Germany’s Behavior before World War I

Germany’s Behavior before World War I and the Causes of Support Austria-Hungary

May 22, 2020 at History Free Essays

German Fleet and the Possibility of the British-German Alliance

The ruling circles of Germany began to pursue persistent policies after the resignation of Bismarck. It was one of the reasons the atmosphere in Europe became ominous at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century. The unification of Germany gave the strongest push to the political, economic, and national recovery of the German people. It should be noted that the very Weltpolitik was a logical consequence of this recovery. The method of this unification – by blood and iron – defined the behavior of the German Empire and the nature of its policy in the late 19th – early 20th century. This paper examines German alliance behavior before 1914 and its decisions to support Austria-Hungary in 1914.

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The most striking manifestation of German persistent policies was the impressive program of rearmament, especially the construction of the modern powerful navy. However, Germany was not considered as a serious and dangerous rival in the struggle for supremacy on the seas and in the colonies of the United Kingdom. Thus, in the years 1898-1901, Germany was constantly thinking of the possibility of the British-German alliance, although specific negotiations were not reached. This possibility has failed mainly because of the fact that Germany was thinking that if the United Kingdom were willing to negotiate when the navy was only constructed, then later, they would be able to negotiate on better conditions (MacMillan 54).

Germany has realized that it was a mistake only in 1904 when the United Kingdom has solved its colonial conflicts with France and entered into an alliance with it, signing the Entente Cordiale, which became the basis of the alliance (MacMillan 54). Three years later, it signed an agreement on the cooperation with Russia. However, Germany did not seek to break off the relations with Britain; rather, it tried to establish correct relations with it (MacMillan 55). The German naval program was the main point of controversy since London wanted the German government to freeze it in exchange for the compensation in the colonies. However, this agreement was impossible, probably because the British were not going to give any piece of their empire to Germany, offering profit at the expense of the Portuguese or Belgian possessions in Africa (MacMillan 57).

In 1912, Britain tried to persuade the Germans to moderate naval ambitions. Germany, in turn, demanded from the British a guarantee of neutrality in the case of war on the continent, which was contrary to the plans of London, which the year before went to strengthen military cooperation with Paris (MacMillan 61). Thus, these attempts failed. The antagonism between Germany and England entered into a more serious stage, so it was possible that Austria-Hungary would have to fight on the side of Germany as a faithful ally. Fears of London were explained by the fact that in 1914, the German navy posed a threat, not to a particular British colony but rather a common threat to strategic lines of communication and the British world trade (MacMillan 69).

At the same time, Herwig believes that the German threat was largely a myth (45). He argues that Germany was aware that it was not destined to win the arms race with the British Empire because only the power that possessed the British seas would be able to defeat Britain. For this purpose, this power would need a fleet, which would not only have been equal to the Royal Navy concerning the total number of ships but would also have the advantage over it in heavy cruisers. Consequently, Germany, which was closed between France and Russia, should contain the largest land army in the world (Herwig 45). It is clear that the German economy had no possibilities to finance the construction of the fleet that would surpass the British one in numbers (Herwig 46). However, it should be said that Germany did not have aggressive intentions toward Britain. The main hub for the conflict in this country was still relations with France, seeking revenge for the defeat in 1870 (Herwig 47).


The Relationships and Politics toward Russia

On the eve of the First World War, the relationship between Germany and Russia was even more complicated and confusing than the one with the United Kingdom. In 1887, both empires entered into a so-called reinsurance contract, according to which, in the case one of the contracting parties was at war with a third power, the other side would retain in relation to the first benevolent neutrality and make every effort to ensure that the conflict was localized (MacMillan 63). This obligation was not applied to the war against France or Austria in case one of the parties was attacked by one of these powers. In addition, according to the secret protocol, Germany assumed the obligation to maintain the benevolent neutrality in the case of the Russian war in defense of the entrance to the Black Sea (the Bosporus and the Dardanelles) from the encroachments of foreign powers. However, later the contract was not renewed since its provisions were no longer consistent with the strategic objectives of German policy (MacMillan 66).

At the end of the 19th century, within the German behavior, two points were proved. The first was the fact that the war with Britain, especially on the seas and without the proper growth of the German military power, would require the joint efforts of Germany with a number of other states, including Russia. The second was the fact that such a situation, even in the case of victory, would not have brought great benefits to the German Empire (MacMillan 69). However, since the prospects of relations with Britain were still unclear, in relation to Russia, German diplomacy preferred to conduct the complex game, in which the union between the two powers was still considered as one of the possible scenarios.

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In 1905, a new union treaty was signed (Torp 111). In the first paragraph of this document, it was stated that in the case of attacks on the other side, each party promises to come to the aid of its ally in Europe with all the land and naval forces. It was further noted that in this case, two powers could not enter into separate agreements with the enemy. Meanwhile, Russia undertook not to report to France about the signed agreement, pending its entry into force. This point, in turn, should only occur after the signing of the peace agreement between Russia and Japan, which were then at war. However, this treaty remained an empty declaration (Torp 111).

In the first years of the 20th century, on the one hand, the contradictions between Russia and the United Kingdom gradually smoothed because of the rivalry in Central Asia and the Far East, which previously had put the two powers to the brink of war several times. German activity in the Balkans and the Middle East troubled both the United Kingdom and Russia (Torp 114). German foreign policy in relation to the Russian Empire was based on the desire to push back the Russians out of European affairs and interest them in the colonial expansionist project in the Middle and the Far East, where the interests of Russia would inevitably cross paths with the British. This scenario was profitable for Germany. In this respect, the policy of the German Empire can be called shortsighted: the Germans themselves set their western and eastern neighbors against one another (Torp 116).

Despite attempts to find the common language with Russia, the German General Staff has long been taking into consideration the possibility of simultaneous wars in the West and East. It resulted in the Schlieffen Plan, according to which the German troops acted at the beginning of the First World War. France was considered as the chief enemy. Russia was given the role of the second opponent. Active measures against it could be deployed only after the defeat of France (Torp 120). This approach is explained not only by purely military considerations but also by the fact that Berlin understood that there were no immediate causes for a military clash in Germany and Russia, even taking into account the activity of the Germans in the Balkans and the Middle East and a number of economic contradictions between the two countries. Thus, it can be said that, essentially, Russia and Germany (not Austria-Hungary) did not have sharp disagreements that could have led to the war (Torp 119).

Moreover, the two powers to some extent became the victims of alliances that concluded with third countries: Germany – Austria-Hungary, Russia – Serbia, and France. After the Sarajevo assassination, when it became clear that Vienna was going to punish Serbia, Germany was forced to support its ally since the conflict with the Dual Monarchy would threaten Berlin with political isolation. In turn, Russia remained in a faithful alliance with France for a quarter-century, thus dooming itself to hostile relations with Germany since the resolution of the German-French conflicts peacefully was not possible after 1870 (Torp 120).

Causes of German Decision to Support Austria-Hungary

There are plenty of explanations of the causes of German support of Austria-Hungary. Long before the outbreak of hostilities, the German conservative government was convinced that the European war would satisfy the colonial ambitions of Germany and strengthen its military and political authority in the world. The very decision to support Austria-Hungary after not such a serious international crisis caused by the assassination in Sarajevo was the result of political mistakes, fear of losing credibility, and a complex system of allied commitments of the European states. Hull calls military purposes, in particular, the famous September Program of 1914, in which some economic and territorial demands were set out, the main reason for the German decision to support Austria-Hungary and join the war (89). However, this approach can be considered too narrow.


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Fromkin prefers to consider military targets in Germany, as well as other targets of the belligerent countries, within the context of the progress of hostilities and political situation during the war. He expresses the idea that on July 5-6, German Kaizer did not believe that he was risking anything providing support to Austria-Hungary (Fromkin 159). In Vienna, the government and the military wanted the war with Serbia. The immediate reaction to the murder of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, was a claim for the compensation from Serbia, which, according to the point of view of Vienna, was responsible for the attack and threatened the positions of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. It is important that diplomatic victory was considered meaningless and unacceptable. The politicians chose the war. To unleash the war, they needed the support of its main ally Germany. Without the support of the Germans, the decision to levy the war would be impossible. The government in Berlin has given its ally carte blanche and promised unconditional support and putting pressure on the vein so that it took advantage of this opportunity. Both countries were aware that Russia was likely to support Serbia, which would transform a local conflict into a pan-European, but they were willing to take a risk (MacMillan 77).

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German guarantees made the realization of the plans of Vienna possible; meanwhile, the refusal from Berlin would have stopped the crisis. With some delay, Vienna sent Serbia a deliberately impossible ultimatum. This was done because Austria-Hungary was already inclined to war, instigated by Germany. They perceived the situation seemed like a great victory, probably because if they waited for several years, Russia and France would become invincible. In this atmosphere of despair and presumption, political leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary went to war to preserve and expand their empire.


The thesis of the deliberate planning of the European war by Germany as a result of the Weltpolitik investigation has long been called into question. Of course, Germany was actively fighting for the strengthening of its position among the great powers, but these efforts were just as intense as, for example, French policy that was aimed at creating a strong anti-German alliance with Russia and the United Kingdom, or Russia's desire to dominate the Balkans. The home guilt of Germany was the fact that it managed to defeat France in the war of 1870-1871, gaining the most deadly and implacable enemy. This France-German confrontation was the factor that influenced almost all political and diplomatic combinations in Europe in the late 19th – early 20th century. Some in the German ruling circles were excited about the prospect of war in the opponent's expansionist territory. The war was begun by leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Vienna took the opportunity of the murder of the Archduke to try to destroy her Balkan rival Serbia. Germany guaranteed Austria-Hungary unconditional support despite the high probability of war with Russia, an ally of France and Britain. Germany, seeking to destroy the French-Russian alliance, was fully prepared to take the risk that would lead to a major war. This was done with the full knowledge that Serbia's ally Russia was unlikely to stand aside, and this, in turn, could lead to a European war.

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