European Power Balance (1871-1914)
DURING THE PERIOD 1871-1914 WHICH WERE THE
MAJOR POWERS IN
EUROPE AND WHY?
WHAT WERE BISMARCK'S
MAJOR FOREIGN POLICY OBJECTIVES AFTER
WHAT WERE ENGLAND'S MAJOR FOREIGN POLICY OBJECTIVES?
WHAT WERE FRANCE'S MAJOR FOREIGN POLICY OBJECTIVES?
WHAT WERE RUSSIA'S MAJOR FOREIGN POLICY OBJECTIVES?
WHAT WERE THE REASONS FOR INSTABILITY IN AUSTRIA-HUNGARY AND IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE?
WHAT CHANGES IN EUROPEAN DIPLOMACY OCCURRED AFTER THE RETIREMENT OF BISMARCK IN 1890?
Germany, England, France,
Russia and the Austrian Empire were the major
powers in Europe.
Germany, in particular, once united, had the resources and population to become the greatest European power.
Because of its unification
under Prussian leadership, German policy reflected the predominant Prussian
influence. The army and its officer corps, drawn exclusively from the Prussian
Junker aristocracy, was the institution with the highest status in Germany.
The Prussian military influence caused Germany to emphasize military power
and to maintain the highest state of military readiness.
Bismarck continued to serve as the chancellor of Germany for two decades after unification. Having accomplished unification, he directed policy towards the goal of maintaining what had been achieved. Germany had no further expansionist designs in Europe.
France was seen as the most likely threat. Therefore, Bismarck presided over a military build-up that would always exceed the French. Although, this was for defensive purposes, the French were fearful that Germany was planning further military aggression. France, therefore, built its military capabilities.
An armaments race went on for more than forty years.Together, they amassed the largest standing armies in history with conscription and millions of men under arms. Only the resources of industrialized nation-states could sustain such an effort. The new technology added to the potential of military power.
The arms race also bred a distrust because neither side could see why the other would maintain such massive military power unless they had aggressive intentions. Yet, they both were reacting defensively against the other.
Bismarck also sought to
keep France diplomatically isolated so that they would never be tempted
to go to war to recoup their losses. He negotiated a series of alliances
with other European powers. These efforts were complicated and eventually
frustrated by the unstable situation in the Balkans.
England continued to enjoy a predominant position of power throughout the 19th century because of its leadership in industrialization and the benefits of overseas trade.
English foreign policy was described as "splendid isolationism", a policy of remaining aloof from alliances with other powers while exercising its influence to encourage a balance of power on the continent. So long as the continental powers checked each other, England was secure on the other side of the Channel.
England had a small volunteer, professional army, well-trained and disciplined, but relied mainly upon a powerful navy which protected the island nation and its far-flung overseas network of trade.
Throughout much of the century, Russia seemed to pose the greatest challenge to English imperial interests. Periodic Russian expansion towards the Balkans and the Straits of the Dardanelles (the Ottoman Empire) posed a potential threat to the English trade route to India.
English and Russian imperial
interests also clashed in Persia, in Afghanistan and in northern China.
There were also conflicting imperialistic goals between England and France
In France, the Third Republic was established after the Franco-Prussian War. This was a multi-party democracy which endured, in spite of frequent elections and changes in leadership, until the Nazi conquest in 1940.
A minority faction in France
agitated to regain Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, but the French were always
outpaced by German power and this was not a realistic hope until after
World War I. The main pre-occupation of French foreign policy was the potential
threat of Germany.
A consistent goal of Russian foreign policy was to achieve warm water access to the Mediterranean and the high seas through the Straits of the Dardanelles. This coincided with a pan-Slavic drive to expand Russian interest into the Balkans as the self-appointed protectors of the many Slavic nationalities there.
There was also a Russian
expansion across the sparsely-populated Siberian land mass. This brought
the Russians into Manchuria (northeastern China), where they gained access
to the Pacific. There was also a significant migration of Russians
The Balkans was the greatest area of instability. There, the interests of Austria and Russia clashed and threatened the peace of Europe.
The Austrian Empire and the Ottoman Empire ruled over six Slavic nationalities as well as the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Albanians, andthe Macedonians. There were also Greek and Italian minorities. Three major religions, Roman Catholic, Christian Orthodox, and Muslim also divided the people of the Balkans.
War erupted in 1877 when the Bulgars rose up against their Turkish rulers and Russia intervened on their side. The Russians defeated the Turks, and would have driven them almost entirely out of Europe had the other great powers not intervened.
England threatened war against Russia, and Bismarck, concerned that Austria and Germany might be drawn in, convened a peace conference.
In 1878, at the Congress
of Berlin, the Russians were coerced into relinquishing their gains in
the recent war with Turkey. Bulgaria's independence was recognized and
the Austrian government made a claim for Bosnia.
Bosnia was a source of concern for the Austrian Empire. Slavic minorities, agitating for independence from Austria, found refuge among their compatriots across the border in Bosnia.
The Austrians demanded to
annex Bosnia, but the Russians rallied to their
Serbian (Slavic) allies there and refused to accept the annexation. A compromise arranged that Austria should occupy Bosnia but not be allowed to annex it. This was an unsatisfactory agreement imposed upon the parties at the insistence of Germany.
Bismarck's policy was designed to prevent war . The first alliance he had formed was the Three Emperor's League, an agreement between the 3 monarchs of Germany, Russia and Austria to stand against threats to the status quo. This agreement had been annulled by the Balkan conflict.
In 1879, Bismarck formed
an alliance with the Austrians in order to restrain the Russians who were
furious over the outcome of the Congress of Berlin. In 1882, Bismarck persuaded
the Italians to join in a Triple Alliance. At the same time, working to
contain Russo-Austrian hostility, he constructed a second alliance of the
Three Emperors (1881-1887), which involved a pledge of friendly neutrality
in the event that any of the
three powers became involved in war with a fourth power.
Tension in the Balkans led
the Russians to withdraw from the agreement in 1887. Bismarck continued
his efforts by negotiating a Russian-German Reinsurance Treaty, again pledging
neutrality if the other were attacked.
The circumstances changed dramatically in the 1890's. Bismarck was forcibly retired by the new and young emperor, William II, and German foreign policy became less cautious and more bellicose. The Reinsurance Treaty was allowed to lapse.
The Russians, looking for western investment, and the French, seeking to break out of their diplomatic isolation, began negotiations which led by 1894 to the Franco-Russian alliance.
Germany commenced a naval build-up which threatened England's primacy on the high seas. A naval armaments race between England and Germany began.
England shifted its foreign policy from avoiding alliances to actively seeking ways to protect themselves from the rising power of Germany.
The English improved their relationship with the United States by consenting to accept settlement of a number of differences through arbitration. Upon demand by the United States, they withdrew a naval squadron from the waters of Venezuela where there had been a dispute concerning debt payments to English creditors.
They resolved a potential colonial conflict with the French (the Fashoda Crisis) by agreeing to support each others claims to Egypt and to Morocco. England was given support in Egypt by the French, and France was given support in Morocco by the English.
A difficult war to repress a rebellion in South Africa (the Boer War, 1899-1902) had awakened the English to their over-extended imperial commitments.
In 1902, England signed the Anglo-Japanese naval agreement which gave the British reassurance that Japan would check Russian expansion in Asia so that the British felt secure in withdrawing some of their Pacific fleet to the Atlantic to face the German threat. For the Japanese, it meant reassurance that England would not intervene against them if conflict developed with Russia.
In 1904, England and France signed the Entente Cordiale (friendly agreement) which settled remaining colonial differences between the two powers. It was accompanied by a secret military protocol to coordinate their navies to meet a potential threat from Germany.
In 1905, the Germans created a crisis by challenging French claims to Morroco. Tensions there led to the Algeciras Conference, presided over by Theodore Roosevelt, an activist President in the United States. Germany had tested the newly signed Entente, and failed to divide the two allies.
In 1907, the Russians, after suffering a defeat at the hands of Japan (the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5), settled some outstanding differences with the British, setting the stage for the Triple Entente, a "friendly agreement" between England, France and Russia.
Now, it was Germany that was isolated, except for its alliance with Austria-Hungary. Because of the weakness of Austria-Hungary, this was more of a burden than an asset.
The Germans responded to the potential of a two-front war (with France and Russia) with the Schlieffen Plan. This involved the strategy of attacking France first, defeating it quickly in four weeks), and then turning to fight the Russians. It was considered highly likely that the German army could defeat the French quickly, as they had in 1870, while the Russians, with their inadequate industrial base, would take time to be a threat to Germany in the east. The plan hinged upon time. The Germany military had to attack France the moment the Russians ordered mobilization of their army. Furthermore, to defeat France quickly, the best way to do it, from a military point-of-view was to attack through neutral Belgium. The diplomatic costs of violating the 1839 treaty, which guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium, were discounted in the interest of military expediency.
Thus, Europe had become
divided into two armed camps with the great military and economic power
of Germany arrayed against the Triple Entente. However, none of the great
powers wanted war. Their preparations for war, their armaments build-up,
their system of alliances had all been defensive in purpose.