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World War I: Causes

A Preventable War

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World War I: Causes

HMS Dreadnought, 1906/7

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

World War I: 101 | Next: 1914 - Opening Campaigns

A Prosperous Europe

The early years of the 20th century saw tremendous growth in Europe of both population and prosperity. With arts and culture flourishing, few believed a general war possible due to the peaceful cooperation required to maintain increasing levels of trade as well as technologies such as the telegraph and railroad. Despite this, numerous social, military, and nationalistic tensions ran beneath the surface. As the great European empires struggled to expand their territory, they were confronted with increasing social unrest at home as new political forces began to emerge.

Rise of Germany

Prior to 1870, Germany consisted of several small kingdoms, duchies, and principalities rather than one unified nation. During the 1860s, the Kingdom of Prussia, led by King Wilhelm I and his prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, initiated a series of conflicts designed to unite the German states under their influence. Following victory over the Danes in the 1864 Second Schleswig War, Bismarck turned to eliminating Austrian influence over the southern German states. Provoking war in 1866, the well-trained Prussian military quickly and decisively defeated their larger neighbors.

Forming the North German Confederation after the victory, Bismarck's new polity included Prussia's German allies, while those states which had fought with Austria were pulled into its sphere of influence. In 1870, the Confederation entered into a conflict with France after Bismarck attempted to place a German prince on the Spanish throne. The resulting Franco-Prussian War saw the Germans rout the French, capture Emperor Napoleon III, and occupy Paris. Proclaiming the German Empire at Versailles in early 1871, Wilhelm and Bismarck effectively united the country. In the resulting Treaty of Frankfurt which ended the war, France was forced to cede Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. The loss of this territory badly stung the French and was a motivating factor in 1914.

Building a Tangled Web

With Germany united, Bismarck began setting about to protect his newly formed empire from foreign attack. Aware that Germany's position in central Europe made it vulnerable, he began seeking alliances to ensure that its enemies remained isolated and that a two-front war could be avoided. The first of these was a mutual protection pact with Austria-Hungary and Russia known as the Three Emperors League. This collapsed in 1878 and was replaced by the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary which called for mutual support if either were attacked by Russia.

In 1881, the two nations entered into the Triple Alliance with Italy which bound the signatories to aid each other in the case of war with France. The Italians soon undercut this treaty by concluding a secret agreement with France stating that they would provide aid if Germany invaded. Still concerned with Russia, Bismarck concluded the Reinsurance Treaty in 1887, in which both countries agreed to remain neutral if attacked by third.

In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by his son Wilhelm II. Rasher than his father, Wilhelm quickly tired of Bismarck's control and dismissed him in 1890. As a result, the carefully built web of treaties which Bismarck had constructed for Germany's protection began to unravel. The Reinsurance Treaty lapsed in 1890, and France ended its diplomatic isolation by concluding a military alliance with Russia in 1892. This agreement called for the two to work in concert if one was attacked by a member of the Triple Alliance.

"A Place in the Sun" and the Naval Arms Race

An ambitious leader and the grandson of England's Queen Victoria, Wilhelm sought to elevate Germany to equal status with the other great powers of Europe. As a result, Germany entered the race for colonies with the goal of becoming an imperial power. These efforts to obtain territory overseas brought Germany into conflict with the other powers, especially France, as the German flag was soon raised over parts of Africa and on islands in the Pacific.

As Germany sought to grow its international influence, Wilhelm began a massive program of naval construction. Embarrassed by the German fleet's poor showing at Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, a succession of naval bills were passed to expand and improve the Kaiserliche Marine under the oversight of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. This sudden expansion in naval construction stirred Britain, who possessed the world's preeminent fleet, from several decades of "splendid isolation." A global power, Britain moved in 1902 to form an alliance with Japan to curtail German ambitions in the Pacific. This was followed by the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, which while not a military alliance, resolved many of the colonial squabbles and issues between the two nations.

With the completion of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the naval arms race between Britain and Germany accelerated with each striving to build more tonnage than the other. A direct challenge to the Royal Navy, the Kaiser saw the fleet as a way to increase German influence and compel the British to meet his demands. As a result, Britain concluded the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907, which tied together British and Russian interests. This agreement effectively formed the Triple Entente of Britain, Russia, and France which was opposed by the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

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