Sunday, 26 March 2017

Apocalypse 1914: how war broke out

The  Domenica del Corriere, depicts  Gavrilo Princip
killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo.
Public Domain

In 1913 the European powers were preparing for a possible war as the arms race accelerated. In March the German government introduced a new army bill designed to provide superiority over Russia in the following year. In confidence the party leaders in the Reichstag were told that the increases were justified by the expectation of the ‘coming world war’. The French urged on the Russians the necessity of completing the railways which would enable them to present Germany with a war on two fronts. The British government was proceeding with its naval programme. Russia was so fearful of the implications of the Berlin-Baghdad railway that she began a huge expansion of her forces and even contemplated seizing the Straits.

Yet none of the powers wanted a world war, and right up to 1914 international crises were negotiated on a case by case basis. Less than two months before the war broke out an agreement was signed between Britain and Germany over extending the Baghdad railway to Basra. It has been argued that the Junker elites wanted a war but this has more recently been contested.

Germany was prepared to fight a limited land war while it still had the military and economic advantage over Russia and was prepared to encourage Austria-Hungary to bring it about. On 8 December 1912 the Kaiser told Herman von Moltke, his chief of staff, his naval chief Alfred von Tirpitz,  and two senior admiralty officials that if Russia was ready to defend Serbia against Austria, then Germany would consider war unavoidable. Moltke replied, ‘the sooner the better’. On the other hand, it has been argued that all the European states had expansionist ambitions and that the 8 December meeting did not come out with detailed war plans.

The answer to the question of who is to blame for the war? (if there is an answer) does not answer the question of why the war happened. The over-riding factor was Austrian fear of Serbia. Its policy was to show the Serbs that they could not rely on the Russians to defend them. This meant being prepared to go to war with Russia in order to make this point. Austria was willing to go this far because she could rely on German support and Germany was prepared to back Austria because of her new interest in Turkey and her calculation that if there had to be a war, it should come sooner rather than later.

The entry of France into the war was made inevitable by the plan drawn up in 1905 by the German chief of staff, Alfred von Schlieffen and arouse out of his concern that Germany could be ‘encircled’ by simultaneous attacks from France and Russia (as Frederick the Great had been). This required that if war broke out with Russia, France should be eliminated by a pre-emptive knock-out blow. Since this attack was to come through Belgium, it risked bringing Britain into the war, since Belgian independence was guaranteed by treaty.

The Schlieffen Plan

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Towards 1914 (3): Crises and wars

For this post I have been particularly indebted to two masterly books.
Christopher Clark, Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Penguin, 2014)
Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (Profile, 2013)

The first Moroccan crisis

The Entente Cordiale had not been explicitly aimed at Germany, but it created problems for German policy makers. In March 1905 Wilhelm II made a deliberate attempt to break it. He paid a state visit to Tangier in which he made a speech emphasising Germany’s commercial interests in Morocco and the importance of maintaining the independence of its Sultan. This was diplomatic bluster on Wilhelm’s part. Germany had no economic interests in Morocco and certainly did not want war. But it caused French and British diplomats to discuss the military possibilities of the Entente in the event of a war with Germany. The immediate outcome was the resignation of the French Prime Minister, Delcassé, in June, 1905.

Germany succeeded in having an international conference called at Algeciras in 1906. The conference confirmed the integrity of the sultan's domains but sanctioned French and Spanish policing of Moroccan ports and collection of the customs dues. There was now no hope of a Franco-German rapprochement and the Anglo-French entente was solidified. The crisis revealed to British statesmen the importance of France and was the effectual end of the policy of isolation. It also revealed Germany’s isolation, with only Austria-Hungary supporting its position.

The Anglo-Russian Entente

On 31 August 1907 Britain and Russia concluded the Anglo-Russian Entente in St. Petersburg. It ended decades of hostility by defining their respective spheres of interest in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet, with Russia taking the northern areas of Persia and Britain taking the Persian Gulf area in the south. Its primary aim was to check German expansion into the area.

Along with the Franco-Russian alliance and the Entente Cordiale, this formed the Triple Entente between the UK, France and Russia.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Towards 1914 (2): The two alliances

The French fleet in Kronstadt, 1891
Wikimedia Commons

The Dual Entente

The idea of an alliance between Republican France and tsarist Russia - unlikely as it might seem -  was not new.  It had been advocated by panslavists and French nationalists, but it remained insignificant so long as Bismarck nursed Russia and encouraged France overseas. As Russo-German relations cooled, the Reinsurance Treaty was allowed to lapse. Meanwhile Russia and France were becoming increasingly close economically and were hostile to what they saw as Britain’s expansionism.

In July 1891 the French fleet paid a symbolic visit to Kronstadt and diplomatic notes were exchanged. In August 1892 Russia promised to go to war if France were attacked by Germany alone and in return France promised to come to Russia’s help if she were attached by Germany (but not if she were attacked by Austria-Hungary). This agreement, though narrowly worded, was full of significance for the future: Europe was now on the way to being organised into two armed camps. 

At the end of 1893 a diplomatic convention was signed (and ratified in January1894) to reinforce the military one. In 1894 Nicholas II paid a state visit to Paris. But so secret was this alliance that the public did not become aware of it until 1897 and most French ministers did not know its precise terms until war broke out.

The existence of the two alliances, the Triple Alliance and the Dual Entente, did not directly cause the First World War. French and Russian interests continued to diverge in many ways. However, the alliances narrowed the room for manoeuvre in Europe. Russia was committed to the defence of France against Germany; Germany was bound to prevent the disintegration of Austria-Hungary in the face of Russian pressure.

Towards 1914 (1): the Bismarck system

Otto von Bismarck
Puppet-master of Europe
Public domai

'In the approach to the outbreak of the First World War, four factors were crucial: first, the ambitions and strategies of the great powers; second, the system of alliances, the danger of which was less to drag allies into the abyss than to make them concerned lest their opposite numbers renege on their commitments at the last moment; third, the balance of power in the decision-making process between military men and civilian politicians; last, the pressure of both nationalist and socialist anti-militaristic opinion, and the opportunity offered by the war to achieve the ultimate in national integration'. Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914, 3rd edn. (Oxford, 2003), 429.

Europe after 1870

The two great factors in Europe after the Franco-Prussian War and the formation of the German Empire were:
(a) the ‘German question’ (the place of Germany in the new world order) and
(b) the persistent Eastern Question, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the resultant rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.

Bismarck was the major player in this geopolitical game. He saw Germany as a ‘saturated’ power that needed consolidation rather than new territory, but this depended on Europe remaining at peace through the creation of stable alliances. In 1873 he formed the Three Emperors' League, the  Dreikaiserbund, a conservative alliance designed to maintain good relations with Russia and Austria-Hungary and to prevent them from coming into conflict in the Balkans. 

The League allowed Germany to achieve two objectives: to avoid the choice between Austria and Russia, and to maintain France in isolation. But could it hold?

France was obsessed with Germany’s demographic and military superiority. French politicians were divided between revanchists, who wished to regain the lost provinces and those who wanted to abandon Alsace-Lorraine and seek an overseas empire.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Mass politics, democracy, and communications

Landing of the transatlantic cable at Heart's Content,
Newfoundland, August 1866
Public Domain

A democratic world? 

The later 19th century has been seen as a period of modernisation in which, according to the German sociologist Max Weber, traditional authority increasingly gave way to legal-rational authority organised bureaucratically through impersonal institutions. In 1885 Sir Henry Maine pointed out in his book Popular Government
‘Russia and Turkey are the only European states that completely reject the theory that governments hold their power by delegation from the community.’
In other words, they were the only large states that did not have some kind of parliamentary institutions.

Those states that had representative government were extending the franchise. Both France and Germany had adult male suffrage. In Britain (male) heads of urban households got the vote in 1867 and in 1884 the vote was extended to rural householders. This still left 40% of men without the vote.  Spain obtained universal male suffrage in 1890 and Norway in 1898. Austrian men obtained the vote in 1907. From 1906 Russia had a parliament (the Duma) elected on a propertied franchise. The Ottoman Empire acquired a parliament in 1908. 


Mass politics meant the growth of political parties, and well- attended political meetings. As Weber noted, this change towards accountable government and mass politics was accompanied by the growth of bureaucracy. Following the Northcote-Trevelyan report in 1853 the British civil service was opened up to competitive examinations. Prussia introduced a codified career structure for civil servants in 1873 as a consequence of its experience of the French war. Germany’s civil service grew from 450,000 in 1881 to 1.8 million in 1911; Britain’s from 81,000 to 644,000. The burden of government expenditure also rose and with it the spread of some form of income tax.