Alliances refer to agreements between two or more entities to reach a common ground that may be of mutual benefit for them. Such alliances between political entities or groups, or more recently between nations, have been a regular feature throughout human history and geography. What then may be the reason for such alliances being counted among the primary causes that led to a such a catastrophic event as the First World War? Alliances did not, as it may seem, make war inevitable. In an uncertain and competitive political environment with rising nationalism and social upheaval, alliances had become an important tool both for maintaining or furthering the interest of a nation. The economic and political power play of the 19th century had led to a complex system of military alliances. This in turn upped the stakes of war and meant that any major dispute would inevitably lead to a large rather than a small conflict. The assassination of Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June, 1914 ignited a conflict between Austria Hungry and Serbia, which in turn brought the alliances into play causing World War I. Here is a detailed analysis of 10 major alliances leading to the First World War.
#1 The Treaty of London (1839)
Also Known As: Convention of 1839, Treaty of Separation, Quintuple Treaty of 1839, First Treaty of London
Signatories: United Kingdom of Netherlands, Kingdom of Belgium and Concert of Europe (Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, Russia)
Although not an alliance, the 1839 Treaty of London was relevant with respect to World War I. The treaty marked the creation of an independent Kingdom of Belgium from the United Kingdom of Netherlands, with all the major European powers recognizing the independence of the new nation. On Britain’s insistence, Belgium agreed to remain neutral in any future conflict, and by implication was guaranteed to be guarded in the event of an invasion.
World War I:-
In July of 1914, when the First World War broke in Europe, the king of Belgium, invoking the Treaty of London, reminded the European people that Britain, France and Germany were bound to respect and defend the neutrality of Belgium. In August, the German Empire invaded Belgium violating the treaty which resulted in Britain declaring war on Germany.
#2 Three Emperors’ League (1873 & 1881)
Also Known As: Dreikaiserbund, Three Emperors’ Treaty, Three Caesars’ Alliance, League of Three Emperors
Signatories: Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary
Mostly engineered by German chancellor Otto Van Bismarck, the Three Emperors’ League was a diplomatic effort to address the Franco-German conflict, and to resolve the Balkan question among Austria-Hungary and Russia. In Article I, it was agreed among the contracting parties (Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany), that in case any one of them found themselves at war with a fourth Major Power, the remaining two would observe a position of benevolent neutrality. Article II dealt with the Balkan territories and all the parties agreed that any new modifications in the territorial status of the signatories would be accomplished only after a common agreement had been established among themselves. The second treaty in 1881 allowed Austria to annex Bosnia and Hercegovina and no intervention was promised.
World War I:-
The alliance was formed twice, first in 1873 and then secretly in 1881. It was unable to hold both the times collapsing in 1878 and 1887. This was primarily due to the conflict of interest between Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkan region. Russia was a supporter of the Slavs in the Balkans. It could not be seen as a betrayer of its brothers, who were resentful of the ambitions of Austria-Hungary in the region. The failure of the League meant that Russia moved closer to France. On the other hand, the Three Emperors’ League, without Russia, would form the basis of the Triple Alliance.
#3 The Dual Alliance (1879)
Signatories: Austria-Hungary and Germany
In 1878, Russia had emerged victorious in the Russo-Turkish war and had gained considerable influence in the Balkans through the Treaty of San Stefano. This situation was uncomfortable for Austria-Hungary who had their own motivations in the region. Thus a conference was called by Otto van Bismarck in Berlin, which resulted in reversing Russian gains from the Treaty of San Stefano and Austria Hungary getting Bosnia as compensation. This Congress of Berlin, led to the failure of League of Three Emperors, and fuelled resentment among Balkan nationalists and the Pan-Slavists toward Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Another of Otto van Bismarck’s efforts, the Dual Alliance was formed to prevent the isolation of Germany and was targeted against Russia. The two powers, Austria-Hungary and Germany, promised each other support in case of an attack by Russia. They also agreed to be benevolently neutral in case of an attack by another power.
World War I:-
The alliance was the forming ground of the Triple Alliance, which was one among the two primary alliances in the First World War.
#4 The Triple Alliance (1882)
Signatories: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy
Austria-Hungary were closely tied in the Dual Alliance of 1879 with Germany. In 1881, French occupied Tunisia in northern Africa, angering the Kingdom of Italy which saw the territory as a potential colony in its plans for developing a colonial empire. Italy thus secretly entered into an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1882 to further its ambitions. This alliance came to be known as The Triple Alliance and was renewed periodically until it finally expired during the First World War in 1915.
Yet another of Otto van Bismarck’s diplomatic work, the treaty required Austria-Hungary and Germany to assist Italy if it was attacked by France. Italy in return would assist Germany if it were attacked by France and would remain neutral in case war broke out between Russia and Austria-Hungary. In its 1887 renewal, Germany promised to further Italy’s colonial ambitions in North Africa while Austria-Hungary and Italy agreed to resolve their territorial conflicts in the Balkans, Adriatic Sea and Aegean Sea through mutual agreement; something that was never achieved. The alliance was further renewed in 1902, 1907 and 1912.
World War I:-
In 1914, when Austria-Hungary was at war with the Triple Entente (The Russian Empire, the French Third Republic and the United Kingdom of Great Britain), Italy remained neutral in the war citing two major reasons. Firstly that Austria-Hungary was the aggressor in the conflict and secondly that Austria-Hungary had defaulted on its obligation to consult Italy before changing the status quo in the Balkans, as agreed in the 1912 renewal of the Triple Alliance. The Triple Alliance finally ended in a disaster in 1915 when, after parallel negotiations with the Triple Entente, Italy entered the war on the other side. The other two parties kept their word. On 28th July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and on 1st August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia after the Russians mobilized their forces against Austria-Hungary.
#5 Reinsurance Treaty (1887)
Signatories: Russia and Germany
After the Three Emperors’ League ended in 1887 due to differences between the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, German Chancellor Otto van Bismarck was quick to realize the threat to Germany. A secret agreement was thus arranged between Russia and Germany in June of 1887.
The agreement provided each of the signatories to remain neutral if they were attacked by any third major power. This would however not apply if Germany attacked France or if Russia attacked Austria. Germany would let Russia keep the Black Sea and would not challenge Russian influence in Bulgaria.
#6 The Franco-Russian Alliance (1894)
Also Known As: Dual Alliance
Signatories: France and Russia
After the resignation of Bismarck in 1890, the new German government did not renew the Reassurance Treaty with Russia and it lapsed in the same year. France had for long wanted support against Germany while Russia wanted an ally against Austria-Hungary; making them slowly converge toward each other. Friendly contracts between France and Russia were soon signed in 1891, which finally led to a secret treaty, the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1894. This would see the formation of the basic European alignments of pre-World War I era.
This secret agreement was to be in effect for as long as the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. It required Russia to field about 800,000 men in support of France, if they were attacked by Italy supported by Germany or by Germany herself. France in return pledged 1,300,000 in support of Russia in case Russia was attacked by Germany or Austria-Hungary supported by Germany.
World War I:-
The alliance was one of the major factors that came into effect as battle lines were drawn during the First World War. It had a profound impact on the war since it forced Germany to fight on two fronts from the very beginning.
#7 Italy France Treaty (1902)
Signatories: Italy and France
France agreed to back Italy’s claims in Libya, while Italy supported French influence in Morocco. Italy was to remain neutral in case of German aggression against France, undermining the Triple Alliance.
#8 The Entente Cordiale (1904)
Signatories: France and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Entente Cordiale (translated as cordial understanding or cordial agreement) was the culmination of the diplomatic efforts of French minister Théophile Delcassé. Though not an alliance, the agreement was vital as it ended almost a thousand years of conflict between the two states and marked the beginning of a new era. In the dawn of the 20th century, France was isolated in Europe with a solitary ally in Russia. Britain had been in “splendid isolation“ for a century with a sole ally in Japan, which was of no consequence if war broke in Europe. The agreement between France and Britain was an ideal foil for a potentially aggressive and capable Germany and was also an insurance that the two parties would not end up on opposite sides in the impending battle between their allies Russia and Japan.
This partly secretive agreement was not a military alliance, with neither party bound to provide military support to the other. It settled colonial disputes, most importantly granting freedom of action to UK in Egypt and to France in Morocco.
World War I:-
The Entente was the first step leading to the Triple Entente, which was the primary alliance of the Allies in World War I.
#9 The Anglo-Russian Entente (1907)
Signatories: Russian Empire and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
After spending much of the 19th century as rivals and going to war in Crimea, this agreement eased the tensions between the two powers in wake of a Triple Alliance and Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.
It was not a military alliance. However, it resolved long standing disputed of colonial territories in central Asia. The states of Iran, Tibet and Afghanistan were considered as buffers between the colonial possessions of Russia in Central Asia and Britain in South Asia. The treaty delineated spheres of influence in Persia, stipulated that neither country would interfere in Tibet’s internal affairs and recognized Britain’s influence over Afghanistan.
World War I:-
The agreement was the link to the The Triple Entente, which played a primary role in World War I.
#10 The Triple Entente (1907)
The Triple Entente was not an alliance or treaty in itself. It refers to the alignment between the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907. The Franco-Russian alliance had previously developed during 1891-1894 and the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904 had eased relations between Britain and France. With roots in these agreements, these three powers joined forces as the Allied Powers in the First World War.