The Congress of Berlin had not only addressed questions of the Balkans but many other points of interest; and one of its results had been that Bismarck and Disraeli had granted France “a free hand in Tunis,” for they much favoured to keep France busy in the Mediterranean instead of courting Russia. Licence for France, however, irked Italy, which felt a need to acquire new possessions; why exactly, nobody knew, for she was rather underdeveloped and would be expected to do her homework first, but she seemed to labour from a case of the aforementioned psychological desiderata of successful imperialism.
In 1880, France invaded Tunisia and established a protectorate over the region, but because at this time Gladstone and the liberals were in power in England, far more sceptical to French acquisitions in Africa than Disraeli and Lord Salisbury had been, Italy thought she might enlist British aid for her own designs on Tunisia. But England was loath to replace a French threat to her Mediterranean position with a potentially worse Italian one and Rome got nowhere. Having arrived there, only an understanding with Germany could help, but then Bismarck was no friend of Italy, which he accused of pursuing a “jackal policy”. Thus it took another eighteen months of horse-trading before, on May 20, 1882, Germany,Austria and Italy signed the First Treaty of the “Triple Alliance“, valid for five years.
The contract began with the assurance that the parties “have agreed to conclude a Treaty which by its essentially conservative and defensive nature pursues only the aim of forestalling the dangers that might threaten the security of Their States and the Peace of Europe.” Because it was exactly such conservative, peaceful and defensive agreements that proved unable to stop the conflagration of 1914, we shall have a look at a few of its clauses, summarized by Luigi Albertini:
The High Contracting Parties mutually promised peace and friendship, pledged themselves to enter into no alliance or engagement directed against one of their States and to exchange views on political and economic questions of a general nature that might arise, [and] promised mutual support within the limits of their own interests (Article I).
Austria and Germany undertook in the case of unprovoked attack by France to go to the help of Italy with all their forces. The same obligation was to devolve upon Italy in the case of an aggression by France on Germany without direct provocation (Article II).
If one or two of the High Contracting Parties, without direct provocation on their part, should chance to be attacked and engaged in war with two or more Great Powers not signatories of the treaty, the casus foederis would arise simultaneously for all the High Contracting Parties (Article III).
In the case that one of the three allies was forced to make war on a Great Power, not a signatory to the Treaty, which threatened its security, the two others would maintain benevolent neutrality, each reserving to itself the right, if it saw fit, to take part in such a war at the side of its ally (Article IV). (28)
The attentive reader will have identified two problems: the first in the clause that applies if one of the signatories is “… forced to make war …“ which entirely leaves open the question under which conditions this might be the case. Second, some scenarios were left out; for example, the contract would not apply if Austria would be attacked by Russia alone. The alliance was, of course, directed against France; Bismarck, whose opinion of the Italians had not much improved, saw the purpose of the Triple Alliance less in winning Italy but in preventing her from associating with France [and when exactly that happened in 1915, Bismarck’s voice thundered from the grave “I told you so!”, ¶]. By 1888, Romania had essentially joined the Triple Alliance, and the situation at this time is often regarded as Bismarck’s new, post-1871, continental equilibrium: France was isolated, and Bismarck himself would ensure that the interests of Russia and Austria on the Balkan would not collide. Great Britain’s interests would profit from a stabilization of the continent as well and Russia’s aspirations on the Straits were, for the moment, impeded by Romania.
But Italy remained a complicated customer; she had hoped to gain a seat on the highest table with her signature on the Triple Alliance but had to find out that the “Dreikaiserbund” courts, Berlin, Vienna and St. Petersburg, debated Balkan affairs, in which Rome believed to have a voice, without her. Yet despite the Dreikaiserbund, Austro-Russian tensions developed over Bulgaria, in whose affairs Austria wanted to retain an interest that Russia was not willing to grant her.
After some mending of socks, the Triple Alliance was renewed on February 20, 1887, on identical terms, except for the addition of an Austro-Italian protocol that attempted to regulate the parties’ interests in the Balkan, and a German-Italian agreement in which Italy reassured herself of German assistance in the case of a clash with France in central or western North Africa.
Bismarck saw room for further improvement of the status quo if Great Britain and Italy were to come to an understanding against France, and when Franco-British relations in regard to Egypt had taken one more dive after the French Prime Minister Freycinet publicly declared “that France could not allow Egypt to pass permanently under English rule because ‘he who is master of Egypt is in large part master of the Mediterranean,'” Lord Salisbury began to make overtures to Italy. Albertini remarks that he “had got to the point of half wishing for another Franco-German war to put a stop to French vexations.” In the spring of 1887 Italy and Great Britain signed an agreement regarding the retention of the status quo and pledging mutual support in Africa, an understanding Austria joined in late March 1887 to the chagrin of the aggressive Hungarian faction. But it seemed not to have come to Italy’s attention that her planned occupation of Tripoli, which belonged to the Ottomans, might constitute a change of this status quo, and when the Italian Foreign Minister Crispi wrote to Salisbury to inform him of the plan which would, as he said, solely anticipate a similar French plan, Salisbury made clear that British support would not extend to such adventures. He wrote back:
“The interests of Great Britain as also those of Italy do not permit that Tripolitania should have a fate similar to that of Tunisia. We must absolutely guard against such an eventuality when it threatens us. …
If Italy were to occupy Tripoli in time of peace without France having taken any aggressive measure, she would expose herself to the reproach of having revived the Near Eastern question in very disadvantageous conditions.”
On the eastern side of the Triple Alliance, Austria seemed to contemplate war with Russia over Serbia and Bulgaria. Kalnoky, the new Austrian Foreign Minister, approached Bismarck with his generals’ wish to clarify the exact conditions under which the casus foederis under the Austro-German Alliance of 1879 would arise. The problem was that the Reinsurance Treaty was secret and had to remain so and hence Bismarck had to prevaricate. The Austro-German Alliance, he replied, provided for German assistance in the case of a Russian attack on Austria, but not for an Austrian attack on Russia, as he thought to have made clear to the Austrian Ambassador in Berlin in January 1886:
“If Russia attacks Austria-Hungary, Germany will come to her assistance with all her forces, but it is not possible to let Germany play the role of auxiliary army to increase Austro-Hungarian influence on the Danube. Not a member of parliament would be found to vote even a single mark for such a purpose.”(33)
In a speech to the Reichstag on January 11, 1887, Bismarck had publicly clarified, with an eye to the Hungarian hotheads that:
“Our relations with Austria-Hungary are based on the consciousness of each one of us that the whole existence of each as a Great Power is a necessity to the other in the interests of European equilibrium; but these relations do not, as they are interpreted at times in the Hungarian Parliament, rest on the principle that one of the two nations puts itself and its whole strength and policy completely at the service of the other.
This is an utter impossibility. There exist specifically Austrian interests which we cannot undertake to defend, and there are specifically German interests which Austria cannot undertake to defend. We cannot each adopt the other’s special interests.”
Austria had become the problem in both the Triple Alliance – for perpetual Austro-Italian tensions – and the Dreikaiserbund, due to her frequent spats and spars with Russia. In the winged words of Norman Stone, “Austria-Hungary was trying to act the part of a great power with the resources of a second-rank one.” It was a sign of the respect Bismarck commanded in all European capitals that he was able to balance the diverging interests of Germany’s allies as long as he was in office.
But, as Luigi Albertini commented,
“Bismarck’s resignation in March 1890 produced a sense of dismay all over Europe. His authority and prestige, the veneration which surrounded him, the fear he inspired, were beyond compare,”and observed that “the youthful sovereign who had dropped him [Wilhelm II] had no policy of his own, and a sinister influence on German foreign relations was exercised by the tortuous Holstein who, in his hatred for Bismarck, reversed all the latter’s directives.”
All in all, the Triple Alliance never truly existed.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)