World War I Centennial: With Friends Like These...


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 23rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

June 24, 1912: With Friends Like These...

Image credit: Hemera Technologies

In the 19th century, European statesmen came to share an amoral (some would say cynical) view of geopolitics, in which international relations were based solely on the size and strength of rival players and their perceived self-interest, and diplomacy and warfare operated on a Darwinian principle of merciless, unrelenting competition. Ironically, however, this system of realpolitik actually served to keep some weaker players alive simply because their enemies couldn’t agree how to divide them up.

The most prominent example was the Ottoman Empire, which stumbled along in a weakened state for decades, with foreign observers constantly warning of its imminent demise – and constantly being proven wrong. Despite its massive internal problems, the Ottoman Empire survived in part because the European Great Powers all worried their rivals might come out ahead if they started splitting up the empire. With everyone suspiciously watching everyone else, they maintained the status quo to the benefit of the beleaguered Turks.

Of course the Turks were well aware how perilous their situation was, as the empire’s continued existence essentially depended on the mutual mistrust of its enemies. They knew that to survive in the long term, the Ottoman Empire needed massive internal reforms, including a more efficient administration, improved education and infrastructure, and a modern military. But all these reforms would take time – so the Ottoman Turks also needed a powerful ally to guarantee the empire’s security and give it some breathing space.

The need for a foreign protector became even more urgent with Italy’s declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in 1911, followed by the Italian conquest of Ottoman territory in Libya. With the empire’s weakness clear for all to see, in 1912 the Albanians rebelled while the empire’s Balkan neighbors began plotting its demise. With new threats popping up everywhere, the Turkish government in Constantinople was desperate to forge an alliance with one of the Great Powers.

The Contestants

But there were precious few viable options. Britain was willing to send naval advisors, but otherwise still adhered to its longtime policy of avoiding foreign alliances; Russia was a traditional foe of the Ottoman Empire; France was allied with Russia; Austria-Hungary and Italy were too weak to be helpful (and, of course, Italy was at war with the Ottoman Empire). Thus by 1912, the best candidate was obviously Germany.

But that was a relative judgment at best: like all the other Great Powers, Germany knew the Ottoman Empire was in decline and German imperialists were hungry for Ottoman territory. Indeed, the only thing holding Germany back was the fear that other European powers – especially Russia – were better positioned to grab chunks of Ottoman territory if the chips were down. It was this consideration alone that tilted Germany towards propping up the Turks: better to help the Ottoman Empire fend off its enemies than see the whole thing sliced up by Russia, France, and Britain.

On June 24, 1912, Gerhard von Mutius, a counselor to the German ambassador in Constantinople, wrote a secret letter to the German chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, warning that Germany would be left out in the cold if the Ottoman Empire was divided up by other Great Powers, perhaps in cooperation with the Balkan League. At the same time, he also warned that making an open alliance with the Turks would disrupt the balance of power in Europe, possibly leading to war.

So Germany had to perform a subtle balancing act over the next few years, making sure the Ottoman Empire survived, at least long enough for Germany to get a piece when the division of spoils came. But it had to do this without alarming the other European powers. This led to a closer relationship between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, including a German military mission to Constantinople – but the Turks knew full well that their “friend” could just as easily be their enemy.

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