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The Impact of the Alliances on the Outbreak of War



      Europe had been ripe for war for many years, and several events prior to August 1914 had almost pushed the world past the breaking point.  What made the events of 1914 different is not the focus of this paper.  The key point is that the system of alliances and the comprehensive meaning those alliances took on over time, in all facets of society, provided a volatile structure for international politics.[1]   The two-camp structure of European relations conditioned expectations about the battle lines to be drawn between friends and enemies in the increasingly likely outbreak of war.[2]   Nonetheless, if the great powers had merely complied with their legal obligations under the alliance treaties, the great war would have never occurred, because of the defensive nature of those obligations.  In a world divided by defensive alliances, neither side could be certain of the support of its allies on offensive measures.  However, states chose to exceed their obligations in support of their allies to achieve the greater objectives that the alliances had been formed to promote and to show that their alliances were strong and unwavering. 

       An interesting and undeniable footnote to the alliance system is how much each side tried to avoid appearing to be the aggressor in the outbreak of the war.  It is not implausible to think that some of this posturing may have resulted from an attempt to arrange the circumstances in such a way as to bind oneís allies to the defensive terms of intervention under the alliance treaties.  Germany was cognizant of the reality that Italy would likely try to back out of its obligations under the Triple Alliance anyway, and the Germans knew they did not need to give the Italians just cause to do that.  Also, as mentioned briefly in the other issues page, some German officials wanted to avoid formal declarations of war in order not to appear as the aggressor.  However, some of these attempts to induce oneís enemies to take the first steps of aggression clearly stemmed from the political gaming with regard to Britain.  France pulled her troops ten kilometers off the eastern border with Germany, to demonstrate that it was the Germans who were out to dominate the continent, and to convince Great Britain that it could not simply stand by and allow them to succeed.  On the other hand, Germany wanted to cast Russia as the aggressor,[3]  hoping to convince the British not to intervene on the side of Russia, a state with which Britain had consistently had a strained relationship.  Finally, characterizing the enemy as the aggressor satisfied the need to justify the war to oneís own citizens and to unite them against that enemy in this patriotic war.

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Footnotes

1.     Jack S. Levy, ìPreferences, Constraints, and Choices in July 1914,î in 15 International Security 226, 259 (Winter 1990/91).
2.     James Joll, Origins of the First World War, 2d ed., 1992, p. 73.
3.     Mark Trachtenberg, "The Meaning of Mobilization in 1914," in 15 International Security 195, 217 (Winter 1990/91).