The balance of power is a term used in reference to Europe and its attempts to avoid wars by not allowing one state to gather the maximum of power and conquer other states. If one of the European states grew stronger, the others united to form a coalition and to be able to resist in case of military aggression from this freshly strengthened state. Throughout the nineteenth century, European states were able to maintain equilibrium, in no small part due to Otto von Bismarck, who had put many efforts into Germany’s potency but simultaneously created alliances to prevent his country from dominating the other European state. Although a relatively stable balance of power made an all-European war the least likely occurrence, the alliance of Germany and the Austria Hungarian Empire against Serbia supported by Russia drew all European countries into the First World War as bigger states tried to protect smaller states in their alliances.
According to the Structural Theory, the balance of power in Europe was to maintain peace and therefore a massive war seemed least likely to occur (Magagna). Before July 1914, all of the Great Powers, such as Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, and Austria Hungary, were strong, each in its own right. Under the wise management of Bismarck, Germany grew stronger; the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had just annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908; the British had the strong navy and numerous colonies; Russia had vast territories and financial support of France; simultaneously, all countries increased their power due to technological innovations and industrialization (Fromkin 71). At the same time, the disturbances in the Balkans kept Germany and the Dual Monarchy alert. They literally feared that Serbia could rise in its independent state and rob them of their Balkan provinces. Additionally, Germany was wary of Russia, as it was getting stronger and could have become a real threat for Germany.
Thus, in case of an approaching war, the balance of power would have ranked the following way: Germany would join its forces with Austria Hungary, while France and Russia would support each other against the Teutons. Great Britain would have preferred to stay neutral but the growing domination of Germany had made it bond up with France and, therefore, with Russia (Magagna).
Europe had seen crises before but somehow, it had been able to refrain from starting a war. Before 1914, no state had desire to launch military actions. However, in 1914, as many as two countries developed that desire and actually saw a great deal of sense in a war in Europe (Fromkin 285). Both Germany and Austria believed that this way they could keep their powers. The Austria Hungarian Monarchy saw its change to hold its disheveled multinational national state together, while Germany believed that by fighting Serbia it destroyed a budding independent state and frightened Russia off (Fromkin 285). Additionally, now, after the assassination of France Ferdinand, Germany could have convinced Austria that they needed to ally together against Serbia. Without Austria’s support, Germany would not have launched an offensive, and Austria needed Germany to deal with Serbia because on its own, it would be too weak to crush a country, even a small one.
In these two alliances, one between Germany and Austrian Hungary and the other between France, Great Britain and Russia, a balance of power was rather stable and nothing indicated war. However, Germany wanted a war so badly so it lied about its incentives and managed to confuse everyone. When anyone began to realize the true state of affairs, WWI was in full swing and it was too late to stop it.
According to concepts of power, “A system is in balance (has a balance of power) if major power adversaries are roughly equal in capabilities” (Magagna). By the end of the nineteenth century, the balance of power was fragile but it was present. However, starting their game in the Balkans, Austrians upset had it, and other countries of the Triple Alliance felt threatened. As a Slavic country, Russia supported the independence of Serbia. Much to the Hapsburg Empire’s chagrin, Serbia had won the Balkan Wars and it was not subjugated by Turkey or Bulgaria. With Russia behind its back, these Slavic countries seemed an imminent force, and Germany and Austria-Hungary felt that now was the time to shake their course.
The relative power of the major players was more or less equal. In the opposition between Austria-Hungary and Russia, each country tried to find an opportunity to tip the balance of power into its favor. With the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the Dual Monarchy saw its chance to snatch Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 (Fromkin 71). It upset Serbia very much because it intended to possess the country itself. Thus, the balance of power tipped into the Hapsburg Empire’s favor. However, Nikolai Hartwig, a Russian ambassador in Serbia, pressed the interests of Slavic countries in the Balkan wars and, as a result, Serbia and Russia grew stronger and the balance of power was on their side. Therefore, it was Austria’s turn to make a move (Fromkin 71).
Thus, it is evident that the balance of power was fragile in this part of Europe. Realizing it, Germany wanted to play proactively and strike first. Seeing Serbia and Russia as its imminent threats which would hit sooner or later, Germany chose to attack in an attempt to protect what it had got. Using Ferdinand’s assassination as a pretext Germany convinced the Austrian government that they needed to join forces to revenge. Without Vienna’s consent, Germany would not have been brave enough to do so due to the fear of Russia. The initial plan was to do it quickly before other European countries realized what was going on and before Russia could intervene. However, the Dual Monarchy’s governing system was so bulky that it took them half a summer to prepare the ‘quick’ launch. Therefore, its offensives did not come as a surprise.
Both Germany and Austria-Hungary needed each other and they could not begin their belligerent activities on their own. The Hapsburg Empire was torn by internal conflicts; its desire to crush Serbia stemmed from a belief that it would strengthen Austrian influence on its provinces and satellites. The war of retribution against Serbia was started only when Germany had promised its military support. The mutual support of these countries made the war possible. Usually, allies discourage each other in case when more problems might arise from the conflict than gains. For example, in Morocco in 1911, Austria did not support Germany, and Germany had to withhold (Fromkin 289). However, not only did Germany encourage Austrian belligerent actions but it also gave Germany an advantage and, while Vienna was getting ready to launch offensives on Serbia, Germany prepared its plot against France and Russia. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia’s government and right after it, on August 1, 1914, Germany declared the war on Russia (Fromkin 284). Here, the Austrian generals found themselves without Germany’s support. Being pressed by Berlin to provide military support in their offensive against Russia, Vienna had to fight on two fronts. Obviously, they lost their war with Serbians and found themselves involved in the First World War.
In the balance of power theory, when equilibrium is disrupted, new alliances can straighten the situation (Magagna). Germany’s tactics was to strike quickly. Therefore, their idea was not only to attack Russia but also France, as its closest ally. France had supported Russia with finances and Germany realized that if it had been able to exclude France from the battle, it would win the war against Russia. The invasion of France was done through Belgium, and this fact prompted Great Britain to enter the war (Fromkin 34).
Britain was the only European country that had a choice whether to join the war or stay aside. As a guarantor of Belgium’s security, Britain wanted to keep its promise and help. That was the way all European countries found themselves involved in the First World War. Historian David Fromkin writes: “It also automatically transformed a German war into a European war that as a result would become a world war” (35). The “encircling coalition” resulted in Germany invading France, Belgium, and Luxemburg, which prompted Great Britain to intervene and, as a result, “India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and others too, possibly including Britain’s Pacific ally, Japan” (Fromkin 35).
According to some historians, Germans inflicted the war due to its rivalry with Great Britain (Fromkin 280). However, according the balance of power theory, there are states that benefit from status quo, rather from change and military actions. Germany was the country that wanted to regain status quo but the succession of events was such that Germany’s status quo ambitions had turned against Germany’s initial desire. Each country fought because it wanted to keep something. Germany did not want to lose Austria’s power while England could not let go of France (Fromkin 280).
Thus, the First World War was commenced by Germany. France and Russia could not influence it. In a sense, their position was passive and they just had to fight back. Pondering the necessity to enter the war, Britain was against it initially. As one of guarantors, Britain was obliged to protect Belgium. However, Great Britain wanted to oppose Germany not only to fulfill its obligations in reference to Belgium but also to defend its own interests. Weak and defeated France would shake the British position in Europe. Fromkin reports that if Germany had had conquered French and Belgian lands, it would have made the British islands vulnerable (280). Therefore, a paradoxical situation occurred when large states entered war to sustain the existing status quo each believing that it was threatened, while in fact their belligerent actions had upset the stable structure and brought their decline or a significant weakening.
For an anarchic system, as was Europe, in order to be stable, it had either to have a real hegemon or a balance of power (Magagna). While both Germany and Britain claimed that they just defended their interests and entered the war for the sake of their status quo, the tendency was for Germany to turn into a hegemon. Britain and other European countries could not let it happen. Fromkin informs that starting from September, Germany’s plans became “expansionist and imperialist”, but he also adds, “What caused a country to enter the war was not always the same as what cause it to continue the war” (280). Indeed, Germans grew in their ambitions. What started as pre-emptive action to protect their influence transformed into an invasive war, and Germany developed ambitions to become a real hegemon in Europe. Other countries had to respond to prevent it.
A fragile but existing balance of power had to guarantee a war-free existance for Europe. However, Germany’s lies about the reasons to lauch offensive against Serbia as well as Berlin’s fears of Russia and Vienna’s fear of Serbia had spurred a chain reaction in Europe. Seeing its goal in striking first and fast, Germany started two fronts, i.e., one with Russia and another with France. Invading Belgium to reach Paris, Germans forced the British to enter the war as a guarantor of Belgium’s neutrality. Then Japan, as a British ally, joined the war, hoping to get German territories in the Pacific. Later, Turkey, Italy, and Bulgary entered the war. By the end of the war, almost all European countries were involved, as well as the USA, Japan, and Australia.