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First World War: German and Austrian Policies’ Response Essay

Plan of Investigation

What caused the outbreak of the First World War (WWI) has been a topic of debate among historians for almost a century. Some belief, the problem began in the mid-19th century during German unification by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1864) and continued with the dreams of economic predominance by Kaiser Wilhelm II (1871). Some believe that it was the aggressive foreign policy adopted by Germany in the years preceding 1914 that led to the outbreak of the world war (Geiss 1966; Gillette 2006).

Others think that domestic policies had more influence on the outbreak than the foreign policy of the warring nations (Gordon 1974). Some scholars emphasized on the German innocence (Moses 2015). However, scholars like Fritz Fischer annulled such claims in the 1960s that held the Germans responsible for the July crisis that inevitably led to WWI (Kaiser 1983). Therefore, there have been two poles debating over the reasons for the outbreak of WWI. The research question is, in what ways, and to what extent, were German and Austrian policies responsible for the outbreak of the First World War?

For this investigation, we have relied on archival records of the original treaties, declarations, and official letters. These are highly reliable primary sources of policies adopted by Germany and Austria before WWI.

Summary of Evidence

This paper will study two primary documents – (1) The expanded Triple Alliance between Austria and Germany in 1882 (The Triple Alliance 1912), and (2) Declaration of Annexation of Bosnia (Annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina 1908). These two primary sources show the policies adopted by Germany and Austria-Hungary since the 1870s that had led to the polarization of the world powers.

The Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, first signed in 1882, was renewed in 1912, created a formal coalition between the three nations against France (The Triple Alliance 1912). The alliance ensured military support to one another in the case of a war. The document stressed that it was a strategy to strengthen their defenses if threatened by other nations (1912).

The aim of the alliance was to create power blocks in Europe to have to promise bound alliances in the case of a war. Germany had created an alliance with Austria and Russia by creating the Three Emperor’s League in 1890 but it did not help as Russia and Austria conflicting interests in the Balkan region (Herwig 2014). Germany and Austria already had formed a formal alliance. Germany’s interest was to safeguard its territories against France (especially after the latter’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War) (Part 2014).

The Triple Appliance has three bilateral accords. Germany and Austria have been strong allies since 1879. Italy allied with them after its defeat by France in North Africa (Kennedy 2014). The treaty of 1882 of the treaty had eight articles. The formal alliance ensured that the concerned parties would not enter into any alliance with other nations that may hamper the peace and security of the signatories of the treaty.

The treaty promised military help to Italy if France attacked its boundaries. Italy too was bound to help Germany and Austria in the case of a Franco-attack. Further, Bismarck forced Austria into an alliance with Italy to reach a mutual agreement on the power struggle over the Balkan region.

The declaration of the Annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 started the Balkan Crisis that resulted in the creation of conflicting power blocks in Europe. Austria was the authoritarian body in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1878, a power given to her by the Treaty of Berlin that gave her the right to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina (MacMillan 2013). The declaration has the letters exchanged by Franz Joseph I, the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary and Wilhelm II, the German Emperor and King of Prussia.

The reason stated by Austria-Hungary was the rising influence of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the region, created difficulty in its administration of Bosnia. The rising demand for a constitution in the region had brought forth the necessity of a monarch in the region. Therefore, he had to annex the territory to maintain peace and stability in the region. (Annexation 1908)

Both primary sources have certain common elements. The first element is both shows the German and Austrian policies before the outbreak of WWI. The second similarity is in the intent with which the policies were drawn. Both policies aimed to create peace and stability in Europe. Third, both documents show a strong urge to build military alliances. Primary sources depict policies that had given rise to further animosity in Europe that eventually led to the WWI.

Evaluation of Sources

The contribution of German and Austrian policies in the outbreak of WWI can be glimpsed through the primary sources chosen for the research. The origin of both policies was with the intent to create peace and security in the European region. However, the covert intent was to gain regional power over certain regions and create strong military allies. For instance, Austria wanted to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina to fulfill their Eastern European expansion plans, while Germany wanted allies if France chose to attack it after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.

The sources are valuable for the purpose of this historical investigation as they show the rising hostility among nations in Europe since the mid-nineteenth century. The alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary was formed based on the similarities in ethnicity. In addition, the sources show how they might have affected the power balance in the European region. Austria and Germany’s plans to become regional powers incited their decisions to create military alliances and annexations that toppled the power balance on the continent.

Both sources are primary sources and they directly address the research questions undertaken for the investigation. However, these two are just two documents that show the policies undertaken by Germany and Austria. However, this does not show the policies undertaken by France, Russia, and Britain during which would have given a more holistic understanding of the reasons behind the outbreak of WWI.


Since the mid-nineteenth century, forming military alliances became the source of regional power for strong nations like Germany and France. Ambitious countries like Germany, under the leadership of Otto Von Bismarck, tried to create political predominance forming leagues with other nations (Kaiser 1983). Therefore, Bismarck’s policy of German unification aimed specifically at maintaining the power balance in favor of Germany.

For this, he created an alliance block with Austria-Hungary, then with Austria-Hungary and Russia, and later with Austria-Hungary and Italy (Charmley 2013). Bismarck believed that one dominant ally would be able to control the other smaller nations within the block to control its allies to deter the balance of power in the region. The Triple Alliance of 1882 aimed to establish a power block with Austria-Hungary and Italy.

Germany’s aim was to control Austria’s policy to fight against Russia, defending the latter’s interests in southeastern Europe. The allies will join forces if France attacks any one of them. Further, if anyone of the allies is engaged in a dispute with some other nations, the other two would stay neutral. Thus, the aim was to impose German control over Austrian expansion ambitions. Austria too believed that an alliance with Germany would increase regional stability. The 1892 Franco-Russian military treaty created an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility (Mombauer 2013). The question that many historians ask is if chain-ganging has really caused wars? The answer is no (Tierney 2011).

According to the chain-ganging theory, the aim of the main ally is to ensure the survival and safeguard the interests of the minor ally. Thus, in this case, if Austria went to war with France, then Germany would follow Austria, and if Russia went to war against any of these European nations, France had to follow, or be left alone. However, the aggressor in the coalition, with strong military interests, will try to impose expansionist ideals on the coalition, and drive the alliance to war (Tierney 2011).

Thus, initially, Bismarck’s aim was to keep the peace between Austria and Italy, but as the world political scenario changed. The whole plan backfired, opening a Pandora’s box. However, the aim of the Triple Alliance became futile as Italy entered into a secret alliance with France. Later, Russia and France create an alliance. However, the political situation in the continent changed drastically as Britain, which had remained neutral until the twentieth century realized that Germany was harboring expansionist plans. Thus in 1902, Britain entered into a treaty with Japan and then in 1904 with France (Levinson 2005).

However, the alliances formed to safeguard the balance of power in the continent actually led to political destabilization. Further, the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 gave Austria the freedom to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, which escalated the Serbian crisis that ultimately paved the way for WWI. In 1908, after the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the alliance between Germany and Austria became clearer. The annexation of instigated by the fear of the rising prominence of the Young Turks.

At first, Russia was infuriated at the annexation, but Wilhelm II stood by the Austrian leadership and declared that if Russia went to war with Austria, the latter would have Germany’s support. Some historians believe that the aggressive diplomacy adopted by Germany to support its ally, Austria, pushed Russia more towards creating a rival group and fight for the Balkans. Evidently, the alliances drawn by Bismarck in the nineteenth century became the cornerstone of the German-Austrian alliance before WWI. The change in the political scenario and the rise of a power struggle in the continent was eventually responsible for the creation of a second power block that was formed to oppose the German-Austrian alliance.


The primary sources chosen for the investigation show that the political condition of Europe, prompted by Germany’s desire to create a balance of power in the continent. Germany wanted to dominate the power blocks and create military alliances to increase its influence in the continent. The Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina of 1908 causes the Balkan crisis, which eventually led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, initiating international tumult. Eventually, it was the struggle for power in Europe for more than three decades that led to the outbreak of WWI.


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Charmley, J 2013, Splendid isolation?: Britain, the balance of power and the origins of the First World War, Faber & Faber.

Geiss, I 1966, ‘The outbreak of the First World War and German war aims’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol 1, no. 3, pp. 75-91.

Gillette, A 2006, ‘Why did they fight the Great War? A multi-level class analysis of the causes of the First World War’, The History Teacher , vol 40, no. 1, pp. 45-58.

Gordon, MR 1974, ‘Domestic conflict and the origins of the First World War: The British and the German cases’, The Journal of Modern History, vol 46, no. 2, pp. 191-226.

Hart, BL 2014, A history of the First World War, Pan Macmillan, London.

Herwig, HH 2014, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York.

Kaiser, DE 1983, ‘Germany and the origins of the First World War’, The Journal of Modern History, vol 55, no. 3, pp. 442-474.

Kennedy, P 2014, The war plans of the great powers (RLE the First World War): 1880-1914, Routledge, London.

Levinson, MH 2005, ‘Mapping the causes of World War I to avoid armageddon today’, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol 62, no. 2, pp. 157-164.

MacMillan, M 2013, The war that ended peace: how Europe abandoned peace for the First World War, Profile Books, London.

Mombauer, A 2013, ‘The Fischer Controversy, documents and the ‘truth’ about the origins of the First World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol 48, no. 2, pp. 290-314.

Moses, JA 2015, ‘The war guilt question: a note on politics and historiography in the Weimar Republic’, Australian Journal of Politics & History., vol 61, no. 1, pp. 128-134.

Tierney, D 2011, ‘Does chain-ganging cause the outbreak of war?’, International Studies Quarterly, vol 55, no. 2, pp. 285-304.

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