Lecture notes History of international relations
In the early 19th century, the French empire, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, attempted to conquer Europe. However, the combined coalition of the other European powers eventually lead to the defeat of France in 1815. After this return to the status quo, the Great Powers met in Vienna to discuss the establishment of a lasting peace in Europe. The five Great Powers were the most powerful states in Europe, who dominated not only their own continent but also colonized much of the known world. They included Great Britain, France (welcomed back despite its past actions), Russia, Prussia (later Germany after the German unification) and Austria (later Austria-Hungary after splitting into two semi-autonomous nations). This congress lead to the establishment of the Vienna System, more commonly known as the Concert of Europe. The general principle of the Concert of Europe was that the Great Powers would hold regular meetings and together govern international law and ensure European stability.
This proved successful in ensuring the peace throughout the 19th century thanks to four key factors. Firstly, the Concert served the interests of the Great Powers, allowing them to focus on colonial expansion and economic advancement instead of having to deal with the constant threat of potential war. Secondly, since all the major powers were benefitting from the collective security, they had no reason to break the peace and eliminate one another. In other words, there was no ‘zero-sum game’ in which the benefit of one Power would result in clear loss for another. Thirdly, the ‘balance of power’ politics ensured that no one Great Power would gain a clear superiority, as this would cause the other four to close ranks and form an opposing coalition in order to restore the balance. Finally, the Concert of Europe created a shared ‘way of doing things’ among the European elite, and thus cooperation was promoted. This included ideologies concerning colonialism and military strategy.
There are a number of long-term circumstances and influences that contributed to the tensions building up to the First World War, which broke out in the summer of 1914. Four of the most notable are as follows.
Firstly, the political flexibility upon which the balance of power, a discussed above, depended was stagnating as a result of rigid alliances forming between the great powers. Two key blocs emerged as a result of these alliances. On the one side there was the Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary, which was established in 1879 and later became the Triple Alliance with the entry of Italy into the pact in 1882. On the other side, France and Britain formed the Entente Cordiale in 1904, later joined by Russia in 1907. With the balance of power disrupted in this fashion, conflict between these two coalitions seemed inevitable.
Secondly, the scramble for military superiority resulted in an arms race between the various Powers. Germany and Great Britain fought over maritime superiority, while France and Russia faced off against Germany and Austria-Hungary in regards to land superiority. Gradually, it appeared that the Central Powers would not be able to keep up with the Entente Cordiale, leaving Germany and Austria-Hungary in a position of desperation. If war was to come, it had to come soon, otherwise the Triple Alliance would face definitive defeat because of the sheer military superiority of the Entente Cordiale.
This connects with the third factor, namely the various war plans of the Great Powers. All of the Powers had established highly aggressive plans in case of a European war, with the expectation of a short and effective campaign leading to victory. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, for example, was made in the case of a war against France and Russia, a war on two fronts. The underlying assumption was that Russia would take a longer time to assemble an offense due to its ongoing recovering after being defeated by Japan. Thus, Germany hoped to invade France by means of the neutral Belgium, bypassing its defensive fortifications and reaching Paris in a manner of weeks. With France defeated, Germany’s full force could then be turned against Russia. However, in light of the arms race discussed earlier, this plan would have to be put into effect very soon if it was to work, thus pressuring Germany into taking military action in a form of a pre-emptive strike.
Finally, another point of tension was the ‘Weltpolitik’ or World Policy that became prominent in Germany and other Powers. The concept was that in order to become or remain a great empire, one must also attain a vast colonial power. Since Germany was late to the game of colonialism, with much of Africa and Asia already being colonized by the British and French, there grew a sense of unease in Germany about its position as a great power. Again, if things continued as they were, Germany would slowly disappear from relevance. Something had to be done to stop this from happening, even if this meant war.
While all the factors above lead to a high tension between the various Powers, a ‘fuse’ still needed to be lit in order for war to break out. This came in the form of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, in Bosnia by a Serbian nationalist. This lead to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, again based on on-going long-term tension.
Only a few days after this war broke out, Germany’s Chancellor Bethman Hollweg provided Austria-Hungary a ‘blank cheque’, promising Germany’s unconditional support if war were to occur in Europe. On the other side, Russia was a close ally of Serbia, and thus was drawn into the War as well, along with France thanks to the Franco-Russian Alliance. With Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Central Powers, facing off against France and Russia, the Schlieffen Plan was put into action.
Great Britain had signed a treaty with the neutral Belgium promising military support in case of an invasion, but given the age of this treaty, Germany was counting on Britain refraining from entering the conflict. However, the double obligation of protecting Belgium and the Entente Cordiale with France caused Britain to do just that. Thus the two opposing parties were established and the First World War had begun.
According to the war plans established by the various powers, the war should have been over in a matter of weeks. However, it lasted from 1914 to 1918, a full four years, thus putting a huge burden on all involved parties. The reasons for this prolonged conflict are summarized in what is called the Triple Stalemate, a combination of 3 factors which together resulted in the impossibility of a quick solution.
Firstly, there was a diplomatic stalemate, as despite numerous secret meetings and attempts at negotiation, there appeared to be no possibility of compromise. Secondly, the military stalemate emerged as a result of trench warfare and the impossibility of any advancement of troops without huge losses thanks to the fortified positions of the defenders on both sides. Thirdly, there was also a stalemate at the home front. This took the form of a strong sense of nationalism and both civilian and military support of the war effort. In other words, with the exception of Russia, there was no major internal resistance to the conflict that could have pushed for peace.
It was not until 1917 that the stalemate started to break down, primarily thanks to the entry of the USA into the war. Aside from simply providing manpower to the Entente Cordiale, America also saved France and Great Britain from bankruptcy with much needed financial support. Additionally, America’s maritime power helped overcome the German blockade and reinitiate British supply and trade routes. Ultimately, Germany and Austria-Hungary were forced to accept defeat and sign an armistice in 1918, officially ending the war.
After the war, a series of treaties were signed around Paris, which are collectively known as the Paris Peace Treaty. These treaties included the Treaty of Versailles with Germany, the Treaty of Trianon with Austria-Hungary and the Treaty of Sèvres with the Ottoman Empire. These documents contained two different elements.
The idealistic element of the treaties dealt with the establishment of lasting peace and a structure to replace the failed Concert of Europe. It is heavily based on Woodrow Wilson’s proposed ‘Fourteen Points’. These included themes such as open, transparent diplomacy as an alternative to the covert, informal discussions that often took place within the Concert. Additionally, self-determination was emphasized in regards to the various nations of eastern and central Europe. This lead to the separation of Austria Hungary into its various national components, as well as serving to create a number of ‘buffer states’ against the strange new power known as the Soviet Union arising in the east. Other points included the freedom of the seas, free trade, a general reduction of armaments and, most importantly, the creation of the League of Nations as a supra-national organization with the purpose of maintaining global peace.
The treaties also came with a punitive element, that is, a list of consequences faced by the losing powers. This included a loss of territory, as seen by the returning of Alsace and Lorraine from German to French rule, the separation of Austria-Hungary and the separation of Poland from the German empire. The central powers also had to surrender all their colonies. Certain restrictions were also put in the Central Powers, such as a highly limited standing army and exclusion from diplomatic matters. Reparations, that is, repayment to the victors to make up for the costs of the long war, were also imposed. These reparations were impossibly high and crippled the German economy severely for many year henceforth. Finally, and perhaps most critically, the losers of the war had to accept a ‘war guilt clause’, assuming full responsibility for starting the war and causing all the destruction.
This last aspect in particular struck deep against German nationalism, and lead to the ‘stab in the back’ conspiracy, which argued that Germany had not in fact been losing the war, but had been betrayed by its own government and was now suffering the undeserved consequences. This fueled German spite and would prove immensely useful to the National Socialist (Nazi) party in rallying support behind Hitler.
Thus, ultimately the Paris Peace Treaty merely resulted merely in the end of the war, but did not succeed in creating a lasting peace. An attempt was made to reduce the once again growing tension within Germany with the Rhineland Pact of 1925. This agreement, signed by France, Belgium and Germany, allowed Germany to finally join the League of Nations, enabling renewed diplomatic relations. Additionally it established an inviolability of borders between these nations, safeguarding against another invasion. This Pact lead to a brief period of relative prosperity for Germany, known as the ‘Spirit of Locarno’. However, with the coming of the Great Depression, this prosperity and the underlying peace was not to last.
Away from the European stage, Japan was also undergoing change. After expectantly defeating Russia in the war of 1904-1905, Japan became increasingly involved in regional power struggles, particularly in regard to the Chinese mainland. Thus rapid power growth lead to Japan being recognized as a significant player in global politics, however this was done only reluctantly. Due to both Euro-centrism and racial presumptions, Japan was largely ignored. However, its rapid growth was eventually recognized as a threat to the residing Pacific maritime power of the USA. In an attempt to control this expansion, America attempted to establish a number of treaties with Japan at the Washington Conference. Japan managed to evade being controlled however, and gradually became more aggressive in its regional policies. By the time the Western powers took serious notice, it was already too late.
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