Conflicting national interests in Western and Eastern Europe led to the creation of two rival alliances.
Triple Alliance of 1882
In 1879 the threat of expansion by Russia against Austria-Hungary led, German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to agree a defensive agreement with Austria-Hungary. In 1882 Italy joined Germany and Austria to create the Triple Alliance. Germany and Austria agreed to support Italy in the event of an attack by France, in exchange Italy had to agree to remain neutral in case of war between Austria-Hungary and Russia. However Italy was prevented from becoming completely integrated into the alliance due to the rivalry with Austria-Hungary in the Balkans and the Adriatic area.
Bismarck also attempted to maintain good relations with Great Britain. However the exceptional build up of the German fleet threatened Britain's standing as the prime European naval strength. These circumstances led to the creation of the Anglo-French Entente in 1904. German support of Austrian aspirations in the Balkans also antagonised Russia, which in 1907 concluded an entente with Britain. Consequently Britain, France, and Russia, formerly fierce rivals came together in the Triple Entente.
The Prospect of War
So Europe effectively became divided into two armed camps with the indirect involvement in the alliances of several smaller countries. To prevent further expansion into the Balkans by Austria, Russia promised to aid Serbia in the event of war with Austria-Hungary. Belgium was in a difficult position because it had been assured neutrality by Britain, France, Russia, Prussia (Germany), and Austria.
The threat of a European War came close to reality following a number of international crises and two local wars.
- 1905-06: Germany intervened to support Moroccan independence against French encroachment. France threatened war against Germany, the crisis was finally settled by an international conference at Algeciras, Spain, in 1906.
- 1908: In the Balkans the annexation by Austria-Hungary of Bosnia and Herzegovina caused the Serbs to threaten war against Austria. Serbia could not fight without Russian support, and Russia was not prepared for war so further conflict was avoided.
- 1911: In Morocco, the German government sent a warship to Agadir in protest against French efforts to secure supremacy in Morocco. The possibility of war was averted by a conference at Agadir.
- 1911: In an effort to annex the Tripoli region of northern Africa, Italy declared war on Turkey. Germany's current policy obliged it to cultivate friendship with Turkey, so the Italian attack had weakened the triple alliance.
- 1912-13: The Balkan Wars increased Serbia's desire to obtain the parts of Austria-Hungary inhabited by Slavic peoples, reinforced Austro-Hungarian suspicion of Serbia, and left Bulgaria and Turkey, both defeated in the wars, keen for revenge.
As a result of the Balkan Wars depriving Turkey of its European territory, Germany augmented its army. France next increased peacetime military service from two to three years and subsequently all the other European countries spent huge sums on armaments and their armed forces.
Eventually it was a Balkan dispute that led to World War I. Although Serbia achieved independence from Turkey in 1878, many Serbian nationalists remained dissatisfied because the Austrian Empire they detested continued to influence control of a large Serbian minority.
For some years before 1914, the relations between Italy and its allies had been strained, and as a result Italy did not carry out its obligations under the Triple Alliance by entering the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Instead, after considerable secret negotiation in which the Triple Entente powers promised Italy substantial territorial gains, in 1915 Italy declared war upon its former allies, thereby openly dissolving the Triple Alliance.