Franco-Prussian War (1870−1871)

  • The Prussians hoped to consolidate the smaller states into a new German state; creating a dominant new power head within Europe (as threat to Austria).
  • The Prussian Army humiliated France in these Franco-Prussian wars. This was as a result of the effective modern technology such as railways.
  • France lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine and had to pay an indemnity of 5,000 million marks.
  • Germany was a new power of Europe and France suffered from political and socio-economic problems following their defeat. This spurred later revenge.

Characteristics of Great European Powers c. 1900



  • Germany was a democratic monarchy that had a German parliament, The Reichstag, that held limited powers.
  • After the Franco-Prussian War, it was the strongest industrial power in Europe, overtaking Britain.
  • Suffered from socio-economic problems from the large working class as a result of rapid industrialisation.
  • Germany wanted to pursue imperialism and wanted to develop its empire into an overseas empire (colonies in Africa).
  • One country stood in its way, Britain.


  • France was a democratic republic with extensive civil liberties.
  • Agriculturally based with most civilians living in rural areas.
  • Wealthy, and had a large empire.
  • Economically unstable as a result of the "swinging economy" before "pacifist" left and "revanchist" right wing parties.
  • Wanted Alsace-Lorraine back from Germany.


  • Established parliamentary democracy; monarchy retained limited powers.
  • Built a vast overseas empire as a result of early industrial revolution - the most powerful international trade of the 19th century.
  • The turn of the century meant that the USA and Germany had overtaken in industrial production strength.
  • Followed a policy of "Splendid Isolation" in order to circumvent conflicts with other nations.
  • Its great navy meant Britain could not attack, only defend and its Navy was the source of its strength.


  • A dual monarchy that had two heavily bureaucratic and inefficient parliaments.
  • Lacked military strength and felt national liberation from states within its empire as a consequence of the growing nationalist forces and ambitions rising within Europe.
  • The Slavic people strived fro independence from the Ottomans and wished to unite with the Habsburg Empire.
  • "A multi-national European empire within the age of nationalism."
  • Russia was the great defender of the Slavic people.


  • An autocratic divine monarchy with the Tsar being perceived as having been appointed by God.
  • Heavily bureaucratic and ineffective government with rapid (and outdated) industrialisation and large work force classed as peasants.
  • Russian revolution of 1905 after the disastrous war against Japan. Nothing improved, Russian people were unhappy at the turn of the century.
  • Wanted Slavic nationalism in the Balkans to establish its own influence and wanted to prevent Austia-Hungary expansion.


  • Turkey was the 'sick man of Europe' whose regime was corrupt and ineffective.
  • Many revolts by nationalist and Islamic groups could not be contained and its weakness was exploited for commercial interest by other European powers.
  • The Sultan was overthrown in 1909 by the "Young Turks" a group who wished to modernise Turkey.
  • Many European Powers saw the slow decay of the Ottoman empire a threat as a result of the "power vacuum" that would occur.
  • Emphasis on modernising and promotion of self-government was to occur. Austria-Hungary did not like this.

Long-term causes of World War I


Bismarck's web of alliances

  • After its economic, military, and imperial potential, many powers in Europe began to feel nervous.
  • Germany had to consolidate its new position in Europe, and Germany's chancellor Otto von Bismarck wanted to create a web of alliances to protect Germany from future attack.
  • The Three Emperors' League (1887) or Dreikaiserbund joined Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary.
  • The Dual Alliance (1879) helped fix the collapsed Dreikaiserbund after Russia came into conflict in the Balkans with Austria-Hungary.
  • The Three Emperors' Alliance (1881) renewed the Dreikaiserbund with Russia.
  • The Triple Alliance (1882) allied Germany with Austria-Hungary and Italy.
  • The Reinsurance Treaty (1887), much like the Dual Alliance, served to piece together problems after problems in the Balkans in 1885.

The New Course and Weltpolitik

  • The young and ambitious new Kaiser Wilhelm II and new chancellor Leo von Caprivi took German foreign policy on a 'new course' that would destroy Bismarck's web of alliances.
  • German policy makers from the mid 1890s began to look beyond Europe in the hope to make Germany a colonial power with an overseas empire and navy.
  • Such policies would divert German population away from social and political problems at home.


  • One of the major causes of tension between the European powers in 1880–1905 was colonial rivalries.
  • The effort of building their empires was initially driven by economic motives (cheap raw materials, new markets, low-cost labour).
  • Over time, however, it became a mixture of Social Darwinism.

The emergence of the Alliance System

  • Weltpolitik brought Germany in to trouble and Admiral von Tripitz, Secretary of State for the Navy shared the Kaiser's beliefs.
  • von Tripitz thought Germany should mount a naval challenge to Britain, and pushed the Naval Law through the Reichstag.
  • Britain's position of Splendid Isolation was no longer appropriate or useful, and sought security through Alliances as a result of its threat to its naval supremacy.
  • After Russia, France, and Britain were joined together in the Triple Entente, Germany was 'encircled'.
  • Europe was now divided into two main alliance systems; the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance.

The naval race

  • Britain's threat lead to the launch of a super-battleship known as the HMS Dreadnought.
  • The irony of its creation was that it nullified Britain's historical naval advantage as it made all other British battleships obsolete.
  • Competitors began constructing similar ships and this triggered a 'naval scare' in the winter of 1908–09.
  • The naval race changed the mood in Britain, and as Normal Lowe observes, Britain's willingness to go to war in 1914 owed a lot to the tensions generated by the naval race.

The situation in the Balkans

  • The Balkans was a very unstable area that contributed to the tension in Europe before 1914.
  • Turkey, once ruler of the entire Balkans, was now impotent, and many Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgars had already revolted and set up independent states.
  • The Austrians lost grip of their multi-ethnic empire, and Slavs within the country wanted to break away. Serbia was thus seen as a threat to Austria-Hungary.
  • Russia saw itself as the champion of the Slav people and wanted the striats of Constantinople to be kept open for ships to move from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
  • A tariff war began in 1905–06 that dragged France in for financial support. The new Russophile King Peter believed an aggressive foreign policy would demonstrate that Austria still had power.

Short-term causes: the crisis years (1905-13)


The First Moroccan (Tangier) Crisis (1905)

  • Germany was worried by the new relationship between Britain and France and set to break it.
  • As part of the entente, Britain supported a French takeover of Morocco in return for France recognising British Egypt.
  • Germany had not gained notable concessions in North Africa, which was a failure for Weltpolitik and a blow for German pride.
  • Germany had not undermined the Entente Cordiale - they had strengthened it.
  • Several states had considered war as a possible outcome of the crisis, thus signalling an end to the relatively long period of peaceful relations in Europe.
  • Germany was now seen as the key threat to British interests.

The Bosnian Crisis (1908)

  • Following the Tangier Crisis, the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 was signed which confirmed conspiracy of 'encirclement' around Germany.
  • This fear force Germany and Austria-Hungary into a closer relationship.
  • An internal crisis in the Ottoman Empire led Austria-Hungary to annex two provinces of Bosnia, which outrage in Serbia, that caused Germany to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with its Ally, and recognise the annexation.
  • Russia, which had supported Serbia, suffered another international humiliation following its defeat from Japan. This meant that Russia was unlikely to back down from another crisis, in order to retain political stability and international influence.
  • Russia began rearming.
  • The alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary appeared stronger than commitments of the Triple Entente.
  • Germany had opted to encourage Austro-Hungarian expansion.

The Second Moroccan (Agadir) Crisis (1911)

  • Germany misinterpreted a French move in suppressing a revolt that had broken out in Morocco as a takeover; hence making ambitious and assertive claims that was popular back in Germany.
  • Germany's 'gunboat diplomacy' was seen as a threat of war by Britain, and David Lloyd George gave a speech (the Mansion House Speech) to warn Germany off.
  • Germany received two strips of the French Congo and increase the tension and hostility between Germany and Britain.
  • German public opinion was hostile to the settlement and critical of their government's handling of the crisis; a failure of Weltpolitik.
  • The entente between Britain and France was again strengthened.

The First Balkan War (1912)

  • The Balkan League, forced by the Russians and consisting of Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro, sought to force Turkey from the Balkans by dividing Macedonia.
  • Turkey was already weak as a result of the war between Italy over Totalitarian.
  • Austria could not accept a stronger Serbia, and Russia would support its ally.
  • The nervous Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, managed to execute the Balkan Leagues goal and contain Austria-Hungary.
  • This agreement, however, still caused resentment.

The Second Balkan War (1913)

  • Due to the spoils of the First Balkan War, a second war broke out in July 1913.
  • The Bulgarians felt as though there were to many Bulgarians living in Serbia and Greece, and thus attacked.
  • Serbia was again successful. This fact encouraged the already strong nationalist feeling within Serbia.
  • Serbia had doubled in size as a result of the two Balkan wars.
  • Serbia had proved itself militarily, and had an army of 200,000 men.
  • Serbia's victories were diplomatic success for Russia, and encouraged Russia to stand by its ally.
  • Austria-Hungary was now convinced that it needed to crush Serbia.
  • By association, the outcome of the two wars was a diplomatic defeat for Germany, which now drew ever closer to Austria-Hungary.

The international situation by 1913

  • The crises of 1905-13 had seen a marked deterioration in international relations.
  • Each crisis had passed without a major European war, nevertheless increased tension between the two alliance blocs in Europe and also created greater instability in the Balkans.
  • War was by no means inevitable at this stage, however.

Other developments, 1900-13


The will to make war

  • Literature, the press, and education portrayed war as short and heroic.
  • Nationalism had become aggressive in major states, and this trend was encouraged by popular press, which exaggerated international incidents.
  • James Joll indicated that "the reactions of ordinary people in the crisis of 1914 were the result of the history they had learnt at school".

The arms race and militarism

  • Between 1870 and 1914, military spending by European powers increased by 300 percent.
  • Although some attempts were made to stop arms build-up, for instance, the conference of The Hague in 1899 and 1907.
  • However, no limits on production or war practices were agreed upon.

War plans

  • Every European power made detailed plans regarding what to do should war break out.
  • The reduced flexibility of the alliance system greatly deteriorated Germany's Schlieffen Plan, which had implications with the Triple Entente - it would end up fighting a two-front war.

The immediate causes of the war: July Crisis (1914)

  • There was optimism that should another conflict in the Balkans erupt, it would be contained locally.
  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand, symbol of the Austria-Hungarian regime, was assassinated on the 28th of June 1914, by Gavrilo Princip, part of the Black Hand movement.
  • Germany came to Austria-Hungary's assistance, and issued a blank cheque on the 5th of July 1914, that guaranteed unconditional support.
  • Austria-Hungary took the opportunity to impose a severe ultimatum on Serbia a month later; hence seeming calculated.
  • Serbia accepted all but one term of the harsh ultimatum, however, Austria-Hungary claimed it was too late and declared war on Serbia.
  • Russia ordered a general mobilisation (for intimidation and preparation) on the 30th of July; causing Germany to declare war on Russia, and France (upon demands for neutrality that were rejected).
  • Germany passed through Belgium to attack France, Britain upheld the 1839 treaty with Belgium and declared war on Germany.

What was the contribution of each of the European Powers during the July Crisis to the outbreak of war?



  • The Kaiser had encouraged the Austro-Hungarians to seize the opportunity to attack Serbia on the 5th of July with the Blank Cheque.
  • Russia's military modernisations were increasing the country's potential for mobilisation, and this would undermine the Schlieffen Plan.
  • German generals, such as von Moltke believed that it was a favourable time for war.
  • War would provide a good distraction, and unifying effect, to overcome rising domestic problems in Germany.
  • War would improve the popularity of the Kaiser.
  • John Lowe observed that Russia did not want a major war, and its mobilisation was a sign for preparation rather than the declaration that Germany had misinterpreted.


  • Austria-Hungary exaggerated the potential threat of Serbia and saw the assassination as an opportunity to 'eliminate Serbia as a potential factor in the Balkans'.
  • It delayed its response to Serbia, and added tension to the July Crisis.
  • It was the first to declare war on Serbia on the 28th of July.
  • It refused to halt its military actions though negotiations with Russia were scheduled for the 30th of July.


  • Russia wanted to prove itself after its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, it acted as an ally to support Serbia; thus not restrain Serb nationalism.
  • Its mobilisation triggered a general European war.


  • After its ignominious defeat in 1871, it did not want to provoke a general war.
  • France was swept into a war, and did not have any say.


  • Luigi Albertini argues that Britain should have never made it clear it would stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with the French which may have deterred the Schlieffen Plan.
  • Britain should have made its position clear during the July Crisis.
  • John Lowe points out that Britain's talks with Russia in 1914 confirmed Germany's suspicion of a "ring of encirclement".


  • The German Foreign Office was already preparing documents from their archives attempting to prove that all belligerents states were to blame.
  • Other governments felt the same urge and produced their own volumes of archives.
  • Lloyd George, writing in his memoirs in the 1930s, explained that "the nations slithered over the bring into the boiling cauldron of war."
  • S. B. Fay and H. E. Barnes were two American historians who supported the revisions arguments put forward by Germany regarding the causes of World War I.
  • Luigi Albertini wrote a thorough and coherent response to the revisions arguments in the 1940s and put forward Austria-Hungary and Germany as responsible for war in the immediate term.

Fritz Fischer

  • Fischer's argument focused the responsibility on Germany.
  • He discovered the September Programme written by German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, dated 9th of September 1914, which described Germany's aims for dominating Europe.
  • He also indicated that the War Council of 1912 proved that Germany planned to launch a continent war in 1914, where von Moltke had indicated "war is inevitable and sooner the better."
  • Fischer's argument is persuasive as he links longer-term policies from 1897 to short- and immediate-term actions in the July Crisis.
  • However, Fischer's arguments have been criticised as a result of his limited evidence of the December War Council.
  • Furthermore, it can be argued that German policy lacked coherency in the decade before 1914.

After Fischer

  • Conservative German Historian Gerhard Ritter rejected Fischer's view in the 1960s.
  • Immanuel Geiss Defended Fischer by publishing his own book of German documents undermining the revisionist arguments in the 1920s.
  • Ruth Henig indicated that German desire to profit diplomatically and militarily from the crisis widened its containment from an Eastern Europe one to a continental and war.

John Keegan

  • War was not inevitable despite the long- and short-term tension in Europe.
  • The key to Keegan's theory is the lack of communication during the July Crisis.
  • He indicates that Austria-Hungary wanted to punish Serbia, but lacked the courage to act alone, and this was not communicated.
  • Also, Germany had wanted diplomatic success that would leave Austria-Hungary a stronger ally. Germany, also, did not want a full European war.
  • Russia only wanted to support Serbia
  • France did not mobilise and was worried about Germany
  • Britain only awoke to the dangers of the July Crisis on the 25th of July, and hoped Russia could tolerate Serbia's punishments.
  • The Serbs had been forgotten after the incompatible nations began to break the tangled web of alliances.

James Joll

  • Joll suggests an atmosphere of intense tension was created by impersonal forces in the long- and short-terms with the personal decisions made in the July Crisis that led to war.
  • Personal expansionist aims versus capitalism.
  • Various war plans as developed by governments versus international anarchy.
  • Calculated decisions versus alliances.

Niall Ferguson

  • Ferguson suggests that Germany was moving away from militaristic tenancies prior to World War I.
  • He argues that German Social Democrat Party was on a rise and that influenced the Kaiser's regime.
  • Britain had misinterpreted German ambitious and decided to act on impede German expansionism.
  • War was not inevitable in 1913, despite militarism, imperialism, and secret diplomacy.