia. Therefore, it can be said that although the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary allowed Austria-Hungary to declare war, the intentions of the alliance system were unsubstantial and show minimal involvement in the true cause of the World War I.  

The triple alliance had been active since 1882 but Germany and Austria-Hungary had been closely allied since 1879 because of The Dual Aliiance. This meant that the two countries had supported each other through many decades by June 28th 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot. Although we can identify somewhat of a benefit of this alliance throughout the years there has never been a situation in which one of them supported another as much as Germany did during the July crisis following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. After evaluating the archives of German leadership at the time, Franz Fischer came to the conclusion that one of the main aims (among others) of Germany at the time was to encourage Austria-Hungary to start a war with Serbia, especially after the ultimatum given on July 23rd 1914.2 Claiming that Germany wanted to become a great power and expand, Fischer says the July crisis was when Kaiser Bethmann Hollweg tried to move Germany in the direction of the German policy created.  If this were to be the true intention of Germany during the crisis it would explain why they continued to encourage Austria-Hungary to initiate war with Serbia even when it seemed clear that such a war could not be confined to just these two nations. With Germany issuing their support to Austria-Hungary during this time, after Serbia responded to the ultimatum with less than full acceptance, A-H felt as though they could seek revenge through a war.  All this shows why Fischer claims that Germanys expansionist aims led to them supporting their alliance with Austria-Hungary, leading to the outbreak of the war.

In The Origins of the First World War George Martel 1clearly states that he believes that the transformation of the July Crisis into a war is primarily the responsibility of Germany as the German government felt this was the perfect opportunity which would eventually show diplomatic triumph for Germany. He believes that Germany thought encouraging Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia would contain internal unrest between the triple alliance and triple entente and simultaneously reduce the Balkans that would suit the Austro-German interests. Instead of this happening, Austria-Hungary caused an up rise my mobilizing against Serbia which led to Russia a day later partially mobilizing against Austria and Germany. Although Russia was not predominantly involved within the previous actions during the July crisis, the Tsar chose to abruptly mobilize against Austria-Hungary and Germany which then became only a partial mobilization because of the Tsar’s relationship with Kaiser Wilhelm. By Russia doing this, they opened themselves up to war with Germany and Austria-Hungary although they didn’t need this. After Russia’s partial mobilization, on July 31st is when Germany sends an ultimatum ordering them to halt their general mobilization but Russia stubbornly refused. Russia was not allied with Serbia therefore they had no need or responsibility to protect them from Austria-Hungary which meant their involvement was uncalled for and resulted in another one of the major powers becoming involved which made it more widespread instead of just between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. All this, shows that Russia’s alliance to France and Britain had no importance when it came to their decision to partially mobilize against Austria-Hungary and Germany showing that the alliances did not provide a strong motive for the outbreak of the World War I.

In addition to this, the intentions behind the alliances were very unclear which would show that they were too weak to be able to be the sole cause of the outbreak of the War. The alliances themselves were very general as there were no specific military obligations between the Triple Entente which would mean that Russia, France and Britain were not obligated to defend or help each other. This also shows that Russia had no obligation to help ‘defend’ Serbia by partially mobilizing into Austria-Hungary. This then eventually led to Germany declaring war on Russia on August 1st 1914. With this happening France and Belgium joined eventually leading to Britain becoming involved. At that point is when it became a World War. Russia’s partial mobilization resulted in Germany feeling threatened then declaring war on Russia. Although Russia and Serbia had close bilateral relations there was no formal alliance that justified Russia trying to defend Serbia from Austria-Hungary by partially mobilizing.  Russia was left in a humiliating state after their recent defeat to Japan in 1904 or the loss of Bosnia-Herzegovina which resulted in them wanting to prove themselves in 1914 to prove itself. Trying to show strength and power they thought their partial mobilization would result in Austria-Hungary holding back but as G.J. Meyer says, it was then when what was supposed to be the 3rd Balkan war turned into a European war. This is because their mobilization into Austria-Hungary caught Germany’s attention. This shows that Russia’s mobilization was unnecessary and without achieving any substantial aims. Russia could have achieved a much more useful attempt against Austria-Hungary through alternative channels that would have been more likely for them to succeed.

When evaluating the extent to which the alliances caused the First World War, it is evident that the alliances were not the culminating cause of the war. As discussed, the nations were not bound by any military obligations, such as we have NATO now, which freed them from the need to protect their allies in the case of an attack on one of them.  In order to fully evaluate the cause of World War I, one must take into consideration the other factors involving these nations. Thus we can see that the alliance system was not the trigger that caused the war and instead was a precaution for the nations involved due to the growing expansionist aims and growing arms race. Therefore, the alliance system is not to blame, instead the policies followed with the aims of expansion, Russia mobilizing in a war that did not need them as well as previous existing conflict between the nations caused the outbreak of the Great war.



2 (Moses, John. Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing. Pg. 387)
1 (Martel, George. The Origins of the First World War. Pg. 46)

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To what extent can it be said that the First World War was caused by the Alliance System?

“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict” as Sir John Kegan wrote in his book “The First World War”. Although this is a conclusion drawn by many, the cause of this unnecessary conflict is still debated amongst many historians. Nevertheless, it is generally supported that the main causes of WW1, were militarism, alliances, imperialism, nationalism and the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, many historians still argue about which of these was the deciding factor of starting the great war. When looking at events leading up to World War I it can be seen that the main cause of this War was the complex system of Alliances, as this caused the War to escalate globally. These main alliances include the Triple Alliance, Triple Entente, amongst other smaller agreements, such as the Dual Entente between France and Russia. On the other hand, due to factors, such as militarism and imperialism, which created a lot of tension prior to the war, it can also be argued that the alliance system was not the primary cause of WW1. Therefore, in order to analyze the extent to which the alliance system caused the first world war, both perspectives will be considered in this essay.

The Alliance System was undoubtedly one of the main causes of WW1. The complexity of this system, caused countries with entirely different ideologies to come together and support each other in war, purely because of alliances. Prior to the war, countries were split into two sets of rival powers that were formed by alliances. On one hand was the Triple Alliance, that was established in 1882, between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, which main purpose was to protect their countries in case a war breaks out, but was also created in an effort to isolate Russia and France, who had recently lost the Franco Prussian war of 1871 against Germany. Due to this strong alliance, other countries began to feel threatened, causing the formation of the Triple Entente, an agreement between France, Britain and Russia. Russia, who had considered themselves ‘protector of slavs’ was also in agreement with Serbia to aid them in the case of war. This agreement especially affected the chain of events in the beginning of the war, after the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th 1914. This is due to that, a month later, on July 23 Austria sent an ultimatum to Serbia, indicating that if not accepted fully, Austria would declare war against Serbia. However, as Serbia was in agreement with Russia, they did not deem it necessary to accept the ultimatum, as they were supported by a large and powerful country. However, to Austria-Hungary’s benefit, the “Blank Cheque” of July 6th states that Germany would provide unconditional support to Austria-Hungary in the case of a conflict with Serbia. Therefore, Germany was automatically involved in the war as well and escalated it quickly when declaring war on Russia on august 1. Similar Patterns can be seen through the effects of the Schlieffen Plan. This is due to that, as in the Treaty of London signed in 1839, Article VII created an agreement between countries in which Belgium was deemed to be neutral. However, when Germany went through Belgium and the Netherlands in an effort to get to France, they broke this treaty. Therefore, as Britain was in agreement with Belgium, they joined the war as well, extending it further across the globe. Through these alliances or various agreements, it can be seen how the alliances to countries involved in the existing conflict, sparked a chain reaction throughout the world involving more and more countries as the war progressed.

Furthermore, Alliances also brought countries with completely different ideologies together, such as in the case of the triple entente. This is due to that in 1894, when the Dual Entente was formed, Russia had the world’s biggest army, but was also under the rule of Tsar Nicholas II who was in control of the country, allowing no freedom of speech. Therefore, Russia’s alliance to France, and later Britain, seems very unusual, as both of these countries were ruled under a democracy and condoned freedom of speech. This especially depicts the complexity of the alliance system, as these entirely different countries would not be able to work together from the beginning, and therefore already created tension amongst themselves. Similarly, agreements, such as the Triple Entente, were also especially bound to fail, as even Britain’s foreign minister Sir Edward Grey himself said “We are not part of the Franco-Russian Alliance”, again portraying the complexity of this system and how alliances were dependent on the country rather than what was actually signed. Therefore, ironically even though the alliance system was created with the intent to prevent war, due to different ideologies amongst alliances, creating unnatural agreements, the war escalated around the world, making it the primary cause of the first world war.

On the other hand, when looking at the events leading up to the war it can also be seen that the alliance system was not the only factor that started the first world war. Another cause of World War I is the imperialism of individual countries. For example, Britain’s imperialism throughout the World allowed them to increase their economic state, making London the banking capital of the world and creating a leading world power. For example, by the 1900 Britain extended over five continents, encompassing 10% of the world’s land mass. Furthermore, Imperialism in Africa or ‘the scramble of Africa’ created a lot of Tension between European countries, especially Britain and France, as these countries could import many minerals and materials from Africa in order to expand their military and improve their economic state. The scramble of Africa amongst Britain and France also created rivalries between Germany, as they only had a small amount of land in Africa, such as Tanganyika. Therefore, Germany had to go through British and French territories, amongst other countries, such as Spain in order to transport minerals back to Germany. Therefore, this caused a lot of tension amongst these countries, as they were driven by competitiveness in order to build a strong nation. Furthermore, not only was tension created, but countries were increasing their empire, making them even stronger when fighting in the war. Similarly, both Moroccan Crisis’ were large factors that started creating tension amongst countries, including Britain, France and Germany. This is due to that especially Germany wanted to avoid French colonization of Morocco, as then Germany would lose a country they could trade with, which was very important as they were expanding rapidly during this time. However, throughout the second Moroccan crisis, as France gained control over Moroccan banks, and therefore their economy, they were then able to fully imperialize Morocco, making it a French colony. Due to this, Germany felt very humiliated, as after the Algeciras conference of 1906, they were forced to stay out of morocco and then lost their battle to the French. This shows, how only a few years prior to the war, a lot of tension amongst these countries has built up, as they all wanted to become the most powerful.

Furthermore, Militarism is also another factor that played a role in the cause of the first world war. For example, between 1910 and 1914, Germany’s Military expenditures increased by 73% and during this time Germany rapidly became the most powerful military in the world. For example, this can be seen through Germanys large amounts of railways, which were very important, as trains were the most efficient forms of transport during this time. However, Russia had 1 mile of railway for every 100 Germany has, which already showed a great setback for Russia, as they could not compete with Germany’s rapid industrialization. Furthermore, another example of this is the Berlin to Baghdad Railway, which was built in 1903 in an effort to connect Germany to the Ottoman Empire. This was very beneficial to Germany as this allowed them to have a direct connection to get oil and transport it directly back to Germany. Nevertheless, Germany started to grow their Military very late, so even though in the few years before the war their numbers of economic and military expansion increased rapidly, other countries, such as Britain were still able to compete. This indicates how the competitiveness gained through imperialism and militarism amongst countries created a lot of buildup of tension and slowly imploded in 1914. Furthermore, the tension created, was also built upon the increasing military and empire that countries were creating, allowing them to be more powerful during the war.

When weighing out both perspectives, it can be concluded that even though to some extent imperialism and militarism were key factors in the start of WWI, the greatest factor in the escalation of the war was the complex alliance system. Nevertheless, it can be said, that without factors, such as nationalism, militarism, imperialism and especially the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand the tension prior to the start of WW1 would not have been as strong. However, even though the tension created, lead to the start of the conflict, without the alliance system, the war would not have been global. Therefore, it can be said, that the main cause of the escalation of the first world war was the alliance system.  

To What Extent Can it be said that the First World War was caused by the Alliance System?


The First World War was the most dreadful and treacherous conflict the world had ever seen when it first broke out, and it set the scene for a century full of brutal war, constant tensions and horrific genocides. The main cause of the First World War is a highly debated topic in history, and historians all differ in their opinions on this subject in some way. These differences begin with defining when the Great War actually begun, as, while most historians argue the war started on 18th June 1914, Christopher Clark argues that Italy begun the First World War in 1911 with the invasion of Libya leading to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire [1]. While I would not be quick to say that the alliances were the primary reason for the war breaking out, I do believe that the system of alliances can be said to be the cause of WWI to a significant extent. This essay will discuss several of the main causes leading to the war and evaluate how great their role was in starting the War To End All Wars.

In the few decades leading up to the war, two main alliances had been established in Europe. The first of these was the Triple Entente – consisting of Great Britain, France and Russia, and the other was the Triple Alliance – consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and later joined by the Ottoman Empire. The treaties which created these alliances declared that if one country of the alliance was attacked, the other nations in the alliance would have to provide military aid to the invaded country. The Triple Entente and Triple Alliance contained the 7 strongest nations on the planet at the time. On one side you had the largest and most powerful navy in the world – Great Britain – the world’s most modern and technologically advanced army – France – and the largest army in the world in terms of soldiers – Russia. While on the other side you had a rapidly advancing military coming close to over taking Britain in naval power and close to overtaking France in army power – Germany – a huge empire consisting of parts of 13 of today’s European countries – Austria-Hungary – and an empire which had been the strongest land force on Earth by a huge margin for hundreds of years, a couple hundred years prior to the outbreak of WWI – The Ottoman Empire. These two alliance blocks caused a lot of tension between the nations involved, as both were quite equally matched in strength and both had imperial aims in the same areas in the world.
The Dual Alliance of 1894 which saw France and Russia agree to become military allies was an alliance which was both incredibly surprising and caused tensions between Germany and France & Russia to escalate. George F. Kennan believes that the alliance of 1984 was the main cause of the war1. At the time France was a democratic nation with one of the strongest and modernized armies in the world. Meanwhile Russia was quite the opposite; an autocratic monarchy had been in place for the past 300 years and the nation was very backwards as Russia had struggled to modernize itself as a result of its huge area, furthermore the society was incredibly corrupt due to the hierarchy. As well as this alliance being surprising, it was of great geographical importance and that factor would force Germany to base their military plans in the war on this very alliance. This factor is the Encirclement of Germany. Germany was surrounded by France on the west and Russia on the east, and as these countries were now allies, the Germans would have to fight on two opposite fronts if war were to break out. Therefore, when the war began, the German Empire used the Schlieffen Plan. This plan stated that France should be taken quickly in the first 6 weeks of the war, so that afterwards Germany could focus on the eastern front. From this evidence it is clear that the Dual Alliance played a major role in starting WWI, as surrounding Germany at both its border caused tensions to rise significantly.
            The 20th century had seen 2 Balkan wars go by and one could argue that the conflict between Serbia and Austria Hungary caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand should’ve ended up as nothing more than a third Balkan war. However due to the Russian-Serbian unofficial alliance and the Blank-Cheque given to Austria-Hungary by Germany this conflict grew into the first world war the world had ever seen. Russia had immense political and religious influence in Serbia and therefore would stand up for the smaller nation and support if confronted. Russia had already showed its support for Serbia in the first Balkan wars, and it came to Serbia’s aid when it was issued an ultimatum by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Meanwhile, Germany had given Austria-Hungary the blank-cheque which stated that Austria-Hungary would have the German Empire’s political and military support if they were to declare war on Serbia. These two events happening parallel to each other brought two of the world’s greatest powers into a conflict which could’ve ended up just being another Balkan war, however due to the alliance system being in place Germany and Russia were dragged into what was to become a massive conflict due to their ties with other smaller nations. Otto von Bismarck had predicted this event years prior to it taking place, ‘If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans’. As the Balkans had always been an area of tension and extreme nationalism – as a result of many different peoples being under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – it is understandable that he predicted this.
            The system of alliances can actually be compared to the alliances which are in place in the world today. Organisations such as NATO and CSTO, the many allies the US have and the unofficial ties/alliances between Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have shown that today a small event can lead to a world war very easily. Take for example, when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber near the Turkish border in 2015. If Russia were to take military action against Turkey, the US, UK, France, Germany and many other world powers would come to Turkey’s aid through NATO. The US’s involvement may also cause allies such as Japan and South Korea to get involved. Meanwhile, due to Russia’s CSTO alliance, many former Soviet Union states would support Russia in the conflict, while powers such as China or Iran may also give their support to Russia. This shows how quickly alliances allow a small spark, such as shooting down a plane or assassinating one person, to explode into a massive world conflict, even potentially in our world today.
            The alliance system was very closely tied to other causes such as militarism and imperialism. I would argue that the alliances were an effect of these two other factors while also being a cause of militarism and imperialism. During the 1800s and early 1900s, European powers including Great Britain, Germany and France had been expanding their colonial territories in areas such as Africa and the Middle East, as well as increasing their spending on military significantly to have the strongest armies and navies on the continent. This will be discussed in further detail later, however my point here is that these rivalries caused each country to try and find ways that they could be step ahead of the other continuously. One way in which they could do this is actually by becoming stronger through improving relations with each other and creating alliances. This would make one nation stronger than their rival, because they would have the backing of another world power in a case of any conflict. However, the other end of the argument states that alliances were also a cause of militarism and imperialism. This is so, because once these European states had built up their alliances, they were desperate to become the strongest alliance. To become the strongest alliance, these powers each had to imperialise more and militarise their armies and navies further. This shows how alliances actually created a cycle of militarisation and colonisation causing the alliance system again and vice versa.

From the mid 19th century till the years leading up to the war, European powers, Germany particularly, had been raising military spending and increasing their military might. Germany, France, Great Britain and Russia spent 94 million pounds on militarisation collectively in 1870. This rose to 130 million pounds in 1880, to 154 million in 1890, and continued to increase until in 1914, when these four main world powers had spent 398 million pounds on building up their military. France saw an increase in expenditure of 10% from 1910 till 1914, Britain increased spending by 13% in these four years, Russia saw an increase of a massive 39% during this period, and Germany increased their military spending by a mindboggling 73% in just 4 years. Germany’s militarisation saw tensions increase greatly across Europe and made countries such as Britain feel threatened. The British had ruled the seas since as far back as anyone could remember back then, therefore when Germany began improving their navy at such a fast rate in the early 1900s, Britain felt that their naval supremacy was being threatened. The naval arms race between these two powers was one of the main causes of the war, as each state was constantly trying to build more battleships and submarines to have the stronger navy, which kept a constant rivalry between these nations. This rivalry was one of the biggest causes of bringing on the war in my opinion, therefore I very much agree with A.J.P. Taylor when he says ‘The German bid for continental supremacy was certainly decisive in bringing on the European War’1.
            The arms race between the British and German Empire in the early 1900s can be compared to the development of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in defiance of U.S. sanctions in the past years. The DPRK argue that they have to build a strong military force and nuclear arsenal with atomic bombs capable of reaching U.S. mainland because they are an isolated country and could otherwise do very little to defend against an American offensive. This situation could be compared to Germany in the late 19th century, as the German Empire had only became an actual state in 1971. Therefore, Germany may also have felt threatened by the European countries surrounding it which had been immensely powerful for hundreds of years already. For this reason, Germany would’ve felt the need to develop and increase its military strength to establish itself as a world power between her fellow neighbours and to have the ability to fend off an attack launched by another nearby state. This is how the Germany’s militarisation prior to WWI and North Korea’s development of atomic bombs today are were both for similar reasons.

            One lesser known cause of the Frist World War is the industrialization of the Russian Empire. For much of the 1800s, Russia had been a very backwards country, as the society and economy of the Empire was more comparable to a European country of the 1600s rather than the 1800s. Countries such as France and Britain had become much more modernised industrially and also had more democratic political systems. There was very little technical innovation in Russia and the railway system was insufficient for such a large country. In the 1880s, Sergei Witte came to power in the Russian government and started infrastructure programs to build new railways, telegraph lines, and electrical plants. By 1900 Russia was the world’s fourth largest source of steel and the second largest source of petroleum. The money made through foreign investment was reinjected into the economy by starting new projects allowing for the construction of mines, dams and factories in other areas[2]. After lagging so far behind other European powers for such a long period of time, this sudden rapid industrialization came as quite a shock to the rest of Europe. Countries such as Germany and Austria-Hungary were forced to keep an eye on the Empire in case its economy became too strong and would overtake other nations in military power. This obviously added to the tensions in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

            Another cause of the Great War was imperialism. The main world powers all had imperial ambitions across the globe and already controlled large parts of Africa and Asia, however I will be focusing on two particular events in this section, these events being the Moroccan Crises. As Germany was a relatively new country in Europe, it did not control many territories abroad. Otto von Bismarck believed that this was not a problem and that the new German Empire should focus on domestic issues. However, when Wilhelm II came to power, he fired Von Bismarck and had a very different view on German imperialist intentions. ‘A place in the sun’ became a German need, as Robert Wohl puts it1.
            The First Moroccan Crisis took place between 1905 and 1906. Morocco was part of the Ottoman Empire, but had not been colonised, so it was effectively independent. Meanwhile France had gained control of the vast majority of West Africa and therefore also had interests in taking Morocco. France moved their army in Africa to the Moroccan border and demanded control of the Morocco’s armed forces. Kaiser Wilhelm visited Morocco and gave the country his support, telling the people that Morocco will remain ‘free and independent’. Following these events, tensions between the French Third Republic and the German Empire rose. Both threatened each other with war, and France wanted to back down, however Great Britain told the French that they have their support and should not stand down. Afterwards, Russia also supported France in the squabble and Germany agreed to stay away from Morocco to avoid further consequences. As a result of this the French and British became frightened by Germany’s aggression and confidence in voicing their opinion in international issues, while Germany was angry as they felt that all of the other great powers were against them.
            The roots of the Second Moroccan Crisis (also known as the Agadir Crisis) are in an uprising against the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1911. France saw this as an excuse to invade and conquer the country, and pursued this by sending naval forces to the army units in the region. This angered Germany greatly, and they decided to send naval forces of their own in opposition to the French colonisation. Once again Britain came to France’s aid through the Entente Cordiale and the German’s were forced to pull out once more. The German Empire and the French Third Republic signed the Treaty of Berlin, which declared that Morocco shall become a French colony, while Germany would receive a very small territory within the country. This angered Germany immensely and the Kaiser insisted that he will not back down again.
            It is evident from these two crises that imperialism played a very significant role in raising tensions between Germany and the Entente Cordiale in the years prior to the war and therefore it was a major cause of the war. The fact that these disputes caused Germany and France to threaten to declare war on one another and made one so angry and frustrated with the other was a clear indication, on hindsight, that a war would break out soon between these great powers.
            One of the most well-known theses arguing whom is to blame for the First World War is the Fischer Thesis. Fritz Fischer was a former Nazi and historian who believed the sole cause of WW1 was German imperialism. He argued that Germany’s aggressive expansionism and ambitions to take large areas towards the west after defeating Russia in a war was the only cause of the war[3]. While I do believe that Germany’s ‘grab for world power’ (as Fischer put it) was a very significant cause of the war, I disagree with the opinion of it being the sole reason. There were many other causes discussed in this essay such as the alliance system and militarisation of other nations which played roughly an equal role in causing the war. While Germany’s rapid rise to power did play a very large role in bringing on the war, I find it unfair to put the full blame on Germany for the WWI.

            In conclusion, this essay shows however significant a role the alliance system played in causing the Great War, it was most definitely not the only factor leading to the conflict. I find it difficult to judge to what extent the alliances caused the war, however I do believe that one can draw the conclusion that the First World war was inevitable from this discussion of causes. Emil Ludwig said ‘A peaceable, industrious, sensible mass of 500 million European people, was hounded by a few dozen incapable leaders, by falsified documents, lying stories of threats, and chauvinistic catchwords, into a war which in no way was destined or inevitable’ and Richard Holbrooke thinks alike saying that ‘WW1 was not inevitable’1 for similar reasons. I strongly oppose the opinions of these two historians, as I believe the tensions created in Europe by the rise of Germany militarily and colonially, the industrialisation of Russia and the suspense which the Alliance system added to these factors made a war near the beginning of the 20th century completely unavoidable. The alliance system was a major cause of the war, especially considering the cycle of militarism, imperialism and added alliances it created. On the other hand, I strongly believe that the alliances alone would never have started a war in Europe, as it did not create as much tension or cause as much anger, frustration and anxiety between countries as militarisation and imperialism did. In my opinion, The German Empire’s increase in military power and colonial control over the world was the most significant cause of the war and this factor alone made war inevitable. This situation was very comparable to the war between Athens and Sparta; ‘What made the war inevitable was the growth in Athenian power and the fear that this caused in Sparta’ (Thucydides)1. However, I believe the alliances were the second largest factor in bringing on the war due to all of the added tension it brought to Europe, and therefore the alliance system did cause the outbreak of The War To End All Wars to a very significant extent.


IBDP History Past Paper Question
Was the First World War caused by the alliance system?

   If one was to take this question to heart, they’d very likely imagine the alliances of the early twentieth century as the equivalent of omnipotent schoolchildren picking football teams. Placing the weight of the Great War on the shoulders of the so-called alliance ‘system’ is absurd; the system was made up of multiple individual and separate treaties, (1) some of which almost a century old by the war’s beginning. (1) Some of these treaties were naturally more or less dangerous than others. The alliances are too complex for a black and white answer. The system as a whole likely wouldn’t have caused the eventual war, despite its oddities. But alas, in pattern that would repeat itself a few times over the next 100 years or so, Russia ruined everything. In this particular instance, it did so by throwing money and military might behind the Kingdom of Serbia, in what might have been the most dangerous military alliance in European history.

  For one to understand the Russo-Serbian dilemma, one has to start by understanding exactly the Serbian government, why it was a disaster, and why the Russian government didn’t stand against it.  To begin, the Serbs were corrupt. A corrupt government or military official is by no means a rarity, no matter which country you look to. A government or military official working with terrorists is a peculiarity usually isolated to a particular part of the modern globe. But a terrorist actively serving as an official, and not only that, one allied with similarly terroristic officials within the upper echelons of the country’s military, that’s something special. Early twentieth-century Serbia was more than a safe haven for terrorism, it was an active breeding ground. The current government, instated following the butchering of the royal family in 1903, (2) had a military infested inside and out (3) with members of the Black Hand. This particularly nefarious group found its leader in Dragutin Dimitrijevic, a Serbian colonel and a military hero. (4) The Black Hand was a terrorist organization founded on the principles of Pan-Slavism, an ethno-national movement focused on uniting the Slavic Peoples under one banner. Government officials of Serbia often had no choice but to let these policies influence law, the officials and lawmakers being repeatedly harassed and threatened by Serbian military officials working directly for the Black Hand. (5) Serbia was slowly but surely falling under the group’s influence.

  Yet, through all this, Russia did nothing to separate herself from a country that was transforming into a nation run by terrorists. Russia stayed friendly, unlike Britain, who, as F.R. Bridge points out, separated all diplomatic ties with Serbia in 1903, (6) Staying allies is a very risky move on Russia’s part, and it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense: The Serbs are becoming increasingly populistic, terror-driven, and dangerous to their neighbors. Why would Russia be so stupid as to risk war and to back Serbia? Well, there are several reasons. Serbia had crowned a new king after the murder of the previous royal family in 1903. (7) This king, Peter the First, was a Pan-Slavic idealist and a supporter of Russia, visiting St. Petersburg several times over the course of his reign. (8) In addition, Russia’s own problems were intensifying. In 1904, not only were Russians dying abroad in the war against Japan, they were starving at home. The Russian proletariat were being overworked and underfed, and those chickens were imminently coming home to roost. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they had history. the Russians and the Serbs had been close allies since the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, when Russia had backed Serbian rebels in not one, but two wars of independence against the Ottomans. The first of these involved going against Napoleon, a task so dangerous that Leopold von Ranke himself called the Russian endeavor “a war more perilous than any in which she had ever been engaged.” (9) So, how can Russia’s backing of Serbia be blamed for starting the war? Russia had stuck with the Serbs for years: holding their ground against aggressors once again shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.

  Yet, Russia’s motivations for standing behind Serbia were likely far from pacifistic. It’s very possible that the Russians were trying to begin, enter, and control a third Balkan war, using it to gain more power in the region. Ever since the Bosnian crisis of 1908, relations between the Balkan states and their neighbor-state, Austria-Hungary, had been strained to say the least, (10) and while Austria might have not participated in the Balkan Wars, the tension wasn’t any less real. Russia probably couldn’t predict the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but they might’ve guessed that a terror state on the border of an expanding empire might’ve led to an Austrian-Balkan conflict that they could capitalize on. The results they were imagining might have been additional treaties with Montenegro, regarding some new warm-water ports; it might have been a Pan-Slavic nation, similar to what would become Yugoslavia; very likely, it was the collapse of Austria-Hungary and an emphatic Russian dominance in the Balkans. Whatever Russia might have been plotting, it failed to come to fruition.

  In 1914, following Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia, it became clear that Russia wasn’t going to get the conflict it might have wanted. Germany was going to back Austria-Hungary. It’s widely believed that Russia and Germany weren’t trying to go to war. The most common evidence people point to here would be the last-minute telegrams between the respective leaders of Germany and Russia, known as “the Willy-Nicky Telegrams,” (11) in which Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, in a frantic attempt to stop a European war from happening, wrote each other on the eve of the conflict, speaking of peaceful resolution, and signing with childhood nicknames. It didn’t work: what may have been a regional war to the benefit of Russia swiftly turned into a world war that brought death by the droves.

  The Great War, despite its status of being actively pinned on Germany, is a war that deserves to be placed at Russia’s feet. Russia’s connection with Serbia (and possible ulterior motives) did nothing but jeopardize the fragile peace that was holding the Balkans together, and ultimately, endanger the world populace. Henry Kissinger had it right when he said that the countries were trapped in a “doomsday machine,” (12) but the reasons behind it might have been more different than Kissinger could have imagined.


History Paper 2 – Mock Essay #1

Treacherous deals and secret agreements, as well as provoking accords and deceiving messages are thought of when the alliance system of the late 19th to early 20th century are mentioned. It is a popular revisionist belief that the Great War was caused almost exclusively by these alliances. Sydney Bradshaw Fay himself, one of the most famous revisionist historians of all time argues that “[World War One] came [from the] system of alliances, which was the curse of modern times.” Nevertheless, other historians such as A.J.P. Taylor argue that “no matter what political reasons are given for the war, the underlying reason is always economic.” This puts the reasons for the outbreak of the first world war into question and makes one wonder, to what extent can it be said that the First World War was caused by the alliance system? 

The easiest way to deal with the cause of the war, is to say that it indeed caused by the alliance system. First, in 1872 the Dreikaiserbund was formed commonly referred to as the League of the Three Emperors. This alliance consisted of German, Russia and Austro-Hungary. This was followed by the Dual Alliance in 1879, which was a pact between Germany and Austro-Hungary, ensuring mutual protection in the event of war with Russia. Already, one can see that there were tensions, as after seven years of being in an alliance, Germany and Austro-Hungary double cross Russia, in assuring each other of safety against them. This would not make any sense if the alliance system was stable, because allied nations are supposed to protect each other anyways and not go to war with them. The Dual Alliance was then joined by Italy to create the Triple Alliance in 1882. Bismark, the then chancellor of Germany, claimed that all of these treaties were formed to strengthen Germany’s diplomatic position, but of course, no nation believed that Germans did not want to use these alliances for an alternative reason i.e. to expand their empire. Because of the competition between Austro-Hungary and Russia over the Balkans, the Dreikaiserbund collapsed in 1887 and the Reinsurance treaty was created, which ensured neutrality of one another if it ever came to war between either of them and a great power. However, because the German’s thought that this was an unnecessary pact because of the ideological differences between France and Russia, they lifted this agreement in 1890. Hence the creation of the Franco-Russian alliance in 1894. This came as a surprise to everyone, because the French and Russian governments and ideologies could not be more juxtaposed. Above all, the French and Russians claimed that this alliance had nothing to do with the Germans, even though it was never questioned. Therefore, the Germans obviously felt as though their newly formed alliance did have everything to do with them. In 1907, the final crucial event happened, which joined the Franco-Russian alliance to Great Britain, forming the Triple entente. As the major powers of were now all interconnected, Sydney Bradshaw Fey said that “the system made it inevitable that if war did come, it would involve all the Great Powers of Europe.” Also, everybody knows that as soon as England is involved in the war, it is a world war, because it involves Australia, New Zealand, Canada and so on. Thus, when the assassination of Franz Ferdinand occurred in 1914, Germany had to join their ally Austria-Hungary in the war against the Balkans and Russians “the mother of all Slavs” of course had to protect them, which then lead to the rest of the Triple entente getting involved. Hence, the alliances caused the Great War.

Nevertheless, one could say that the war did not occur because of the alliance system at all. This is so because the alliance system is completely misleading. This is so because Britain had in fact no formal alliance with France at all, and did not like the Russians either. In fact, the United States of America refused to be called allies of these countries, because they were against everything that the Americans believed in. In the triple alliance, Italy will actually go on to fight against the other members of its alliance. Bismark clearly said that “all treaties between states cease to be binding when they come in conflict with the struggle for existence.” Therefore, when push comes to shove, the none of the members of the alliances will actually protect or defend each other, hence rendering the alliance system useless and basically non-existent. After all, most treaties and agreements were secret, and the countries’ governments often did not even know they had them. This is where it is just to say that the people in power in WW1 were all “sleepwalkers” as Christopher Clark suggested. (Clark, Christopher)

Opposing to both of these theories is that of the economic reasons the war was caused by. These problems were mainly cause by Germany’s plans to create the Berlin to Baghdad railway. Because Germany was already a growing economic power, ranking in first place for the amount of steel output and in second place behind Britain for their coal production as well as having the schools teach science and technology in schools, its opponents were getting more and more intimidated. Especially because they were using these recourses for army and naval expansion, which also rose from being sixth to second largest in the world. When Germany announced that they were working on a railway from Berlin to Baghdad, the British Empire could not take it anymore. This was so because there were oil reserves in the Ottoman Empire, which if Germany got access to them, this would be a huge threat to the Royal Navy, as both theirs and the German Navy were trying to switch from coal to oil fueling. Hence, the first bomb of the great war was sent from the British Empire to Iraq to fight the Germans. (Joll, James) (A.J.P Taylor)

Overall one can see that the alliance system is clearly overrated in terms of it being the cause of the first world war. This is so because it had no direct effect on the war, as most of the treaties were not binding, or simply non-existent. The economic reasons for the war make much more sense and are therefore more likely to be the real reason for the outbreak of the war. Hence, in answer to the question, the alliance system did not cause the war, economic conflicts and fear of German military expansion did.


To What Extent Can it be Said that the First World War was caused by the Alliance System?

"The first World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice;...”
are the first words in Sir John Keegan’s book “World War One”. These words seems to summarize the events leading up to the outbreak and possible prevention of the worst war seen since, the then dubbed Great War.
But how much of these unnecessary and tragic events can really be traced back to the alliance system of 1914, that many blame for the outbreak of the war?
This essay  will argue that although the alliance system made a localized conflict spread, it was more a symptom rather than a cause of the outbreak of the first world war.

On the 4th of August 1914, Great Britain the superpower controlling one fifth of the world declared war on Germany turning the what was then to be believed as a third Balkan War into the first World War which ended up with over 41 Million People sacrificing their life for what Sir John Keegan says a “tragic and unnecessary conflict”.
One can see why many are of the opinion that the alliance system was a major trigger for the outbreak of the First World War as it caused a localized conflict to spread all over the world  by the end of it in 1918 reaching from Berlin to China and the United States as Bernadotte Schmitt says; “the alliances which had originally served the cause of peace, when put to the final test, almost mechanically operated to convert a local quarrel into a general war”
The alliance of the time can be traced back to Otto von Bismarck's rule and his system of alliances. In his plan to protect Germany and to dominate European politics but once Wilhelm II Kaiser of Germany dropped the pilot in 1890, this system collapsed giving way to the polarized  alliance system of 1914 with two hostile alliance networks .
On one side the Triple alliance between Germany, Austria- Hungary and on paper Italy which was signed on the 20th of May 1882 and renewed periodically.
Germany and Austria- Hungary had always been close since 1879 where the Dual alliance was signed in vienna each pledging support in the event that one was to be invaded by Russia and guaranteed neutrality should one be invaded by another major European power.
Italy sought their support against France shortly after losing North African ambitions to the French but were quite ambiguous also signing secret treaties with France and reneged on their commitment once the war broke out 1914.
Another important treaty was signed June 1887 called the reinsurance treaty which assured Russia and Germany's neutrality in the case of a third-party invasion which was created by Bismarck to prevent Russia forming an alliance with France in the face of the heightening tensions between Austria Hungary and Russia in the Balkans. The neutrality was to remain unless Russia attacked Austria Hungary or Germany France. This treaty however expired in 1890 when Bismarck was dropped by Wilhelm II which refused to renew the treaty with Russia. This and the triple alliance with Italy left Russia vulnerable and France had been isolated since their defeat in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian war. To the surprise of all due to their juxtaposed beliefs and values from a liberal to tsarist, France and Russia signed the Dual alliance January, 1894 a political and military pact that developed from friendly contacts in 1891 to a secret treaty in 1894 which stipulated that it should stay in place for as long as the triple alliance existed and that if one of the countries of the triple alliance attacked France or Russia, its ally would attack the aggressor in question and if one of the triple alliance  countries would mobilize its army so would Russia and France. This was due to the support sought against Germany is France’s case and Austria Hungary in Russia’s case. This upset the system of alliances that had been established by Bismarck to protect Germany against such a potential “two-front” threat. Through this alignment Russia also came into Britain's sphere of influence and after signing signing the Entente Cordiale, designed to settle Anglo-French colonial differences in 1904  Britain also signed the  Anglo-Russian convention 1907. These were the basis of alliances that caused the war to break out.
When Franz Ferdinand heir to the throne of Austria- Hungary was assassinated by Serbian terrorist, it sparked a chain reaction of alliances which drew the majority of Europe and then later the world into what would otherwise have been an internal war for the Austro Hungarian Empire.
Although the tensions in Europe still were maintained low even after the assassination as the news could be found on page 26 in the times in Britain, the situation escalated when Russia partially mobilized its troops July 29th 1914 after Austria Hungary was assured of Germany's support through the blank check and gave Serbia an ultimatum which they refused due to article six which caused them to shell Serbian capital Belgrade on the  28th of July 1914. Russia felt obligated to step in although they do not have an official alliance or treaty with Serbia but sees themselves obligated as the protector of all Slavs as Tsar Nicholas writes Kaiser Wilhelm II: “An unjust war has been declared on a weak country. The anger in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war.  To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.  Nicky” At first, Tsar Nicholas hoped to mobilize only against Austria-Hungary, but -when his generals told him that this was impossible - he was forced to fully mobilize against Germany as well as Austria-Hungary on the 31st of July 1914. Germany thus had no choice but to declare war on Russia as they could not let themselves defenseless in front of the biggest country in the world right on their door step. Once Germany declared war on Russia, France mobilizes due to their alliance with Russia and August 3, 1914, Germany declares war on France, and invades neutral Belgium. Britain then sends an ultimatum, rejected by the Germans, to withdraw from Belgium. Which causes Britain to declare war August 4, 1914, the declaration is binding on all Dominions within the British Empire including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa resulting in a war expanding all over the world.
Therefore one can see how the alliance system was a major cause for the outbreak of war as it caused a ripple effect of all European countries to join a what was to be a local Balkan conflict.

However  one could see that the alliance system might have made a localized conflict to spread, in the end the alliance system was more a symptom rather than a cause. The alliance system was a result of the fear unrest distrust and ambition of the leading powers in the world.
Fear of Germany by Britain, a young country which was threatening Britain's power as the superpower of the world and had to be in Britain's opinion taken down. What should have been a natural alliance between Germany and Britain due to their related monarchs as well as similar beliefs. contrasting, France and Britain had been in conflict for decades which created confusion even at the time as to why Britain would ally with France instead of Germany.  But they didn’t due to their already existing tensions from the arms race which started 1891 and because Britain viewed Germany as a more of threat to the European balance of power than Britain's traditional enemy, France.
Furthermore, none of Britain's treaties with France nor Russia explicitly guaranteed that Britain would ally with the countries in the event of a European war.
That is why although Britain cause for entering the war was the neutrality agreement of Belgium in 1839 which was broken when Germany invaded Belgium according to the Schlieffen plan, even the Imperial Chancellor expressed with considerable irritation his inability to understand the attitude of England and expressed his view: “Why should you make war upon us for a scrap of paper?”. Britain was known for not keeping their word in agreements so why did they choose the Belgian neutrality to honor their word? Was it more an excuse to demonstrate their superiority in front of Germany after being  threatened by them since 1891?  The Historian Niall Ferguson also states that Britain could have lived with a German victory in the first world war, and should have stayed out of the conflict in 1914 who described the intervention as "the biggest error in modern history". He continues to say "Creating an army more or less from scratch and then sending it into combat against the Germans was a recipe for disastrous losses. And if one asks whether this was the best way for Britain to deal with the challenge posed by imperial Germany, my answer is no.” which exemplifies that Britain got into the war rashly and without any preparation.
There was also fear of the Triple alliance which was made as an attempt to isolate France and leave it defenseless and unable to fend off all three countries. This however, led the other Great Powers feeling threatened about the strength of the Triple Alliance. So as a result the triple entente was signed 15 years later to counteract the threat that the Triple alliance created.
Distrust because of the lack of transparency within nations as well as internationally.
The ambition of countries was also a great factor which caused the alliance system to escalate to extend their sphere of influence such as Austria Hungary in the Balkans and France taking back Alsace Lorraine. 

In conclusion what the alliance system did is transform from balanced forces which maintained a delicate equilibrium in 1887 to one polarized by hostile alliance networks by 1914. Through the alliance system a domino effect was created which heightened the emotions and tension already existing in Europe and ultimately the world.  The alliance system combined with other factors such as militarism, nationalism, Imperialism and the last straw the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand all contributed to the outbreak of the war in codependent measures as without any of them the war might have not broken out. Although the alliance system did play a major role in the outbreak as it caused a localized conflict to spread, it was only a symptom which was caused by the other factors which ultimately resulted in the outbreak of the first world war.  Finally revisiting the starting quote of this essay I must disagree with Sir John Keegan, that the first world war was an “unnecessary” event as one might argue that defending once values and beliefs for the greater good and honoring alliances between countries is a good enough reason for a country to sacrifice its people because without our beliefs and values, what is the meaning of anything?


“You have to know the past to understand the present” – Carl Sagan
This essay will explore the extent to which the alliance system caused the first world war by taking into consideration different scopes of time. Viewing only time span of the war or a limited time prior will reveal that the alliance system was used as the means to start war in 1914 or that it was created as the means to start war. However, this essay will argue that if history must be considered to understand what is happening in the present then coincidentally to understand what has happened in a past event one must consider what happened even earlier in history, therefore the time before the war must be acknowledged to understand the role of the alliance system in the First world war.

The First world war cannot be blamed solely on the alliances, however they did play a significant role in the amplification of a small conflict, as well as the rapid dissemination of what could have remained a local dispute. When regarding the onset of the Great war in 1914 by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on Serbia’s National day in Sarajevo it is evident that only two countries were directly involved: Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Before any action was taken between the two countries, Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph however conferred with their ally Germany to ensure they had their support in case of war. Once the “Blank Cheque” from Germany assuring this was issued, Austria sent Serbia the Ultimatum. The ultimatum was however essentially obsolete since the support of Germany meant that Austria would go to war with Serbia no matter their response. The fact that Serbia accepted all except one minor article of Austria’s terms, and Austria-Hungary still declared war on Serbia on July 28th confirms Austria’s and furthermore Germany’s belligerent mentality. Overall this series of events convey that if the alliance with Germany had not existed then the conflict between Austria and Serbia would not have been able to mature into such a serious combat and actual war. Furthermore, the rapid spread of the war can also be traced back to the alliances between the central powers and allies. This is because the agreements, obligations and bonds between the powers created a situation similar to a game of dominoes where one power after the other was hit over by the previous one and toppled into war. The most palpable chain of dominoes can be observed from June 28th to August 4th. This sequence begins with the declaration of War on Serbia by Austria-Hungary. As Russia was an ally to Serbia they partially mobilized their troops on July 29th and became fully mobilized by the 30th of July which called Germany to action as they were allied to Austria-Hungary since the dual alliance signed in October 1879. Further, due to the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 the involvement of Russia in the conflicts alerted France. As Germany recognized the bonds they realized war with France would be inevitable she promptly declared war on France on August 3rd. Finally, Britain joined the war on the 4th of August as a result of Germany discrediting the Treaty of London from 1939 which guaranteed Belgium neutrality. From the given chain of events one can observe that the action taken by the powers was largely a result of alliances and treaties which committed each country to support or defend a given party. From this one might conclude that without the alliances the conflict would not have advanced so quickly or as far, assigning the alliances a catalytic role in the war. On the other hand, however one can contend this argument as naïve since there was a general desire for war as stated by A.J.P. Taylor himself who described that “the people of Europe leapt willingly into war.” Hence, the involvement in the war was not actually due to the alliances but rather the alliances were a mere pretense for the powers to be able to realize their desire for war.

Before one can however seriously interpret the role of the alliances in the “Great War” it is important to not only view the established alliances but to consider their origin. When alliances are made the powers assume there will be war or conflict and then negotiate on how in these hypothetical situations they would support each other. The main reason for an alliance being that war is impending. Ergo, the creation of alliances indicates that the powers are assuming war and planning for it, from which one could conclude that the treaties and agreements written were consequently the script for a war. Further, if we consider the scope of the agreements made before 1914 which reached from Japan to France, it becomes evident that the nations were not creating models for isolated conflicts but a module for a “world” war. Which consequently, reveals that WW1 was a series of preprogrammed events, as through the complex structure of the alliance system any situation had preset measures that led directly to further presets involving further nations. Overall, this reveals that the alliances were not simply used as a pretext in 1914 to initiate the world war, but even more cunningly the creation of the alliance system throughout the 19th and 20th century disguised the scheming of World War 1. The deceitful image of the alliances that was portrayed at the time was that the alliances ensured protection and security to the nation and its people. This can be seen in the Franco-Russian “Dual Alliance” which states that in the case of a German attack on France; Russia would supply 700-800,000 men to France to support them. As A.J.P. Taylor stated “In every country, the people imagined that they were being called to a defensive war” As defense seems to be anyone’s right this quote shows that the alliances lured people into thinking that war was the correct thing to pursue as it was for justified purposes. However, while the intentions of defense and support may seem innocent in terms of military action defense and offense are equally atrocious and a part of war. This reality was however not recognized at the time and therefore nations were able to manifest the promise of war in the name of peace and justice. Furthermore, although the alliances addressed hypothetical issues in the future they did have an immediate effect, as they posed a threat to those not included. The Entente cordiale for example which was merely a “warm understanding” and had no military associations caused Germany to feel encircled and intimidated. A few years earlier in 1890 when Bismarck refused the renewal of an alliance even the non-existence of a treaty between Russia and Germany worried Russia and prompted them to seek new allies. One can see that because the alliances were directly correlated to war, as Thomas Greenwood said “The alliances, which had originally been designed for protection, aroused national fear.” In this quote Greenwood expresses that due to the alliances war loomed over everyone’s head and instilled fear. Shows that DIET. This clearly illustrates that while nations were creating alliances for the purpose of ensuring safety they were ironically also ensuring the war itself.

Although the purpose of something by definition is the reason why it exists, with the purpose at hand we must still delve further to reveal the reason of why the alliance system exists. By viewing the relationships between nations and moreover what induced these we can see that the alliances formed before WW1 were the results of previous circumstances. For example, the alliance between Britain and Japan was an outcome of a conflict a few years prior to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. In the late 19th century Japan started modernizing their army and therefore adapted expansionist policies during which Britain made the effort to support them. Japan started realizing their expansion by taking over parts of Korea, Taiwan and China including the Liaodong Peninsula. This alerted the European powers and caused the triple intervention by Russia, France and Germany whom refused to accept Japan’s actions. Britain however remained neutral which in addition to their aid in the Boxer Rebellion crisis improved relations between her and Japan, and led to their alliance in 1902. From this example we can observe that an alliance was created based on previous positive interaction. Furthermore, from 1898-1913 the Anglo-German Naval Race took its course. The Naval race started with Kaiser Wilhelm wanting to carry out his “Weltpolitik” which called for a larger fleet. This caused Britain to feel challenged by Germany and so they also started increasing their production. In 1909-10 the nations negotiated on controlling the arms race however no agreements could be found so the relations were damaged. Between Germany and Britain one can see that due to the long-term rivalry and competition as well as the failed negotiations the two countries were not on good terms. It is also evident that Britain and Germany were not allies during WW1. This example illustrates a situation in which due to early conflicts an alliance was not created but rather the countries were forced to opposing sides. Finally, during the first Moroccan crisis in 1905-06 Kaiser Wilhelm visited Tangier to confer with the Sultan in spite of provoking France and testing the new Dual Alliance between Britain and France. The crisis was resolved in the Algeciras conference in which France was able to gain support by the majority of powers including Russia, Britain, U.S. and Italy. The effect of the Tangier crisis are that it worsened the relationship between France and Germany which put them on opposing sides of the war and on the other hand it further strengthened the bond between Britain and France which lead to the triple entente - one of the most important alliances of the first world war. In conclusion when considering the reasons for the alliances one might discover that the alliance system of WW1 was the result of the conflicts and circumstances during roughly the 100 years prior to the war as they shaped the relations between the nations. Moreover, the system of alliances was a reflection of the wars, geography, imperialism, leaders, fear as well as desire for war that constituted the 19th and early 20th century up to the first world war. This idea makes the alliance system itself redundant since it was merely the pronouncement of a structure that was already in place by physically drawing the lines between nations.

The role of the alliance system can be as well as it’s subsistence offers many different interpretations depending on how one views the war. By taking previous conflicts out of the equation and considering the war as an independent event one can see that the alliances were a catalyst in the war causing it to spread and grow more rapidly. However, if the time prior to the war in which alliances were created is taken into consideration it shows that the alliances were made to ensure and plan war. Through these two perspectives the alliance system was to a large extent the cause for the war. However, if one acknowledges the entirety of the war, by regarding the creation of the alliances and even before that the reason why the alliances were created it becomes evident that the alliance system has no true significance or worth. This is because WW1 known by many as the “War to end all War” was as the name suggests based on prior “wars” and circumstances which created a vast structure of good and bad relationships. Thus, the alliances were solely a proclamation of those structures that were already in place. When evaluating the extent to which the alliances caused the war, one can therefore only really evaluate the impact the pronouncement of the already existing relationships had. In conclusion, analysing the extent to which the alliances caused the first world war, in fact means that one is looking at how the events leading up to the first world war such as wars and imperialism caused the war and that would be a whole other essay.

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To What Extent Can it be Said that the First World War was Caused by the Alliance System?

The alliance system was one of the major causes of the First World War but not the only one.The war started as the third Balkan war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia. It then escalated into a World War which was fought in Europe. The war could have been stopped at anytime by one of the Central Powers or Allies. John Keegan himself argues that, “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary event.”
The alliance system had turned the next Balkan war into a war in Europe between the powerhouses, Russia, Germany, and France. On July 28 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire had declared war on Serbia as a result of the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist group which assassinated  Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Since Austro-Hungary and Germany were allies, Germany had come to aid Austria in the war against Serbia. France got involved in this conflict due to Russia supporting Serbia. France was Russia’s ally in case of Russia being at war. This led Germany having to declare war on both Russia and France. Therefore the alliance system has started the First World War.
On the other hand, the alliance system does not explain why England has joined the war. Germany was building a railway from Berlin to Baghdad, which was a threat to England. It was a threat because England's battleships are with oil, which comes from its colonies in Iraq. If Germany were to complete the railway, England will not have the resources it requires for its navy to function. England could not allow the Germans to build this railway and let them become more powerful. Now that England has joined the war in Europe, it had turned the war into a world war with its colonies, reaching from Asia to Africa and North America. Thus they got involved in the war and took side of France and Russia.
Russia has joined the war to show their dominance and strength. After Russia was the first country to lose against an Asian country, Japan in 1905, they wanted to regain their respect by supporting Serbia, a fellow Slav nation, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the second Balkan War in 1913 Russia did not help any of the Slav nations, which brings the question why did they support Serbia in 1914? After Russia lost in 1905, Russia wanted to show their presence in Europe by supporting Serbia in the war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In conclusion it can be said that the alliance system together with other factors contributed to the outbreak of the First World War. The alliance system alone cannot be blamed for the war. If it were not for England to join the war it would not have been a world war. As well as Russia not being forced the support Serbia and thus bringing France into the conflict.


To What Extent Can it be Said that the First World War was Caused by the Alliance System?

Over the years, what can be considered the principal cause for the First World War has been the subject of extensive debate. This is not surprising; not only was this conflict the first of its kind as the first war to span across so many different fronts and involve so many countries, but it also arguably laid most if not all of the groundwork for the next and only other conflict humanity has deemed worthy of the title ‘world war’ thus far. Additionally, a very significant portion of this ‘groundwork’ consisted of the assignation of blame, forcing one country to carry the burden of all the lives the Great War cost the world on the backs of its citizens, which naturally makes understanding the complexity of the situation all the more important. Many credit the alliances countries made with each other as the main reason war broke out, particularly at the grand scale that it did. This refers specifically to the Triple Alliance (composed of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (composed of Britain, France and Russia). This essay will explore the role of these alliances between the European powers in causing the war to break out, examining both supporting and contradicting perspectives on the issue.  

It can be argued that the alliances formed between the European powers were one of the war’s most significant contributing factors. Germany’s impromptu gesture of support for their ally Austria-Hungary’s position, the so-called ‘blank check’ that was interpreted by Austro-Hungarian officials as a promise for unconditional support and official encouragement to go to war against Serbia, is often cited as the reason Germany’s to blame for the escalation of this conflict. Because Austria-Hungary viewed the ‘blank check’ as an official statement that their ally’s leaders had reached a consensus on, the former moved forward confident that they had solid backing, sending Serbia a list of utterly astronomical demands in an ultimatum that the other country had only 48 hours to comply to. Given Austria-Hungary’s state as a nation weakened by unstable and turbulent race relations, it is very likely that the country wouldn’t have acted in such a self-assured way had they not been certain they had a powerful and dependable ally on their side (after Serbia rejected their demands on July 25th, Austria-Hungary then declared war on them on July 28th). The fact that Austria-Hungary placed so much weight on that perceived promise is arguably a testament to the strength of the relationship between the two nations; despite the fact that their relations had significantly deteriorated as of 1913 as a direct result of major disagreements between the two countries during the Balkan wars, the two countries evidently preserved their alliance and firmly declared support for each other. These two countries have always been natural allies due in no small part to the strong similarities between them, from mentality to culture and language, and so have a natural tendency to support each other. In this instance, Germany lent support to Austria-Hungary’s position in the midst of pleas from other European superpowers, who requested Germany act in favor of peace to avoid a large scale war. On July 24th, Sir Edward Gray of the British government requested that France, Italy, Germany and Great Britain join forces in the name of peace, stressing the current localized nature of the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary and their lack of personal interests in Serbia in particular. On July 26th, a meeting was convened between those same powers to discuss how to best handle the situation, an invitation that Germany declined. Germany, in this case, neglected to attempt to deescalate the situation and convince Austria-Hungary to back down, choosing to encourage the latter instead. Hence, it can be argued that alliances had a very significant hand in causing the Great War to break out. 

On the other end of the spectrum, it can also be argued that because the alliances were remarkably feeble and featured unnatural unions between countries, they couldn’t be deemed the sole cause of WWI. In the case of the Triple Entente, France and Russia were far from natural allies due to their opposing worldviews and ways of life. While France was a democratic country lauded for its freedoms, Russia was highly autocratic. Russia initially had an alliance of its own with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Dreikaiserbund. Otto von Bismarck (Prussian statesman at the head of Germany at the time)’s refusal to renew this pact in 1890 led to the formation of tension between Germany and Russia. This mistrust and apprehension surrounding Germany led to the creation of the Franco-Russian alliance in 1894. However, this was a purely defensive move on part of the two nations; the conditions imposed were such that if either nation provoked an attack on part of Germany or its allies, the other would not be obligated to follow into battle. This configuration would be particularly effective in defending the countries from Germany, given that they were on either side of Germany and war with one would be met with violence on both fronts. But while it was particularly effective as a defensive strategy, it expressly discouraged violence, given that provoking an enemy into attacking would be met with the loss of support from their ally. France later changed their position, recognizing the importance of Balkan affairs to Russia and thus resolving to support Russia should the tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia reach breaking point, but once the Triple Entente was formed, Britain, the alliance’s newest member, had made no such promises. In fact, the alliance didn’t force military intervention on part of any of the nations to break up potential conflict. As its name indicates, the Triple Entente was no more than an understanding between its three members borne of a wish to counter their mutual enemy, Germany, a country whose technological prowess and booming economy (among other factors) made it a force to be reckoned with. This is a very notable point, as it was largely thanks to Britain that the war reached such a monumental scale, as their participation involved their ally Japan as well as the full might of the Empire. With this in mind, it is easy to see that Britain likely did not act out of a responsibility that they felt they had to honor for their allies, but rather out of a mixture of self-interest and principle. Firstly, Britain only declared war on Germany and officially entered the war after Belgian neutrality had been threatened, something Britain had sworn to protect. Additionally, the way Germany made its way through Belgium attacking civilians brutally and mercilessly with Britain just across the sea forced the nation’s hand, as they felt that they had to protect those civilians. At this point in time, the main reason Britain had the upper hand on Germany was that their numerous colonies allowed them to obtain oil, while Germany lacked overseas colonies. With the latter being significantly superior in terms of engineering skills, their obtaining oil could lead them to continue their trajectory as a rapidly rising power to overtake Britain as the world’s superpower. For this reason, Britain was weariy eyeing German relations with the Ottoman Empire, with which the Germanic state was on good terms and from whom they could easily procure oil (Germany had decided to do so by building a railway). Thus, Britain swept in with its allies and numerous properties motivated by matters of self-interest and principle rather than because of a constraint imposed on them by an alliance with Russia and France.

A factor of great influence on the war’s beginning was Russia’s preliminary mobilization on the 24th and 25th of July (during which Russian officials organized meetings to discuss the matter). This had a very significant effect on various countries: it caused Austria-Hungary to put their guard up, anticipating an attack any second; it discouraged Serbia from accepting Austro-Hungarian demands and complying to their requests, a possibility that was still being considered and was left out of the question due Russia’s movements being perceived as encouragement in the face of Austria-Hungary’s outrage; lastly, it gave Germany, who was yet to begin militaristic preparations in hopes that the conflict would remain between Serbia and Austria-Hungary and other countries would abstain from interfering, the sign they needed that war was imminent and so apply pressure on them to prepare for it. This occurred as a result of Russian involvement in a Serbian conflict, an involvement that was encouraged by the Triple Entente in the form of Russia’s knowledge that France was very likely to support them while Britain’s support was just likely. This key move was decisive in escalating the war to the size that it did, and it can be partially traced back to the support provided by the alliance system.

It is possible to argue that the alliance system was the primary reason or simply a factor in beginning the conflict that eventually became known as WWI. The support provided by allied countries to one another prompted nations to act confidently and recklessly, escalating the conflict considerably. However, it is not the only factor to blame, as seen in the way some alliances were too flimsy, countries too incompatible, for their union to be reliable and thus for a mutual responsibility to motivate nations to act. Some were instead motivated by self-interest or by their fear of a common enemy. Thus, it is clear that this question has no clear-cut answer, instead motivating the comparison and examination of varying perspectives.


To what extent can be said that the Alliance System was the cause of WWI?

A popular cause often named for the outbreak of the Great War is the alliance system between European powers in the period of time leading up to the events of the summer of 1914. This complex system connected values, political systems and entire civilizations that were often starkly opposite. Alliances all throughout the continent, and in some cases even beyond the European borders, had ultimately split the world into two opposing forces by the year 1907. The idea that this intricate network of alliances could precipitate the beginning of what George Kennan once referred to as, “the seminal event of the twenty-first century,” will be viewed in this essay both by concurrence and in offering an opposing stance to approaching the issue at hand.

One can see why historians often consider the alliance system as the cause of World War I. As Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “he who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” This quote works on both the level of an individual, but also gives insight into human nature relating to how the alliance system triggered the First World War. Alliances united some of the most antithetical early 19th century European empires and therefore may well have been the basis of unanticipated tactical and diplomatic decisions by key players involved in this conflict. One instance of these adaptations was the surprising declaration of war from Austria-Hungary against its immediate neighbour Serbia on July 28 1914. What caused famously indecisive Kaiser Franz Joseph to make such a harsh move? Most likely, it was the influence of the German Empire’s connection with Austria-Hungary that drove their ruler to this decision. Germany was confident in its militaristic abilities and felt that it was important for them to show open support for their ally. This strong backing may have swayed the Austrian Kaiser’s mind in forming his decision of how to approach the diplomatic crisis that had erupted through the assassination of his heir. Writing this essay in Bavaria, close to the Austrian border in Germany, we feel this connection strongly even now. Not only in the realm of culture, but also in regard to mentality, the alliance between these two former empires rings on still, almost 140 years after it was formed in 1879. Therefore, it can be seen that the alliance system was, in some instances, based on a foundation of shared values that assured one country, that its ally would come to its side when support would be needed. Sir John Keegan wrote in his book ‘The First World War: A European Tragedy,’ that the Great War was a, “tragic and unnecessary conflict.” It is true that this event cost the lives of millions of people and may have theoretically been avoided at any stage of the rising tension in the years leading up to 1914. But when considering the prominent aspect of values that were, and still are, present in many cases of the alliance system (e.g. Germany and Austria-Hungary sharing culture, parts of ethnicity and many more facets of society), specifically standing by these values and supporting one’s allies, it can be seen that Keegan’s viewpoint is not always justifiable. Alliances forced countries such as Britain to take action to defend their allies partly because they needed to simultaneously defend their values, not even necessarily those shared by their allies, but their own. After all, what remains of a country, or even of a single person, if they do not hold to what they believe is righteous? Values are what tie the people of a nation together, what makes them believe in the righteous intent of their leaders and government. If these were to be passed off as a flexible system of belief, populations would lose faith in their authority figures and entire regimes would start to crumble. Hence, countries like Britain that were essential in making this at first local conflict into a World War, had little choice but to enter the war on the basis of simple principle.

On the other hand, some alliances were less reliant on the idea of shared values, but were based upon interest in combating a mutual enemy. An example of such an approach was the Triple Entente between Britain, Russia and France that developed from the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894. As the name “Entente” already suggests, this affiliation was considered to be more of an understanding between the powers, rather than a militaristic alliance. All three powers recognized the dangerous potential for Germany’s further growth, especially through its 1882 Triple Alliance with surrounding Austria-Hungary and Italy (both of weaker status but nevertheless giving the Germans a larger sphere of influence), and therefore sought this Entente to agree on the combat of mutual enemy Germany. A clear piece of evidence that shows that this was the only connection between the empires in this agreement, is the distinct differences between, especially, France and Russia. While France was a free democratic country governed by elected leaders, Russia was a pure autocracy ruled by the divine Tsar Nicholas II. Why would such starkly opposite nations form an alliance if not simply for the sake of defeating a common enemy? In addition, Russia had lost to Japan in the Russo-Japanese war from 1904-1905 (a great humiliation for the Tsar’s regime), an ally of Britain. For what reason then, except for its desperate need for support in the fight against Germany, would Russia have to have entered the Anglo-Russian convention in 1907, only two years after its defeat against their ally? In such cases, the alliance system could not possibly have been the determining factor for the outbreak of the Great War, as agreements between countries were not based upon the desire to fight and defend one another militaristically, but to merely represent an equal and opposing power against the forming Central Powers.

The alliance system can also be seen as the cause of the war by considering its long-term presence in Europe, a characteristic that caused multiple short-term triggers. What made this network so destructive as a cause, was that, even in its background role in the surrounding main action, it transformed local conflicts into issues of international significance, by forcing countries that were not directly involved to offer support to their allies and thereby become implicated. To continue the example of Germany and Austria-Hungary, their long-term affiliation came to a climax when the ‘Blank Cheque’ was presented by Germany, a mere expression of encouragement that was interpreted as a sign of unconditional support by the Austrian ambassador. This led Kaiser Franz Joseph to feel more confident than ever in his undertaking of commencing war with their neighbour Serbia, as they knew that their alliance, now seemingly strengthened by the promise of total backing, would give them a better chance at winning. The check was presented on July 5 1914, only a week after Austrian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian terrorist. This local event, involving only two nations, Austria-Hungary and Serbia, would have likely resulted in yet another Balkan war, had the alliance system not ensured the inclusion of more European and even intercontinental powers, allied to these two nations. While Russia came to the defense of ally and fellow Slav nation Serbia, Germany backed Austria-Hungary, both empires further greatening the war’s transformation by involving their own alliances, Germany, for instance, seeking support from the Ottoman Empire.

Britain’s entry into the war, bringing with it its great colonial force, transformed what might have remained a war fought on only the European continent into the World War that it is known as today. It is widely believed that Britain was primarily motivated to declare war on Germany by the disturbance of Belgian neutrality through German invasion. This would have made the alliance system a very valid cause for the outbreak of war, as Britain’s Treaty of London (of 1839), recognizing Belgium as neutral, would have led to the first shots being fired. But in fact, it was the strengthening bond between Germany and the Ottoman Empire that lay the groundwork for the Empire’s entry into war. Britain’s issue with the Turks’ support for the Germans existed in that the Ottoman Empire had a large sphere of influence over Iraq, their main oil-producing colony. Britain recognized that Germany may well have tried to outsource oil for their own expanding naval operations from this Turkish-tied region, allowing them to grow their military to pose an even greater threat to the British Empire. In 1900, Germany signed its largest, most advanced Naval Law, which was specifically targeted at competing with the at-that-time greatest naval force; that of Great Britain. Additionally, the Ottoman Empire had granted Germans the construction of a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, which could have led to interferences in the ‘Fertile Crescent,’ where British interests lay. In response to the exponential build-up of Germany’s navy, which came to a climax in the formation of close relations with Iraq, the British Empire was forced to take action against their rival force, resulting in the first battle fought outside of Europe, turning the war into one of intercontinental dimensions, while disproving the idea of solely alliances being responsible for its commencement.

The question of whether the alliance system was the cause of the First World War can be hence argued in two ways. On one side, this network bound together nations firmly, in which case the beliefs and values of one side close-to forced them to defend said allies, leading to the involvement of not only multiple countries, but bringing the war to an intercontinental scale, which created the First World War as we know it today. Nevertheless, one cannot overlook the incredible contrast between countries of other alliances, leading not to a strong but to a rather weak and unreliable system, in which each nation is only out for their own gain, rather than devoting military attention to helping out their so-called allies. This multi-faceted question has led to the discovery of many new and unconsidered perspectives that allow one to draw own conclusions and look for new ways to see the complex functions of the alliance system.




The First World War is said to have occurred between 1914 and 1918, but actually started in 1894 when France and Russia formed the so called ‘Dual Alliance’. This was formed because the growing power of the alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany (in 1879), sparked fear in Russia and France. However, when Britain signed the Anglo-Russian Convention and the Triple Entente was formed in 1907, a World War was destined to break out. The importance of alliances can be put in connection with the current German parliament elections of September 2017, which prove that sometimes a coalition is required to rule a country, and an alliance to win a war. Unfortunately, forming a government is not easy and neither is forming an alliance and fulfilling its purpose. This can be seen in Austria-Hungary itself during the Great War, which still continued to struggle with disputes inside their country (which was established from the Austrian Empire in 1867). Even though it is difficult to identify the main cause of the First World War because it is impossible for historians to have the mindset, the alliance system did contribute to the outbreak of World War I.
Numerous historians argue that it was the alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany that started the war. When Serbia attacked Austria-Hungary and triggered World War I with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th of June 1914, Austria-Hungary shelled Belgrade and declared war on Serbia one month later. This was supposed to be the start of the third Balkan war, but because Russia got involved to stand by their ally (Serbia), a world war broke out. Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd of July 1914, which left enough time to communicate with their ally, Germany, to make sure that if Russia would attack, Germany would fight on behalf of Austria-Hungary. After Kaiser Wilhelm II assured to fight for their ally, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on the 28th of July 1914. Resultantly, Germany threatened Russia that if they would fully mobilize against Austria-Hungary, Germany would declare war. When Germany started their own mobilization and Russia continued with theirs, Germany declared war on Russia on the 1st of August 1914, which was the same day France ordered a full mobilization. After the Anglo-Franco relations developed as a result of the Entente Cordiale (signed in 1904) and Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907, the Triple Entente is formed. Resultantly, France (who suspected Germany’s attack on Russia) began to mobilize and thus urged Britain to do the same and help support Russia when going to war against Germany. Even though Britain possessed one fifth of the world, Hew Stachan said: “Britain feared their friends more than their enemies”, and were not able to protect their whole Empire. According to Norman Lowe, author of Mastering Modern World History, “for years British had viewed Russia as a major threat to their interests in the Far East and India”. However, when the Russians were defeated by Japan in 1905, she weakened extensively and was not considered a major threat anymore. Although Britain declined their involvement and their foreign minister claimed: “we are not bound to our allies, to the Franco-Russian agreement”, they moved towards war as a result of their fear of losing their allies. Hence, it can be seen that the July crisis, which triggered the start of the First World War, was caused by the alliance system.
By contrast, major so called alliances like the Triple Entente cannot actually be called an alliance because the countries involved are not natural allies. In 1881, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia formed the Dreikaiserbund, which was an informal alliance that should preserve the Orthodox religion and conservative powers of Europe. Furthermore, it was to settle disputes and keep the peace between Russia and Austria-Hungary, which was threatened of existence due to the Pan-Slavic movement that Russia stood for. However, it can be seen that this unnatural alliance did not survive for a long period of time, as Europe was later split into the Central Powers and the Allies, where Russia fought against Austria-Hungary and Germany. Moreover, the structure of alliances was not definite and clear. For example, in 1912, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League and defeated Turkey in the First Balkan War. One year later, Bulgaria broke away from this Balkan League and fought Greece and Serbia in the Second Balkan War, and eventually joined the Central Powers in 1916. This shows the indecisiveness of countries and how not thought through these so called alliances were. Likewise, they were not always clear as they were secret treaties, which were not formally signed on paper or had records of any agreement kept as evidence. This can be seen in the so called Triple Entente, where Britain “does not even know what was stated in the alliance”, as Edward Grey, a British liberal statesman and former foreign secretary said. Consequently, as the structure of alliances brought up immense difficulties between the countries involved, it can be argued that the alliance system was not strong enough to cause a World War.
            “There was nothing binding about alliances”, as Norman Lowe says. France did not back up Russia when she protested at the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary, Austria-Hungary did not intervene when Germany failed to protect Morocco from the French in 1905 and 1911, and rather than fighting on behalf of Austria-Hungary in the Second Balkan War (against Serbia), Germany restrained their ally from attacking. This deterrence possibly prevented a World War in 1913. To answer the question of whether the alliance system caused the First World War, it is important to consider whether the countries chose the correct allies during the war. Britain should have sided with Germany, rather than with France and Russia. Kaiser Wilhelm II admired the British Empire; their naval force and imperial success, and has “always stood forth as the friend of England”, as he said on the 28th of October 1908. The Anglo-German relations were on good terms in early 1914 and even though friction was caused between the two nations due to naval rivalry, an Englishman, J.A. Cramb, who had lived in Germany for many years said: “England desires peace and will never make war on Germany.” But how can adolescence in Germany, acknowledge the world-predominance of England? J.A. Cramb said: “the outcome is certain and speedy. It is war.” Thus, the indecisive structure of the alliance system and mismatching of allies can be blamed for causing the First World War.
It is impossible to determine the cause of the First World War. Even though historians argue that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (on the 28th of June 1914) was the final trigger, there were countless events leading to the outbreak of the war. Even more than 100 years after the war, as a German, living in Germany, it can be seen that there is a lot of blame put on our nation, especially in regards to backing our ally Austria-Hungary. However, through growing up in Britain and going to an international school, a greater mindset is developed on the First World War and its causes, and these accusations are challenged. Two years before the outbreak of the war, the Chief of German General Staff, General von Moltke said: “I believe that war is unavoidable”, and before his death, Otto von Bismark said: “some dammed foolish thing in the Balkans will go off”. This shows that the nations involved knew that sooner or later war would occur, regardless of the alliance system. Hence, even though there are aspects that speak for the fact that the alliance system caused the war (such as it causing the July crisis), when looking back more than 100 years later (with a greater access to the archive), John Keegan was right. “The first world war was a tragic and unnecessary conflict”.