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Post Origins of WWI
Created by John Eipper on 08/07/15 2:00 PM

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Origins of WWI (Hall Gardner, -France, 08/07/15 2:00 pm)

In response to Anthony D'Agostino and others, I am presently in Italy traveling and will be back to Paris early next week where I can comment further. Most accounts of the origins of WWI lack a truly historical and systemic perspective, and only a few trace the origins of the war in the French quest to regain control over German-controlled Alsace Lorraine by diplomatic means of a territorial trade-off, if possible (a French colony in exchange for Alsace-Lorraine, for example), but also upon the threat of war, if necessary.

The threat of war with Germany was made plausible through a firm French military alliance with Russia in 1892-94, in which the Franco-Russian alliance was ultimately backed by French ententes with Great Britain, as well as with the USA more indirectly. French elites had hoped to achieve their alliances with Russia and Britain (if not Austria as well) during the Franco-Prussian war, but Paris was unable to prevent Austria from strongly aligning with Germany.

Berlin then feared the real possibility of an Anglo-French-Russian alliance by 1894 (the year of Anglo-German alienation prior to the German naval build-up) given British steps to reach out to Tsarist Russia plus Anglo-German disputes over the Congo, South Africa and China, among other colonial disputes. Also, not often mentioned, was the German fear that Anglo-French-Russian cooperation in support of the Armenians against the Ottoman pogroms might grow into a deeper collaboration against German interests. This is in addition to the British 1893 naval build-up (the Spencer program) which was not, at least initially aimed at Germany, but against France, Italy and Russia, but which was increasingly interpreted by Berlin, by 1897-1901, as being anti-German. This was the case particularly once London began to drop out of the Mediterranean naval accords with German allies, Italy and Austria, in the period 1894-1897; it was through the Mediterranean naval accords that Britain had appeared to back German interests and alliances. Dropping out of the Mediterranean naval accords in 1897 accordingly meant, from the German perspective, that Britain was gradually turning against German interests. This was before the German naval build-up that represented a (failed) political power factor designed to prevent London from aligning with France and Russia.

Yet given the fact that London had not yet fully aligned with France and Russia, it was crucial for French elites to assure that London would align with France in the period 1897-1904. This was not an easy task given the global nature of Anglo-French conflicts and disputes after the 1898 Fashoda crisis, while concurrently, in the period 1895 to 1903, Germany attempted, but failed, to draw France and Russia into an alliance against Germany, while France itself successfully used threats to align with Germany (and its alliance with Russia) as a means to draw Britain into a closer entente. Once Britain did unexpectedly align with both France and Russia by 1907, the "encircling" nature of the French alliance system, coupled with largely uncoordinated British, French and American efforts to isolate German political economic interests throughout much of the world in turn helped to militarize Prussian/German behaviour. (Contrary to the Fischer thesis, Germany would not have militarised if it did not fear an Anglo-French-Rusian "encirclement" as early as 1894.)

Also angering Germany were secret French and British efforts to draw the Italian "stiletto" out of the German-led Triple Alliance. The defection of Italy from the Triple alliance was furthermore coupled with French and Russian efforts to break up the Austro-German Dual Alliance, in part through support of pan-Serb/ pan-Slav movements throughout the Balkans that threatened the disaggregation of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

German elite fears of the break up of its alliance system, its virtual global political-economic isolation, if not fears of the disaggregation of Imperial Germany itself through the potential loss of Alsace-Lorraine, which in many ways had become the keystone holding the German empire together, accounts for the extreme violence in which Germany broke out into a two-front war.

As I argue in The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon, only a Franco-German compromise over Alsace-Lorraine, much like that belatedly proposed by Jean Jaurès and other French political leaders, could have prevented the so-called "Great War." While France could have initiated such a policy, as advocated by French peace activists in the 1890s, it would have needed British backing, in the formation of an Anglo-French-German entente.

Yet the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and conflict in the Balkans set off a chain of events that drew the two alliance systems into direct confrontation in August 1914 (despite signs of a Franco-German detente in early 1914), but with Italy opting out of its alliance with Germany, and joining with the French and British in 1915 and with the Turks joining forces with Imperial Germany. Turkish support for Germany was in part due to Germany's backing for the Berlin-Baghdad railway, which was seen as a potential rival to the British-controlled Suez trade route, plus the Liman von Sanders coup against British naval interests, not to mention Turkish opposition to what it saw as British, French and Russian interference in its domestic affairs.

The Doughboys would not join the war effort until 1917, with one of Woodrow Wilson's "14 points" demanding the return of Alsace Lorraine to France, even if it had been Louis Napoleon who had initiated the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. One can argue that Bismarck might have provoked that war, but it is not clear that Prussia would have necessarily won, and, as a consequence of its victory, annex Alsace-Lorraine and forge a new German Reich.

See my general introduction:


See my comments on the archduke's assassination:


I can develop these points further next week, if anyone is interested.

JE comments:  So glad to hear from Hall Gardner of American University, Paris.  Hall develops these points in much greater detail in his The Failure to Prevent WWI, a pre-publication version of which I had the pleasure of reading last year.

Most studies of WWI's origins go back primarily to the German-UK naval race, but Hall focuses more on an earlier problem--the conflict over Alsace and Lorraine.  It's a compelling thesis, which sheds a different light on the blame question.

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