The Origins of the First World War
Copyright © 1992 by James Joll
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The Alliance System and the Old Diplomacy
The Prussian victory over France in 1870 and the creation of the German Empire led to a change in the balance of power in Europe and to an international system in which Germany, by now the strongest military power on the Continent and one with large and expanding industrial resources, necessarily played a leading role. Consequently the methods of conducting international relations and the basic structure of international alignments were to a large extent those devised by Bismarck to meet Germany’s needs in the 1870s and 1880s. Bismarck’s name has become associated also with a particular style of diplomacy an unprincipled and unscrupulous Realpolitik. “It is the lees left by Bismarck that still foul the cup,” Sir Edward Grey wrote in December 1906, and he accused German diplomacy of “deliberate attempts to make mischief between other countries by saying poisoned things to one about the other.” This is perhaps unfair: as A.J.P. Taylor has pointed out, Bismarck was no worse in this respect than some other nineteenth-century statesmen, notably Napoleon III. But it was Bismarck who seemed to contemporaries and to subsequent historians to be the great master of diplomatic intrigue, bluffing and frightening the ambassadors and foreign ministers of other countries into doing his will, sometimes by a calculated indiscretion, as when in 1887 he read out to the Russian ambassador the exact text of Germany’s alliance with Austria in order to persuade the Russians to agree to a “reinsurance” treaty with Germany which would guarantee Russian neutrality in the event of a Franco-German war without committing Germany to anything specific in return. On other occasions, he could accept the failure of his bluff with a certain bonhomie: “All I can say is: consider carefully what you do,” Bismarck said to the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister during the negotiations for the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1879. “For the last time I advise you to give up your opposition. Accept my proposal, or else ... or else I shall have to accept yours.” More serious, however, than the actual methods by which Bismarck conducted diplomacy was the underlying assumption that all international negotiations and all international undertakings were to be interpreted in terms of national interest, so that raison d’etat could always provide an excuse for going back on international commitments. Bismarck believed that Austria and Prussia were states too great to be bound by the texts of treaties. No agreement could be expected to last for ever; and, as Bismarck put it, all treaties should contain the phrase rebus sic stantibus. Lord Salisbury’s views were much the same: at the end of his life he wrote on the question of Belgian neutrality: “Our treaty obligations will follow from our national inclinations and will not precede them.”
The details of the alliance treaties and other international agreements were in many cases kept secret and were only published in full after the war; and, as even those which were published contained secret clauses, they were often believed to contain more than they actually did. Bismarck’s “Reinsurance Treaty” with Russia in 1887 was concluded without the knowledge of Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary, and it was Bismarck himself in embittered retirement who revealed its existence and the fact that his successor Caprivi had not renewed it. The details — as opposed to the existence — of the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria and Italy were learnt partially in 1915 when Italy declared war on her former allies, but were not published completely until 1920. Speculation about secret agreements and hidden commitments was encouraged by the press. The famous journalists — Sir Valentine...
References: 3. E. Wertheimer, Craf Julius Andrassy, Vol. III (Stuttgart 1913) p. 284, quoted in W. L. Langer, European Alliances and Alignments 1871-1890 (New York 1939) p. 284.
4. Quoted in Samuel R. Williamson Jr., The Politics of Grand Strategy: Britain and France Prepare for War 1904 - 1914 (Cambridge, Mass. 1969)
5. Salisbury to Canon MacColl, 1901; G. W. E. Russell, Malcolm MacColl (London 1914) p. 283, quoted in W. L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism (New York 1951) p. 85.
6. Christopher Andrew, “Dechiffrement et diplomatie: le Cabinet Noir du Quai d 'Orsay sous la Troisieme Republique” Relations Internationales, No. 5, 1976.
7. Cmd. 7748. Fifth Report of the Royal Commission on the Civil Service 1914. See Zara S. Steiner, Britain and the Origins of the First World War (London and New York 1977) pp. 171 ff.
8. G. P. Gooch and Harold Temperley (editors) British Documents on the Origin of the War 1898 - 1914, Vol. III (London 1928) Appendix A, pp. 402-3. (Hereinafter referred to as BD. )
9. Bismarck to Saburoff 1878, Nineteenth Century, Dec
The Times, 8 April 1914. See also The History of The Times, Vol. 14: The 150th Anniversary and Beyond (London 1952) Part I, p. 168.
11. Quoted in Karl Kautsky, Sozialisten und Krieg (Prague 1937) p. 200.
14. Maurice Paleologue, Un grand tournant de la politique mondiale
1904-1906 (Paris 1934).
16. BD III, No. 299, p. 267. See also Beryl Williams, Great Britain and Russia 1905-1907- in F. H. Hinsley (ed.) British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey (Cambridge 1977) pp. 13347.
18. Feldmarschall Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Aus meiner Dienstzeit, Vol. I (Vienna 1921) pp. 380-1; Gordon A. Craig, Politics of the Prussian Army 1640- 1945 (paperback edition, New York 1964) p. 289.
19. Quoted in Michael Balfour, The Kaiser and his Times (London 1964) p. 295.
21. Quoted in Erich Brandenburg, Von Bismarck zum Weltkrieg (Berlin 1939) p. 342. See also Fritz Fischer, Krieg der Illusionen (Dusseldorf 1969) p. 135.
22. A. F. Pribram, The Secret Treaties of Austria-Hungary 1879- t914, Vol.1, (Cambridge, Mass. 1920) p. 225.
25. Documents diplomatique francais 3me serie, Vol. III (Paris 1931) No. 466. See also Fischer, op. cit., p. 219.
27. E. Jaeckh, Kiderlen-Wachter (Stuttgart 1924) Vol. II, p. 189, quoted in Fischer, op. cit., p. 226.
28. F. R. Bridge, From Sadowa to Sarajevo: The Foreign Policy of Austria Hungary 1866-1914 (London 1972) p. 360.
29. Diplomatische Schriftwechsel Isvolskis 1911- 1914 (ed. F. Stieve) (Berlin 1926) ii, No. 401, quoted in Taylor, op. cit., p. 488.
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