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International Alliances and Aspirations

In the years following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Europe underwent a great transformation. Germany and Italy emerged as unified nations, while the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires went into decline. Well intentioned diplomats sought to preserve peace and stability through a series of alliances, which pledged one nation to come to the aid of another in the event of an attack from a third party. Warfare would not be limited to two contenders, but instead would draw in a series of nations. Some of the alliances were recognized publicly, but others were secret—a contributing factor to the later conflagration. The basic national motivations and alliances included:

  • Germany. By the late 19th century, Germany had emerged as the dominant power on the European continent. Its late unification, however, had allowed other nations to assemble colonial empires in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. Smarting from this inequity, the Germans exhibited an overt recklessness in attempting to establish their "place in the sun." Sadly, some leaders had come to believe that war offered them a brighter future than peace.
  • Serbia. The small Serbian nation was smarting from the loss of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary in 1908 and sought protection through an alliance with their fellow Slavs, the Russians.
  • Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary and Italy were rivals for influence in the eastern Adriatic. This declining power became allied with an ascending world power, Germany.
  • Italy. The Italians occupied an ambiguous international position. They maintained an alliance with Austria-Hungary, yet resented that empire for occupying lands that the Italians thought rightly belong to them. The desire for Italia Irredenta (unredeemed Italy) would lead to a change of sides during the course of World War I.
  • France. The French were disturbed by the growth of German military strength and still seethed over the loss of the prosperous regions of Alsace and Lorraine as a result of their loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. France had made only a halting entry into industrialization and clearly needed allies if it was to fend off their rival in the future. A secret alliance was concluded with Germany's other neighbor, Russia.
  • Britain. Historically, the British preferred to remain out of continental affairs. The rise of German naval power and technological progress, however, caused a reevaluation of traditional diplomacy. Informal alliances were concluded with France (a colonial rival) and Russia.
  • Russia. Despite widespread turmoil at home, Russia played the role of protector of the Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, sparking tension with Austria-Hungary. Religions aside, the prime motivator behind Russian actions was access to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Ottoman Turkey. The Turks were truly the "sick man of Europe" in the early 20th century, having declined to a mere shadow of their former power and influence. Turkey allied with Bulgaria for dominance in the Balkans and opposed the aspirations of Greece and Serbia.