Written in December 2008
World War 1 broke out in the summer of 1914 and it was at the time one of the bloodiest and largest conflicts in human history and it had far reaching effects on the future of not just Europe but the entire world. Every one of the major European powers, Japan, the United States, and the African and Asian colonies of the European powers all sent soldiers into the conflict. The devastation of the War left millions of people dead, the map of Europe changed, the end to some of the oldest dynasties of Europe, and an end to the myth of European cultural superiority. World War 1 lasted for four long years from 1914-1918 but the buildup to the war was many years in the making. There were many factors leading to the war breaking out but one of the biggest factors leading up to the War was the hostilities between France and Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, and the resulting alliances and entanglements that proceeded as a result of the hostilities between the two nations.
The rivalry between France and Germany and the bad blood between both nations following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 was a turning point in the history of Europe. Prior to the war France was the dominant European power and Prussia was the most powerful of several German states. The Franco-Prussian War was the culmination of several wars won by Prussia that led to the creation of Germany. The Treaty of Frankfurt ended the war with Prussia emerging victorious and the ramifications of that victory did not take long to be felt. The Franco-Prussian War led to several changes in Europe including the end of France’s Second Empire and the rule of Louis Napoleon, the end of the old European balance of power that had existed since 1815, the long awaited unification of most of the German states with the exception of Austria, and France losing the territory of Alsace- Lorraine to Germany. Most importantly France’s role as the leading power of Europe ended and they were replaced by Germany. France was also forced to pay Germany an indemnity of one billion dollars, which would greatly help German industry. The Treaty of Frankfurt aimed to end France’s reign as a dominant player in European politics. France would become a republic as a result of the aftermath of the war. Prussian Prime Minister Otto Von Bismarck the architect of the unification of Germany would take on the role of German Chancellor and Prussian King Wilhelm I would become the 1st German emperor or Kaiser. France after the war desired revenge on Germany and a return of the Alsace-Lorraine territory, and Germany wanted to keep France weak and isolated. This would set the course for the hostilities between the two nations that would simmer until exploding into the Great War.
As a result of the Franco-Prussian War, the French government put in place a universal military training system in preparations for a rematch down the road with Germany. War came close to breaking out during 1875 as Germany was alarmed by France’s military buildup and their rapid economic recovery from the Treaty of Frankfurt. Revenge against Germany became a major theme of French politics of the period following the war with Prussia, and there was a strong desire to regain the territories of Alsace-Lorraine. The feelings in France at that time gave birth to the word Revanchism. Georges Clemenceau who was one of the French deputies during the Franco-Prussian War who refused to ratify the Treaty of Frankfurt, became one of the leaders of the politicians who wanted revenge on Germany. The German government although the strongest country in Europe at the time knew that they were more powerful than France but were wary of a war with France allying itself with other countries. The German government under Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck decided to isolate France diplomatically and deter French aggression by entering into peacetime military alliances. In 1873, two years after the Franco-Prussian War, Germany entered into an alliance with Russia and Austria-Hungary called the Three Emperors League. This alliance would not last long due to tensions between Russia and Austria in the Balkans leading to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, and having to choose between Russia and Austria, Germany chose Austria a country to which they held close historical ties as Austria was also a German state. In 1879 Germany formed the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary, and three years later Italy joined the Dual Alliance and the Alliance became known as the Triple Alliance. The alliances provided Germany with protection against a possible French attack and left France isolated diplomatically which was Bismarck’s goal all along.
In 1888 Wilhelm II became the new German Kaiser. Unlike his predecessor Wilhelm I, Wilhelm II wanted to take much more of a direct role in government affairs and that would put him into direct conflict with Otto Von Bismarck. The relationship between Bismarck and Wilhelm II would only last for two years as Bismarck resigned from his position in 1890. Wilhelm II was determined for Germany to have its “place in the sun” and he pursued a much more involved role in domestic and foreign affairs. Wilhelm began building up Germany’s colonial possessions in Africa and Asia which would put Germany into conflict with their rival France who already had a substantial empire in Africa and Asia. Wilhelm II also desired that Germany have a powerful navy so he began building up the German navy. This would put Germany into conflict with Great Britain, who were the possessors of the world’s largest and most powerful navy. Germany and Britain would soon enter into a naval arms race as Britain sought to maintain its dominance of the seas.
Without Bismarck, the carefully orchestrated isolation of France would soon come to an end. Russia who had been dropped out of an alliance with Germany would enter into an alliance with France with in 1892, as Wilhelm II let a secret agreement between Russia and Germany expire in 1890. Germany was now placed in the position that if they had to engage in a war with France it would have to be a two front war as they would also have to fight Russia on the Eastern Front. France and England had been rivals for hundreds of years but their long period of hostility was coming to an end. Great Britain who had long favored isolation and neutrality for most European affairs of the 19th century watched with nervousness the growing extent of the power of Germany. Great Britain had initially favored Germany over France changed course and their relationship with France grew stronger while Germany also grew stronger and in 1904 France and Britain signed the Entente Cordiale which was an agreement but not a formal military alliance. France now had two of its own allies in case of a war with Germany. Russia would join the Entente Cordiale in 1907 and the alliance of France, Great Britain, and Russia would become known as the Triple Entente. The cooperation between France and England would be tested immediately as German ruler Wilhelm II made it known that he did not recognize the Franco-British agreement and he would attempt to undermine it during the First Moroccan crisis of 1905. As a result of the Entente Cordiale, France was allowed to eventually take over the country of Morocco. Germany opposed this move and Wilhelm II made an appearance in Morocco supporting Moroccan independence. A conference was called to settle the dispute and it was a major loss for Germany as France’s rights in Morocco were confirmed and the Franco-British alliance managed to survive the German test. The Germans were not pleased with the results of the First Moroccan crisis and it would be four years until the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911. Germany sent a warship into Morocco to challenge the position of France in Morocco and wanted territorial concessions from France in Africa. England pledged support of France in the face of the German demands. Germany was facing the possibility of a war with both France and England but the crisis would be solved with France agreeing to give portions of its territory in the French Congo to Germany. The crisis would have the effect of further strengthening relations between France and Great Britain. Tensions between Germany and France remained at high levels and Europe was close to exploding with a war due to the Franco-German tensions.
In the end the event that would lead to World War I breaking out would occur in the Balkans when on June 28,1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary along with his wife was killed in Bosnia by a nationalist Serb who wanted Bosnia to be part of Serbia. But, the military alliances of Europe brought about as a result of the tension between France and Germany would soon blow Europe into a full-scale war. Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the assassination and would soon declare war on Serbia. Russia which was a Slavic nation like Serbia was pledged to defend Serbia and soon began mobilization of its troops against Austria-Hungary. Germany issued an ultimatum both to Russia and Russia’s ally France and both countries rejected the ultimatums. Germany would declare war on Russia the next day and two days later Germany declared war on France. Germany had prepared for the eventuality of a two front war with the Schlieffen Plan which called for Germany to attack France by invading Belgium which was a neutral country. France’s ally Britain demanded that Germany retreat from Belgium and Germany refused. This gave Britain the pretext needed for joining the War and they followed it up by declaring war on Germany on August 4, 1914. A war that took years to buildup would explode in less than two months where Europe as a result of the many alliances brought about as a result of the tensions between France and Germany would become involved in one of the most destructive wars of European history.
Most wars that have happened in human history did not just happen overnight. Most wars are the result of years of tension and posturing on two sides ultimately ending up in conflict. World War I was no different as the long standing tensions between France and Germany led to the War breaking out.
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