The European Powers
Great Britain was near the height of its strength. It was the center of world finance, a top industrial nation, and it ruled over nearly a quarter of the world’s inhabitants. Britain’s island geography allowed it to avoid long term alliances (although it did guarantee Belgium’s neutrality). It had a small army, but a dominant navy.
France had historically been Europe’s strongest nation, but had suffered a humiliating defeat to Germany in 1870-71. Germany worked to keep it isolated and prevent it from regaining its old prominence. France still remained a major power, and had colonies around the world, especially in North Africa and Asia.
Germany had been formed in 1871 by the unification of smaller German-speaking states. It had rapidly transformed into one of the world’s leading industrial countries, with its own colonial empire and a growing navy. Many Germans believed that their young nation was destined to re-energize western civilization, which created friction with the more established powers.
Italy had also come together as a nation relatively recently. However, it had not made the same progress, and had struggled to build a colonial empire. It was also frustrated that many ethnic Italians were under Austro-Hungarian rule to the north.
Austria-Hungary was a large but declining power, held together by a peculiar “dual monarchy”: one ruler with two co-governments. To complicate things further, it was home to large ethnic populations, especially in Bosnia, Croatia and its other Balkan provinces.
Russia was considered backwards, but still formidable. The world had been shocked when it had lost to a non-European power in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. However, it remained a force to be reckoned with, due to its vast resources and population, and its claim to be defender of all Slavic peoples in Europe.
The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) once ruled the Middle East and North Africa, as well as much of Eastern Europe. By 1914, it had been pushed out of Europe, and had lost North Africa to various European nations. Yet it was still a sizable power, and it held an important strategic position, straddling Europe and Asia.
The Alliances in 1914
In the years before 1914, Europe's system of alliances shifted into its final pre-war form. Germany and Austria-Hungary had been close for a half century. Each agreed to support the other in case of war. The addition of Italy (despite its tensions with Austria-Hungary) formed the Triple Alliance.
On the other side, France broke its isolation by allying with Russia. Russia had been close with Germany, but had grown suspicious of its motives. Germany’s expanding power and growing navy also led Britain to break with tradition and align with its old rival, France, and with Russia, forming the Triple Entente.
The Ottoman Empire remained neutral, although it leaned toward Germany. At the same time, the nations in both coalitions had other agreements with lesser powers. Two of these -- Serbia and Belgium -- would play key roles in the outbreak of the upcoming war.
By 1914, Europe’s nations were so interconnected and intertwined that it was inevitable that a conflict between two powers would pull in one nation after another until the entire continent was at war.