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An impossibly complex web of alliances that maintained a fragile peace in Europe (and surprisingly held it together since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815) always threatened to unravel. Chief among them was the Triple Alliance of 1882 among Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, in which each member agreed to defend the others in war.

The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, by Serbian nationalists, made Austria declare war on Serbia. A doomsday machine kicked into gear: Russia mobilized against Austria. Germany mobilized against Russia. France mobilized against Germany. Germany prepared long-held plans to attack France.


German unification in 1870 had changed the balance of power in Europe. However, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck worked hard to maintain peace and order in Europe and to make Germany indispensable to Europe.

  1. The Formation of Alliances

    1. The Triple Alliance

      1. In 1873, Bismarck created the “Three Emperor’s League of Germany, Russia, and Austria, but it eventually broke down when Russia’s relations with Germany soured.

      2. The result was the Dual Alliance (1879) between Germany and Austria.

      3. Italy joined in 1882, making it the Triple Alliance

      4. Bismarck kept up relations with Russia, but after he was fired by Wilhelm II, Germany’s tie with Russia ended.

    1. The Triple Entente

      1. In 1894, Russia and France formed a military alliance. This surprised other European powers, since the two allies’ forms of government were so different. Had a significant revolutionary movement that wanted to topple the monarchy.

      2. Britain grew worried about its isolation from Europe.

      3. In 1897 Wilhelm II announced a new, aggressive foreign policy (Weltpolitik) and began constructing a large, powerful fleet. This alarmed Britain, who then in 1904 entered into an agreement with France called the “Entente Cordial” (friendly relationship), which was not a formal alliance.

      4. This made Germany fear being encircled. Germany tried to provoke a colonial crisis in Morocco, hoping to divide England and France; the result was the exact opposite.

      5. In 1907, Britain entered into an entente with Russia. The relationships between Russia, France and Britain became known as the Triple Entente.

      6. The system of alliances meant that “Europe was a heap of swords piled as delicately as jackstraws; one could not be pulled out without moving the others.” (Barbara Tuchman)

  1. The Balkans

    1. The receding of the Ottoman Empire led to a power vacuum in the Balkans.

    2. Bismarck once said all of his careful work would be undone by “some damn fool thing in the Balkans.”

    3. Austria saw the Balkan nations as a threat, while Russia coveted a relationship with them. Austria in particular was worried about Serbia, who desired a Pan-Slavic state.

    4. In 1908, Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. (It had administered Bosnia since 1878, but Bosnia had remained under nominal Ottoman control. The annexation infuriated Serbia.

    5. In 1912 the Balkan League (Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece) attacked and defeated the Ottoman Empire, taking most remaining Ottoman territory in Europe. (First Balkan War)

    6. Bulgaria, dissatisfied with the land they acquired, then attacked its former allies. (Second Balkan War). The Allies won, and Serbia gained new confidence. It also gained new territory, and its population increased from 2.8 million to 4.4 million.

  1. The July Crisis (1914)

    1. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife visited Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia. This was on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo.

    2. A secret organization of Serb radicals, the Black Hand, conspired to assassinate the Archduke while he was in Sarajevo. The Black Hand’s motto was “Union or Death.” Their leader was Dragutin Dmitrijevich (“Apis”). an officer in the Serbian army.

    3. The assassins (of whom there were at least 7) repeatedly failed in their mission, but eventually the car containing the Archduke and his wife took a wrong turn and then backed up in a location very near one assassin named Gavrilo Princip.

    4. Princip shot the Archduke and his wife at close range, killing both. (Ironically, the Archduke was one of Serbia’s best friends among the Austrians)

    5. Austria believed that the Serbian government was behind the assassination (despite a lack of evidence). They decided to get even with Serbia.

    6. Austria asked Germany if they would support them if they took aggressive action against Serbia. On July 5, Germany agreed, giving Austria what later became known as the “Blank Check”

    7. On July 23, A-H sent an ultimatum to Serbia, with multiple demands. It was designed to be rejected. Serbia accepted all the conditions except a few.

    8. Russia and Britain offered peace proposals, but Austria rejected them.

    9. Austria declared Serbia’s response to the ultimate unacceptable, and on July 28, they declared war on Serbia. The next day, they began bombarding Belgrade.

  1. Europe Mobilizes

    1. To support Serbia, Russia ordered the mobilization of their armed forces on July 30.

    2. The next day, Germany sent an ultimatum to Russia: stop mobilizing, or face war. Russia did not halt its mobilization.

    3. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia. The next day, Germany declared an ultimatum on Belgium: they must allow German troops to pass through their country on the way to attack France. Belgium refused.

    4. Britain told Germany that if they violated Belgium’s neutrality, they would go to war with them.

    5. On August 3, Germany declared war on France. The next day, they invaded Belgium. They denigrated Belgium’s neutrality agreement as a “scrap of paper.”

    6. The following day, Britain declared war on Germany. On August 12, they landed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 120,000 soldiers in northern France.

    7. Italy backed out of its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, choosing to stay neutral.

    8. The two sides in the war were now set: the Central Powers (Germany and Austria Hungary) versus the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and Russia). The war would be a general war.

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