Buildup to the Great War in Europe
Buildup to the Great War
World War I was largely a struggle among the Great Powers of Europe— Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and Austria. No one nation had dominated Europe since the defeat of Napoleon; an entire century had gone by in relative peace among the Great Powers.
All this began to change with the unification of Germany in 1871. Previously, it had been a collection of small states. Now it was a large and powerful state. Germany’s new position of power came from two major sources: geography and economy.
Geographically, Germany’s central position on the continent made it a dangerous neighbor. It was in a position to attack several nations simply by marching over the border. Because this central position made it equally vulnerable to attack in its turn, Germany invested heavily in its army and navy, continuing the aggressive policy inaugurated under Frederick the Great.
Economically, Germany had become Europe’s strongest nation. Germany had been quick to industrialize after unification, and the country soon surpassed even Britain in this regard. National prosperity gave rise to an excess of boastful national pride—particularly as embodied in Kaiser Wilhelm II, crowned in 1888—that made Germany unpopular among its neighbors.
Between German unification and 1910, the European powers formed a series of alliances. These agreements established relationships that would pit the nations of central Europe against the nations on either side.
The alliances showed another new factor that had emerged in European politics—the direct involvement of Britain. Britain had largely remained aloof from continental border wars and power struggles. British troops had occasion- ally participated, especially in the Napoleonic Wars, but Britain’s geographical detachment from the continent had generally reflected its lack of central involvement in major power struggles among the other nations. This changed with the series of alliances made in the years before the Great War.
Ironically, three of the European monarchs were closely related family members: George V of Britain and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were first cousins, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia was their first cousin by marriage. However, the family relationships among the monarchs did not prevent them from going to war against one another.
The Outbreak of Great War
In the last decades before the outbreak of war, almost all the Balkan states won their independence from the Ottoman Empire: Romania and Serbia in 1878, Thessaly in 1881, Bulgaria in 1908, and Albania and Macedonia in 1913. The only exception was Bosnia-Herzegovina, which remained under Austrian control.
Serbia resented Austria’s takeover of Bosnia for two reasons. First, Bosnia was a Slav nation, populated by a mix of ethnic Croats, Serbs, and Turks—people who had little in common with their Austrian rulers. Second, Serbia had hoped for a political union with Bosnia, so that the two states together could form one larger and stronger one.
In June 1914, Serbian resentment found expression by means of an assassin’s bullet. A Serbian named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie as they rode in an open car through the streets of Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo.
Many historians believe that if Austria had immediately invaded Serbia, the war would have been between these two nations only and would have been concluded quickly. However, while Austria hesitated, Russia began to mobilize its army in preparation for the defense of Serbia, which it would support as a fellow Slav nation. Germany considered this mobilization a serious threat of war and promptly came to Austria’s defense by declaring war on Serbia.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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