The Alliance System

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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction.
  2. List of Leaders Involved.
  3. List of Alliances.
  4. Effects/Consequences of Alliances.
  5. Gallery.
  6. Bibliography.


The Alliance System of Europe before World War One was characterized by international rivalry, a Weltpolitik -flavored desire to further each nation's imperial well-being, and attempts to bolster military power. The final effect of these diplomatic entanglements was that Europe was organized into two main groups: the Triple Entente of England, France, and Russia on one side, and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy on the other, with the rest of the world organized behind them. The alliance system did not cause the war, per se, but rather acted as a catalyst which aggravated international problems already in place. In other words, by putting stress on international relationships, the alliance system hastened the pace of the First World War's beginning.
This paper will begin by listing the leaders of the countries involved in World War One, since it is important in examining the alliance system to analyze the mindset and motivations of the leaders forging the alliances. Next, all the alliances at the time of the war will be listed, as they are the main focus of the topic. Then, the effects and consequences of the alliances will be examined in order to prove the claim that alliances sped the beginning of the war rather than caused it. This will be followed by a short gallery of photograph and then a list of sources cited.

Which leaders were involved?

Germany: Kaiser Wilhelm II, intelligent but unpredictable, with "contradictory aims" of being the defender both of peace and of the people (Grenville 17). Heavily influenced by the figures surrounding him, particularly the leader of the navy, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who agitated the Kaiser's already established pessimism about Britain's lack of regard for Germany (Grenville 19). The Kaiser was possessed with fears about impending encirclement by other world powers and about the internal threats of democratic socialism. His chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, attempted to achieve a "political coherency" that the Kaiser could not, but then suggested to the Kaiser the "blank cheque" to Austria-Hungary that ended up beginning the war (Duffy 1). Besides providing an example of how much of a balancing act German politics were before the war, this fact also suggests that the Kaiser was an ineffectual ruler fearful of other countries and being pulled about by his ministers, chancellors, and citizens-- all while maintaining an idealistic dream of Germany's "place in the sun" (Gauss 181-183).
Austria-Hungary: Emperor Franz Joseph, penultimate monarch of the diminishing Hapsburg Empire and popular among his subjects despite his lack of success as a ruler (Grenville 63). He was nearly ninety at the time of the war and distracted from international affairs by internal conflict over Slavic autonomy (MS 1). Despite this, he was very much preoccupied with Austria-Hungarian interests in the Balkans, particularly with the conflict with over Slavic areas in the region (Grenville 65). In short, Franz Joseph was one of the final members of a dying empire and, despite his popularity, growing increasingly ineffectual as a monarch and losing control of conflicts with Russia in the Balkans.
Britain: Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, accompanied by his Foreign Secretary Edward Grey. Pre-war Britain was characterized by indecision over whether or not to go to war. Among the myriad reasons for staying the nation's hand was the fact that even Asquith did not know which country posed a greater threat to Britain: the economically threatening Russia or belligerent Germany (Grenville 43). Grey in particular wanted Britain to play mediator in the conflict, insisting again and again that Britain "could not give any pledge at the present time" (Grey 1). In other words, Asquith and Grey were filled with indecision regarding Britain's relationships with other countries and regarding the necessity of fighting a war in the first place.
Russia: Tsar Nicholas II, a monarch forced in 1905 by the unrest of the peasant population to make cocessions to democracy by instituting a new parliamentary body (Grenville 55). The Russo-Japanese War had proved to the Russian population that the Tsar was losing his power, and when he greeted their uprising with repression and massacre, the Tsar began to lose his authority over the nation (a slow process which would later culminate in the Russian Revolution). He was also losing his ability to govern effectually, since his wife Alexandra (as can be seen in their wartime correspondence) increasingly influenced his decisions. At any rate, the Tsar had a nation to which he needed to prove himself. This showed most of all in the way Russia took such a powerful interest in protecting Serbia from Austria-Hungary. The Tsar needed to solve national conflicts on an international scale.
France: President Raymond Poincaré, conservative nationalist, determinedly anti-Germany, and aggressively pursuant of an alliance with Russia despite the wariness of earlier French policy. As far as the alliance system went, the most significant aspect of Poincaré's attitude was his "unwavering support" for Russia towards the beginning of the war, which proved crucial in Russia's decision to go to war (Grenville 30). France was one of the most stable countries pre-war despite the fact that Poincaré was a very recent addition to the bureaucracy. The president, strengthened by his staunch nationalist policies, believed wholeheartedly in the correctness of entering the war.
Italy: Giovanni Giolitti, leading politician of the leading party in Italy's oligarchy. Italy's role in World War One was minimal, but its reasoning for joining alliances and getting involved in the Balkans can be explained by what Grenville describes as Giolitti's "opportunistic imperialism": international decisions largely designed to appease dissidents at home (34).
The United States: President Woodrow Wilson. The United States was at this time an enormous world power becoming more and more deeply entangled in international matters due to its own imperialistic aspirations. The country's leaders, however, were wary of joining the war, initially viewing it as a strictly European war and one that would do a great deal of harm at home. But, after the sinking of the Lusitania and no small amount of goading from Britain, a reluctant Wilson was forced to make a decision as to which side the United States would join in the war (Dwyer 1).

The Alliances

The Dual Alliance (1879): During the Congress of Berlin in 1878, discussions of the Balkan problems between Austria with support of Britain against Russia were settled. Russia and Austria went into rivalry for the Balkans, but Russia had defeated the Turkish Rule. Soon, Bulgaria was created, and was viewed to be a "Russian Puppet", so Austria intervened. Bismarck volunteered as an "honest broker" during the Congress and ended up siding with Austria. Thus, the alliance was formed, which forced Russia to sign the . Russia was left humiliated and anger for the Bismarck increased. Bismarck decided to have Austria as an ally because of the many opportunities Austria offers. Austria is an easier country to control and it has opportunities for Germany to intervene in the Balkans. The alliance agreed "(i) to maintain the existing territorial arrangements in Europe; (ii) to resist the spread of revolutionary (e.g. socialist) movements; and (iii) to consult one another if any international difficulties arose" (Poon).

The Triple Alliance (1882): The was an extension to the Dual Alliance. The expansion of this alliance included Italy. Once French annexation took place of an area in Africa, Tunis, it isolated Italy. Italy was furious because Tunis was a potential location for "an Italian Empire to be built" (Poon). Thus, their anger for the French was created and the acceptance into the dual alliance became official.

Reinsurance Treaty (1887): was a secret treaty that occurred between Germany and Russia to remain neutral to each other if one of them was involved in a war with a third great power. For example, Germany was to remain neutral if Russia was at war with Britain, and Russia is to stay neutral if France attacked Germany (although this never happened). Germany created this treaty with Russia behind Austria's back after the dispute between Austria and Russia for the Balkans, which resulted into the termination of The Emperor's League. This displayed another one of Bismarck's actions to preserve peace throughout Europe and put notice to Russia that if she were to go against war with Austria, Germany would not stop to assist her ally.

Franco-Russian Alliance (1892): The Franco-Russian Alliance became essential for both Russia and France after the Reinsurance Treaty in 1890. Russia was already given large amounts of loans by the French banks for her industrial and military development for the past years. After Germany dropped her treaty with Russia, Russia had to consider her isolated condition. Because Bismarck achieved success in isolating her diplomatically, France saw the Alliance with Russia to be an opportunity. It made it "possible for France to continue to conduct policy as a great power despite her relative inferiority in population and production" (Grenville 28). Soon, a military convention was created and signed by the Tsar in 1894. This alliance began confidential, but eventually became public later in the year. With the establishment of this alliance, two individual groups (Triple Alliance and Triple Entente) were present in Europe, which caused an uprising of suspicions between each alliance. This treaty declared that if France were attacked by Germany with support from Italy, Russia would aid France. The same process goes for Russia, if attacked by Germany supported by Austria-Hungary. If mobilization were to occur from any of the members of the Triple Alliance, immediate mobilization From France and Russia would take place.

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902): After being diplomatically isolated, Britain attempted to join alliances. They wanted to avoid involvement in European affairs. By the late 19th century, she felt that this policy was no longer a practical policy, for she could no longer command respect in world politics (poon). Britain ended up creaking an alliance with Japan which benefited her in diplomatic relations into becoming very significant. It allowed her to abandon her policy of isolation and her fear of Russian colonial expansion decreased (poon).

The Entente Cordial (1904): The Entente Cordial was the alliance between Britain and France. The French Government wanted control of Morocco, as well as the Germans. Soon, the Germans sent threats to France, which alarmed Britain. This terminated the imperial differences between Britain and France and Britain gave France her support against Germany (Grenville). However, this alliance did not require Britain to aid France if she were attacked by Germany. This alliance was created to defend France, because the idea of Germany attaining dominance was a fearful thought.

The Anglo-Russian Agreement (1907): This agreement brought the Triple Alliance to unite and end suspicions between Britain and Russia. The Russians wanted to resolve the differences with Britain over Afghanistan, Persia, and Tibet. This agreement "delineated spheres of influence in Persia, stipulated that neither country would interfere in Tibet's internal affairs, and recognized Britain's influence over Afghanistan" (Britannica). Thus, the triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) was created.


As a result of the alliances made before World War One, two clear "sides" formed: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy versus Britain, France, and Russia. The alliances had multiple effects on the countries. Oftentimes they created a sense of security for countries who, without their allies' military aid, would have been much worse off, as in the case of France's alliance with Russia. Sometimes, though, the alliances aggravated other countries, as in Germany's attempt to test the closeness of the Entente Cordiale by creating trouble in Morocco (McDonough?). Some alliances, like the Re-Insurance Treaty, even ended up being nothing but diplomatic gestures.
As crises continued to happen in Agadir and Morocco, each country made attempts to "stand by" their allies and to honor their alliances. This made the pre-war atmosphere increasingly tense, particularly for Germany, who saw itself as being encircled in a "ring" of unfriendly countries (Hewitson 9). Once Germany had made its Schlieffen Plan, formed in a haste out of encirclement paranoia, Russia and France came closer and closer to mobilization. When Germany finally issued the blank cheque to Austria-Hungary in response to the trouble in Serbia, mobilization happened at an extremely quick pace (despite the personal misgivings of even the Tsar and the Kaiser) and war began almost instantly (Don Levine 1).
It is clear from the way countries were forced to quicken the pace of mobilization because of their networks of alliances that these alliances were responsible for that heightened pace. It cannot, however, be proven that the alliances in any way caused the war to begin. If anything, they were initially preventative measures that became catalysts for the action that ensued. The alliance system before the First World War did not cause the war, but it made the war happen at breakneck speed.


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A clear picture of the alliances (including years):
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The Triple Alliance:
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Sources Cited

Britannica. "Anglo-Russian Entente. Encyclopædia Britannica,, 1994-2008. Web. Dec 16 2010.

Don Levine, Isaac. The Kaiser's letters to the Tsar, copied from the government archives in Petrograd, and brought from Russia. London: Hodder and Soughton Ltd, 1920. Print.
Duffy, Michael. “Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.” Who’s Who. FirstWorldWar?.com, 2009. Web. Dec. 16 2010.
Dwyer, John J. “The United States and World War I.” LewRockwell?.com. LewRockwell?.com, 2004. Web. Dec. 16 2010.
Edwards, Alan James. “Alliances before and during World War One.” Psikoloji. Psikoloji, 1997. Web. Dec. 16 2010.
Guass, C. The German Kaiser as Shown in his Public Utterances. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915. Print.
Grenville, J.A.S. A History of the World in the 20th Century. USA: HarperCollins?, 2000. Print.
Hamilton, Richard F. and Holger H. Herwig. Origins of World War One. London: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.
Hanlon, Mark. “1879-1914: The Deadly Alliances.” Trenches on the Web. The Great War Society, 2004. Web. Dec. 16 2010.
Hewitson, Mark. Germany and the Causes of the First World War. New York: Berg, 2006. Print.
McDonough?, Frank. The Origins of the First and Second World Wars. London: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.
MS. “Emperor Franz Josef.” WWI Biographical Dictionary. World War One Document Archive, 2009. Web. Dec. 16 2010.
PBS. “The Great War/Maps And Battles/Europe in 1914.” The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. PBS, 2004. Web. Dec. 16 2010.
Pearcy, Thomas Ph.D and Mary son. “Franco-Russian Alliance.” W.W. Norton. W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. Web. Dec. 16 2010.
Poon, H.W. “World War I: Alliance System.” The Corner of the World.
TheCorner**?.org, 1979. Web. Dec. 16 2010.