Did the System of European Alliances Cause the First World War?

The tangled web of European agreements and alliances has proven a permanent feature of the literature which has sprung up around debating the causes of the First World War. This school of thought gained prominence in the 1920s, when there was a general move towards internationalism and some small regrets about tarring Weimar Germany with the brush of its predecessor’s responsibility for beginning the Great War. Nevertheless, and despite this seeming datedness, the theory attracts a lot of support; tales of systemic failure, it could be argued, diminish individual responsibility and make people and nations feel better about their own role in events. There are other opinions on the matter, however, which range from blaming the actions of a single power – most often Germany – to blaming abstract concepts such as militarism, nationalism and even, as Christopher Clark writes in his book The Sleepwalkers, a ‘crisis of masculinity’, which is held to have caused European diplomatic and political leaders almost to destroy themselves and their nations out of little more than a collective sense of psychological necessity.

The alliance system can, at its heart, shoulder a good deal of blame for the outbreak of war in 1914; after all, it established the idea of diplomacy as both a weapon and a defence in the Europe of that age. In the Bismarckian system, for example, the plan worked both ways for Germany: France – a nation which would be deliberately isolated within the European continent – would be weak; and Germany, in the ‘group of three’ at the very least, would be safe, insulated from the dangers of a potential war. This is seen in the Three Emperor’s League, so keenly pursued by Bismarck, which attempted to ally Germany with the thrones of Austria-Hungary and Russia, preventing the ‘nightmare coalition’ and the prospect of a war on two fronts – a war seen as effectively unwinnable by a succession of highly influential German strategists. This apparent weaponisation of diplomacy could also, it may be argued, have contributed to the intensity with which nations jockeyed and partnered up and sought support in military force during the July Crisis of 1914. Furthermore, another pitfall of the Bismarckian system was its unworkability: only the master diplomat himself could maintain it; after his fall in the 1890s, it soon fell into disrepair, with his successor, Carpivi, failing to heed many diplomatic ties except those between his nation and the Dual Monarchy.  In this, at least, the alliance system set up the relationship that was to lead to the granting of the infamous ‘blank cheque’ which gave license to Austro-Hungarian aggression towards Serbia, and which must be seen as an essential element in the formation and execution of eventual war.

There are a great deal of valid points of contention, however, many of which could be seen to disagree with this particular interpretation. Some scholars could argue that the responsibility for the eventual outbreak of war does not lie with the alliances themselves, but rather that it was contained within the worldview of many policymakers who – both directly and indirectly – steered the continent towards conflict. And of course ideas suggesting that nationalism and militarism held sway over nations and individuals, and that this created the climate which supported a descent into war, have also gained prominence. They have served to fill gaps left in the more determinist theory that blames alliances for causing the First World War; in its most extreme form, after all, the aforesaid serves to minimise the factors which could have affected how individuals operated in that troubled time.

Another criticism of the alliance theory is that it denies almost all human agency. While certain aspects of the diplomatic and political scene of 1914 could be said to demonstrate structural and impersonal forces behind which propelled the conflict forward – such as fact that some national war plans could be described as very restrictive (though, according to Clark, the idea that the German military specified capturing Paris in forty days is a myth) – the idea of vast, international forces all converging upon war is reduced in validity by noticing the last minute scrambling and conniving which occurred in every national capital in the days and hours before the outbreak of hostilities. In this analysis, determining whether Great Britain, for example, entered the war was by the means of clever manoeuvrings in cabinet alone, and not by an automatic realisation of treaty obligations, represents an essential question. Italy, after all, managed to opt out of joining the Central Powers and fighting alongside her nominal allies, even though she was a signatory of the Triple Alliance; this greatly diminishes the claim that the alliances were like spring-loaded mechanisms, ready to fly into action the second the condition was met.

Yet there are reasons which could lead to serious questioning of the above. One of the major factors in the discussion of these matters in the British Cabinet was the realisation of British naval agreements with France, which required a degree of reciprocal protection. When British politicians were confronted with the fact that they were under obligation to defend French waters in the English Channel, it became far easier for Sir Edward Grey to win the day with his argument, leading the charge for British entry into the war.

More could of course be said about the extent to which alliances created war. They may have dictated the shape of war, with the fact of the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, for example, serving as the primary reason for the entry of both into war on the same side. But to suggest that the formation of continental alliances added some measure of the inevitable is to flirt with reductionism and determinism. That does not mean that the existence of alliances did not create circumstances which facilitated war-like actions becoming more likely, however: after all, the Anglo-French naval agreements and the German ‘blank cheque’, which in effect gave Vienna the shot in the arm it needed in order to finally set in place its military action against Serbia, are examples of the argument which sees alliances as escalating tensions and ultimately causing war. It seems to me that talk of a mechanical alliance system is absurd, but that this disclaimer does not entirely rule out the possibility of alliances ‘weaponising’ diplomacy; they could be seen, in dividing Europe into ‘two armed camps’, to have set the pieces on the board and given shape to the future crisis. And, after all, it is uncontroversial to suggest that the alliance, in their talk of obligation and mutual defence, gave the war parties within national governments the tools they needed to galvanise the anxious, win over the waverers and push their countries into participation the ensuing conflagration.