For the complicated politics of the European alliances before 1914, I have been especially indebted to J. M. Roberts Europe 1880-1945, 2nd edition (Longman, 1989) and to Michael Rapport, Nineteenth-Century Europe (Palgrave, 2005).
'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.
Between the Berlin Congress of 1878 and 1900 the Concert of Europe in effect came to an end as new occasions of conflict arose.
The condition of the military
Among the great powers of 1880 only Britain was not a land power. To continental countries armies were more important than navies. Military thinking was still obsessed with the idea of winning a decisive battle soon after the outbreak of war. It was assumed that wars would be short (as they had been in 1866 and 1870) and the five year experience of the American Civil War was discounted.
The success of Prussia in the 1870 war led to a rethinking of strategy. The ‘Moltkean Revolution’involved compulsory military service to provide a short-service army with a large trained reserve and the creation of a permanent highly trained general staff. The ideal, except in Britain, was the ‘nation in arms’. The railway became an indispensable part of military strategy, but once away from the railway lines the army was still the Napoleonic cavalry, infantry and artillery.
Navies had changed much more than armies. By 1880 warships were armoured, steam-driven and screw-propelled. The British Royal Navy was the strongest in the world. Lord Salisbury told a German, ‘Nous sommes des poissons’. However, the extent of the British Empire presented it with the problem of over-stretch.
The system of the 1880s
Between 1880 and 1890 international relations were dominated by the system Bismarck built on the Berlin settlement of 1878, which was to collapse in 1914. The two great factors in the new geopolitics were
(a) the ‘German question’ (the place of Germany in the new world order) andThe classical British attitude towards Europe was to intervene decisively only when there was a danger of one Power threatening the independence of others. But concern over the Straits of Constantinople and India made her suspicious of Russia.
(b) the persistent Eastern Question and the resultant rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.
Bismarck was the major player in the geopolitical game. In a famous speech delivered in 1887 he described saw Germany as a ‘saturated’ power, whose main objective was now to keep the peace. She was the leading continental nation but in order to consolidate her position, he was determined to isolate France. In 1873 he formed the Dreikaiserbund, a conservative, monarchical alliance designed to maintain good relations with Russia and Austria-Hungary and to prevent them from coming into conflict in the Balkans.
France was obsessed with Germany’s demographic and military superiority. French politicians were divided between revanchists and those who wanted to abandon the lost provinces and seek an overseas empire.
Excluded from Italy and Germany, Austria-Hungary had become a south-eastern power. The dominating concern of the Dual Monarchy was the need to check Russian influence in the Balkans, an area that was becoming increasingly disturbed because of the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
Following Russia’s humiliation at the Congress of Berlin, Russian nationalists (Panslavists) were gaining in influence. Russia felt let down by Germany and relations between Berlin and St Petersburg cooled in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination.
Bismarck saw the integrity of the Habsburg Empire as essential for the stability of Europe, so his policy was to back Austria-Hungary in any conflict with Russia. In October 1879 he persuaded the reluctant Kaiser Wilhelm I to agree to the secret Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Its terms were that if one of the signatories were to be attacked by Russia the other was to come to her support. Yet Germany was in no conceivable danger from Russia, so the assumption is that Bismarck’s aim was to attach Austria-Hungary to Germany so that he could prevent her from going to war with Russia. His over-riding aim was peace because he feared the unpredictability and revolutionary potential of war. The alliance was also a statement that the kleindeutsch solution of the German problem was permanent. There would be no re-run of the Austro-Prussian War.
Bismarck followed this up by making overtures to Britain, but nothing came of it. In 1881 and 1884 he renewed the Dreikaiserbund. In May 1882 Italy, furious at the French occupation of Tunis, came into the Dual Alliance, which then became the Triple Alliance. Germany and Austria-Hungary promised to help Italy against a French attack and vice versa.
Bismarck seemed to have made Europe more peaceful because he had contained the rivalries between Austria-Hungary and Russia and neutralized and isolated France. At the same time France was becoming more hostile to Britain because of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. This destroyed the chance of Anglo-French co-operation for twenty years.
The Bulgarian crisis
The Balkans continued unstable after the Congress of Berlin. Bulgaria had been set up as an autonomous principality, nominally under Ottoman rule, but in fact governed by its own ruler. With the approval of the great powers, the Congress of Notables chose the German prince, Alexander of Battenberg, the nephew of Tsar Alexander III. The settlement left large numbers of ethnic Bulgarians outside the country.
In September 1885, Alexander brought Turkish-controlled Eastern Rumelia into Bulgaria. Russia refused to approve this independent action and Alexander III ordered the withdrawal of all Russian officers and advisors in the Bulgarian army. Later in the year Serbia declared war on Bulgaria, on the grounds that the balance of power in the Balkans was upset by Bulgarian unification. The Serbs were heavily defeated but the Bulgarians were stopped in their pursuit by Austrian intervention. In April 1886 the Powers recognized the new state under the ‘personal union’ of Alexander. A major war had been avoided but the 1878 settlement had been undermined.
In August Alexander was kidnapped by Russian officers and bullied into abdicating. The newly elected Bulgarian assembly turned out to be very anti-Russian, opening up the threat of a direct Russian invasion. Yet it was obvious that Austria-Hungary would not allow this to happen. Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary had become allies.
This crisis made the renewal of the Dreikaiserbund impossible. Instead Bismarck negotiated a Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887 though he knew this was a feeble substitute. His attempt at bridge-building between Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed. The Russians felt angry and resentful towards both Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian crisis showed that Austro-Russian rivalry in the Balkans was now the great destabilizing factor in eastern Europe. Bismarck was acutely aware of this fact. An even greater problem (from his point of view) was how to keep France isolated. Would he be able to prevent a Franco-Russian rapprochement? In 1888 the first Russian loan was floated in Paris and the dependence of Russia on the French capital market began.
The fall of Bismarck
|Punch cartoon: 'Dropping the pilot'|
Bismarck’s fall did not immediately change German foreign policy but it opened the way for the transformation of the European system which he had dominated since 1870. His achievements were thrown away in the next decade. German foreign policy became confused and dependent on the Kaiser’s unstable character.