Since the second half of the XIX century, European powers tended to form coalitions dominated by three purposes: nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. The main players of the European political stages were the French Third Republic, Great Britain, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. These powers tried to create alliances in different combinations.
The World War I started as a collision of interests of different blocks. During that time, nationalism was fed by Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism ideas, which were well grounded in the Central European powers and in the Russian Empire. Mainly German militarism moved the conflict forward due to the French-Prussian War and further growth of resentment. Imperialistic confrontation of the Russian and Austrian Empires considering the influence and dominance at the Balkans resorted to the Great War.
The majority of the citizens of the Kingdom of Prussia and multiethnic Austrian Empire were German-speakers. The Austro-Hungarian Empire faced two main problems: nationalism of Hungarians (who succeeded in changing the structure of the Empire in 1867) and increasing national liberation movement of Slavic population in the Balkans. In 1871, efforts of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck were rewarded: instead of disunited principalities, the German Empire, new important player on the European stage, appeared.
Despite strong confrontation of two German-speaking empires in 1894, Ernst Hasse, professor from Leipzig, proclaimed the main aims of the Pan-German League: to support “German spirit,” especially among German-speaking population outside the German Empire. The motive powers of the movement were nationalism (Germans and kindred nations are the most developed), imperialism (expansion on the Slavs as representatives of “inferior race”), and militarism (this phenomenon is one of the methods of realization imperialistic intentions)(Pan-Germanism, 2013).
Alternative to the Pan-German movement was Pan-Slavism. An important instrument of the Russian Empire, Pan-Slavism based on the unity of origin, language, and culture was an excellent cause of actions against the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which oppressed Slavic nations. After the successes in wars against Turks, the Russian Empire began to support Slavic nations under Austrian domination. The powerful opposition to the Pan-Slavic idea of the creation of the Serbian dominated common state of Slavs was Austro-Slavism, mainly supported by Croats and Slovenes. This program was based on the project of the appearance of the third subject in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Slavic one. (Pan-Slavism, 2013)
In the end of the XIX century, first alliance appeared on the European political stage. In 1873, the League of the Three Emperors was established. The Russian Emperor Alexander II, the Austrian Emperor Franc Joseph I, and German Kaiser Wilhelm I realized German chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s plan of France isolation after the French-Prussian War.
The League could not exist for a long time: the rivalry between the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian Empires considering the Balkan nations struggling for their independence, decline of the Turkish Empire, and increasing nationalisms (Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism) made this alliance impossible. All these factors led to the failure of the attempt to revive the League in 1887.
Despite the “death” of the League of the Three Emperors, Chancellor Bismarck attempted to protect the German Empire from France after being brought to its knees in 1871. He suggested signing a secret agreement with the Russian Empire called the Reinsurance Treaty. This document guaranteed neutrality of both Empires in the case of the break out of the war.
Otto von Bismarck miscalculated his plans. In 1894, the foundations of the future Entente were laid down by signing Franco-Russian Alliance. The French Third Republic got stronger and removed obstacles of the firm isolation. The next success of the French foreign policy took place in 1904. Entente cordiale, the set of five agreements concerning colonies in North Africa were signed with the United Kingdom. This document had a decisive importance in the development of the international relations worldwide: the British Empire resigned from the status of neutral state in Europe. German military expansion has done its part.
Potential danger for the establishment of the Entente was British-Russian rivalry in Central Asia called “The Great Game.” In order to avoid escalation of colonialism claims in that region, which was a necessary element of the imperialism, two empires signed the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Triple Entente was established as an alliance of three powers in order settle reciprocal issues and to protect their interests and influences in front of increasing German militarism (Gildea, 2003).
Another block composed by the Central Powers clutched between the Russian Empire and its Western allies. The history of the coalition began in 1879, when two German-speaking powers decided to form the Dual Alliance. In 1882, the formation was transformed by the accession to the Treaty of the Italy. The main purpose of the Triple Alliance was defense.
All European capitals were astonished on 28 June 1914 by the shot from Sarajevo fired by Gavrilo Princip, Bosnian Serb. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the immediate cause of July crisis. The Austrian Empire wanted to decrease Serbian influence in Bosnia. As a result, the Austrian diplomats delivered the July Ultimatum: a document with 10 demands to Serbia that were intentionally unacceptable infringing on the state sovereignty of young kingdom.
After 1-month term of ultimatum, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war to the Kingdom of Serbia on 28 July. The Russian Empire, as the main ally of Serbia, started partial mobilization to its western borders in one day motivated by Pan-Slavic ambitions. The German Empire had a prepared plan for the future war. Availability of the “Schlieffen Plan” is an argument in favor of German militarism. At first, the position of France was ambiguous. Despite the treaty commitments, French troops withdrew 10 km from the border. Mobilization started just after German’s invasion of Belgium. Great Britain declared war to the German Empire just on 4 August due to abuse of the neutral status of Belgium by Germans.
The Central Power alliance also had problems. Italian government rejected military support of the Italian army motivating its decision by the fact that the aim of the alliance was defense, but not declaration of the war. Despite this fact, the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires had found two more allies: the Ottoman Empire, which intervened at the end of 1914, and revanchist Bulgaria one year after.
Woodrow Wilson proclaimed strict neutrality of the US after the War had begun. Idea of Wilson was maintenance of peace. He sent his representative Colonel House to the belligerents. Despite the pious hope, the President’s attempts failed. Parties of the conflict were confident of their militaristic strength and ignored the peace suggestions.
One more time Wilson showed his unwillingness to participate in the conflict after the attack on the British liner Lusitania. His words best of all demonstrates his attitude: "America is too proud to fight.” After this incident, President demanded maintenance of the international law and exemption of the passenger ships from the list of the targets.
His position was supported by the public opinion of the Americans. Americans of different origin had their own preferences. For example, the Irish Americans were strongly hostile to help Great Britain in any way. This position is explained by the Irish inspirations of independence for the Ireland. The majority of German and Scandinavian Americans taking to consideration German war crimes in Belgium and related to the Lusitania tried to save neutral position of the United States. The protestant clergy was a supporter of pacifistic attempts of Wilson and his vision of the United States as the peacemaker and defender of the democracy.
The U.S. started the war against Germany in January 1917. The Casus belli for the war was the suggestion of the German Foreign Minister Zimmerman to Mexico. German diplomat offered financial aid and help in revanchist plans concerning lost territories during the Mexican-American War. The telegram was intercepted and despite all the internal problems and political debates, Wilson called Congress to declare war on Germany. The positive decision of the Congress took place on 6 April 1917. (Cooper, 2011) After this decision, American troops started to participate in conflict directly in Europe. The role of these fresh troops during the Hundred Days offensive cannot be underestimated. Appearance of the new Ally in the France was a crucial event.
The role of the US after the War was even more important. The statement by Wilson called “The Fourteen Points” was an attempt to build new justified system of the international relations. Postwar peace was based on the principles of democracy, right of self-determinations for the nations, which lived in ex-empires, free trade and openness. His idealistic views faced opponents not only among the leaders of the Allies, but also in the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the brainchild of Wilson: the League of Nations. Despite all these failures, Woodrow Wilson received Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. (Henig, 1973).
To sum up, it is necessary to mention that Wilson’s peaceful and democracy-spreading program was changed in 1920. After not ratifying the Treaty of the Versailles and not joining the League of Nations, the U.S. chose its own way and succeeded in naval disarmament. Refunding of Germany economy was another aim of this course. Crash of 1929 caused the Great Depression not only in the U.S., but also in all European countries dependant on American economy. Since the crisis, American policy changed to non-interventionist until 1938. This policy and the U.S. absence in the League of Nations significantly weakened this new structure, which aim was to protect peace.