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Too Much Tension

Just after 1900, Britain smoothed over relations with the United States and signed a formal treaty with the Japanese. In 1904, Britain sided with France and created the Anglo-French Entente. France joined with Britain on the condition of mutual support. France was to support Britain in Egypt and Britain was to support France in Morocco. The agreement between the two nations was known as the Entente Cordiale, which means “friendly agreement.” The Entente Cordiale eventually led to the Triple Entente between Britain, France, and Russia.

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When Britain and France teamed up, Germany demanded the dismissal of Théophile Delcassé, the brilliant French diplomat who negotiated several treaties between several European nations in efforts to keep peace, and who negotiated the Entente Cordiale. Germany really was testing French loyalties.

Germany tried to strain the alliance by making demands of France and holding an international conference to deal with the Morocco issue; Germany had no real plan, though, other than to weaken the Entente. The plan backfired and Germany was left mad, embarrassed, and with no real ally aside from Austria-Hungary because its former alliance, like so many of this era, dissolved. Britain, France, and Russia started to see the true colors of the new postBismarck Germany. They all feared what might happen if Germany grew too powerful. Germany at the same time began to feel paranoid and suspected that the other nations were ganging up on it. Things really got tense after Russia signed the Anglo-Russo Agreement in 1907. It seemed that Germany was isolated geographically in the center of a hostile Europe.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Germany wasn’t the only European nation feeling paranoid at the turn of the twentieth century. With the recent history of secret treaties and shifting alliances, no one really felt safe. Additionally, in the age of imperialism and far-flung imperial holdings, the glue that seemed to hold everything together for imperial powers was the navy.

A powerful navy allowed a nation to dominate the seas and thus maintain the security of its colonies.

At the time of rising tensions between Germany and the Anglo-French Alliance, the British had the dominant navy and a colonial empire that stretched around the world. A famous saying noted that the sun never set on the British Empire. Germany decided that it would need to expand its navy if it were to keep pace with Britain militarily. Under the leadership of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930), Germany set out to create a new and improved navy. Tirpitz expressed his desire to compete with the British navy when he said that Germany “must have a fleet equal in strength” to Britain’s. His dream for the High Sea Fleet was an awesome 60-ship fleet which would be updated constantly. Tirpitz wanted to create such a navy that no one, not even the British, would run the risk of challenging the High Sea Fleet.

Britain threw a wrench in the German plans in 1905, though, with the launching of the Dreadnought class of battleships. Britain had always maintained a naval policy called the “two power standard.” This policy meant that Britain kept its navy as large as any two other powers combined. This gave Germany a lofty goal. With the Dreadnought battleships in 1905, named for the ship the HMS Dreadnought,Britain separated itself even further from the rest of the world. The Dreadnought class of ships was the biggest, fastest, most heavily armed class of ships the world had ever seen. Germany found itself in double trouble by 1905 because the funding for the German navy had fallen into jeopardy. The army was jealous of naval expenditures, Germany lacked the funds to keep up with Britain, and some members of the German government didn’t like the direction Tirpitz was taking the nation. By 1914, Tirpitz and his plan for the High Sea Fleet was way behind schedule. Ironically, the naval arms race among the European powers did not result in war. However, the rising tensions definitely contributed to the brewing storm in Europe.

The Balkan Powder Keg

For decades the region of the Balkans ticked like a time bomb just waiting for the right time to explode. Historians often refer to the region as a powder keg that waited for a spark, a place that “produces more history than it can consume locally.” Either way, the highly volatile region would soon be the epicenter of a major disaster in European history.

The fading Ottoman Empire owned much of the Balkan region at the turn of the twentieth century. Austria-Hungary administered part of the region, and Russia envied the lands along the Black Sea and the Dardanelles. Bismarck had managed to keep Austria-Hungary and Russia separated, but Bismarck wasn’t around anymore.

The tensions between the two rivals may well have been enough by themselves to cause an outbreak of fighting without any further help. However, there were more factors that made the situation even more complex and volatile.

The specter of nationalism that had haunted European conservatives for nearly a century appeared in the Balkans and caused great distress among nations like Austria- Hungary. In Serbia in 1903, a coup d’etat dethroned King Alexander and his wife, both of whom were murdered in their bedroom and then thrown out a window. King Peter I (1844-1921), an ally of Russia, replaced him and immediately introduced a number of reforms in Serbia. Serbia had a deep sense of nationalism and Peter wanted to annex Bosnia, home of hundreds of thousands of Serbs. In 1908, after the Young Turks overthrew the Ottoman government, Austria-Hungary took Bosnia. Serbia looked to Russia for help but Russia, fearing war with Austria-Hungary, its long-time rival, was not in a position to go to bat for Serbia.

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Bulgaria had no choice but to accept the terms of the treaty since it was completely surrounded by the nations that forced the treaty on the Bulgarians.

Montenegro turned up the heat in 1912 when it declared war on Turkey and started the First Balkan War. Soon after the outbreak of war, Albania declared its independence from Turkey. Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece pounced on Albania quickly. At the peace conference in December, Albania was taken from the three nations and given its independence. In return, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece were given the land that Bulgaria took amidst all the confusion. Bulgaria was understandably upset and tried using the military to resist the treaty’s conditions. In July of 1813, the Second Balkan War erupted. Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro defeated Bulgaria and forced the Treaty of Bucharest. The victors got the spoils and Bulgaria got very little. The treaty redrew lines that violated informal national and ethnic boundaries, creating a volatile, chaotic situation that would not last long as nationalism burned stronger than ever in the Balkans.

Nationalism in the British Isles

Britain underwent huge political changes in the late nineteenth century. In the 1860s, Parliament extended the right to vote to more males than ever before. Then, in 1884, the franchise was granted to practically every male in Britain. Class tension developed in the early years of the new century between the conservative, aristocratic House of Lords and the House of Commons. When the House of Commons tried to pass the People’s Budget in the first decade of the century, the Lords vetoed the legislation.

In addition to funding the naval expansion, the People’s Budget would fund insurance, pensions, and social programs that did not interest the aristocratic House of Lords. When the king threatened to create new peers, or effectively replace the members of the House of Lords, the House changed its mind and approved the budget.

Part of the support for the People’s Budget came from the Irish, who wanted home rule. The British slowly moved toward giving Ireland its own government a few times during the late 1800s, but never went through with it. Religion stood as the huge obstacle in the home rule issue. Ireland was split between hard-core Catholics and fiery Protestants; the majority was Catholic. The Catholic majority desperately wanted home rule, or independence, while the Protestants, most notably those in Ulster, detested the idea, wanting to maintain the balance of power by remaining British subjects. The Ulsterites raised an army and swore to resist Irish home rule. Parliament passed a home rule bill in 1914, but the actions resulting from the bill were suspended. Something more pressing was unfolding on the continent.

As a Matter of Fact

One of the leaders in Ireland's push for independence, seen either as a patriot or as a criminal depending on one's perspective, was Michael Collins. Collins joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and participated in the Easter Uprising of 1916. After 1916, Collins organized and spearheaded violent resistance to all forms of British authority in Ireland. His Irish Republican Army and British forces volleyed violence back and forth until 1921 when Collins helped negotiate a treaty between the two sides.

The treaty granted dominion status to Ireland and the right for Ireland to govern itself within the British Empire. The treaty met with mixed emotions in Ireland and Collins was assassinated in 1922.

A Sordid Affair

France had its own issues to deal with at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1894, a Jewish military officer in the French army was accused of treason and found guilty. The case eventually set off a violent reaction throughout the nation and virtually split the country into two camps.

Investigators accused Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) of giving secrets to the Germans. Their evidence was a handwritten document said to be of Dreyfus’s doing. Dreyfus received a life sentence on Devil’s Island off the South American coast. In 1896, the army discovered that the real spy was a man named Ferdinand Esterhazy (1847-1923). For less than $500 per month, Esterhazy provided the Germans with information about artillery and the like. The army refused to reopen the case, though, because it didn’t want to admit its mistake. The press in France eventually caught wind of the scandal and went crazy. After it was clear the scandal would not go away, the army tried Esterhazy with a court martial; to no one’s surprise, Esterhazy was acquitted.

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The Dreyfus camp even appealed to famous novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902) for help. The novelist published a letter concerning the case that landed him in court where he was accused of libel. After his conviction, Zola fled to England. The French Supreme Court later exonerated Zola and he returned to France.

The nation split over the Dreyfus Affair. Anti- Semites, the Catholic Church, and the military demanded that the decision against Dreyfus stand; admitting a mistake would cause the military and Catholic leaders to lose face. Civil libertarians and Jews demanded that Dreyfus be freed. The government finally agreed to a retrial but once again convicted Dreyfus. However, Dreyfus received a pardon and was allowed to return to the army. Tensions remained so high in France over the Dreyfus Affair that France basically disallowed anyone from talking about the incident for years.

The Least You Need to Know

The development of rail and steam engine transportation made the world a smaller place. European nations took advantage of overseas markets for both suppliers of raw materials and consumers of finished goods.

During the nineteenth century, millions and millions of Europeans migrated from Europe to other parts of the world. Many were farmers looking to take advantage of frontier land in developing nations.

The European nations looked overseas and found enticing land that belonged to the various indigenous peoples there. Undaunted, Europe launched an era of violent new imperialism that led to European domination and colonization of much of the world.

Bismarck and his contemporaries spent the final 30 years of the 1800s creating and undoing entangling alliances in an effort to keep peace. Ironically, the result was paranoia that would contribute to World War I.

Nationalism created tension in Britain over the Irish home rule issue, and nationalism led to a series of wars in the Balkans that ultimately settled nothing.

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