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Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there had been several regional conflicts in Europe, but there had not been a general war (one that involved all of the major European powers). Between 1815 and 1914, the most powerful nations of Europe had coexisted in an arrangement called the “Balance of Power.” Under this arrangement, the major powers of Europe kept each other’s power in check. If one nation seemed to be growing too powerful, the others would act to stop this and preserve the balance.

In 1914, Europe was dominated by several major powers, most of which were multinational empires. They called themselves the Great Powers. There were 5 Great Powers, as well as two other nations who desired to be, although they lacked the military and economic power of the others. Let’s go around Europe and take a look at each of these powers.

  1. Russia

    1. Empire, ruled by the Romanov dynasty. It was an absolute monarchy ruled by Czar Nicholas II.

    2. Population: 164,000,000

    3. Had an enormous amount of land and natural resources.

    4. Lagged behind the rest of Europe in agricultural and industrial development. (But it was NOT a backwater; it had the 4th largest economy in the world, and the economy was growing)

    5. Had been defeated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

    6. Had suffered through a revolution in 1905, which nearly brought down the monarchy but was brutally crushed by the government.

    7. Had a significant revolutionary movement that wanted to topple the monarchy.

    8. Ruled over many non-Russian ethnic groups, including Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, and many others.

    9. Russia saw itself as the patron of other Slavic nations, such as Bulgaria and Serbia.

  1. Austria-Hungary

    1. Very old empire, ruled by the House of Hapsburg. The emperor was Franz Joseph, who had ruled since 1848

    2. Consisted of 12 major ethnic groups, including Serbs. This created tension between A-H and Serbia.

    3. Population: 53 million

    4. Had been reorganized into the “Dual Monarchy” after being defeated by Prussia in 1866. Rule was shared with Hungary.

    5. Very concerned about the Balkans

  1. Great Britain

    1. Constitutional Monarchy (essentially a democracy). King George V was head of state, and the head of government was the Prime Minister (Herbert Asquith until 5 December 1916; then David Lloyd George)

    2. Population: 45 million

    3. The Industrial Revolution had begun here. London was the financial capital of the world.

    4. Britain had gained a world empire (on which “the sun never set”), which may have included 20% of the inhabitable land mass of the world and included Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, India, and much of the East Indies, Africa, and the Middle East.

    5. Had the most powerful navy in the world

    6. Pursued a policy called “Splendid Isolation” from continental European affairs.

    7. Conservative power that wanted to preserve the status quo.

  1. France

    1. Republic, led by Prime Ministers Rene Viviani (1914 – October 1915), Aristide Briand (Oct 1915 – March 2017), Alexandre Ribot (March-Sept. 1917), Paul Painleve (Sept-Nov 1917), and Georges Clemenceau (Nov. 1917 – 1920).

    2. Had been the dominant superpower of Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth century, but its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) caused it to take second place, at least on the continent.

    3. Population: 40 million.

    4. Had lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine as a result of the war

    5. Had a colonial empire.

  1. Germany

    1. Constitutional Monarchy, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Head of government was the Chancellor of the German Empire (Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg until 13 July 1917; then Georg Michaelis and Georg von Hertling)

    2. Established in 1871 largely through the efforts of the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Prussia had defeated Denmark, Austria, and France in three separate wars, and the other German kingdoms and principalities united with Prussia.

    3. Population: 65 million.

    4. Great industrial power.

    5. Inherited a strong militaristic tradition from Prussia. Was trying to build a fleet to rival that of Great Britain.

    6. The creation of Germany (“The German Revolution”) and its increase in military power shook up the “Balance of Power.”

    7. Bismarck (in office 1871-90) was an extremely able diplomat, and he tried to assure the other European powers that Germany’s intentions were only peaceful.

    8. Wilhelm II became Kaiser in 1888 and dismissed Bismarck two years later. Wilhelm largely acted as his own chancellor. He pursued a much more assertive foreign policy than Bismarck had. He was a grandson of Queen Victoria. He used very aggressive, militaristic language. He said “Germany deserves its place in the sun.”

    9. Germany had a great deal of political and social turmoil. It had a significant socialist movement. A mood of pessimism about the future and even crisis prevailed throughout the country.

  1. The Ottoman Empire

    1. Centuries-old, Muslim empire dominated by ethnic Turks. Ruled by Sultan Mehmed V (1909 – July 1918) and Mehmed VI (July 1918 – 1922)

    2. Population: 18.5 million

    3. Called “The Sick Man of Europe” because it had been declining for a couple of centuries. Other European powers desired to carve it up.

    4. Had friendly relations with Germany.

  1. Italy

    1. Had only been unified in 1860, but had ambitions to be a great power.

    2. Population: 36 million.

    3. Parliamentary Monarchy

  1. A Significant Minor Power: Serbia

    1. Became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

    2. Population: About 4.5 million

    3. Parliamentary Monarchy – Their King Aleksandar had been assassinated in 1903.

    4. Wanted to absorb parts of Bosnia (then ruled by Austria-Hungary), which had a significant Serb minority.

    5. Had a special relationship with Russia.

    6. Had recently defeated the Ottoman Empire (along with several other Balkan states), and then Bulgaria, gaining territory.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about World War One. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to World War One.

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"Who Started WW1? The Background of the Great War" History on the Net
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April 12, 2024 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/who-started-ww1-the-background-of-the-great-war>
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