How nations stumbled into WWI

As nations mark 90 years after the First World War, Kelvin Odoobo explores the origins, causes and interesting events which culminated into the firing of the first bullet in the war.
Countries marked 90 years after the First World War
Countries marked 90 years after the First World War

As nations mark 90 years after the First World War, Kelvin Odoobo explores the origins, causes and interesting events which culminated into the firing of the first bullet in the war.

Otto Von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister had ambitions to increase the influence of Prussia by an expansionist policy in the north towards Austria and the south towards France when he was appointed in 1862.

Four years later he engineered and won a war against Prussia in seven weeks. In a resulting deal mediated by French Emperor, Napoleon III extracted six states from Austria (Schleswig, Holstein, Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt, to form the North German Federation.

He now set about to provoke Napoleon, threatening to place a prince related to Kaiser Wilhelm I on the throne in Spain.

Napoleon, fearful of a war on two fronts (from Spain and Prussia) resisted. Bismarck fabricated the so-called Ems Telegram from the Kaiser to Napoleon which provoked both leaders. This led Napoleon to declare war on Prussia.

Napoleon lost and was deposed. France lost both Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia.

The southern German states agreed to an alliance with their northern counterparts, resulting in the creation of Bismarck’s cherished German Empire.

War of alliances
Next, Bismarck sought to ally himself with Australia-Hungary and Russia but not for long. Russia left the alliance, and immediately became the enemy instead.

Germany and Austria-Hungary then pledged to be neutral if a third country like France would threaten them. Bismarck was confident that Britain would be neutral in any European war.

In 1881, Italy joined the alliance of Germany and Prussia to reform the triple alliance.

Meanwhile unknown to the other two partners, Italy negotiated a secret treaty with France, under which Italy would remain neutral should Germany attack France.

So, when Bismarck moved on France, Italy instead entered the war on the side of France and Britain in 1914. In 1887, Bismarck signed the re-insurance treaty with Russia which ensured neutrality if any of the two counties were involved in a war with a third country.

When Bismarck was dismissed in 1890, the Russian Tsar Nicholas III left the re-insurance treaty and instead signed Franco-Russian Military Convention, essentially to counteract the triple alliance of Germany, Austria-hungry and Italy.

Britain woke up from the slumber of isolation to the increasing influence of Germany in Europe, and colonial areas of Africa.

The promptly agree on military alliance with Japan to keep Germany out of Asia.

It also increased its naval stretch to match a similar effort in Germany. Britain entered the fray of alliances when in 1904.

The signed a deal with France which solved outstanding territorial disputes and opened diplomatic cooperation. This up with the Anglo-Russian entrente and thus effectively bound up an alliance against the Germany led triple alliance.

Also in the background, Russia’s pledged to protect Serbia, and Britain agreed to defend Belgian neutrality.

In the east, Japan sorted out a territorial dispute in Korea and Manchuria with Russia, by dealing a humiliating defeat and wiping away its entire fleet.

U.S. President Roosevelt negotiated peace but the test of defeat left a bitter taste in Russia’s mouth and encouraged them to try to reestablish their perceived invisibility.

A family affair
The Balkans meanwhile was restless with regular struggle for control of Balkan territories by the surrounding powers like Turkey, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary etc.

Yet from within, a strong nationalistic fervour was fermenting and was backed by Russia which was interested in being seen as the big neighbor who the small Balkan nations could depend on.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the crown prince of Austria-Hungary by the Serbian nationalist secret society as a protest against occupation, provided the Austro-Hungarian government with a golden opportunity to stamp its authority over the region.

That served as the powder keg that set the continent alight. According to History pages of the great war, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. On July 29, Russia ordered a partial mobilisation only against Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia, which escalated into a general mobilisation.

The Germans threatened war on July 31, if the Russians did not demobilise. Upon being asked by Germany what it would do in the event of a Russo-German War, France responded that it would act in its own interests and mobilised.

On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia, and two days later, on France. The German invasion of Belgium to attack France, which violated Belgium’s official neutrality, prompted Britain to declare war on Germany. World War I had begun.

Germany miscalculated the strength of the French allied defense and the Western Front of World War I became a stalemate for three more years until the Sleeping Giant of the United States broke the deadlock writes William R. Griffeths in Origin and Causes of World War 1. Interestingly, the major forces in the war were influenced by royals who were in many cases blood relations.

The British monarch George V’s predecessor, Edward VII, was the German Kaiser’s uncle and, via his wife’s sister, uncle of the Russian Tsar as well. 

His niece, Alexandra, was the Tsar’s wife.  Edward’s daughter, Maud, was the Norwegian Queen, and his niece, Ena, Queen of Spain; Marie, a further niece, was to become Queen of Romania.

Still the wars happened because European politics was all about power and influence, of protection and encirclement.

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