Origins Of The Great War

The roots of the First World War reach back to the last decades of the 19th century.[9] After France’s defeat by Prussia, the emergence in 1871 of a great German Empire dramatically altered the balance of forces in Europe. For centuries the German lands had served as a battlefield for the European powers, who exploited the disunity of the territory for their own aggrandizement. Now the political skills of the Prussian minister Otto von Bismarck and the might of the Prussian army had created what was clearly the leading continental power, extending from the French to the Russian borders and from the Baltic to the Alps.

One of the main concerns of Bismarck, who served as Prussian minister and German Chancellor for another two decades, was to preserve the newfound unity of the this, the Second Reich. Above all, war had to be avoided. The Treaty of Frankfurt ending the Franco-Prussian War compelled France to cede Alsace and half of Lorraine, a loss the French would not permanently resign themselves to. In order to isolate France, Bismarck contrived a system of defensive treaties with Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, insuring that France could find no partner for an attack on Germany.

In 1890, the old Chancellor was dismissed by the new Kaiser, Wilhelm II. In the same year, Russia was suddenly freed of the connection with Germany by the expiration and non-renewal of the “Reinsurance Treaty.” Diplomatic moves began in Paris to win over Russia to an alliance which could be used to further French purposes, defensive and possibly offensive as well.[10] Negotiations between the civilian and military leaders of the two countries produced, in 1894, a Franco-Russian military treaty, which remained in effect through the onset of the First World War. At this time it was understood, as General Boisdeffre told Tsar Alexander III, that “mobilization means war.” Even a partial mobilization by Germany, Austria-Hungary, or Italy was to be answered by a total mobilization of France and Russia and the inauguration of hostilities against all three members of the Triple Alliance.[11]

In the years that followed, French diplomacy continued to be, as Laurence Lafore put it, “dazzlingly brilliant.”[12] The Germans, in contrast, stumbled from one blunder to another; the worst of these was the initiation of a naval arms race with Britain. When the latter finally decided to abandon its traditional aversion to peacetime entanglements with other powers, the French devised an Entente cordiale, or “cordial understanding,” between the two nations. In 1907, with France’s friendly encouragement, England and Russia resolved various points of contention, and a Triple Entente came into existence, confronting the Triple Alliance…

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