WORLD WAR ONE     home | history

Power Rivalry in Europe, to 1912

Europe's wealthy, its capitalists and financiers, were benefiting from peace. Peace was good for the trade from which they acquired wealth. The last major war between European powers had been between Prussia and France in 1870-71. There was hope that peace would continue. But also among the big powers was the imperial tradition among aristocrats that glorified warfare. Some saw warfare as something that provided their fellow countrymen with the manly spirit necessary for national success. There were many who didn't know warfare well and looked upon it as exciting. Germans had Prussia's military victory over the French to inspire them, depicted for them in picture books. (Among the inspired in Austria, was a little boy named Adolf Hitler.)

Great Britain's second war against the Boers in Africa (from 1899 to 1902) was unpopular across the world, including the United States and Germany. Responding to this, Britain decided to end its "splendid" diplomatic isolation. Britain and Germany were predominately Protestant nations. The British and Germans saw themselves as belonging to the same superior Teutonic race and as having a moral fiber stronger than that of the Slavic and Latin peoples of eastern and southern Europe. Germany's monarch, Wilhelm II (to be known as "the Kaiser") was the grandson of Britain's Queen Victoria. He had been visiting his grandmother and British family frequently. Wealthy British families were sending their sons to German universities and their daughters to Germany for their "final polish". Many successful marriages between the British and Germans had resulted, and Britons were going to Germany for their vacations. So why should Britain not become a formal friend, an ally, of Germany and improve its security in a dangerous world?

Concerned with national security, German diplomats looked forward to Britain joining Germany in an alliance. Germany was building up its navy, which was thought necessary for a great power. The British saw security in having the most powerful navy, and strategists among them feared Germany's growing navy. German diplomats believed Britain's fear of this growth would help inspire partnership with Germany, and they believed alliances between Britain and its old enemies, France or Russia, unlikely. They were wrong. And they insisted that Britain join the alliance they had with Franz Joseph's Austria-Hungary. The Germans were tough bargainers and didn't back down on this insistence, confident the British would give in. They were wrong again. The British surprised the Germans by refusing to tie themselves to an alliance that would commit it to war on the side of Austria-Hungary. The British began looking elsewhere for allies. It was a turning point.

Britain settled its differences with the United States, and in 1902 Britain entered into an alliance with Japan. Then Britain had talks with their enemy during the Napoleonic Wars – France. Having finished carving up Africa and other parts of the world, the British and French wanted an agreement between them that would make their empires more secure. France recognized Britain's position in Egypt. Britain gave secret recognition to France's willingness to divide Morocco between itself and Spain, and Britain and France settled long-standing disagreements concerning territories in the Pacific and disagreements over Thailand.

Agreements between Britain and France were seen by Germany as a threat. The Germans also saw as a threat the agreement between France and Russia thata dated back to 1892-93. France and Russia had promised that should Germany attack the other they would attack Germany. This tie between Russia and France was enhanced by a huge loan from French banks to Russia, money that Russia wanted for building railroads, industry and its military capability.

Tensions between France and German increased in 1904. Imperial France and Spain signed a treaty in October 1904 that appeared to guarantee independence for Morocco. Germany was interested in Morocco's iron ore. It preferred an "open door" policy for Morocco, An agreement signed in Madrid in 1880 among imperial powers had given Germany the right to be consulted on any change in Morocco's status. Having been ignored by the latest agreement, the Germans were angry. Germany's chauvinistic press, its middle class and leading militarists wanted Germany to stand up. The Kaiser's minister for foreign affairs argued that friendly gestures would convince the French that Germany was afraid. He and others believed that for the sake of peace Germany had to be feared.

It was an opportune time for a move by Germany against France because France's ally, Russia, was at war with Japan. But for the remainder of 1904, Kaiser Wilhelm refused to sanction any action against France. He told his diplomats that if Germany opposed the French it would only revive French hatred for Germany. The Kaiser's ministers were able to convince the Kaiser to go along with their policy of trying to scare France into splitting with Britain, and on March 31, 1905, the Kaiser visited the Moroccan city of Tangier in Morocco. He proclaimed Germany's support for an independent Morocco. But rather than impress the French the way it was supposed to, it merely created more distrust for Germany.

President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated an end to the war between Russia and Japan, and he persuaded the French to attend a peace conference in 1906 in Algeciras, Spain, where an agreement was signed that reaffirmed the independence of Morocco and guaranteed the freedom of nations such as Germany and the United States to trade there.

France forwarded a huge loan to Russia to put Russia back on its feet economically and militarily (to the disgust of Russian liberals and leftists who foresaw that this would strengthen Tsar Nicholas and autocracy). And France sought began discussing military and naval issues with Britain. Germany's behavior regarding Morocco had increased distrust for Germany among the British, and secretly the British agreed to help France should it be attacked militarily by Germany.

Germany's chancellor, von Bülow, complained of threats to isolate, disable and encircle Germany, and the Germans soon had more to complain about. With Russia's defeat by the Japanese, the British viewed Russia as less a threat to its imperial interests. The British wanted an agreement with Russia similar to what they had with France. The Russians agreed that the British should have controlling influence in Afghanistan and Tibet, and the two powers ended their rivalry in Iran by dividing that land into two zones of influence. The French were pleased by Britain's rapprochement with Russia, but it left the Germans feeling more isolated and outraged.

In 1911, another crisis came concerning Morocco. The Sultan at his palace at Fez was surrounded by rebels, and he asked the French to rescue him. The Germans feared that if French troops went to Fez they would stay, and they protested, but France sent troops to Fez anyway. The Germans claimed that France's move violated the settlement they had agreed to back in 1906. Germany's hawkish press expressed exasperation with France and demanded that Germany's position in Morocco be maintained and respected. There were calls again to stand up "in a manly way." In Germany, mere words were seen as weakness, and the German government demonstrated its resolve by sending a warship, the SMS Panther, to the port of Agadir, on Morocco's Atlantic coast.

Germany's show of force was an embarrassment to France's prime minister, Joseph Caillaux, a wealthy financier who wanted peace and reconciliation with Germany. In November 1911, four months after the Panther arrived at Agadir, Germany and France negotiated a settlement. Germany agreed to France establishing a protectorate over Morocco, and Germany received a little strip of land from the French Congo, giving Germany's colony, Kamerun (Cameroon) access to the Congo River. But this agreement outraged Germany's hawks. In parliament (the Reichstag) they accused the German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, and Germany's secretary of state, von Kiderlen-Wächter, of "unforgivable" timidity. Chief of the German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke (the younger), saw his country as having crawled away from the negotiations with its tail between its legs. French politicians opposed to Caillaux's tax reforms used Germany's belligerence to win opposition to Caillaux's government. Anti-German torchlight parades erupted. On 11 January 1912, Caillaux's government fell. Caillaux was replaced by Raymond Poincaré, who was riding the wave of an enhanced patriotism. A new policy toward Germany was launched. Poincaré announced that the French did not want war but neither did they fear it. He said that the first duty of a good citizen was to be "a courageous and disciplined soldier." He denounced "internationalists" and pacifists and spoke of the province that France had lost to Germany in the war of 1870-71 – Lorraine – the place of his birth, as "a bulwark" for France.

Germany's manner of standing up against the French concerning Morocco not only stirred up French belligerence, it disturbed the British. A desire for a rapprochement with Germany that had been developing in Britain quickly evaporated. British strategists were frightened into believing that they should stand firmly by their alliances with France and Russia. Britain signed an agreement with France that allowed a more efficient use of both their navies: should the Germans go to war with France, Britain's navy was to defend the waters along the channel and Atlantic coasts for both navies while France's navy was to act in behalf of both nations in the Mediterranean Sea.

The French began building up their military forces, and the Germans reacted. A new arms race was underway. A few dissident intellectuals in Europe had been trying to warn how different a war among the great industrial powers of Europe would be from wars of the previous century. But Germany's military leaders continued to believe that the next war could be as short and sweet as their offensive to Paris in August and half of September in 1870.

CONTINUE READING: Assassination and Miscalculation, to June 1914

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.