So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: Why was WWI considered “inevitable”?
I’m going to be really cliche here and begin my post with a quote by German Foreign Secretary Bernhard von Bulow (not the General!) in which he said “Mit einem Worte: wir wollen niemand in den Schatten stellen, aber wir verlangen auch unseren Platz an der Sonne” — roughly translating into “In a word, we want no one in the shade, but we also demand our place in the sun.” Keep that in the back of your mind throughout the reading as it is not the mind of one radical exception, but of the people and the government of Germany throughout this period.
So let’s begin. First, a map of Europe for reference. I’d keep this open while reading my post just in case you need to keep up or want to see where things are w.r.t. each other.
Secondly, while I think that this topic is best handled topically I’m going to handle it chronologically. While it’s certainly less efficient in my opinion it helps really give an idea how all of these things played off each other. When you separate them into topics it compartmentalizes all these things when it’s best to think of them happening all at the same time. Basically I’m telling you this is going to be a monumental clusterfu*k of a post so good luck.
Third, let’s discuss the topic of inevitability. Inevitability is a stupid word but it’s a convenient one at that for lower level education. We simplify things all the time for high school students (which is where I’m going to assume you were first exposed to this idea) and this is one of those topics. Ultimately nothing in history is inevitable and it’s not our job as ‘pseudo-historians’ to try and prescribe a bunch of conditions on the past and say X was inevitable because of Y. It removes human agency. What we can say was that because of the conditions (which I will explain briefly) created in the early 20th century, a war became progressively more likely toward the powers in Europe because of divisions being created.
To understand why France went to war in 1914 we have to wind the clock back quite a few decades to 1871. The Franco-Prussian War was the final war of German Unification and it would, overnight, unite hundreds of independent principalities and kingdoms into one continuous state thus creating arguably the most powerful state in Europe. In the process of this Alsace-Lorraine would be taken and the French overwhelmingly embarrassed on the field of battle. Germany would be formed with Bismark and Willhelm I at the head and together they realized what kind of situation they were in — they were without any friends and were entirely encircled by Great Powers. Russia to the East, Austria-Hungary to the South, France to the West, and Great Britain to the North via the North and Baltic Sea’s. In many ways she was squeezed from all sides. Britain, remaining basically isolationist from Continental politics could be removed from the conversation and thus only 3 powers remained of importance — France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Creating mutual understanding the League of Three Emperors was born which was a mutual alliance between the three powers along with understanding to help quell minority groups such as the Poles whose burden they all shared.
This was precisely the peace that Bismark envisioned. Britain off doing its own thing in the seas with its colonies, France beaten and broken and entirely without allies, and its Eastern boundaries safe from harm. This would change in 1878 with the Russo-Turkish War. The Turks would be completely and totally destroyed by the Russians. It was not even close and the Russians, seizing the opportunity, would sign a lopsided treaty which forced the Ottomans to release a state called “Greater Bulgaria” which, while technically an Ottoman Protectorate, would be a Russian puppet state in the Balkans which nearly pushed the Turks out of Europe. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians alike were obviously terrified of this clear power grab and called for a conference of Great Powers to call for the partitioning of the Ottomans to supersede the Russo-Ottoman treaty called The Treaty of Berlin. This gives us a much more modern looking Balkans which Russia has significantly less influence over and at this point, in 1878, relations began to break down. Here is a great map I recommend opening now to see the state of Europe leading up to WWI at this point.
The Russians and Austro-Hungarians, each with ambitions in the Balkans, would begin to get at each others throats and what was once a cordial alliance grew into outright rivalry. The Russians also grew distant from the Germans as it was the Germans who called for and hosted the conference which got in their way of their goals. Bismark, ever so clever, would at the same time sign a secret defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary with respect to Russia while also signing a secret non-aggression pact with Russia which stated the two sides would stay out of each others hair as long as both sides weren’t an aggressor toward one of their allied states. This would effectively stabilize the situation and once again create that scenario presented earlier — a secured East, a friend to the South, an isolated enemy to the West and an ambivalent power to the North.
I want to emphasize something here though; Germany was not doing this out of the good of her heart or for Austria-Hungary’s support or because she believed in A-H’s ’cause’ necessarily. It was a purely defensive move by Bismark. Germany was isolated and surrounded by Great Powers (A-H, a crumbling but still great power to the South, Russia to the East, France to the West, and Britain to the North via sea) and needed to secure anyone for an ally and A-H was the desperate lonely one at the bar who would have taken anyone that asked. The alliance with Austria-Hungary must be clarified as first and foremost a mutual defense against a mutual threat of Russia and nota friendship or some sort of sign of diplomatic agreement between the two (as I’ll go into later). As an afterthought but still worth mentioning for a later point, the “Triple Alliance” as it’s called would be formed at this point with Italy being brought into the fold creating a mutual alliance between Germany, A-H, and Italy. Italy was not considered a ‘great power’ but was still a significant addition to the team and considered close to Germany.
Bismark, who was de facto leading Germany pre 1888, after securing this deal would look toward Russia. He would not sign an alliance with them but more like a non-aggression pact. As long as Germany doesn’t attack France and Russia doesn’t attack Austria-Hungary they’ll stay out of each others business is the meat of it. Bismark had essentially perfected his craft and secured Germany’s future at least for the time being. Russia and Austria-Hungary were placated, A-H was in his grasp and at least a great power ally, Britain didn’t care about continental conflicts really at all, and France was completely and utterly isolated. I should also note at this point Russia and Great Britain basically hate each other over the whole Crimea War thing and a lot of tensions with Central Asian colonial issues — notably contention between the two over Persia and Tibet.
All this would change when Willhelm II ascended the throne. Right off the bat Willhelm II would sack Bismark, wanting to make his own claim in the world and most notably because of their conflicting interests. I want you to refer to that post I opened up with. A common phrase in Germany in the 1890’s and 1900’s was Weltmacht Oder Niedergang, or World Power or Downfall. Willhelm II and by extension Germany by his influence would begin a policy titled Weltpolitik which is classified by aggressive diplomacy to seize colonies, gain international prestige, and basically bully ones way up the “great power pyramid” you can say. Germany would immediately break the ice by not renewing the non-aggression pact with Russia. Kaiser Willhelm felt his personal relationship with the Tsar would be enough to stop war between the two nations (it wasn’t, obviously). He gets a lot of flak for doing this but it was not some gung-ho decision — his advisers would tell him to not renew the alliance as they felt it would be diplomatically disadvantageous domestically for secret alliances like this with the Russians nonetheless to be coming out. Thus, overnight, Russia was isolated and had a threat in Austria-Hungary who was now allied with Germany. France was still isolated. What do two completely isolated powers with a mutual potential threat do? They form an alliance — which is precisely what France and Russia would do in the early 1890’s.
Germany would go overnight from being in the most advantageous position in Europe to being surrounded by two Great Powers. At least Britain wasn’t involved, right? And at least Britain hated Russia so there’s no way the three could gang up on them, right? Yeah about that. The navy was Kaiser Willhelm II’s lovechild for his reign and he spent a considerable amount of time pushing for greater buildup to protect colonies and moreover, contest the British. Britain had de facto pressed for decades and in 1889 formally passed a system called the “Two Power Standard” which basically meant that Britain was to have as many ships as the next two most powerful naval powers combined. Germany wanted to crush this. The hope was that if Germany stole away Britain’s (by now 80 year old and accepted) naval hegemony, along with their shared cultural ancestry, Germany would be seen as too strong of a nation to not take as an ally and the two nations would fall into each others arms. Yeah it’s dramatic and it sounds like a stupid idea because it was and it had the exact opposite effect. The two nations would begin a massive naval arms race which only furthered tensions and made Britain more suspect of Germany’s intentions of building such a massive navy for a nation with very few colonial possessions.
To emphasize a later point I need to talk about the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902. The British and Japanese would create a defensive treaty which, by extension, allowed Japan to go to war with Russia in 1904 over some East Asian ports. No nation, particularly France who was now allied with Russia or Germany who may have wanted to intervene to get back in Russia’s good graces, could intervene as declaring war on Japan would mean declaring war on Britain. Isn’t that the beautiful part? Since Japan opened the hostilities Britain was not obligated to go to war with anyone until someone else intervened and attacked Japan and France did not have a reason to intervene since their treaty with Russia was w.r.t. Germany, not anyone else.
Just to make sure that France would not find a reason to intervene Britain and France would sign a series of agreements called the Entente Cordiale which basically solidified the North African colonial possessions of both of the two powers that had been in long contention. The French would have full influence over Morocco and Algiers while France would recognize British hegemony over Egypt. What Britain had effectively done was isolate Russia from everyone else in the world, even her closest ally (France) and greatest admirer (Germany), from involving themselves and basically made it a one on one slugfest between the two nations. One Japan would whoop Russia’s butt in. This is the type of crap I’m talking about when I say Britain and Russia hated each other. Even as late as 1904 Britain was actively trying to f**k Russia over so it could gain an edge in Central Asian colonial diplomacy.
Where we’re getting to now is why I really decided to do this chronologically rather than thematically. In the beginning of 1905 the first Dreadnought began being designed by the British which would be laid down in October. What is a Dreadnought? Well a Dreadnought was a new type of revolutionary warship that was so damn good at killing other warships that everything before it was essentially useless compared to it. It didn’t “reset” the naval race per se as we’re still talking about dozens upon dozens of ships the British had over the Germans but we’re talking about such a technological leap that Germany had a chance. Dreadnoughts were short range, heavily armored and heavily gunned ships that could mow down anything that came before it. The Naval Race which had in some respects been stagnating just shot into overdrive. Germany would be planning ship construction into the 1920’s and 30’s and we’re talking about dozens of these ships. This was their chance to seize naval control of at least the Baltic Sea as their own (read: close range) and contest the North Sea (see first picture) and truly threaten Britain which will…somehow…make them friendly? At the very least wary to go to war with Germany fearing a catastrophic loss of ships.
In the same year, 1905, the major event which most historians attribute as the first real catalyst that ‘set the ball rolling’ toward war happened. The First Moroccan Crisis. As we know France was basically given control over Morocco by a mutual agreement with the British and the Moroccan’s were not very happy about this and began bustling for independence. Rightfully so they wanted independence I should add as let’s not get it twisted, this was French colonialism and it’s no different from any other kind. Germany however was not acting in some benevolent fashion and wanted to undermine the French to weaken them and more importantly wanted to draw a wedge in the Entente Cordiale by illegitimating it. If Morocco attains full independence despite the agreement the two nations are driven apart. Kaiser Willhelm II would go to Tangiers and deliver a keynote speech crying for Moroccan independence and how no nation should fall under the colonial grasp of another. Germany had whispered into the ear of the Sultan to disassociate and rebel against France’s wishes and was basically hoping by getting the rest of Europe involved it would go their way and undermine the French to further isolate them from everyone else.
France would react violently. Their Prime Minister obviously insisted that a conference was not necessary and Morocco was under their sphere of influence. Germany would disagree and threatened war over the issue by threatening a defensive treaty with the Sultan. Germany was not going to declare war over the issue, it was a bluff by all accounts and an extension of Weltpolitik. The Germans were not prepared for a war at this point and were merely using their big guns as an extension of their diplomatic body to flex in the French’s face. It was aggressive diplomacy and it worked. The Prime Minister Delcassé would resign as no one would support his staunch anti-German policy and agreed to attend the conference. They were, effectively, bullied into submission.
Things were looking up for Germany…but then then they weren’t. The conference was totally a disaster and there is no way of twisting it any other way. Nobody supported Germany outright. Russia obviously supported France as did Spain but the real shockers was first Britain and secondly Italy. Wait what? Britain makes sense — they maintained the integrity of their agreement but Italy was the true shocker. Germany’s public defensive ally defied it in the congress and while Austria-Hungary tentatively supported Germany it was with an asterisk basically begging them to please stop being so aggressive and be more conciliatory. Germany, and more specifically the Kaiser, could have taken this as a note of the failure of Weltpolitik as a foreign policy but instead the Kaiser became more solidified in his belief in it. He would not again let himself back down and instead viewed more aggressive diplomacy necessary for it to work.
France and Britain had grown closer and at the very least Germany hoped this would drive at wedge between France and Russia. Well…it didn’t. All 3 powers supported the same decision in this conference and recognized the threat of Germany. Britain and Russia who just one year prior were actively f**king each other over began to make nice now and by 1907 would sign a series of agreements which would solidify the boundaries in Central Asia, the fate of Persia, and basically begin their friendship.
This was by all accounts the logical choice for both parties. Britain wanted to support France but to support France they would need to accommodate Russia. Also by extension of this agreement Britain would free up swathes of manpower stationed in India which were there for a significant purpose of keeping Russia in check and contesting said Central Asian territories. Although Russia herself could still go back into Germany’s arms any time she wished in this period and really did not need the French and British as much as they needed Russia, Russia felt alliance with the two powers was more beneficial than with Germany and A-H. The catastrophe in Manchuria against the Japanese and the failed revolution in 1905 as well showed the Tsar that the frontiers needed to be handled once and for all and the efforts concentrated and by dealing with Manchuria with Japan via losing and by dealing with Central Asia with Britain via diplomacy Russia could exert all of her efforts toward the West.
There can not be a greater indictment of Weltpolitik than when you consider the deep seated and long lasting (at times hundreds of years long) hostilities between France, Britain, and Russia being resolved so rapidly. In January 1904 Russia and Britain were irreconcilable, Britain and France were on uneasy terms, and France and Russia were friends but it was nothing really solid — it was really a one way agreement if you think about it. By December 31st 1907 though we can truly say the Triple Entente was formed in at least a proto state. But it was all tentative. It would be the 1911 Crisis that really set all of this into stone and really set the divisions in place that you talk about.
France, using riots as an excuse to send troops into Morocco would be quite slow to leave and were clearly making a power grab. A grab which was in clear violation of the treaty agreed upon by the congress just a few years prior. Now, this legitimately did drive a wedge between Britain and France for just a moment and Germany had an opportunity to shine if it acted diplomatically. It did not. Remember what I said about the Kaiser not backing down? Instead of operating in a peaceful, diplomatic fashion Germany would escalate the situation in true Weltpolitik fashion; she would send warships to intervene. Britain, who again held naval hegemony despite the race, was stunned. With the extension of actually not even knowing where the rest of the German fleet was the crisis immediately shifted from the French mucking up the treaty and more with maintaining the integrity of the Triple Entente in the face of German aggression. Germany would seize a sizable amount of French territory in sub-equatorial Africa to integrate into the colony of Kamerun and would in return recognize French control over Morocco. Weltpolitik would in the short sight work but in the grand scheme completely fail.
Charles Maurras, a contemporary, wrote “The solution of the Moroccan crisis is not to be found in Fez but among the pines of the Vosges. What is afoot in Morocco makes sense only if we are prepared to fight in the Vosges.” What the Second Crisis made explicit was what should have been made implicit in the first — that colonial disputes were now for the first time ever being directly projected back onto Europe and European rivalries and not treated in vacuums. This is only exacerbated by the fact that Morocco’s geographic position directly influences control of the Mediterranean which makes it harder to separate than some sub-equatorial African colony.
The Triple Entente was by all accounts solidified at this point in a mutual fear of Germany and even though by 1912 the naval arms race had almost entirely cooled down (Britain, for instance, reducing to a one-power standard in the Mediterranean) it was far too late. Britain was now in favor of continental intervention with regards to assisting France and would use her naval might to contest the German navy in the Baltics to protect the Russians. Russia who was just a few years prior in this strange land where it could still choose which power bloc to support was now fully behind France and Britain and France, despite having an abysmally low birth rate and a low population would now be able to stand up to Germany with two big friends. Italy had shown in these two crisis’ that her allegiance was only tentatively with Germany which explains their backing out of the war and even joining on the side of the Entente in 1915. Germany’s position was one of isolation with but one friend, Austria-Hungary; a nation which was imploding domestically (and that’s a whole big post for another time) and had a military which would perform embarrassingly in the war.
In the process of the past 25 years Weltpolitik had effectively isolated Germany from the rest of the world and driven former enemies into allegiance together for the sole purpose of containing Germany. It had created clear political boundaries in the formation of two major power blocs — the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. That is why, ultimately, people say the war was “inevitable”. When you create two power blocs like that where one is created for the sole purpose of aggressive expansion (Germany colonially and A-H with respect to Serbia and the rest of the Balkans) and the other with the sole purpose of containing the other, war is nearly inevitable. Some may point to the Warsaw Pact vs NATO and say that never evolved to war and I’d say that’s not a fair comparison because nukes completely changes the formula. This is the Cold War without M.A.D. and nuclear bombs. Even with nuclear deterrent that is an incredibly dicey situation but when we’re just talking about the risk of conventional warfare that becomes a ticking time bomb. It was by no means inevitable and I wouldn’t say that but the conditions were set in such a perfect way that most people in Europe by the end of 1911 viewed a general continental European war as a reality and began preparing for one in a very serious manner.
Notes: Scaremongers: Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896-1914, Anthony Morris.
The First World War: Volume I: To Arms, Hew Strachan
The Opening of World War I, Holger Herwig