The Great War. Part III

On the highway to hell: The reasons behind the First World War (Part 3a).

The third stage: At the gates of Hell, 1890 – 1914 

Fatidic Decision

Berlin, 1890. Otto von Bismarck, the architect of the realpolitik and the ‘Gleichsgewicht’ policies that preserved some peace and equilibrium in the continent after the German Unification, is removed from his position as Chancellor of the German Empire by the Kaiser Wilhelm II. With that removal, the speed of events that would eventually lead to the First World War increased, and terrible tragedy that was waiting its time to happen.

From 1890 to 1914, Germany’s foreign policy was mostly in the hands of Kaiser Wilhelm II, taking very different paths from the ones Bismarck intended from the beginning. And while it is true that ill-conceived actions such as not renovating the security pact with Russia or the naval race with the British Empire, along with the desperated search for colonies accelerated the pace towards the war, it is not the only factor to explain the War. During the 1890-1914 period, the other powers around the globe also had their share of responsibility besides the German Empire. This question will be partially discussed in this section and the next one.

The Titans’ Rush into a Clash: The Central Powers

Germany, for instance, was a strong emergent state that was an industrial power by 1914, thanks to the meteoric industrialization and economic growth after its foundation, and especially after 1890. As a consequence of the increased industrialization, the agricultural sector diminished to such an extent that it would play a decisive role during the food shortages during the war and following the Royal Navy blockade. The country was also having a strong debate between democracy and authoritarianism, but it was one of those cases where autocracy met modernization (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

Additionally, as mentioned in the previous article, Germany was enjoying high levels of education and possessing significant amounts of capital, factors contributing to economic growth as the factories, businesses, laboratories and other sectors were receiving high-qualified personnel. This in turn led to high levels of industrialization in sectors such as electricity, optics, and chemistry, where benefits from technological advances where being enjoyed by the German economy. The country also had the second biggest merchant navy and was the European financial centre of the times, after the British Empire (Barth, 2012; Kennedy, 2004). This prosperity took place in the same period where the Kaiser’s foreign policies where being implemented, and where such conditions might have encouraged the Kaiser’s decisions to change the course.

Nevertheless, the policies implemented broke the delicate efforts made by Bismarck and destroyed the existing equilibrium entirely: First, the breaking of relations  with Russia and the negligent lapsing of the Reinsurance Treaty signed with it prompted Russia to approach to France; second, the Kaiser decided to implement a ‘Weltpolitik’ that complicated a strategic situation that was already complicated for Germany; third, the naval race with the Royal Navy, mainly encouraged by Von Tirpitz under the argument of Germany becoming a true Great Power; and fourth, the rivalries due to German interests in the Balkans and Africa, mainly with the British Empire and because of the colonies (Barth, 2012; Segesser, 2013, Morgenthau, 2006)[1].

To blame the Kaiser solely for the consequences of the foreign policies after 1890, however, is unfair: In fact, the strategic objectives and their perception in the military and among businessmen and investors, as well as in the general public was erratic and unfocused. The Navy was focussed on preparing for a war against the British Empire for the control of the seas, the army on neutralizing France, while  businessmen and investors where pushing the German Empire to assert its economic interests in the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East. And, the public opinion was mostly in favour of the ‘Weltpolitik’ to such extend, that it was forcing the Kaiser and the government in General to look for a conflict in which to follow nationalistic feelings and a political test for a Kaiser that needed to alleviate inner tensions (Kennedy, 2004). These situations were creating a tragic trap.

The Austrian Empire, in turn, was a great power that was very dependant of the German Empire, especially in regard to strategic issues, a cooperation with its own geopolitical complications. The annexation of Bosnia only made Austria strategically compromised by Serbia and its nationalist movements following a change of dynasty in 1903, and the divide-and-rule strategy to check the interethnic tensions was not a guaranty to fully cope with such and the ones created by Serbia. At some point those tensions reached such a scale that plans to occupy Hungary where contemplated (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2012) openly.

Those tensions also complicated the situation of Austria abroad, due to the fact that many of the non-German minorities were the same of most of Austrian neighbours, surrounding it with enemies or hostile nations. The Austrian army, for example, considered a pre-emptive strike against Italy in 1900 after tensions rose with the Italians at the countries’ southern border. Rumania was also a factor to consider because  Romanian minorities were looking more towards Romania, while Serbia was the biggest risk of all, given the special interests of Russia. In the case of a general war, the Austrian army had to face the decision of preparing to engage Italy or Russia, or Serbia and Montenegro (Kennedy, 2004).

Economically speaking the picture was not entirely positive for the Austrian Empire either. It was weak  despite the considerable level of industrialization and productivity in coal, textiles, oil, beer, sugar and other agricultural products, and the weapons production (Kennedy, 20014). This situation would leave Austria in a very complicated strategic position where the geopolitical and security objectives could not be entirely met due to the weak economic base, and considerable inner tensions that were fuelled by the countries’ neighbours involvement in them, all adding up to the already complicated geopolitical situation. Consequently, Germany was a core ally for achieving Austria’s objectives, but in the end, as Germany, it was a victim of a structural trap.

The Ottoman Empire was, beyond any question, the weakest among the Central Powers. Victim of the ambition of the great European Powers in the Balkans as well as of the national aspiration and ambitions of the newly-created Balkan states, it was depending on Europe as a provider of industrial products (Segesser, 2013).

The Titans’ Rush into a Clash: The Allies

Of the Allied Great Powers, the two most important ones were the British Empire and France. The British Empire was the most powerful of all, in the military (especially with the Navy, which was as big as the two following fleets combined) and economic spheres. It had the most important merchant fleet and a strategically important wide network of bases and communication lines around the globe and controlling no less than 20 million kms². The Royal Navy, the Indian Army, the Australian and New Zealand contributions to the defence of the Empire and the Alliance with Japan by the first year of the 20th century contributed to the security and strategic superiority of the Empire, improved by the 1904 alliance and agreement with France and Russia on colonial issues. It was also the most important country economically speaking (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

The Empire had important African interests (where the Suez Canal was only the tip of the iceberg) as part of its overall strategic interests, where the defence of India, the maintenance of the Naval supremacy (the German naval challenge for sure provoked high amount of anxiety for the Admirals and Politicians), the attempts to preserve the European equilibrium on its own way, and the preservation of the Empire were other objectives with the same  importance for London (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

Yet, the British Empire was facing important challenges in every aspect. The industrial revolution was no longer benefiting the British Empire alone, leading to a decline of the industrial supremacy and resources for defence were diminishing. There were important issues with the colonies that were actively seeking for more autonomy and concessions – like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – while keeping the contribution for the defence of the Empire, being their naval and military assets under British control in case of war, and an India that was strictly controlled given its importance for the British economy and international position (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

These concerns, moreover, were making it more sensible to any clash in Africa and the Asia-Pacific, facing Germany on South Africa, the United stated and the Venezuelan Borders with British Guyana. It was the least affected by the German rise until 1904, but it was being affected by the American rise and actions in the Caribbean, Canada, and the American economic penetration of Latin America, jeopardizing the British investments there. The Russian railroad expansion compromised its interests in the Middle East and India, any event in China could also affect its position there. As a result of those colonial concerns, the Royal Navy was reaching its maximum strategic operability while the small army was not able deploy in every needed scenario and was more prepared for waging colonial wars rather than long term European wars. Still, the British Empire enjoyed a strategic superiority in Europe should a war break out on the continent, although it was very overconfident in diplomatic agreements (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

France, on the other hand, was undergoing an inner crisis where  civilians and the military were the main actors – and this crisis in particular would not be solved entirely until 1911 – while at the same time it was witnessing an economic diversification where the investments in Russia played a strategic role by securing  Russian support in case of a war (and making it very dependent of France). However, its investments also contributed to its geopolitical objectives in Italy (bringing Italy closer to France despite their rivalry in/on/for the Mediterranean Sea), China with the securing of railroads and other sectors concessions, as well as inTurkey and the Balkans. The countries’ industrialization was important for this case, all the while 40% of the population were still dedicated to agriculture, resulting in some way in a military inferiority facing Germany (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013)[2]

It was France that predominantly benefited from the Germany’s shift of policies and the dismissal of Bismarck, having now an open road to reclaim the lost territories after 1871 cleared and settling the Entente Cordiale with the British Empire.In doing so it strengthened its general position while convincing the British empire of the importance of the security of France for the sake of the Empire’s own security. Similarly, benefited from the solution of the colonial stand-offs with the British Empire in 1898, but  was still struggling for the control and access of markets and territories around the globe (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

Russia was, contrary to the British Empire and France, the weakest of the allied powers. It was a country with low levels of industrialization, large amounts of debt and banks in foreign hands (as well as its comparatively few industries), depending heavily on French investments and placing itself at the mercy of French interests and desires in case of war (such as asking Russia to attack Germany). The country’s overall productivity was inefficient and the economy was mostly agrarian, although railroads – the Trans-Siberian route – were intensively being constructed. Russia, additionally, was still recovering from the defeat of the 1894 and 1904 wars with Japan while facing huge inner social tensions that involved the intervention of the army in 365 cases by 1902, just to control peasant riots, as well as ethnic problems in a similar way as Austria (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

Militarily, the general weakness of the country was having an impact on its capabilities in arms. The troops where low-skilled while logistics and railway managements were inadequate for a fast mobilization and deployment plans. Similarly, the nature of Russian foreign policy did not helped: pan-slavic nationalism, the total obedience of the state to the Czar and open xenophobia pushed Russia to take active part in every international event, even beyond it own capabilities. Similarly, the countries’ eagerness to support Serbia and France was forcing Russia to execute an offensive it was not prepared for, with fear of a French defeat were urging Russia to do so. East Asian ambitions before the war with Japan needed to be met and Russia was simply trying to assert its interests where the British Empire, Austria and French were doing the same, leading to clashes of interests most of the time.

Questions about the potential event of a war in Europe were of that importance that the spending in defence on a high level, seeking to recover the decimated fleet after 1905 and trying to modernize its armed forces where central during the period. How and where to deploy the army (if against Germany or Austria), what to do about the fortresses in Poland where the most modern artillery was placed, and whether to execute a total or partial mobilization in case of war were troubling the minds of the Russian government and military as well. In any case, the leadership was of such bad quality that Russia, alone, was no match for the German Empire, making its alliances all the more necessary, but also putting the country into a strategic trap that would have a decisive consequence in 1917 (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

In the next part the “eccentric powers”, like Japan, Italy and the United States will be reviewed, as well as the small conflict that shaped the decision-making and the conditions of some Great Powers, as well as a review on the plans of war and a final discussion about the responsibility of each and single Great Power in the tragedy of the First World War.



Barth, R. (2012).1871 – 1919: Aufstieg und Untergang. Preußen. Die eigenwillige Supermacht. Zum 300. Geburtstag von Friedrich dem Großen. STERN Extra, 1, 86 – 97.

Kennedy, P. (2004). Auge y caida de las grandes potencias [The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers, Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Mondadori (Original work published in 1987).

Morgenthau, J. A. (2006). Politics Among Nations. The Struggle for Power and Peace (Revised by Thompson K. W, & Clinton D. W. 7th Edition). New York: McGraw Hill.

Segesser, D. M. (2013). Der Erste Weltkrieg in globaler Perspektive. Stuttgart, Deutschland: Marixverlag.


[1] More accurately and according to Barth (2013), the reasons behind such actions might be explained by the Kaiser’s desire to be popular, along with his inner chauvinism and narcissism.

[2] 4500 machine guns of the Germans versus the 2500 machine guns of the French, 6600 77mm guns of the Germans versus 3800 similar weapons of the French, and the absolute German supremacy in heavy artillery. See: Kennedy, 2004, pp. 359 – 360.


Cover image ‘HMS Hannibal, unknown port‘ by James Morley

One response to “The Great War. Part III

  1. Pingback: WWWI Series. THE GREAT WAR. PART III | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security·

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