To what extent did the alliance system contribute to escalating tensions among the major European powers before 1914?
On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian-backed terrorist. During the crisis that followed, Europe’s leaders made a series of political, diplomatic and military decisions that would turn a localised conflict in south-east Europe into a global war.
Austria-Hungary, with German encouragement, declared war on Serbia on 28 July. Russia’s support of Serbia brought France into the conflict. Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and France on 3 August. Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality and British fears of German domination in Europe brought Britain and its empire into the war on 4 August.
These actions reflect the fears, anxieties and ambitions of the European powers. The decisions for war were made in the context of growing nationalism, increased militarism, imperial rivalry and competition for power and influence. Europe’s leaders were willing to go to war to defend or extend national interests and their choices were shaped by a combination of long and short-term foreign policy goals, political pressures at home, previous crises, and the system of opposing alliances that had developed over the previous 35 years.
By 1914, Europe was divided into two rival alliance systems. In 1871, German unification dramatically altered the balance of power in Europe. This new power bloc at the heart of central Europe strengthened further when Germany formed an alliance in 1879 with neighbouring Austria-Hungary, which Italy joined three years later. Fear of Germany’s growing strength encouraged Russia and France to enter into alliance in 1893.
German ambitions to build a battle fleet initiated a naval arms race with Britain that seriously strained relations between the two. Britain had long seen France and Russia as potential enemies, but from 1904 it negotiated agreements with them, aiming to secure its empire by settling colonial disputes.
The new and unlikely friendship between these three powers heightened German fears of ‘encirclement’ and deepened the divide among the European powers. Imperial rifts worsened these divisions and tensions. When Germany tried to oppose a French takeover of Morocco, Britain supported France.