Europe, 1914

Today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I will not be writing about the circumstances of that event, it's being well covered elsewhere. I will instead focus on how an event such as this could set Europe aflame.

On it's own, the assassination of the Archduke should have only set off a war between Austria Hungary and Serbia. A Serbian terrorist group, sanctioned by the government, had assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Simple, right? No. Due to the complex alliance system of Europe, a global war was set off.

But why did these alliances exist in the first place? For what reason did Germany ally with Austria, instead of it's traditional ally, Britain? Most people would say it was because the French were allied with Britain, neglecting to see that the Entente was formed after the central powers had cemented their alliance.

The root cause of the alliance system of Europe in 1914, and through that, the First World War, was the Congress of Vienna.

Following Napoleon's defeat, the victors met on how to divide the spoils. They did not see eye to eye though. They had united only in armed struggle against Napoleon, and could not agree on much else. Some powers favoured a return to the 1790's map of Europe, which would effectively wipe Napoleon from Europe's memory. Others opposed this, mostly because they had managed to make territorial gains in all those years of war.

Eventually they managed the powers at the time managed to make a tenuous agreement. It created a balance of power in Europe, which was shaky at best. There was constant tension, and one of the biggest points of contention were the Balkans.

The Balkans have always been a contested area of Europe. Geographically, they are sandwiched between Asia and Europe, East and West. This has led to an incredibly diverse ethnic makeup, which has led multiple countries to try and claim dominance.

Following the Ottoman Empire's defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1878, the resulting peace giving Russia considerable influence in the Balkans. This angered Austria-Hungary, which considered the Balkan's its personal fiefdom.

Enter Otto von Bismarck. He was not a warmonger, and wished to preserve peace in Europe. He saw the only way of doing this was to preserve the tenuous balance of power in Europe established at the congress of Vienna.

Bismarck realised that Germany was the key to this balance. If Germany was weak, it could be pounced upon by it's neighbours: France, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Germany must therefore be strong as to ward off hungry powers. Germany could never defeat all it's neighbours, even in the best of circumstances. Alliances were needed, and Bismarck concluded that he must ally with two out of Germany's three neighbours in order to ward off the third. This would not be easy. France was out of the question, as there was the question of Alsace-Lorraine to be thought of, but an alliance with Austria and Russia would be easier. Despite initial reservations, both eventually joined. The League of the Three Emperor's was born.

You can see why the Russian victory in 1878 was such a problem. It created friction between Austria and Russia, so much so that they could not be allied with each other. Russia left the alliance, opting instead for an alliance with France, later including Britain.

Thus the web was beginning to be spun.

As part of the Balkan troubles, Russia had framed itself as protector of the Slavic peoples, allying itself to Serbia. So, when Austria-Hungary went after Serbia for the assassination of the Archduke, Russia quickly came to it's defence. Austria dragged in Germany, alarming Russia, who dragged in France, and Germany invaded Belgium to get to France, which ignited the British.

Gavrilo Princip's bullet was not the cause of World War One, it was the spark.