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The Balkan Wars and Causes

The instability in the Balkans was the weak link in the complex relationships that had developed in Europe. A little Balkan war was swamped in a struggle of European powers and there became a general upheaval in Europe, which destroyed its stable civilization. The clash with Serbia in July 1914 affected an issue of such magnitude, it is not surprising all the powers soon became involved; all of them had interests at stake.

The underlying conflict of interest of particularly Russia and Austria-Hungary over the Balkans made the situation during this time explosive. Both sought to dominate the Balkans after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The peak of nationalism played a major role in developing tensions in Europe; for it had been causing dissatisfaction since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Conflicts in the Balkans threatened Austria’s status, concessions to Serbian nationalism would bring about nationalism for Romanians, Slovaks and Czechs each having their own demands. Once the Habsburg monarchy allowed this it would inevitably disappear as a great power. Austria-Hungary had no intention of replacing the Ottoman Empire as the “Sick man of Europe.” Austria was worried Russia would encourage Pan Slavism and leave the Austrian empire vulnerable. Russia’s concern in the Balkans was the control of Constantinople (a warm water port) and the security of its borders in Asia and the Far East. This worried Britain as Constantinople was near the route to India and it was feared Russia would cut off this route.

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Austria was Germany’s only ally therefore it was important for Germany to preserve the Habsburg Empire for fear that it’s collapse would leave Germany vulnerable to the other Great Powers in Europe. The potential collapse of Austria-Hungary was important for not only the Vienna government but for Austria’s German ally, for the other great powers, and the balance of the power system.

These long-standing rivalries increased tension, involving all powers. It may have been Grand Austrian design to ‘squash’ Serbia in order to reassert its Empire. The only way for Austria to regain its dominance was to have a war with Serbia; it was not their intention for the war to spread across Europe. This long-standing rivalry triggered the spark that caused the outbreak of war.

A major step towards war was the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. It was believed a policy of annexation could restore Habsburg fortunes and humiliate Serbia and Russia. Russia was still too weak to fight Austria much less Germany. Austria, backed by Germany, forced Russia to make Serbia back down. It did ending the crisis but leaving Russians never to suffer such humiliation from the German powers again, sentiments the French and British encouraged. These crises caused the two Balkan wars of 1912-13.

European diplomacy failed to prevent war but prevented a European war. These crises were perhaps well managed, as the war did not spread across Europe. Serbia doubled in size and became more powerful than ever. Peace was preserved but the whole European balance had changed. Concert diplomacy in 1912-13 was a success and apparently a recipe for dealing with future crises. Britain had restrained Russia, Germany had held back Austria and a general war was averted. The two alliance blocs had been preserved which was the key to peace and security.

The last crisis suggested that the question of whether or not general war would break out but when and how, seems too determinist and its implication that Austria and Germany acted out of desperation and exhaustion of alternatives is discredited. However, no such charge can apply in regard of the immediate origins of the war in the July Crisis sparked by the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb terrorists. Each stage involved conscious government decisions that conceivably could have gone otherwise.

This applies to Austria’s demand for Germany’s support and Germany’s blank cheque; to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia and Serbia’s decision to partly reject it. France strengthened its backing of Russia and Germany felt herself to be increasingly isolated and encircled by the Entente. The Germans feared that the modernization, population explosion and industrial growth of Russia would transform their Eastern neighbour into a Superpower that would crush Germany. After the assassination, Conrad, the chief of staff urged war but Tisza the Hungarian president opposed it. It took two weeks before war was declared, possibly because the Austrians were waiting to get the Harvest in.

In Austria, delaying war suggests they were planning it. It may be suggested that the crisis was badly mismanaged because if the Austrians were quicker in their response a European war may have been averted. Delivery of the ultimatum was delayed until the end of the French President’s visit to Russia in case his presence facilitated Franco-Russian solidarity.

On the 28th of July, much to the dismay of his advisers the Kaiser changed his mind about the crisis (or perhaps realized what war actually involved) and decided that a diplomatic victory would suffice. Molke, chief of staff, demanded Austrian mobilization, the military leaders were now taking over the decision-making. Hollweg pressed Vienna to deliver the ultimatum. Hollweg’s critics (especially Fischer) allege that he was less concerned with trying to avoid war than with creating favourable conditions for Germany to win it. The same day Austria declared war on Serbia and Russia.

France acted in its own interests and mobilized and on the 1st August Germany declared war on Russia in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan and two days later on France. The German invasion of Belgium to attack France, violating Belgium’s official neutrality, provoked Britain to declare war on Germany and World War had begun. The Kaisers change of heart or losing his nerve is an indication that he really did not want war at all; he may be realized that it was not a game and World War was impending. The pre-war crisis sparked the outbreak of war undoubtedly but the product of the tensions caused by long-standing rivalries caused the crisis to occur in the first place.

Until his resignation in 1890 Germany was dominated by Bismarck. After the creation of the new German empire, he wanted to preserve and promote peace, especially owing to a hostile France. To Europe this expansion upset the existing balance of power; there was considerable fear that the German empire might continue to pursue an aggressive foreign policy. The disintegration of the Turkish Empire could easily lead to conflict between the Habsburg monarchy of Austria and Russia. Bismarck’s solution was to isolate France and to maintain the balance between Austro-Russian relations. From 1871 to 1890 Germany wanted to preserve its hegemony in Europe by forming a series of peaceful alliances with other powers. Previous tensions were now replaced by a growing fear of the dramatic increase of German power and its Imperial demands.

The emergence of Europe into two rival and increasingly hostile camps of the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance did not make war inevitable but it made it more likely, although, many of the alliances that were created were weak and most offered no guarantee of support, and so it would be wrong to exaggerate the rigidity of the alliance system and its contribution to the cause of war. However, the existence of alliances created rivalries that would not have existed otherwise. The alliances dictated that Germany should support Austria-Hungary and France support Russia. Wars that occurred after the existence of these alliances could not remain localized because the alliances forced other powers to become involved.

After unification, the German empire was expanding rapidly, economically and socially. By 1890 Germany was the major industrial and military power on the European continent. The domestic pressure increased for a more ambitious foreign and colonial policy; the desire for world power status with world power opportunities was an essential part of government policy. After the death of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Wilhelm II became Kaiser. Wilhelm was seen as weak, emotionally unstable and liable to bizarre rage and hysteria, possibly due to the insecurity induced by his withered left arm.

Wilhelm’s policy of Weltpolitik was launched in 1897, the policy was vague but it broadly consisted of, a world-class navy, a colonial empire and Mittel Europa. This expansion consisted of an attempt to gain colonies in Mittel Afrika (Africa) and the policy of gaining economic power in central Berlin. African colonies were all occupied during this time and force was the only way to gain them. The major instrument for an increasing world role was the construction of a strong navy to rival Britain’s, threatening Britain’s “two power standard.”

This was at a time when German economic power was developing relatively at the expense of Britain. The expansion of the navy was thought to antagonize Britain although it could have been the Kaisers admiration of the British fleet that made him want to have one of his own. Germany’s fleet was seen as a luxury as it was not needed geographically, whereas the British regarded there own fleet as essential for their survival as an imperial world power and their survival at all. These actions could be seen as Germany planning for war but not necessarily planning war, which doesn’t indicate Germany wanted war.

Many of the powers were concerned that Germany’s Weltpolitik threatened war although there was no clear-cut perception that Germany was set in the war, until in 1912 at the Crown Council Meeting the Kaiser urged war with Russia and France. The Kaiser began to feel threatened by the Entente. Admiral Turpitz postponed the war for 18 months until the widening of the Kiel Canal had been completed. This indicates that as early as 1912 war was being discussed. It is possible that this aggressive policy was implemented to cause war to help the social problems in Germany due to its sustained growth and the emergence of the Socialist Party as a contender for power in Germany. The Kaiser may have wanted war to assert his dominance in Europe. War was thought to make Germans more nationalistic and less hostile to the government.

As for saying the war resulted from mounting pressures, strains and crises until one got out of hand is unreasonable. The governments acted on the basis of calculation, they knew what they were doing however much they might have felt they had no other choice.

This confirms that war came because imperialism, mass politics, nationalism, economic competition, arms races had made international relations too ruthless for peaceful compromise and co-existence. The long-standing rivalries that existed hundreds of years before the outbreak of war were the cause of war. The Balkan Crisis stemmed from the long-standing rivalries between the Great Powers not because the crisis was badly mismanaged.


Bismarck and the German Empire, 1871-1918 – Lynn Abrams (1995)
Bismarck and Germany, 1862-1890 – D.G. Williamson (2nd Edition, 1998)
Origins of the First World War – Graham Darby (1998)
Imperial Germany, 1890-1918 – Ian Porter and Ian D. Armour
Rivalry and Accord, International Relations 1870-1914 – John Lowe (1998)
Europe: Grandeur and Decline – AJP Taylor (1991)
The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 – AJP Taylor

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