In the late nineteenth century, the most powerful European countries maneuvered to create alliances. No single country dominated Europe at this time. Instead, several “Great Powers”—such as Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Austria-Hungary—vied for the upper hand by making alliances with or against each other. Military defensive pacts and agreements, leaders thought, might tip the balance of power in their favor. Furthermore, alliances, they believed, would create peace through strength because an attack on one country would result in a massive response from its allies. This threat, the theory went, would deter attacks. In this way, the partnerships in Europe created a tense balance of power, like two equally strong sports teams facing off against each other. But the alliances might also transform a small crisis into a massive war by triggering a domino effect of countries promising to defend each other. Just before World War I, the Great Powers of Europe split into two main teams: The Triple Alliance (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia).
The Triple Alliance (known as the Central Powers during the war) centered on a coalition in Central Europe of the biggest states with German speaking rulers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. When Prussia defeated Austria-Hungary in war in 1866, the new upstart Prussian state gained much respect from the old Habsburg monarchy in Vienna, Austria. Leaders from both countries soon saw the mutual benefit of aligning the two contiguous German-dominated countries. Italy also joined in hopes of taking territory from France. In 1882, the three states agreed to a defensive alliance in which members promised to support each other militarily if they were attacked. As a result, the Triple Alliance created an uninterrupted wall from the northern to the southern tip of Central Europe, from Germany to Austria-Hungary to Italy. When World War I began, Italy decided to break the alliance, but Turkey joined the newly named Central Powers.
The Triple Entente (known as the Allied Powers during the war) opposed the Triple Alliance and included Great Britain, France, and Russia. The British and French had been enemies for centuries and had a long history of wars against each other. As the nineteenth century came to a close, they nearly came to blows arguing over colonial territory in India and Africa. No wonder then that the British sat idly by and watched as Prussia soundly defeated and humiliated France in 1871. That military defeat taught the French that they needed an ally and they found a powerful one on the eastern border of Germany. Russia and France agreed to a military alliance in 1892. France would treat any attack on Russia as an attack on France, and visa versa. Despite French diplomatic attempts, the British would not agree to a similar defense pact with France. But the two countries looked past their old conflicts and signed an agreement of mutual understanding, or entente, in 1904 (Tuchman 6). It was not a military pact but it settled differences from the past, such as colonial disputes, and acknowledged that a special relationship existed between the two old rivals. German leaders were outraged that they had not been consulted and that Britain took sides with the French. In 1907, Britain made an agreement with another former foe, Russia, who had been a chief adversary during the Crimean War in the mid nineteenth century. Russia had also been recently humiliated in a war, this time with Japan, and was in need of friends. In this Anglo-Russian Convention, Britain agreed to give Russia control of northern Persia in exchange for Russia promising to allow the British to have a free hand in southern Persia and Afghanistan. The Triple Entente then was actually a series of interlocking agreements. After the war started, this alliance system became known simply as the Allied Powers and included Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Belgium and Japan, and later the United States
The non-aligned status of some countries was important too. Belgium was not entangled in any military treaties. But, England convinced the great powers to agree in 1839 that Belgium would be forever an independent and neutral state, free of alliances. England, France, Prussia, Russia, and Austria all signed on. England promised to defend Belgium’s neutrality and the German’s were aware of this. Yet, the quickest, most efficient way for Germany to defeat France militarily would be to attack the area in between Belgium and Paris. So German military leaders designed a plan of attack straight through Belgium because they believed it was a military necessity. Germany could not fight a two front war against both France and Russia, two members of the Triple Entente. It would have to defeat France very quickly, as it did in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and then turn to commit all of its forces to fight Russia. Along the French-German border, France had built formidable defensive forts, but no such forts existed near the Belgium-French border. This was why the German war plan, written more than a decade before World War I, called for an invasion of France through Belgium.