What responsibility did the alliance systems play in the outbreak of World War I?
This is an excerpt from The Century of Total War by Raymond Aron (Doubleday & Co. 1954).
. . . The rise of Germany, who supremacy France dreaded and whose nave menaced [or threatened]
England, had created among [England and France] an alliance which claimed it was defensive in nature
but was denounced by German propaganda as an attempt at [the] encirclement [of Germany]. The two
armed camps alarmed each other, and each grew heavy with multiplied incidents, which spread East [with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand], where Russia and Austria were advancing contradictory
claims. . . .
The alliance systems that were formed between various countries in Europe before World War I were not really instrumental in causing the war to break out. However, once it did break out, they were instrumental in making the war spread. In other words, without the alliances, the war might simply have been a local conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, not a world war.
In the years before WWI, alliances arose between many European countries. Germany was looking to increase its strength and was building its military. This alarmed the British, the French, and the Russians. They formed an alliance that they felt would help to protect them from a more powerful Germany. At the same time, the Russians had an alliance with the Serbs. This alliance was based largely on ethnic ties as they were both Slavic peoples. In turn, Germany had an alliance with Austria-Hungary. This was based partly on ethnicity as well.
This set the stage for the conflict between Austria and Serbia to become a world war. When Austria declared war on Serbia, that brought Russia in. Russian involvement led to German involvement on Austria’s behalf. The French and English came in because of their alliances. In these ways, alliances caused the war to become much bigger than it might otherwise have been,
The alliance systems established as the Triple Entente and the Central Powers served to create an environment ready for war at the slightest provocation. The different sides held reservations and felt threatened by each other both at home and in their foreign holdings. The United Kingdom, Russia, and France were threatened by Germany’s growth and sought to stifle the developments. Germany, on the other hand, expanded its territory in Africa and developed its war capabilities.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria provided the best opportunity for an increase of hostilities between the two sides, leading up to the onset of the war. Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia prepared for war in support of Serbia, and Germany attacked Belgium and made its move towards France. As war mobilizations were taking place in Europe, German colonies in Africa were under constant attack from the Allies led by the British. The situation only served to exacerbate the hostilities back home, leading to a full-blown engagement between the alliances.