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The importance of the alliance system that developed in Europe in the decades before World War I as a cause for it is still an important topic of debate and argument between modern historians. Some argue that the alliance system was a direct cause of the outbreak of war between all major countries in Europe while other historians prefer to state that the alliance configuration we observe before the war started was simply a symptom of the conflicts and disagreements, fears and envies that had been accumulating since the Bismarck system of alliances collapsed, and even before then. This last opinion is becoming more accepted as the one that describes the true importance of the actual alliance system as a cause of the war. In order to determine the importance of the alliance system as a cause for the war we must first explore the origins of these alliances. We will take high-point of the Bismarck system in 1878 as our starting point as the Franco-Prussian war is a key factor for the development of this system.
The alliance system ideated by the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck kept peace in Europe but its main aim was, however, to forestall the possibility that, in the event of war, Germany would have to fight it on two fronts (basically France and Russia). This was achieved by diplomatically isolating France so that its dream of recapturing its lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine couldn't be fulfilled. This was done by, firstly, the creation of the League of the Three Emperors or Dreikaiserbund. It was first projected as a meeting of the monarchs of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia in 1872 and confirmed the following year, the 22nd of October 1873. Here, the very general and formless agreement was given a more solid form by military agreements promising to help any country attacked by a fourth party. And all this even though that there was mutual rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. This proved to be a concrete way to isolate France for as E. Eyck mentions, "the League ensured that neither Austria-Hungary nor Russia was available as an ally for France". At this point, Bismarck didn't consider Britain as a potential French ally as they had a long history of rivalry. Secondly, in 1887 the Reinsurance Treaty was signed with Russia in which it promised to support Russia's claims to the strait and to remain neutral in the event of war unless it attacked Austria-Hungary, the same with Russia, who promised to remain neutral unless it attacked France.
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When Bismarck was dismissed the Kaiser and his advisers were convinced that the most likely wars in Europe would be Germany against France or Russia against Austria-Hungary so this, together to the thought that the Reinsurance treaty was not compatible with Germany's promises to Austria-Hungary in 1879, led to the treaty not to be renewed in 1890 and the Russo-German friendship came to an end. The following year, the Triple Alliance between Germany, France and Italy was renewed. This alliance originated as the Dual Alliance in 1879 between Germany and Austria Hungary when Germany had a dispute with Russia so to get protection against an eventual Russian attack both countries promised to help each other if any of them was attacked. Three years later, in 1882 Italy joined the Dual Alliance.
The breakage of the Russo-German relationship in 1890 together with the renewal of the Triple Alliance caused fear in both France and Russia. So in 1892 France and Russia formed the Franco-Russian alliance. The two fronts were now starting to become concrete and the coalition Bismarck tried so meticulously to avoid was formed.
We can see that disintegration of the Bismarck system led to a series of events that formed the two main fronts that would combat in the Great War the following century, the Dual (afterwards Triple) Alliance and Franco-Russian alliance that later evolved into the Triple Entente. E. Eyck argues that the Bismarck system started to disintegrate after the Berlin Congress (a congress that took place to solve a disagreement between Russia and Austria-Hungary), even though it is considered as a high point is Bismarck's diplomatic career.
Analysing the situation, up to this point we can argue that the alliance systems are more of a consequence of the conflicts and discrepancies rather than a cause for the conflicts. This can be supported by the idea that the alliances had to necessarily have a reason of personal interest to be created. This was, generally, its own security. Hence, we can conclude up to this point that there was a sense of general mistrust and tension between states being built up, and the alliances were used to partially hide or suppress that feeling and were not the cause for it.
After 1896, Britain started to become worried about which front to stand up for. During the previous years, Britain had concentrated in building up her own empire instead of getting involved in the international relations of the other major European countries. However, in one of her colonies, South Africa, Britain fought a war against rebel settlers who wanted their autonomy and independence, the Boers. During the Boer War, Germany showed sympathy towards the Boers: the Kaiser sent a telegram to the Boer President, Kruger, congratulating him on defeating the Jameson Raid. Also, in 1897, he suggested to Tsar Nicholas that they should join together to prevent British plans to expand. As a result, Britain started to distrust Germany and, after a visit of King Edward to France in 1903 he signed the Entente Cordiale with her, this meant that Britain was no longer isolated. Three years later Britain made a similar agreement with Russia, and now that the three countries were in understanding the Triple Entente was established. So by 1907 Europe was clearly divided into tow sets of alliances of the major countries, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente.
Again, we can see the same pattern, the Triple Entente was the result of mistrust and fear, first between Russia and France to the Triple Alliance and then of Britain to Germany. For this reason, we cannot say that the alliances were the cause of the war, the causes were there before the alliances and are the reason these were formed.
There were six major crises before 1914, the two Moroccan Crises, the Bosnian Crisi and the two Balkan Wars.
In Tangier Crisis (1905), the Kaiser had no real interest in helping the Moroccans against French annexation, he just wanted to test the strength of the newly formed Entente Cordiale. After arduous debate, the French and British politicians decided to settle the conflict by diplomacy instead by war. Even though that in 1906 the Algeciras Conference decided to give special rights to France in Morocco, which was a disappointment to the Kaiser, he found out that Britain and France would stand out for each other in the conference table, but were not ready to go at war for each other. It is important to note that at the conference table Italy, Germany's ally, didn't support the German claim. This is an important indicator of the strength of that bond, as later in the war Italy would pass to the Triple Entente's side.
The Agadir Crisis in 1911 was also a very high tension point were Britain and Germany were almost engaged in naval confrontation. Even though the Kaiser gave away in the conversations and ordered the warships to leave Agadir the scar of the crisis remained both in Britain and Germany and it made both state conscious of how easy it was to start a conflict under the current situation of alliances in Europe. The Kaiser was extremely disappointed with the failure of his campaign in Morocco as he wanted to humiliate France and demonstrate German greatness before the eyes of Britain. This would make Britain think of France as a weak ally and be attracted to ally with Germany which, at this point was almost as diplomatically isolated as Britain had once been. A. J. P Taylor has considered that as late as 1911 the relations between the partners of the Triple Alliance were so uncertain that it was in the process of disintegration.
The Bosnian crisis was also of vital importance, especially for the value of Russia as an ally for the Triple Entente. After Russia's humiliation by Austria-Hungary which rejected her proposal for Russian designs on the Straits by declaring unilateral annexation and the support Germany gave to Austria-Hungary, Russia could not afford another blow to its prestige if she was to retain influence in the Balkans. Also it started a programme of military reconstruction as the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 had left the country's military force greatly weakened. As Geiss stated, "the Bosnian crisis was a kind of dress rehearsal for the First World War".
Finally, the Balkan wars also meant conflict between the two alliance systems. Austria-Hungary and Italy were both upset because of the victory of the Balkan League as they were totally opposed to Serbia having an Adriatic coastline and instead supported the establishment of an independent Albania. However Russia and France supported the idea of a larger Serbia. In November 1912 both Russia and Austria-Hungary mobilized their troops to support and oppose Serbia respectively while Germany and Britain made an effort to moderate the demands of their allies. Russia was again forced to back down in the name of peace and Albania became and independent country.
We can see at this point that individual previous rivalries such as Russia with Austria-Hungary had a dangerous effect on the situation of the tow alliances as they were forced to support each one's allies, and at this point, a major conflict were the two systems confronted directly seemed just a matter of time.
And the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was just the spark needed to light up this explosive conflict that was WWI. This was the point were all the tensions of the previous years were released as the members of both alliance systems declared war on the members of the other supporting their allies and causing a chain reaction of conflict. The alliances were of vital importance for the magnitude of World War I. Even though they are not a solid reason themselves for the outbreak of war they are the key factor in the establishment of its parameters in its early days as the two fronts declared war on each other. If the alliances had had another configuration the outcome of the war would have certainly been different and most surely the number of lives lost and the arrangement of the European countries after it would have been entirely different as it was the balance of powers that extended the period of time of the war that was one thought to "be over by Christmas" to four long years.
In conclusion, as it has been mentioned the belief that the alliance system was a symptom rather than a cause of conflict and eventually World War I is confirmed. The alliance system was not a factor determining the initial mistrusts, disagreements and miscalculations but was the effect of such conflicts in the attempt to temporarily suppress the feeling of the inevitability of a major conflict that would eventually emerge from such quarrels.