This will be a very long post and take some time to finish, approximately until the summer of 2019. Please be welcome to bookmark it. Quotations will be listed after completion on the bottom of the text.
Russia’s geopolitical issues are mostly of geographic nature, the inaccessibility of much of Siberia, the endless distances and the perennial problem of her ports – both for trade and military purposes. Before the construction of the port of Murmansk in 1915, there were only two Russian ports in the north-west: Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg (later renamed Petrograd). Arkhangelsk, however was useless in the winter, and the usability of St. Petersburg was easily controlled by an eventual blockade of the Kattegat Strait by Germany. The Pacific ports suffered from transport handicaps – although the Trans-Siberian Railway was more or less functioning by the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904/05, it was single track only and its capacity was low. There were, however, ice-free ports available in the Black Sea ...
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 brought two principal changes in the strategic equilibrium of the continent; one clear and immediately visible, the other latent, circumspect, and slow in its consequences. Number One was the emergence of a new, possibly dominant, power on the continent – Wilhelmine Germany - which everybody had to take note of; Number Two was the emergence of another, possibly dominant, European power – an industrialized and modernized Russian Empire – of which few took notice.
Franco-German enmity had become a predictable factor of the new European reality; revanchism was to remain the French Right’s battle cry for the foreseeable future. That France’s desire for revenge could not be fulfilled without outside aid was also clear; both her stagnant population and relative industrial underperformance – at least if compared to Germany – illustrated her weakness. She could not endanger Germany unless in concert with Russia, but this avenue Bismarck had blocked.
If Franco-German tension was the western centre of European politics after 1871, the other two were in the East, consisting of the triangles Constantinople – St. Petersburg – Vienna and Constantinople – London – St. Petersburg. These were the centres of attention of all European powers – except perhaps for Germany, which was far away and could not hope to profit from a breakup of the Ottoman Empire. They paid mindfulness to the decay of the Turkish realm and stood ready to pick up the pieces. Triangle One defined the Balkans, the scene of Austro-Russian disputes over the future inheritance, and Triangle Two incorporated Mesopotamia and Persia, the pieces over which Russia and Great Britain expected to haggle after the demise of the Ottomans.
Bismarck was only too aware of the quandaries of the situation, and thus had provided for the“Re-Insurance Treaty”, which held Russia to neutrality in the case of a new Franco-German war regardless of origin, and thus banned the spectre of Germany having to fight a two-front war. But after his retirement in 1890, the Re-Insurance Treaty, the pièce de résistance of his foreign policy, was simply allowed to expire through the legendary stupidity of Wilhelm II, new Chancellor Leo von Caprivi and the new Secretary of State Bieberstein; the latter did not even inquire in St. Petersburg whether the Czar desired a prolongation of the compact. The Russian court, perplexed, could only interpret Berlin’s silence as a sign of inexplicable German hostility, and began to look for a new ally in the West. France was ready and willing.
To discern that both the European and Asian borderlands of the Ottoman Empire were the most volatile areas of the respective international relations did not require the application of prophecy, and someone should have noticed that Russia was the attractor that figured in each possible crisis scenario, but no one did, and few care today; as Sean McMeekin notes, “as for what Russia’s leaders hoped to accomplish by going to war in 1914, most histories of the conflict have little to say, beyond vague mutterings about Serbia and Slavic honour, treaty obligations to France, and concern for Russia’s status as a great power.” (12)
It is indicative of a habitual geopolitical superficiality that even general history works of the era do not enlighten the curious layman what, for example, French, British, Australian and New Zealand troops sought at the Gallipoli Peninsula, i.e. the Dardanelles, in 1915/16. There were no Germans, nor Austrians, and the landscape was not very attractive.
To prevent a Franco-Russian rapprochement had been Bismarck’s priority, but as we had the opportunity to observe, the German Foreign Office was far too preoccupied after 1890 with internal strife and incompetence to notice the signs of the times; the failure was aggravated by the fact that the two decades after 1890 were the years in which the fateful system of alliances developed and petrified.
Early signs of trouble came from south-eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, the critical triangle between Vienna, Constantinople and St. Petersburg. Slavic hotheads instigated local insurrections from the mid-1870s on; some were home-grown, as in Bulgaria, where, Luigi Albertini remarks, more than two hundred revolutionary committees could be counted in 1872, (13) and some were kindled by Serbian agents. Russian expansionism and Slavic ethnocentricity concerted, founded upon age-old Russo-Turkish and Austro-Slavic enmity; encouraged, perhaps, by the Russian generals’ impression that both Turks and Austrians were militarily inferior, “beatable”, so to say. Luigi Albertini sums up the Russian designs on the Turks as follows:
Russian ambitions in the Balkan Peninsula were of ancient date. [FN5] Eight wars at least she had waged on the Turks either to take their territory or to help Orthodox Slavs and Greeks to throw off the Turkish yoke. In the recent Crimean War Russia had come up against Austrian hostility. Forgetful of services rendered by the Tsar in 1849, when Nicholas I had saved Francis Joseph’s throne by sending Russian troops to smother the Hungarian revolt, Austria had maintained an unfriendly neutrality during this war, and at the Congress of Paris in 1856 had helped to deprive Russia of part of Bessarabia.
Having reached the Black Sea in the eighteenth century, Russia henceforward aspired to free access to the Mediterranean. But the Straits were in Turkish possession, and entry to them was regulated by inter-national agreements unfavourable to Russia. The Black Sea was a mare clausum [FN6] and its key was in other hands. Still, older than the Russian aspiration to the Straits was the aspiration for Constantinople. [FN7] The cross was to be raised on the Church of Santa Sophia as symbol of the protection given by Russia to the Balkan Christians and of her aid in their liberation. (14)
[FN5] Albertini explains: “In 1833, by the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, Russia had achieved the closing of the Dardanelles to enemy fleets seeking to penetrate to the Black Sea. This clause was modified by the Treaty of London of 1840 and the Straits Convention of 1841, which denied the Straits to ships of war whether entering or leaving the Black Sea, a principle confirmed by the Treaty of Paris of 1856, which further forbade both Russia and Turkey to have warships in the Black Sea. After the denunciation of this clause by Russia in 1870, the Treaty of London had withdrawn the veto, but had for the first time admitted the principle that foreign warships might enter the Black Sea in time of peace, if the Sultan deemed it necessary for the safeguarding of the other clauses of the Treaty of Paris. Thus, Russia could not pass her Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean, while the Sultan could admit enemy fleets into the Black Sea, a complete reversal to the disadvantage of Russia of the principle of the closed Straits.” (16) [FN6] Latin: a “closed sea” [FN7] Sean McMeekin comments that Constantinople had been called “Tsargrad” by Russians for centuries; the town from where, after successful reconquista from the Muslims, the Tsar would reign over a “Second Rome”, a new Orthodox Christian Empire. (17)
The development of Pan-Slavism in the 1860s added to the volatility of the region, for the enthusiasts of some imaginary ethnic unity demanded the establishment of a greater Slavic confederation, which was to include “Russia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Constantinople with the Straits, a Serb-Croat-Slovene realm corresponding approximately to Yugoslavia, and in addition Greece, Romania and Hungary.” (15) It would appear thus, that Greek, Romanians and Hungarians would become involuntary Slavs, and in addition, one might argue that there were few Slavs in Constantinople who urgently expected their liberation. But Pan-Slavism found its most enthusiastic adherents in the south: neither the Poles, who longed to have their state back, which had been divided up by Russia, Austria and Prussia in the three successive divisions of the late eighteenth century, nor the Czechs, who aspired to their own state in Bohemia and Moravia, eventually together with the Slovaks a bit further east, were keen on a union with southern Slavs, for they were only too keenly aware of the ethnic and religious divisions of the Balkan.
There existed within the southern Slavs living in Austria-Hungary a quite numerous faction which would accept the recently quite liberal Habsburg reign and aspired to little more than, say, limited home rule and decent representation in the administration of the realm. The Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was essentially open to their suggestions, but the good will of the constructive faction came to naught because of the intransigence of the Hungarian nobility – in some respects, the Slavs were less of a problem to Austria than the Hungarians, who, by skilful negotiation, had created for themselves a very advantageous position in the Austro-Hungarian “Ausgleich” of 1867.
Luigi Albertini summarizes the result of the bargain:
[By the Ausgleich] … the Empire was divided into two rigidly separated States; on the one hand Austria with the Hereditary Crown lands formerly belonging to the Holy Roman Empire and the later acquisitions Galicia and Dalmatia, and on the other Hungary together with Transylvania and Croatia, from which Fiume was detached and placed directly under Hungary.
Each of the two states was to have its own Constitution, Government, and Parliament. Common to both states were the Ministers for War, Foreign Affairs, and Finance, the latter in so far as he administered the revenues covering defence and diplomatic expenditure. While legislation and the budget came under the separate parliaments, their joint interests were to be dealt with by standing committees called Delegations nominated annually by the respective Parliaments. For matters concerning commerce and customs, the two governments were to conclude separate agreements every ten years.
Though the word Ausgleich means “equalization” and the compromise assured equal rights to both sides, Austria was to contribute 70% of the joint expenditure and Hungary only 30%, which, as Friedjung [Heinrich Friedjung, then Professor at the University of Vienna] observes, was equivalent to a “tribute obligation” from Austria to Hungary, of which the Hungarians were wont to boast. (18)
In his role as King of the Hungarians, Emperor Francis Joseph was bound by the resolutions of the Hungarian parliament, and thus, as the Austrian historian Viktor Bibl observed, the Magyars had the upper hand in governmental practice:
Not two sovereign Parliaments were to deal with joint business; not the King of Hungary and the Emperor were to base themselves on agreement between the two states. Solely the Hungarian Parliament and Ministers impose their will as law on the entire Monarchy, including Austria; the King of Hungary as executor of the Hungarian national will is absolute master of Austria. (19)
And so it had come to pass that most of the southern Slavs of the Empire had come under the Hungarian thumb, from which they received little kindness. It was the small, semi-autonomous principality of Serbia, technically a province of the Ottoman Empire, which, relying on Russian protection in the case of failure, felt elected to propel Pan-Slavic dreams toward their eventual fulfilment. After raising an insurgency against the Turkish overlords in Bosnia 1875, the Serbian ruler Prince Milan urged Constantinople to entrust his state with the governance of the errant province. When the Sultan denied the motion, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Turks on June 30, 1876. By September, they were defeated, and the Serbs asked their putative protector, Tsar Alexander II, to intercede on their behalf and to arrange an armistice. Russia eyed the possibility to have found in the Serbo-Turkish war a proper excuse to attack the Ottomans themselves, but this could not be done unless Austrian neutrality could be obtained.
Diplomatic missives were exchanged between Vienna and St. Petersburg, and despite Austrian conditions that, in Albertini’s words, were “tantamount to [Russia] fighting for the benefit of Austria-Hungary,” (20) a military convention and political agreement was signed in Budapest in early 1877, and Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24. The Convention of Budapest awarded Bosnia and the Hercegovina to Austria and assured her that no greater Slavic state was to be founded in the Balkans as a result of Russia’s future endeavours.
Eventually, Russia won a confused campaign, and in March 1878 exacted from Turkey the Treaty of San Stefano. The agreement established a geographically generous, supposedly independent Bulgaria on Turkey’s doorstep, which, however, could fool no one as to its being a “Russian outpost towards Constantinople”. (21) In addition, the compact not only bestowed full independence on Serbia, Montenegro and Romania but also provided autonomy, under Austro-Russian “supervision”, to Bosnia and Hercegovina.
All that, of course, directly violated the Convention of Budapest and also was far more than Great Britain was willing to tolerate – for it turned out that Russia and Austria had clandestinely agreed to “liberate” Constantinople, which would become a “Free City”. Now an Anglo-Russian conflict threatened over the San Stefano Treaty, and Austria espied an opportunity to renegotiate her terms with Russia. For her benevolent neutrality, she now demanded not only Bosnia and the Hercegovina, again, but added parts of Montenegro and of the large Bulgarian state the San Stefano Treaty had just created. It was all too obvious to suspect that Austria envisioned a road for herself all the way down to Salonika and the Aegean Sea; on August 6, 1878, Count Julius Andrassy, then Austria’s Foreign Minister, admitted in a letter to the King of Wuerttemberg that the possession of these lands “enables us in the event of a collapse of Turkey to be as near as possible to the scene, to safeguard our interests.” (22)
With Austria entering the race for the Straits – for a naval base in Salonika, furnished with the proper ships, could easily close the Straits independently of Turks or Russians or the British – the situation became opaque, impenetrable, while the stakes increased. Great Britain’s new Foreign Minister Lord Salisbury realized this, and, assisted by Bismarck, whose back channels in St. Petersburg had informed him about the Austro-Russian collusion, invited the European powers to a continental congress to adjudicate all pending matters, which opened in Berlin on June 13, 1878.
After a lot of horse-trading and pressure brought to bear by Bismarck and Lord Beaconsfield, i.e. Benjamin Disraeli, the congress eventually entrusted Bosnia and the Hercegovina to Austrian occupation, while upholding titular Turkish suzerainty over these provinces. In addition, Austria reserved the right to intercede in the Sanjak of Novibazar, the strip of territory separating Serbia and Montenegro, if the Ottomans were unable to guarantee a competent administration of the province, which remained under their sovereignty.
The problem of the Straits, however, could not be addressed satisfactorily; for England and Russia could not find a compromise. (23) Statehood and independence were granted to Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, the latter two receiving additional territories. Russia appropriated Armenia and reoccupied Bessarabia. The island of Cyprus Great Britain had secured from Turkey on June 4, ten days before the Congress began; that she attempted to keep the acquisition secret – in vain, when the news went around the world on July 8 – was only more water on the mills of those who were wont to complain about “Perfidious Albion” and her hypocrisy. The bottom line, however, was that everybody had profited “at the expense of Turkey, to which up to 1878 had belonged Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bessarabia, Armenia, and Cyprus, and under whose sovereignty till then had stood Serbia, Montenegro and Romania.” (24)
This short description of the events giving rise to the Congress of Berlin has been chosen to serve as an impression of the manner in which European diplomacy was customarily handled; in the best case, its double and triple layers of deceit could be repaired by the efforts of reasonable and skilful men like Disraeli and Bismarck; under the aegis of lesser diplomatic talents, accidents happened galore, as may be read in detail in Luigi Albertini’s magnum opus.
We shall now attempt to concentrate the next twenty-five years or so of European power politics, each of them as complicated and deceptive as the events that led to the Congress of Berlin – and some worse – in a form that hopefully allows us to separate wheat from chaff. Essentially, we shall follow the interplay of the Great Powers, mindful that the rapid sociological and economic changes of the industrial age exerted limitations on governmental options than had been unknown only decades earlier – fear of socialism, for one.
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,” (25) 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 conservatives 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”. (26) 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 solemn 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.” (27) 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.
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. (29)
Bismarck saw room for a 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. (30) Albertini remarks that he “had got to the point of half wishing for another Franco-German war to put a stop to French vexations.” (31) 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.” (32)
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 on 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.” (34)
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.” (35) 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.” (36)
Germany’s lifeline to St. Petersburg ruptured quickly. Only three months after Bismarck’s dismissal, the Russian Ambassador Shuvalov showed up in Berlin to renew the Reinsurance Treaty for another six years, but encountered disinterest bordering on hostility. Still, both Tsar and the Pan-Slavs remained sceptical of Paris, the former for its republicanism, the latter because they relied on Germany to keep Austria in check on the Balkans. Yet French perseverance began to pay off. Paris offered to float numerous Russian loans at advantageous conditions, sold weapons cheaply, and endeared the Tsar by arresting a few of the more obnoxious Russian anarchist émigrés that lived in France, of the sort that had assassinated the Tsar’s father Alexander II in 1881. In August 1890, the French Chief of the General Staff Boisdeffre was invited to the Russian summer manoeuvres and there was introduced to his Russian colleague Obruchev and the Minister of War. Yet again it seems that it was Italy that unblocked the mutual suspicions between Paris and St. Petersburg, when her new Prime Minister Rudini notified parliament of the 1891 renewal of the Triple Alliance “in a form which created the impression that it had been in some measure joined by England.” (37)
This was an ominous mistake, for if it were true, Russia had no choice but to entice France, Albion’s old enemy, as a counterweight, and in this age of secret treaties one could not check whether it was true or not. Thus, Russia initiated tender diplomatic overtures to France which ended, in summer 1891, in an invitation to the French fleet to a visit at Kronstadt, Russia’s principal naval base in the Baltic, on the doorsteps of St. Petersburg, at the occasion of which the French Ambassador Laboulaye proposed that the two nations enter an agreement to further the continental peace.
A memorandum was drawn up with rather unseemly haste, and on August 27, 1891, the French government sanctioned a letter delivered by the Russian Ambassador in Paris, which stated that the Tsar had approved the following outlines:
“1. With the aim of defining and consecrating the “Entente Cordiale” which unites them, and in the desire to contribute by common accord to the maintenance of peace, which forms the object of their most sincere desires, the two Governments declare that they will concert on all questions of a nature to endanger general peace.
2. In the case that this peace were actually in peril, particularly in the case that one of the two parties were menaced by aggression, the two parties undertake to concert in advance measures to be taken immediately and simultaneously if the eventuality contemplated should actually arise.” (38)
Elementary scrutiny, however, tells us that the interests of the prospective endorsers of the agreement were far from overlapping, and the declarations of peaceful intent cannot obscure their different motivations: France hoped to enlist Russian aid without which she could not hope to overcome Germany; yet Russia’s problem was not Germany but Great Britain, that blocked her designs on the Straits and expansion toward the Caucasus and Persia. Thus, it took an additional twenty months of haggling and bickering until the Entente Cordiale was finally signed in January 1894, and the Franco- Russian pact that Bismarck had feared was reality. Even then, the foreign policy aims of the two signatories were far from identical, and it was less the incoherent political invocations than the military agreement that became important. In the first two paragraphs, the arrangement laid out the following scenarios for outright defence or mobilization in a crisis:
“1. If France is attacked by Germany, or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia will employ all forces at her disposal to attack Germany. If Russia is attacked by Germany, or by Austria supported by Germany, France will employ all the forces at her disposal to combat Germany.
2. In the case in which the forces of the Triple Alliance or of one of the Powers forming part of it were mobilized, France and Russia at the first announcement of the event and without need of preliminary agreement will immediately and simultaneously mobilize the whole of their forces and move them as near as possible to their frontiers.” (39)
Bismarck’s nightmare had become reality.
The operative memorandum that followed the protocol laid down the number of troops that were to be committed against Germany; France would dispatch 1.3 million men and Russia between 700,000 and 800,000. In addition, the general staffs of the nations were to meet at specified intervals to harmonize operational planning and prepare troop coördination, there would be no separate peace, and the Entente would last, in strict secrecy, as long as the Triple Alliance existed. (40)
Again, the treaty was technically defensive, but, as in the Triple Alliance, some possible scenarios made little sense or tended to provoke ill-advised complications. If, for example, Austria were to mobilize against Russia in a Balkan conflict, France would also be obliged to mobilize. Since France and Austria had no common border, this move would not only make no military sense but would lead to German mobilization, which in turn might well provoke the war that the alliance was supposed to avoid. As Luigi Albertini observed, “the French endeavoured to remedy this incongruity, but ended by resigning themselves to the consideration that, in an Austro-Russian conflict, France and Germany could not stand aside.” (41)
This was of course all too true, as 1914 would prove, and it is exactly the smart approval of the likely scenario that makes one doubt very much the honesty of the French government’s assertions that she was driven into the war of 1914 involuntary, solely because of her treaty obligations to Russia. Essentially, the Franco-Russian alliance guaranteed that revanche for 1870/71 would occur in the near future; all that remained was to find a suitable pretext and to determine a suitable date. [FN1] What was true in 1894 became more true twenty years later: on May 29, 1914, the American President Wilson’s envoy to Europe, Colonel House, wrote his master that “whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.” (42)
[FN1] The present author, however, disputes Luigi Albertini’s subsequent opinion that “it would be wrong to imagine that the Franco-Russian Alliance was concluded by the French with a view to an impending revanche or by the Russians to realize their aspirations in the Balkans and Far East. What both sought was to end their isolation.” (44) In reality, France was not isolated any more than Great Britain, which saw no need to engage in questionable alliances then; both had extensive colonial interests that guaranteed them a major voice in global politics independent of alliances. In addition, French Republicans were much more sympathetic to liberal England than to reactionary Russia. Russia was assured of non-intervention by the powers that counted – which did not include Austria-Hungary, who could not threaten Russia on her own – and protected by her vastness that had defeated even Napoleon – as long as she did not attempt to go for Constantinople and the Straits. Yet by exposing Germany to a potentially immobilizing two-front war, she might gain the opportunity to fight and decide in her favour what Sean McMeekin called the “War of the Ottoman Succession”. (45)
Whether outright war or mobilization, neither side had illusions about the decisiveness of the prospective military measures, nor were they unaware that the defensive character of the treaty might change in time.
The chauvinists of both countries expected much more from the alliance than did the Governments which concluded it. Moreover, in later years, like the Austro-German alliance, it lost its strictly defensive character to adapt itself to other ends; and the generals who negotiated the military agreement perfectly understood the consequences of the mobilizations contemplated in the agreement.
General Obruchev in the course of negotiations remarked that “to his idea the beginning of French and Russian mobilization cannot now be regarded as a peaceful act; on the contrary it is the most decisive act of war; i.e., would be inseparable from an aggression”. Boisdeffre, likewise, said to the Tsar: “Mobilization is declaration of war. To mobilize is to oblige one’s neighbour to do the same. Mobilization causes the carrying out of strategic transport and concentration. Otherwise, to allow a million men to mobilize on one’s frontiers without at once doing the same oneself is to forfeit all possibility of following suit, is to put oneself in the position of an individual with a pistol in his pocket who allows his neighbour to point a weapon at his head without reaching for his own.” To which Alexander III replied: “That is how I too
understand it”. The importance and the consequences of this judgement were to come to the fore on July 25, 1914 when Russia was to be the first Power to order mobilization. (43)
Now Great Britain found herself the odd man out, but her traditional equanimity, or indecisiveness, had preserved her so far from having to jeopardize her global aims by continental obligations. But she had to protect the Mediterranean life line that connected her to Egypt and the Near East and for this reason was interested in opposing French influence in the western part of the Mediterranean by friendship with Italy that would bring the necessary authority to bear in Her Majesty’s name; yet, alas, her aversion to make binding commitments won the day, and Italy declined free services. But England might be left in a dubious position if, for instance, France and Russia were to coöperate in seizing Constantinople and the Straits. Such a scenario seemed possible after their alliance had become known, but Great Britain declined to join the Triple Alliance pre-emptively over this scenario, although her Prime Minister Rosebery acknowledged that “in such a case we should require the assistance of the Triple Alliance to hold France in check.” (46)
When Great Britain extended feelers to Germany over such a scenario, she was rebuffed by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, from traditional friendship to Russia as well as antipathy to England made it clear that a Russian seizure of Constantinople and the Straits would, in his opinion, not constitute a casus belli for Germany; the interest of Austria could be maintained by giving her Salonika as a compensation. It was the remainder of Bismarck’s old policy of dividing the Balkans into two spheres of influence for Russia and Austria, and presiding over them as arbitrator. But Wilhelm was not Bismarck and thus the nostalgic endeavour tanked.
When tensions increased in South Africa between Boers and Britishers in 1895, Wilhelm II easily managed to upset Great Britain with his ill-advised Kruger telegram of January 3, 1896, in which he congratulated the Boer President to his accomplishments in driving out English raiders (“I express to you my sincere congratulations that you and your people, without appealing to the help of friendly powers, have succeeded, by your own energetic action against the armed bands which invaded your country as disturbers of the peace, in restoring peace and in maintaining the independence of the country against attack from without.”). A few months earlier he had demanded in a conversation with the British Military Attaché in Berlin that England “take up a clear position either with the Triple Alliance or against it”, adding that “the former alternative would require a formal undertaking such as was customary between continental Powers, i.e. sealed and signed guarantees.’ ” (49) The same invitation he extended in writing to the new Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in London on December 20, 1895, who, however, failed to acknowledge receipt. Given that Wilhelm knew Britain’s disinclinations to formal alliances perfectly well, one is left to wonder about his state of mind.
Meanwhile, Italy’s Prime Minister Francesco Crispi complained to Bülow, then Ambassador in Rome, that “France makes war on us everywhere. Whatever may be said about the Triple Alliance being concluded to maintain peace, for us it has been the opposite. For us the Triple Alliance is war. Our position is intolerable. And I repeat, for us this state of affairs is worse than war.” (50) There was, of course, no true war going on, except for a few ruffled feathers in Italy’s excitable nature, but Crispi’s complaint depicts the psychological afflictions of the imperial age. In reply, Chancellor Hohenlohe pointed out that the alliance was a defensive league to maintain peace, not a clique of robbers. (51) Italy’s frustration continued, although she was able to come to an agreement with France over Tunisia in late 1896.
In the Balkan, Austria continued the attempts to enlarge her domain of influence further east than Bismarck’s old division of influence spheres had suggested, chiefly driven by her State Department that was occupied by a Russophobe Hungarian camarilla; the result, increasing tensions with Russia, irritated Berlin, which made clear that it would not support an Austrian strike at Constantinople. Austria then attempted to enlist England’s aid, but, again, Salisbury replied in the name of Her Majesty’s government that “it was impossible to take any engagement involving an obligation to go to war“and Vienna got nowhere.” (52)
A change in the German government brought the replacement of Foreign Minister Marschall von Bieberstein by Bülow and the appointment of Alfred von Tirpitz to the post of Secretary for the Navy in June 1897. These substitutions would prove fatefully important, for not only were here the origins of Germany’s naval race with England, but the notorious Pan- German League, founded in 1893, began to exert political influence as well.
Alike many naval officers of the time, Tirpitz had become a follower of Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American naval captain, whose book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” had become a military bestseller. It argued that, as England’s example proved, it was necessary for an empire to maintain sea power, that is, a battle fleet superior to her competitors, to project global influence and protect its economic interests. Tirpitz relished the idea very much, not in the least because it would much improve the prestige of the German navy, that is, his own office, which up to then had been a small department for coastal defence. Tirpitz had Mahan’s book translated and distributed to everybody he knew.
He was anti-British, too, which put him in the emperor’s good graces; a feeling that was largely reciprocated in England. Luigi Albertini cites the “Saturday Review” of September 11, 1897, which argued that “in all parts of the earth English and Germans jostle each other. Were every German to be wiped out tomorrow, there is no English trade, no English pursuit, that would not immediately expand”, and recommended that “Germania est delenda”. (53)
Numerous Italian, Austrian and German appeals to England in the last decade or so, inviting her to the Triple Alliance, had failed to impress her much, but from 1898 on the situation reversed itself; now Whitehall sought German attention. At the same time, renewed Russian scepticism over the Entente with France led the Tsar to propose a continental alliance of all powers against “the ambition, the implacable egoism, and the avidity of England.” (54) A Bismarck might have been able to square this diplomatic circle; Wilhelm, the old Chancellor von Hohenlohe and Bülow were not.
Suddenly China appeared in the German focus. When General Obruchev arrived from St. Petersburg with some anti- England proposals in the autumn of 1897, Bülow succeeded, while stalling Obruchev’s original mission, to win the Tsar over to assist Germany in the acquisition of a combined port, trading post and coaling station on the Pacific Coast. With the Tsar’s connivance, taking advantage of the weakness of the Chinese government, German troops landed at Jiao Xian in China’s Shandong peninsula, over which they acquired a ninety-nine-year concession in March 1898 (Tsingtao). The Russians, meanwhile, had obtained their own Pacific harbour in Port Arthur, which became the principal port for their Far Eastern fleet after they had thrown out some nosy Britishers. Russian admirals had read Mahan’s book as well.
In the eyes of Her Majesty’s government, the Russian activities were quite close to poaching in England’s own back garden, for Great Britain controlled more than eighty percent of the Chinese trade. She was not likely to allow Russian expansion – the German colony was too small to matter. In the Mediterranean, Austria-Hungary and Italy, to a degree, counteracted the spread of Russian influence, but who could aid Britannia against Russia in the Far East?
In the opinion of Joseph Chamberlain, head of the British Liberal Unionists and Secretary for the Colonies, it might be Germany. Unlike Salisbury, he saw dangers in England’s isolation. Already French expeditions probed the White Nile from the south and had established a base near Fashoda (today’s Kodok in the Sudan). Chamberlain used Salisbury’s absence from the Foreign Office on account of a spa visit to Europe after March 25, 1989 to advance his ideas, but, not being a diplomat, it would seem that he approached his pleadings to Germany, as Luigi Albertini commented, “in the manner of a business deal.” (55) Strangely enough, after all earlier German overtures to England, now it was Bülow who prevaricated, citing concerns over Germany’s relation to Russia, which might suffer from a flirt with her mortal enemy. Bülow summarized his position in writing to Wilhelm that we “must hold ourselves independent between the two; be the pointer on the scales, not the pendulum swinging from left to right.” (56)
When Salisbury returned to Whitehall in late April 1898, he had to find out that Chamberlain had meanwhile made his demand of an alliance with Germany public, for instance in a speech on May 13 in Birmingham. Chamberlain’s reasoning, however, failed to convince Salisbury and the issue remained open. Suddenly Wilhelm took action, when ...
… on 30 May 1898, the Kaiser took the step of writing to the Tsar telling him that three times in the last few weeks England had talked of an alliance, the last time requiring the answer within a brief time limit. As the Triple Alliance, Japan, and the United States were all to be included, the alliance could only be directed against Russia.
“I beg you to tell me what you can offer and what you will do if I refuse.”
Before answering, the Kaiser wanted to know the Tsar’s proposals. Let the latter not hesitate on account of France which could enter into any combination he desired. By this indiscretion, the Kaiser offered the prospect of reviving the old Continental league against England. The Tsar, however, did not rise to the bait, but answered on 3 June that a few months earlier England had made attractive proposals to him too, and that he was not in a position to answer the question whether or not it was advantageous to Germany to accept these repeated English offers. (57)
At this point, the reader might be excused if the suspicion arose that any system that depended on puerile aristocrats who habitually engaged in pissing contests was doomed to end in global war. Wilhelm and his advisors concluded that “any agreement with England would appear directed against Russia and would lessen the security of Germany to east and west, while any agreement with Russia would appear directed against England and would lessen the chance of colonial acquisitions.” (58) The compulsiveness of imperialist reasoning reared its head again; had Bismarck been in office, he would have counselled that, in the worst case, a treaty with Russia might cost a few thousand square miles of torrid African steppe, but would prevent the annihilation of the Fatherland.
In the autumn of 1898, through Lascelles, her Ambassador in Berlin, England put the quite unheard-of proposition on the table – apparently secured by Chamberlain in a cabinet vote – that the two countries could reach agreement on mutual assistance if either one were attacked by two other Powers, but Bülow again prevailed in counselling against it by writing to Wilhelm, in a variation of his old theme, that, by declining any alliance with England or Russia, “Your Majesty can be present as arbiter mundi at the eightieth birthday celebrations of H.M. Queen Victoria.” (59) That no one would ask notoriously unreliable Wilhelm to assume this role never entered Bülow’s mind.
Next: Clash in the Sudan
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)