The Role of Alliances in the Outbreak of World War 1

Alliances of World War 1 political cartoon main

WWI (1914-18) was known as the “Great War” because of the immense scale of the fighting. The immediate cause was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. But, the war was a result of long-brewing causes, including the troubles arising from alliances (defense agreements) among the Great Powers of Europe. 

World War I was the result of decades of tension in Europe.  The so-called “war to end all wars” had many causes.  One way to keep track of all the moving parts is the acronym MAIN: militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism.  We talk about nationalism here

What Is An Alliance?

A single nation has only so much power.  Nations often join with others to promote common ends.  The United States and France during the Revolutionary War is an example of an alliance, a political, military, or economic agreement between two or more nations. 

An alliance usually includes such things as financial, military, and diplomatic assistance.  And, if one party is threatened, the other party or parties of the alliance agree to support their allies.  

Pros of Alliances 

Each nation in an alliance provides something that benefits all members. During the Revolutionary War, France provided money and naval power, while the budding new nation of the United States provided a means for France to challenge its biggest rival, Great Britain.  

An alliance can form between nations that might not otherwise be great friends. They might be allies of convenience. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II.  Nonetheless, it is more likely the case that alliances are formed between ideological allies.  

Alliances are important for smaller nations.  For instance, the militarily weak United States relied on the naval power of its ally Great Britain to give teeth to the Monroe Doctrine.  

Alliances help provide buffer zones from attack such as in Eastern Europe after WWII.  Overall, alliances ideally help prevent war.  The strength of the alliance, and the possibility of united action against one member, make peaceful negotiation strategically sensible. 

Cons of Alliances  

Alliances encourage counter alliances.  The nations that are not part of an alliance have their own self-interests.  So, they form another alliance.  The new alliance becomes a rival of the first alliance.  There is an arms race.  There is growing distrust of each side.  

The number of moving parts can lead to difficulties. A single nation can cause a major outbreak of war.  After all, attack one nation, you attack its allies.  The nations involved might in any other situation have no desire to get involved.  But, the alliance sets up a responsibility.  

The late 19th Century and early 20th Century had a range of possibilities for unrest, including independence movements not loyal to the nations they deemed unjust.  The U.S. allied with Great Britain’s enemy in 1776.  Serbian nationalists would be a major spark that incited WWI.

Secrecy also causes problems, including increasing suspicions that maybe even “friendly” allies cannot be trusted.  European alliances had “secrecy clauses” such as the Reinsurance Treaty between Germany and Russia (1887) that promised each would be neutral under certain conditions.  Germany soon ended the agreement, which led Russia to seek new allies.  Tension.  

European Alliances Before World War I

Europe has a long history of conflict with various changing alliances forming in the process.  

A major turning point that brings us to our immediate story was the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1)  between France and a newly united Germany.  France lost, which led to German control of a major industrial region (Alsace-Lorraine).  France seethed and sought to regain its glory.  

Great Britain formed an alliance with their former rival France to balance Germany’s power, including during the race for overseas colonies (imperialism).  

After Germany broke its friendship agreement with Russia, Russia allied itself with Britain and France.  This resulted in the Triple Entente (friendship agreement).  They became known as the Allies or Allied Powers during World War I.  

Meanwhile, Germany allied itself with its neighbors, Austria-Hungary and Italy.  This was known as the Triple Alliance.  The German side of WWI became to be known as the Central Powers since they were from Central Europe.  Italy was a weak link, including a continuing rivalry with Austria-Hungary.  Italy stayed neutral at the start of WWI and then changed sides.  

The Balkans 

The Balkans is a collection of nations in southeastern Europe that includes Greece and Serbia. Serbia, which gained its independence in the 19th Century, particularly had expansionist aims.  This included supporting the Black Hand, a nationalist group willing to use terrorist tactics.  

Russia supported Serbia and other Balkan countries, resulting in conflicts with Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks. Russia and Serbia particularly were fellow Slavs, providing an ethnic connection.  The Ottoman Empire joined with Germany and Austria-Hungary during WWI.   

Dominoes Fall 

The stage was set.  A Black Hand terrorist assassinated the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne. Austria-Hungary sought support from its ally, Germany.  

Russia supported its ally, Serbia.  Russia did counsel Serbia to give in to Austria-Hungary’s demands, which Serbia largely did.  Not enough.  Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.   

Russia then began to mobilize its troops to put pressure on Austria-Hungary.  Germany in response declared war on Russia.  And, then Germany declared war on France, Russia’s ally, and invaded Belgium to march toward France.  This attack on a neutral country brought in Britain.  

Austria-Hungary and Russia then fell in place, on their respective sides.  WWI had begun.  

Final Thoughts 

The two great European alliances did not all by themselves lead to World War I.  World War I was not merely an uncontrollable result of fated forces like some sort of Greek tragedy.

It is important to remember as you study history that ultimately events are a bundle of complications.  MAIN made war more likely.  Specific events led to the final decision-making.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.