Before the Great War of 1914, several treaties were secretly signed by nations in Europe to balance power and promote peace.
However, the intricate web of such pacts led to the formation of two powerful opposing blocks in Europe, namely, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente.
The agreements made in a secret pact on 20 May 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy is known as the Triple Alliance. It was designed as a defensive alliance in Central Europe against the other great powers.
Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany was the mastermind behind the Triple Alliance.
His plan was to create strong diplomatic and military relations within Central Europe that would challenge the threat posed by the growing friendship of Russia and France.
The terms of the Triple Alliance promised Germany and Austria-Hungary mutual support if they were attacked by any other country.
It promised Italy support if France were to attack Italy without provocation and it provided Austria-Hungary neutrality from Italy if Russia were to attack her in the Balkans.
However, after the political decline of Chancellor Bismarck in the German Empire, the Triple Alliance failed and gave rise to the Triple Entente consisting of Britain, Russia, and France.
The confrontation between the two opposing alliances in Europe ultimately led to the Great war of 1914, one of the deadliest wars in human history killing 9 million soldiers and 13 million civilians.
What did the Triple Alliance Entail?
Unlike the Triple Entente, the Triple Alliance was an official agreement promising military support to the signing nations. The Triple Entente, on the other hand, did not oblige the signing nations to fight each other’s war.
Germany and Austria-Hungary both pledged their support to Italy if France were to attack Italy without provocation. Italy in response, would help Germany in case France attacked her but only promised neutrality if Russia were to attack Austria-Hungary.
In 1887, the treaty was renewed and an additional promise was made by Germany toward Italy. Italy had colonial ambitions in North Africa which were challenged by France.
Italy expected military support from Germany to establish Italian colonies in the North African territories. However, this promise turned out to be empty and divorced Italy from the goals of the Triple Alliance.
Toward the end of the 19th century, globalization had changed the political landscape of Europe. Though various historical enmities challenged the progress of all the great powers, diplomatic solutions were approached to prevent a war or to at least limit it.
The Austro-Prussian War also known as the Brother’s War fought between Germany and Austria during 1866 had led to the division of German-speaking territories in favor of the Prussian hegemony.
In 1870, Germany further extended its territory by defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War leading to the formation of the German Empire in 1871.
Fearing revenge by France over the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, Chancellor Bismarck formed the League of the Three Emperors with the Kaiser of Germany, the Tsar of Russia, and the Kaiser of Austria-Hungary.
He figured that if Austria, France, and Russia were to strike an alliance, it would be devastating for Germany. Similarly, even if two of these three nations were to cooperate against Germany, Germany would have to surrender many territories as a result.
The League of Three Emperors formed in 1873, was the perfect diplomatic solution according to Chancellor Bismarck to this threat, because it formed a powerful Eastern European block and successfully isolated France.
The terms of the League of Three Emperors provided Austria with dominance over the western areas of the Balkans and Russia with power over the eastern areas.
However, after the Russo-Turkish War of 1878, the Treaty of San Stefano tipped the balance of power over the Balkans in Russia’s favor.
This was unacceptable to the Austrians, which is why Chancellor Bismarck called the Conference of Berlin and created the Treaty of Berlin. This treaty attempted to reverse the provisions of the Treaty of San Stefano by providing control over Bosnia to the Austrians.
As a consequence, the relationship between Germany and Russia degraded. Russia viewed her gains from the Russo-Turkish War as rightfully hers.
The Russians felt cheated and soon after the League of Three Emperors discontinued leaving all three nations free to ally with any other nation.
After the failure of the League of Three Emperors, Chancellor Bismarck conducted negotiations with the countries of Central Europe to form a powerful alliance that would deter both Russia and France from attacking.
The rise of new powers like Germany and Italy had crushed Austria’s territorial aspirations, however, Russia’s interest in the Balkans was of more significance to Austria.
Therefore, it became apparent that Austria would not ally with the Russians under any circumstances and a central power block became evident between Austria and Germany.
Italy, during this time, was in a conflict with France over the African territory of Tunisia. However, due to several errors, Italy lost the race and sought military support from Germany.
The relationship between Italy and Austria was not friendly. Both nations had fought 3 wars in the space of 34 years and viewed each other with great suspicion.
However, in the interest of defense against France and Russia, both nations reluctantly agreed to put their enmity behind and form the Triple Alliance in 1882.
How was the Triple Alliance Formed?
The victories in the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War had established Germany as not only a rising industrial and economic superpower but also as an aggressive political state.
Germany had rapidly advanced its navy to gain greater control of the seas which pointed to Germany’s colonial ambitions and caused Britain also to end her policy of ‘splendid isolation’ in Europe.
Germany’s dominance over Europe was a matter of concern for France, Russia, and Britain. To keep Germany in check, talks began taking place between various nations in an effort to isolate Germany and maintain the balance of power.
Fearing a possible Franco-Russian Alliance, Germany appealed to her neighbors to form a coalition that could match the power of France and Russia.
France had begun supporting Russia in her economic development and their friendship caused further hysteria in Europe.
Despite the enmity between Austria-Hungary and Germany rooted in the Austro-Prussian War, both the nations decided to form a military alliance in Central Europe against their common enemy, Russia.
Austria-Hungary feared the interference of Russia in the Balkan affairs while Germany feared the possibility of Russia allying with France.
In order to discourage Russia from waging war against Germany or Austria, both nations resolved their differences and created the Dual Alliance on 7 October 1879.
After negotiations between Austria-Hungary and Italy on similar principles, Chancellor Bismarck had successfully formed the Triple Alliance on 20 May 1882 promising each signing nation mutual support and selective neutrality.
Neither Austria-Hungary nor Italy were keen to ally with each other, however, after significant pressure from Germany, Austria-Hungary accepted mutual agreement and consultation with Italy on territorial alteration in the Balkans or the Aegean and Adriatic coasts.
Important Facts and Additional Context
Chancellor Bismarck’s Realpolitik was based on pragmatism and did not pursue any particular ideology. He worked on the pacts as a means to maintain balance and maintain peace in Europe.
However, the historical enmity between the nations and unsatisfactory conditions of the Triple Alliance rendered it ineffective and was retaliated with a much more powerful alliance formed by Russia, Britain, and France.
Chancellor Bismarck believed that Britain and France would not be able to find any common grounds given their violent past. However, the increase in the German Navy not only pulled Britain back to European politics but also forced her to ally with her historical enemy, France.
The League of Three Emperors was important to Russia because it supported Russia against the communist, socialist, and anarchist movements like the First International. It was renewed twice before it lapsed in 1887.
Chancellor Bismarck tried to maintain the relationship with Russia through the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 but after his resignation, the treaty lapsed and could not be renewed. This and the Treaty of Berlin directly led to the Franco-Russian Alliance also known as the Dual Alliance.
France supported the Russian economy by funding their projects, especially the Trans-Siberian RR and their relationship soon became strong with the signing of a military convention in 1893.
The Triple Alliance between Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary was renewed in 1887 with a promise by Germany to extend support for Italian colonial ambitions in Africa in return for Italy’s continued support but Germany did not back this promise with actions.
In 1891 there were several attempts made by the Germans to join Britain in the Triple Alliance, however, because neither party could agree on a settlement Britain joined France in 1904 to form the Entente Cordiale.
The man in charge of the foreign policy in France was responsible for carving out the Entente Cordiale which means the friendly understanding, where both Britain and France would settle their colonial conflicts in Africa and align their powers in order to isolate Germany. His name was Theophile Declasse.
Similarly, Russia and Britain had interests in the Middle East and India and hence could not see eye to eye. But in response to the Triple Alliance the coalition made sense and a similar agreement was signed between Russia and Britain called the Anglo-Russian convention of 1907.
Shortly after the Triple Alliance was formed, Romania secretly joined it on 18 October 1883. The King of Romania, King Carol I, was of German ancestry and feared the expansion of Russia.
The conditions of this treaty included mutual support between Austria-Hungary and Romania in the event of an attack from Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. Only the King and a few very senior politicians in Romania knew about this treaty.
The intricate web of alliances by the Central European powers had propelled the other countries also to take action.
Though Russia, Britain, and France did not pledge military support to each other, the Triple Entente created by these powers challenged the war-camp of the Triple Alliance.
Italy had not overcome her conflicts with Austria-Hungary, which led her to secure herself on both fronts. On November 1, 1902, only 5 months after the renewal of the Triple Alliance, Italy and France secretly promised each other to maintain neutrality in case either was attacked.
On June 28, 1914, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Bosnian-Serb called Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. He was a member of a terrorist group related to the rising nationalist movement in Serbia.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg, led to the outbreak of the First World War and brought the nations of the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance into the battleground.
After the shelling of Belgrade on 28 July 1914 by Austria-Hungary, Russia mobilized her army to challenge the attack. Germany, as promised, mobilized her army in support of Austria-Hungary and declared war against Russia on August 1, 1914.
To support Russia, France deployed her army on August 2, 1914. Soon after Britain joined to support the Entente in World War I. By August 23, Japan joined the Triple Entente on Britain’s side and captured German possessions in China and the pacific.
Italy and Romania backed out of supporting the Triple Alliance as they viewed both Germany and Austria-Hungary as the aggressors of the war and chose to maintain neutrality.
However, in April 1915, Italy went to war against Austria-Hungary according to a secret treaty signed in London. This betrayal cornered the Triple Alliance in Europe and help was enlisted from the Ottoman Empire.
The forming of newer alliances evolved the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance into two opposing blocks in the Great War with Britain, Russia, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States together forming the Entente Powers while Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria made up the Central Powers.
The First World War was a direct result of the division of Europe into two powerful war-camps. The Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente were meant to serve as a defense mechanism against war, however, ended up becoming one of the causes that led to it.