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The alliance system played a key role in starting the First World War.
The alliances increased tension, they restricted states’ actions
because they were binding and most importantly, they involved more
countries into the war; they increased the scale of the war. These are
the reasons why the alliances are a key factor in causing the war.
However, the alliances themselves didn’t cause the war; we must also
consider the roles of the other factors, i.e. Germany, Balkans,
economic and domestic problems and nationalism/aggressive policies.
In the years leading up to the war, many alliances were made. Firstly,
Austria and Germany formed the Dual Alliance in 1879; they promised
each other neutrality, it was also an anti-Russian alliance. The
alliance suggests that they were anticipating future problems,
possibly with Russia. In 1882, the Dual Alliance became the Triple
Alliance after Italy joined; the alliance became anti-French.
France and Russia formed the Franco-Russian alliance in 1891, which
marked the end of German direction of the affairs of Europe. Their
alliance was initially formed from financial ties in 1888 which became
a formal alliance in 1893. Their alliance was military and
anti-German; they promised to help each other if the were attacked by
Germany. Russia benefited from this alliance because it was able to
industrialise as a result of French loans.
In 1902, Britain and Japan formed the Anglo-Japanese alliance. This
alliance was not an alliance for Germany to be worried about because
Britain's intentions were for it to be against Russian expansion in
the Far East. Russia was Britain's colonial rival over India, Persia
and Afghanistan; they also threatened Britain's unofficial empire in
The Entente Cordiale was formed in 1904 between Britain and France; it
was a colonial alliance to settle disagreements; it improves relations
but it has no military obligations. Their original agreements were
colonial over their rivalry in Africa. However, the alliance only
became anti-German as a result of German aggression; even after
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had no obligation to help France.
The Anglo-Russian alliance was only a colonial agreement, not a
binding alliance; it was formed in 1907. It was in both countries’
interest to improve relations because Russia was weak after their
defeat from Japan and Britain did not want to risk a
Franco-German-Russian alliance. However, this alliance did not really
have much importance because during the Bosnian Crisis, Britain did
not help Russia.
The alliances were a very important factor in causing the war because
they increased distrust and tension between the states and restricted
states’ actions because they were binding. However, not all of the
alliances were military, but they caused Germany to think that it was
the case; this encouraged Germany to risk starting a preventative war
because they were fearful of encirclement. The alliances divided
Europe, creating the basis of the two sides. We cannot say that it was
the alliances alone that caused the war because some of them were
defensive, for example, the Ententes were colonial and some links
between states were not formalised, such as the Entente Cordiale.
Another reason is that there was no alliance between Russia and Serbia;
Russia just felt that it was in their interests to intervene. Also,
the alliances reflect other factors such as expansionist policies and
finally, alliances could be
broken; Italy did not defend the Triple Alliance in 1914. The
alliances expanded the scale of the war from a local Balkan dispute to
a European/Continental war. This brings to light two other factors
that could have contributed to the war: Germany and the Balkans.
The 3 main causes in relation to the Balkans are Balkan nationalism,
the decline of the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Russian rivalry.
Balkan nationalism fuelled the Bosnian crisis of 1908; Bosnian Serbs
wanted to be apart of Serbia, Austria did not want to lose any part of
its empire because they feared that it might encourage other
nationalities to break and want to become independent. Austria
humiliated Russia by annexing Bosnia whist in negotiations with Russia
to settle the problem; Russia could do nothing but accept the
annexation despite claiming to be the protector of Slav people.
The Balkan War in October 1912 began with an attack by the Balkan
League, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro on the Ottoman Empire;
the Turks were defeated and this worried both Austria and Russia.
Austria and Serbia had to cooperate to ensure that Serbia didn’t
become too large and that Bulgaria didn’t get access to the Straits.
This crisis however, showed that Austria and Russia could work
together; also there was no German intervention to escalate the
problem unlike in 1908 and 1914. In the longer term, Bosnian
discontent caused terrorism; it was a Bosnian terrorist who
assassinated Franz Ferdinand in august 1914.
It could be argued that war broke out in 1914 because of rivalry over
the Balkans. The decision is really taken in Berlin to use the
opportunity in the Balkans to go to war. Also, Russia could not afford
to back down this time; they had to intervene against Austria because
they backed down the first time.
Germany was another key factor as a cause of the war. Germany could be
seen as the main reason of the start of war because they issued
Austria with the ‘Carte Blanche’ which enabled Austria to declare war
on Serbia. Also, Germany was going through their phase of Weltpolitik,
their new aggressive foreign policy. It could also be argued that
Germany wanted war to benefit their poor economic system and because
they had domestic problems such as the failure of their parliament.
Germany is an important factor because of their aggressive foreign
policy-Weltpolitik and because they issued the ‘Carte Blanche’ and
they played a key role in the July Crisis.
Another factor is the economic role; from previous studies, I
understand that Kaiser Wilhelm was jealous of Britain’s superior sea
power and rich colonies. I believe that the struggle and effort to
create colonial empires was a key factor in the European struggle for
economic power. Historians believe that this competition for colonial
empires between the states led to war. There are a few other factors
with minor contributory roles in causing the war. Arms and steel
manufacturers were to gain much money as a result of the powers’
growing need for industrial expansion. Economic alliance was of great
importance and in time, led to political links instead of financial
ones; an example of this is the Franco-Russian alliance which was held
together by French loans.
However, war would disrupt trade between the states, and it becomes
apparent that economic factors are not enough on their own to cause
German, Austrian and Russian aggressive national policies can be a
factor to consider as a cause for the First World War. There was great
power rivalry between
Austria and Russia; Austria saw Serbia as a threat and their
aggressive national policy was the reason that they annexed Bosnia
during the Bosnian Crisis. At the same time they humiliated Serbia and
Russia, causing further tension and rivalry between Austria and Russia.
Austria’s aggressive annexation of Bosnia triggered the assassination
of Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian terrorist.
Again, the rivalry between Austria and Russia could have possibly
sparked the aggressive national policies. Russia was made to look
stupid by backing down after Germany gave support to Austria over the
dispute with Serbia. Russia’s hate for Austria thickened as Bosnia was
annexed. Russia only responds to events and doesn’t even enter the
July Crisis until the ultimatum was sent.
It can therefore be argued that Russia’s aggression was an affect of
the alliances and German and Austrian nationalism. They were also
affected by their economic factors.
Austria can also be slightly discredited for starting the war as it
was Germany that supplied them with the ‘Carte Blanche ‘; if Austria
had been given that support, chances are that war would not have broke
out. Also Serbia could have accepted the ultimatum even though it was
unacceptable. Nationalism is a very important factor to consider
although all the factors together can be said to have caused the war;
there is no one factor that cause war alone.
In conclusion, the alliance system was a key factor in causing the
war, yet there are other more important factors that also contributed
to causing the war.
The alliances themselves were very important because they increased
the scale of the war significantly, this was not a cause of the war,
but it involved many more countries when it could have just remained
in the Balkans.
The other factors played an important role because they contributed
more to actually causing the war; German foreign policy is an example,
it created tension with other powers and encouraged alliances to take
form. Balkan nationalism is also an important factor because it is
basically the reason for the war in the first place.
Finally, the alliances were a significant factor, but they are more
valid when positioned with the other factors.