Background to the War Nobody Won:  
World War I, 1914-1918

A Century of Peace in Europe, 1815-1914

The massive casualties of the Napoleonic Wars that ended in 1815 finally taught the warlike Europeans to hate war.  The “balance of power” designed by the diplomats at the Congress of Vienna (1815) helped to curtail Europe’s historic tendency to settle national differences via bloody conflicts.  Except for limited regional wars such as the Crimean War between Russia and Britain (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Europeans enjoyed nearly a century of relative peace and stability before the “Great War” erupted in late summer 1914. 

The Rise of Modern Germany Upsets the Balance of Power 

Before 1871 Germany was actually a loose confederation of independent kingdoms known collectively as the Holy Roman Empire.   The largest of these kingdoms, Prussia, increasingly dominated the other German states; the Prussian king’s chief minister, Otto von Bismarck, put together a plan to weld the German-speaking kingdoms together into a modern nation-state under the rule of Prussia.  He accomplished this at the successful conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War with his fellow German princes hailing the Prussian King Wilhelm as their new “Kaiser” (Emperor), Wilhelm I of the German Empire.  The heavily industrialized new Germany soon possessed the most powerful economy in Europe and sought a military to match.  The diplomats of 1815 had not figured a united Germany into the balance of power.  For better or worse, the arrival of Germany as a world power almost over night upset the traditional alignments within Europe. 

 

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Early Twentieth Century Major European Powers
(Map From PBS site “The Great War”)

The Alliance System: From the Three Emperors’ League (1881) 
to the Triple Entente (1908)

After the Franco-Prussian War both France and Germany sought to outmaneuver each other diplomatically.  Under Bismarck’s direction, Germany’s foreign policy focused on keeping France isolated and vulnerable.  France, devoid of strong European allies, had to keep an ever-watchful eye to the east where the Germans founded The Three Emperors’ League consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.  This was a powerful military alliance although Germany often had to mediate disputes between their Austrian and Russian allies.  Both had greedy eyes for the small and weak Balkan states such as Bosnia and Serbia.   This plan worked well until the new Kaiser Wilhelm II inherited the throne; the younger emperor proved to be a meddling, short-sighted dilettante who fired Bismarck and took over Germany’s foreign affairs himself.  In a blunder of monumental proportions, Wilhelm II dismissed Russia from the three-power alliance to show his solidarity with the Austrians.  Shortly thereafter, the French succeeded in signing the Russians to a military alliance in which each promised to treat an attack upon the other as an attack upon itself.  This basic framework (Germany with Austria-Hungary versus France with Russia) formed the basis of the future World War I alliance system.  Eventually, the French would bring the British into the pact with Russia (The Triple Entente, 1908).  

All of the major powers also had “side deals” with smaller neighbors.  These alliances were supposedly unrelated to the overall alliance system.  For example, the Russians had an alliance with their fellow Slavs in the Balkan kingdom of Serbia. 

When the Great War began in 1914 Germany had recruited Italy and Turkey.  Both Germany’s and France’s alliance systems were designed to prevent war by making the cost of war too high. 

Ironically, the alliance systems themselves led to the war. 

How the War Began

European leaders were ready for a fight long before 1914.  Germany’s ambitious naval and colonial expansion irritated and worried Britain, France and Russia.   Of course, the British, French and Russian leadership had nothing against militarism and imperialism for their own countries.  Thus, a long-simmering arms race and equally long-term colonial rivalries provided the powder-keg of war; all that was needed was for someone to light its fuse. 

The Fuse

In late July 1914 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, toured the recently annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the troubled Balkans. He insisted on an automobile tour of the Bosnian capitol of Sarajevo in spite of the presence of a hostile Serbian minority in the city who desired annexation by Serbia and who hated Austria’s presence there.  Sure enough, a Serbian militant assassinated the Austrian and his wife.   


Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and
Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II 

Seeking vengeance for the death of their heir-apparent, the Austrians blamed the Kingdom of Serbia and launched a punitive expedition at Belgrade.  The Serbs called upon their allies the Russians for assistance.  When the Russian military began mobilizing, the Germans issued an ultimatum for their eastern neighbor to stand down or the Germans would have to assume the worst about Russian intentions.  Not-so-secretly the German High Command, along with virtually all the overconfident General Staffs of all the other major powers, relished the idea of a “preventative war” to settle the tensions that had been mounting.  Each side’s generals assured their governments that they would be victorious.  And so the “Great War” roared into life with Austria declaring war on Serbia, the Serbs’ allies Russia declaring war on Austria, the Austrians’ allies Germany declaring war on Russia and the Russian’s allies France and Britain declaring war on Germany.   

The Course of the War Before U.S. Entry, 1914-1917 

Despite elaborate pre-planning, the war did not go as hoped for by either combatant alliance.  Fighting inside France stalemated into a deadly war of attrition fought between highly symbolic trenches whose depth and muck proved emblematic of the war itself.   After years of fighting, neither side held a strategic advantage on the Western front.  In the east, however, the entire Russian effort neared collapse within two years.    U. S. President Woodrow Wilson announced an American policy of neutrality but American society had closer business and cultural ties to the “Allies” (especially the Triple Entente’s Britain and France) than to the Central Powers’ Germany and Austria.  This was reflected in the volume of “neutral” American trade carried on with Britain and France.  Both sides sought to interrupt American shipping to their enemies; the Allies were more successful at this, supported as they were by the powerful British navy.  Desperate to halt the flow of U. S. manufactured and farm goods headed to the Allies, the weaker German navy resorted to submarine warfare against American shipping.   Unlike the Allies’ navies, German “U-boats” could not capture merchant ships.  They could only sink them.  Inevitably, this pushed Wilson closer to war, a position heartily supported by America’s most powerful banks, which had loaned considerable sums to the British and French war efforts.   Eventually, in April 1917, Wilson asked the Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and the Central Powers.   


A Moment in the War: 
American troops advancing against the Germans, the Argonne, France, September 26, 1918
 

For a detailed narrative of America’s involvement in World War I, read your text's  discussion of that topic.  

For a detailed chronology of the war, visit the PBS web site “The Great War” (especially the timeline).  To view a large collection of World War I photographs, visit the University of Kansas web site, “Photos of the Great War.” 

America’s Intervention Hastened the End of the War 

The arrival of the American Expeditionary Force under the command of General John J. Pershing bolstered the exhausted Allies in the face of a new German offensive in the spring of 1918.  After turning back this last German thrust, the Allies launched a two-month offensive campaign of their own that rapidly drove the Germans out of France.   At that point, the German government elected to negotiate a cease-fire rather than have Germany suffer the ravages of twentieth century war visited upon France.  The Germans were influenced, in part, by the American President’s “Fourteen Points” announcement of America’s benign war aims.    

After reading your textbook's explanation about the end of the war, take a look for yourself at Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the Treaty of Versailles, especially Part VIII, Section I, Article 231 which deals with placing blame for the war.  

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