The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a great deal of colonization of Asia and Africa by European powers, each trying to fulfill its own version of manifest destiny. England controlled vast holds in Africa, as well as India; the Belgians ruled the Congo; Germany, France, and Italy also held several African lands. These colonies funded a great part of the ruling countries' economies and provided foreign markets for European products, and expansion became necessary and desirable to advance the glory and the wealth of each European power. However, the land available diminished as Germany, France, England, Italy, and Belgium occupied increasingly large tracts of land. Oftentimes, border disputes would break out between colonists of different nationalities; for example the Boer War in South Africa between the Dutch and the English. Furthermore, in the Middle East, the crumbling Ottoman Empire was alluring Austria-Hungary, the Balkans and Russia.
An arms race punctuated the hostile feelings among the European nations.
Acknowledging that Germany was the leader in military organization and efficiency, the other great
powers of Europe copied the universal conscription, large reserves and detailed planning of the
Prussian system. Technological and organizational developments led to the formation of general
staffs with precise plans for mobilization and attack that often could not be reversed once
they were begun. The German von Schlieffen Plan to
attack France before Russia in the event of war with Russia was one such complicated plan that
drew more countries into war than necessary.
Armies and navies were greatly expanded. The standing armies of France and Germany doubled in size between 1870 and 1914. Naval expansion was also extremely competitive, particularly between Germany and Great Britain. By 1889, the British had established the principle that in order to maintain naval superiority in the event of war, they would have to have a navy two and a half times as large as the second-largest navy. This motivated the British to launch the Dreadnought, invented by Admiral Sir John Fisher, in 1906. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 had demonstsrated how effective these battleships were. As Britain increased their output of battleships, Germany correspondingly stepped up their naval production, including the Dreadnought. Although efforts for worldwide disarmament were made at the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907, international rivalry caused the arms race to continue to feed on itself.
Tangling alliances also developed whose purpose, ironically, lay in preventing the outbreak of war for conquest. German official Otto von Bismarck took advantage of Italian resentment towards France and created the Triple Alliance between Germany, Italy and Austria- Hungary in 1882. In exchange for Italy's agreement to stay neutral if war broke out between Austria-Hungary and Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary would protect Italy from France. However, after Bismarck was fired by Kaiser William II in 1890, the traditional dislike of Slavs kept Bismarck's successors from renewing the understanding with Russia. France took advantage of this opportunity to get an ally, and the Franco- Russian Entente was formed in 1891, which became a formal alliance in 1894. The Kruger telegram William II sent to congratulate the leader of the Boers for defeating the British in 1896, his instructions to the German soldiers to behave like Huns in China during the Boxer Rebellion, and particularly the large-scale navy he was building all contributed to British distrust of Germany. As a result, Britain and France overlooked all major imperialistic conflict between them and formed the Entente Cordiale in 1904.
At the settlement of the Congress of
Vienna in 1815, the principle of nationalism was ignored in favor of preserving the peace.
Germany and Italy were left as divided states, but strong nationalist movements and revolutions
led to the unification of Italy in 1861 and that of Germany in 1871. Another result of the
Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was that France was left seething over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine
to Germany, and Revanche was a major goal of the French. Nationalism posed a problem for
Austria-Hungary and the Balkans, areas comprised of many conflicting national groups. The ardent
Panslavism of Serbia and Russia's willingness to support its Slavic brother conflicted with
Russia formed an Entente with Britain
in 1907 after they had reached an understanding with Britain's ally Japan and William II had further
alienated Russia by supporting Austrian ambitions in the Balkans. The Triple Entente, an
informal coalition between Great Britain, France and Russia, now countered the Triple Alliance.
International tension was greatly increased by the division of Europe into two armed camps.
Crises in Africa
The friction of an armed and divided Europe escalated into several crises in Morocco and the Balkans which nearly ended in war. Another conflictwas incited by the Austria-Hungarian annexation of the former Turkish provinceof Bosnia in 1908. The Greater Serbian movement had as an object the acquisition of Slavic Bosnia, so Serbia threatened war on Austria-Hungary. Russia had pledged their support to Serbia, so they began to mobilize, which caused Germany, allied with Austria-Hungary, to threaten war on Russia. The beginning of World War I was postponed when Russia backed down, but relations between Austria- Hungary and Serbia were greatly strained.
Europe had reached its breaking point when on June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a Serbian nationalist belonging to an organization known as the Black Hand(Narodna Obrana). Immediately following the assassination Germany pledged its full support (blank check) to Austria-Hungary, pressuring them to declare war on Serbia, while France strengthened its backing of Russia. Convinced that the Serbian government had conspired against them, Austria-Hungary issued Serbia an ultimatum which the Serbs could not possibly answer in time, but to which Serbia consented almost entirely. Unsatisfied, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. On July 29, Russia ordered a partial mobilization only against Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia, which escalated into a general mobilization. The Germans threatened war on July 31 if the Russians did not demobilize. Upon being asked by Germany what it would do in the event of a Russo-German War, France responded that it would act in its own interests and mobilized. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia, and two days later, on France. The German invasion of Belgium to attack France, which violated Belgium's official neutrality, prompted Britain to declare war on Germany. World War I had begun.
Information provided by: Suzanne Karpilovsky, Maria Fogel, Olivia Kobelt