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The situation of pre-1914 Europe was one governed by the pursuit of imperial aims by the great European powers, some states had already acquired large empires such as Russia, Britain and France and sought to preserve their global dominance. Whereas other recently unified states such as Italy and Germany made their national priority the acquisition of territory generally in the Extra-Europe world. Austro-Hungary could be seen to be a mixture of the above categories, being an old, relatively small empire but with global dreams such as the unlikely aims of gaining control and influence of the Middle East. This tension between the preservation of the old global hegemony and dominance and the desire for a new order to rise up could be seen to be most starkly realised in the alliances that were made (and broken) in the run-up to the First World War.

The realisation of these alliances were however not so simple in comprehension or practise among the different foreign policy officials of the pre-1914 era, under a realist view of power each country had to try to construct alliances which would give them relatively the most and cost them the least in terms of compromise. There are numerous examples of how imperial reality governing European political discourse; these will now be addressed country by country.

Britain was the leading imperial power of the world, with the largest population and landmass, and under an unchallenged naval dominance it was coming to be content as a “mature power”. The status quo was a beneficial order to Britain where it could concentrate on being the financial centre of the world. Its primary defence priority in the post Franco-Prussian war were mainly to do with worrying about a Russian push into South Asian at the expense of the jewel of the British Empire, India. Until the rise of the rapid German economic rise and Industrialisation in the 1890s, and the massive investment being put into the German naval fleet, direct European considerations were at best of secondary importance. The spirit of British European policy remained unchanged since the defeat of Napoleon being only to ensure that one power never again obtained a hegemonic hold over the continent, as such a geographically secure land power of such economic could only move on to becoming a naval of power to threaten the British Empire. In summary Britain wanted a preservation of the balance of power, and sought out the most likely allies who would maintain this.

German unification through a victorious war with France created a new great power on the continent, into the ranks of Russia and France and a declining Austro-Hungarian empire. Imperial concerns were at first of very low importance compared to that of securing a German nation state, as Bismarck said, “Here lies Russia, and there lies France, we are in the middle. That is my map of Africa” emphasising that it was essential Germany would not become encircled by any future war. After Bismarck's demise, and Kaiser Wilhelm wanted Germany to have its place in the sun, imperial aims rose to the forefront of Germany policy. However trying to obtain extra-European territory in a world already crowded, in not entirely dominated by the established imperiums would be unwise, neither France nor Russia would look kindly to an established empire being displaced by another. Germany could not risk provoking a double-sided war on land, and there were severe dangers in starting a naval arms race with Britain. Despite this Germany advanced on constructing a deeply symbolic Berlin to Baghdad trans-national railway, and a major naval construction program based on the belief that international realities would eventually come to favour there country, as explained below.

France having been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war, and having lost the two French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, had real non-Imperial grievances with Germany and the map of Europe. However no other country would assist France for this war aim alone, so France used it’s imperial influence with the British over North Africa to construct treaties and friendships with Britain resulting in Entente in 1904, which was mainly about settling outstanding colonial issues and disputes between the two countries, in return for greater security against Germany. Entente with the British was even more vital after the 1905 Russian-Japanese naval war, Russia being the first power to have been beaten soundly in a modern war with a non-European country. This left France with a severely wounded and humiliated ally, which Germany had no need to fear.

The European situation of Entente was made visible in the Treaty of Morocco, where France guaranteed to acknowledge British influence in Egypt, and Britain in turn supported France over German attempts to embarrass French rule over Morocco when the Kaiser turned up in a gunboat and declared that “Germany would safeguard her interests and considered the Sultan to be sovereign”. This crisis, which at the time, seemed to precipitate an immediate war was solved at an international Conference in Algeciras in 1906, where Germany was left isolated saved for Austro-Hungary and Entente was reinforced greatly, France also managing to encourage friendship between Britain and Russian in the European theatre. The Kaiser and his generals however believed that the English, Russians and the French would not be able to sustain such an alliance for long, considering the wide range of colonial rivalries and intrinsic disputes between them, this confidence allowed Germany to follow the logic that if Germany could manage to construct a navy which the British were wary of then the British would feel obliged to remain neutral during any future continental war, this policy in particular truly separated those who favoured an Anglo-German alliance from mainstream opinion.

Italy is a more untypical case of how imperia rivalries affected international relations, like Germany, Italy was newly unified, without empire, and industrialising (albeit at a very much slower rate that Germany). Italy also felt that it was not being treated with the respect a great power deserved and that this was directly linked to its lack of imperial possessions. Looking to the unclaimed areas of North Africa it originally identified Tunisia, Abyssinia, and Libya as ripe for it’s new Roman Empire, for it’s people to colonise instead of immigrating to the New World. However things did not proceed smoothly in the first two cases, Tunisia was claimed by France in 1881 (with German acquiescence) – much to the annoyance, resentment and jealously of the Italians as they demonstrated with a naval build up against the French in the Mediterranean, and the attempted conquest of Abyssinia result in the shocking defeat and capture of the Italian army which dampened the public Italian mood for imperial outings. Libya however later provided success for Italy, and whetted its appetite for further gains. Already engaged in a defensive alliance with Germany, it considered in position in the advent of the increasingly frequent international crises carefully, wanting territory as a reward for any participation in war. Strategically Italy was most threatening to Austria and France, and played ambiguously signed the Triple Alliance treaty in 1912 whilst improving relations in France and working towards gaining influence in the Balkans with Russia. Expansionist aims to the north finally caused Italy to abandon it’s Alliance, in the hope that victory would result in gaining rich Austrian territory which containing a majority of ethnic Italians, such as Trieste. Austro-Hungary was in the most awkward situation of these radical times, divided by ethnicity, relatively under-industrialised, surrounded by potential enemies except for an over-weaning Germany – Austro-Hungary had the priorities of surviving as an empire and maintaining imperial influence in the Balkans.

In looking at imperial influences on European relations it is also interesting to note imperial influences affecting imperial relations, there were noticeable occasions when the priorities of the home government in the European theatre of alliances seemed to directly conflict with the home government’s policy to alliances in far away places. The Boxer rebellion created a German, Russian and French pact of control over China, which in turn forced Britain to participate as a player of less influence that before. The reasons why a still resentful France would have no qualms about working with Germany in China underlie the solidly schizophrenic nature of imperial politics on a geo-strategic scale, the world in such a time was harder to traverse and seemed much bigger, allowing a country’s direct priorities in one regional theatre (the Far East) entire conflict with the principles of another (North Africa). It was only in the case of total war in the Europe that global priorities became united went the defence of the mother country was at stake, for instance when Germany’s African possessions were immediately occupied by the British after the commence of the First World War, previously having been tolerated.

The above imperial sideshow of Morocco was in fact a symptom as was as the nature of the imperial causes of a breakdown down of relations and creation of power blocks that led to the First World War. It climaxed after the numerous imperial disputes between Russian wanting control of the Bosphorus and an Austro-Hungary anxious to preserve control over the Balkans during the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Austro-Hungary was in no situation to deal with Russia in such a non-diplomatic manner but for the fact that a Germany feeling increasingly isolated and alone after the Morocco crisis had, in effect, given it’s sole reliable ally Austro-Hungary a blank cheque in regards to dealing with Russia.

In summary the effects the imperial concerns and rivalries of the European powers were of great importance to the developments of their diplomatic stance and alliances. The preoccupation of empire or empire building meant the only alliances constructed, were constructed out of concern or fear of the other’s power and influence greatly damaging the national interest, and empires were seen to be the vehicles and rewards of national interest. Whether the First World War could have been avoided in hindsight is difficult to judge, but it is seen to be inherent that the competing interests of empire directly resulted in very little room for diplomatically manoeuvre unless it was backed up by military power, and in consequence as occurred that military power would be called upon when diplomacy failed to keep fixing an intractable ideological reality.

This was constructed with research from the following very recommended bibliography:

Kennedy, P. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Fontana press.
Joll, J. Europe Since 1870. Penguin.
Nieven, D. Empire. (I will find out publisher!!)
Henig, R. The Origins of the First World War. Routledge.

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