Brief History of the World Wiki
Road to WW1 and Russian Revolution
Period Late Modern Ages
Dates 1902-1914 AD
Preceded by
New Imperialism
Followed by
World War I

The Road to World War 1 and Russian Revolution lasted from about 1902 AD until 1914 AD. It began with the start of the naval arms-race between Germany and Britain. It then ended on the eve of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the trigger leading directly to World War I.

The true build up was much longer than the five weeks between the death of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and first declaration of war. Growing public support for a confrontation, as well as the treaties and diplomatic relations so important in 1914, were all established years, often decades, before. All playing their part were: the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the Triple Alliance (1882), the Anglo-German Naval Race (1889-1993), the Franco-Russian Alliance (1894), the Entente Cordial (1904), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the Moroccan Crises (1905, 1911), the Anglo-Russian Agreement (1907), the Bosnian Crisis (1908), and the Balkan Wars (1912-13). By 1914, the great powers of Europe, essentially unchanged since the early 18th century (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary), had already come close to war over the Balkan and Moroccan disputes. Passions were running high, and the Austro-Russo-Serbian rivalry remained deeply provocative.


Road to WW1 in Germany[]

Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II before World War I.

In 1890, the new emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918) forced the aging Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to resign. For all Bismarck’s brilliance as a statesman, he left behind a political system that quickly descended into political paralysis. In his desire to centralise power in himself, the national parliament was democratic but virtually powerless. In his desire not to interfere in the social-order of his native Prussia, the legislatures of the individual states were largely unreformed; for instance, Prussia was still firmly in the hands of the landed aristocracy. The effect was a political impasse that saw the rapid downfall of a series chancellors, with the result that a great deal of power became concentrated in the emperor. William II was by nature impulsive and ill-equipped to maintain Bismarck’s carefully manipulated balance of international rivalries.


Bismarck had worked on the assumption of inevitable hostility from France, eager to avenge her loss of Alsace and Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and a neutral stance from Britain, historically the great rival of France. He therefore concentrated his diplomatic efforts on creating alliances with his eastern and southern neighbours; the Triple Alliance (1882) with Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the Reinsurance Treaty (1887) with Russia. His chosen path was not easy, since Austria-Hungary and Russia had conflicting spheres of interest in the unstable Balkans. The Reinsurance Treaty (1887) had taken all Bismarck's considerable diplomatic skill to maintain, and after his dismissal in 1890 it quickly collapsed. German nervousness steadily increased as alliances among the European powers seemed to be slipping beyond German control. First successful French diplomacy brought about the Franco-Russian Alliance (1894). Then, even more surprisingly, the French negotiated the Entente Cordiale (1904) with Britain, an agreement that ended centuries of Anglo-French hostility dating all the way back to the 14th century Hundred Years’ War. Negotiation between Britain and Germany had failed over some ill-judged comments from Wilhelm on the Boer War. Thus Germany was left with the Triple Alliance (1882) alongside the declining power Austria-Hungary and the relatively weak Italy.

HMS Dreadnought, the ship that caused the Anglo-German naval arms race to reach its period of greatest intensity.

The recent unification had transformed Germany from a relatively minor player, into potentially the most powerful nation on continental Europe. By 1890, its domestic economy rivalled Britain. Nevertheless, as a late arrival on the world stage, she had no empire to match those of Britain, France or Russia, nor a great navy, the most tangible symbol of international power. Thus, while all the European powers felt a conflict couldn’t be far in the future and prepared for such an event, Germany did so in a most deliberate fashion. Supported by Wilhelm's enthusiasm, from 1898 Admiral von Tirpitz championed the establishment of a High Seas Fleet that could, if not match the naval forces of Britain, at least be too dangerous for Britain to overwhelm. From 1902, the Royal Navy embarked on its own massive expansion to keep ahead of the Germans, and in 1906 introduced a vastly more powerful class of battleship; the first of the famed Dreadnoughts; the Anglo-German Naval Arms Race (1898–1912). Germany followed suit, upgrading its production line to the new standard. To the German protest that Britain was escalating the arms-race, Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, famously replied that for an island nation a powerful navy was a defensive necessity, whereas for Germany it was “more in the nature of a luxury”.

The 19th century had introduced the idea of rapid victory in a short war; Europe had learned nothing from the protracted slaughter of the modern defensive war from the American Civil War. This was for obvious reasons particularly prevalent in Germany, the victor in both the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Meanwhile, the German nation was both hungrier for immediate success than its rivals, and more nervous about succumbing to hostile alliances. Wilhelm veered wildly between a desire for peace in Europe and a determination to assert Germany’s greatness on the world. In 1905 the German Kaiser made a flamboyant and provocative visit to Morocco, using the occasion to emphasise Moroccan independence; the First Moroccan Crisis. The German attempt to undermine the Triple Entente failed, with all the great powers except Austria-Hungary siding with France that Morocco was within French colonial influence. When the French formally annexed Morocco in 1911, claiming rebel tribes staged an uprising, Germany again objected to no avail; the Second Moroccan Crisis. Wilhelm's most damaging diplomatic blunder was an interview with a British daily newspaper; the Daily Telegraph Affair (1908). He ended up further alienating not only the British, but also the French, Russians, and Japanese, as well as convincing many that the Germans were eager for war; it led to serious calls for his abdication in Germany. As early as 1912, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his advisers were indeed secretly discussing the timing of a preventive war to protect German interests. In 1913, the Reichstag increased the size of the German standing army to 800,000 men. The other four powers in this dangerous game quickly followed suit.

Road to WW1 in France[]

French and British scouts shaking hands with their respective national flags, 1912

The architects of the so-called Triple Entente (1907) were the French. France’s foreign policy for the forty years after the Franco-Prussian War was dominated isolating Germany and wooing Russia and Britain. Even before the Russo-German Alliance collapsed in 1890, French political rapprochement saw Russia receive a number of large loans from France. In 1891 France and Russia made a preliminary agreement to consult in case of aggression against either one, bypassing ratification by the French parliament to preserve its secrecy. The Franco-Russian Alliance was formalised in 1894, and renewed and strengthened in 1899 and 1912. Meanwhile, the Entente Cordiale (1904) was the culmination of the policy of Théophile Delcassé, France’s foreign minister from 1898. The agreement was merely a declaration of friendship, and in no sense created an alliance, but it paved the way for their diplomatic cooperation against Germany in the decade preceding World War I. The rapprochement with Britain was controversial in France, where existing Anglophobia had been reinforced by the Boer War, in which public opinion was firmly on the side of Britain’s enemies. However, fear of German aggression was the link that bound them together. The Triple Entente was complete with the Anglo-Russian Entente (1907) that bound the three.

Road to WW1 in Britain[]

The reason behind Britain’s decision to abandon her policy of isolation from the continental powers, and form the Triple Entente, remains much debated by historians. Certainly in the 1900s, Britain felt herself isolated having been widely criticised during the Boer War. Some historians see Britain's alignment as principally a reaction to the German build-up of her navy from 1898. Other scholars argue that continental Europe was polarising into two opposing blocs, and it was far more disadvantageous to have an unfriendly France and Russia than an unfriendly Germany. The British Empire simply had more to gain from friendship with France and Russia: the easing of tensions in South East Asia with France and Central Asia with Russia; and France immediately acknowledged that Egypt was part of the British sphere of influence, and in return Britain acknowledged that Morocco was in the French sphere of influence. There was also a sense of panic that the British 19th century dominance of the world was slipping away; the United States now far outstripped Britain in manufacturing capacity. Britain agreed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902), to safeguard their respective interests in China, although relations remained wary throughout the agreement until its demise in 1921. The subsequent Anglo-Russian Entente (1907) also delineated spheres of influence in central Asia.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George

Meanwhile from 1906, the first five years of David Lloyd George’s Liberal government represents the greatest single period of reform in British history: the Trades Disputes Act strengthened the rights of Trade Unions by protecting their funds from claims for damages; measures were passed for a state pension; and laws improved housing standards. However, other reforms failed in the House of Lords, and tension with the Lords reached crisis point in their rejection of the budget of 1909, which introduced a surtax for higher earners and capital gains tax. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith saw his chance and called an election, on a platform of parliamentary reform and curbing the powers of the Lords. While presenting the Conservatives as greedy and self-interested, Asquith won and the Parliament Bill (1911) was passed. The humbling of the House of Lords was not Asquith’s only reform: the National Insurance Act provided unemployment and sickness benefits for workers; and the prolonged struggle of payment for members of parliament was finally won.

Japanese Imperialism[]

First Sino-Japanese War.png

During the 1890s, it became evident that a struggle was developing in northeast Asia between two powers, both in expansionist mood and both eager to profit from the continuing weakness of China. One of the contenders was a vast but backward European empire, Russia. Russia had won Vladivostok from China in 1858, and in 1891 began work on a vast Russian engineering project to open up the Far East; the Trans-Siberian Railway. The other was an emerging and already fighting-fit Asian empire, Japan. Japanese interference in the affairs of iron and coal rich Korea, a tributary kingdom on China, caused successive crises between the three protagonists, but all were resolved through diplomatic means until 1894. When an uprising erupted in Korea, both Chinese and Japanese armies entered the kingdom to assist the Korean ruler in putting it down the rebellion. The resulting First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) was an overwhelming victory for Japan. When peace was agreed, China accepted punitive terms: a huge indemnity, and the ceding to Japan of Taiwan and the strategically important harbour of Port Arthur in western Korea.


However, Tsar Nicholas II objected and brought sufficient international pressure on Japan, to persuade her to return Port Arthur to China for an even larger indemnity, for which Russia provided the necessary loan. Any Japanese doubts as to Russian intentions were dispelled when Russia promptly seized Port Arthur themselves in 1898. A direct clash between the two powers now seemed inevitable. In a foretaste of Pearl Harbor nearly forty years later, with no warning a Japanese fleet launched a devastating attack on Port Arthur in February 1904, triggering the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). This was quickly followed by a Japanese invasion of Korea. Several inconclusive clashes with the Russians culminated in the land and naval Battles of Mukden (February-March 1905) and Tsushima (May 1905), in which the Japanese prevailed over larger Russian forces. The loss of the Russian fleet effectively ended the war; of 38 warships just 10 limped into Vladivostok. Theodore Roosevelt mediated the peace treaty that ended the war: control of Port Arthur passed again to Japan; and Russia recognized Korea as falling within the Japanese sphere of influence. With these terms agreed, Japan's expansionist programme achieved its first international recognition.

Road to WW1 and Revolution in Russia[]

Vladimir Lenin, one of the founders of the Russian Communist Party, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and architect and first head of the Soviet state.

Russia’s humiliation in the Russo-Japanese War only enflamed the steadily deteriorating situation at home. The tradition of repressive autocratic rule continued uninterrupted in Russia, and was even reinforced in its malign effects by a policy of discrimination against the non-Slav minorities in Finland, Armenia, the Baltic states, as well as Muslims and Jews. These policies add many localised resentments, to mounting wider agitations that ranged from those calling for a constitutional government to a full-scale Marxist revolution. The example of Alexander Herzen demonstrates the predictable pattern of Russia’s revolutionaries. After leaving the intensely political hotbed of university, Herzen was soon arrested and exiled to the Urals in 1835 for his political views. From 1847, Herzen lived in more liberal Paris, London, and Geneva, where he wrote inflammatory newspapers that was then smuggled back into Russia. He eventually became part of a group of Russian exiles living in Geneva called the Liberation of Labour, whose aim was to educate revolutionaries in the principles of Marxism. In 1895, he was visited by a young revolutionary enthusiast, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; known to history as Lenin. Eight years earlier, Lenin’s brother had been executed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate the Tsar. In St Petersburg, Lenin founded a Marxist revolutionary cell, but was soon arrested and exiled to Siberia from 1897 to 1900. While in Siberia, he met and befriended Leon Trotsky. After their release, Lenin and Trotsky lived in Munich, London, and Geneva, where they published a newspaper for circulation in Russia; it would be the springboard through which Lenin would make himself the centre of the Russian Communist Party which had been in 1898. In 1903, the Russian Communist Party congress was held in London, with Lenin and Trotsky both in attendance. There was broad agreement with the policies of Lenin, but nevertheless one significant disagreement. Lenin and the majority wanted membership of the party limited to activists, to preserve the party’s purity; they became known as the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, a minority including Trotsky would prefer to involve a broader range of supporters; the Mensheviks. The issue grew into a significant split, and by 1905, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were so estranged that they held their Party congresses in separate cities.

Artistic impression of Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg

In 1905, Russia experienced the turmoil of her first year of revolution; the 1905 Russian Revolution. On 22 January 1905, a priest, Father Gapon, organised a peaceful march on the Winter Palace to deliver a desperate but respectful petition to the Tsar to redress the sufferings of his people. The marchers were violently dispersed by imperial troops, with about 200 deaths and another 800 marchers; Bloody Sunday. The event set-off a wave of rebellions and worker-strikes throughout Russia, and even several minor mutinies among the imperial troops themselves. However, the most damaging incident of the year followed in June. When a representative of the crew of the battleship Potemkin named Valenchuk complained to the captain about maggots in the food, he was shot. The crew rioted, murdered the captain and seven officers, and seized the ship. Sailing for the already rioting Odessa, thousands gathered for the funeral of noble Valenchuk which turned into an impromptu political demonstration. Troops, ordered to clear the area, fired indiscriminately into the crowd killing 2,000 and wounding 3,000. The situation in Russia by now looked so promising that exiled revolutionaries began to slip back into Russia, where they organised the St Petersburg Soviet, a radical workers council. This spontaneous action by the workers was closer to the Menshevik philosophy, thus Trotsky was elected its leader. The Petersburg Soviet organised more strikes, controlled a workers’ militia, oversaw the distribution of food relief, and distributed political newspapers. It soon inspired Soviets in some fifty other Russian cities. By the end of the year the Russian government had re-established control over the county; some 15,000 people were executed, and a further 45,000 exiled. Nevertheless, the Soviets would provide a vivid model which proved easy to revive in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Tsar Nicholas II, in a British Royal Navy uniform as an honorary Admiral of the Fleet, 1909

By this time, it was evident to everyone, except apparently Tsar Nicholas II (1894-1917) himself, that the chaos could only worsen unless concessions were made. On 9 October 1905, Sergei Witte, one of the Tsar’s senior advisers, produced the October Manifesto proposing an elected Duma legislature, which the Tsar signed with extreme reluctance. The Duma was to have an executive council appointed by the Tsar, so far short of liberal ideals, but it was sufficient to satisfy the moderates in Russia. The Tsar found democracy not much to his liking. After dismissing two elected Duma assemblies in quick succession, he restricted the franchise to only the rich and got what he desired; a compliant Duma. Prime Minister Petr Stolypin now had a free hand to initiate his own programme of modest reforms. At the same time, large numbers of radicals were sent to exile or to their deaths, and revolutionary newspapers were ruthless suppressed.

United States[]

Theodore Roosevelt around 1904

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) was a charismatic and infectiously optimistic leader for an increasingly confident age. A veteran of the Spanish-American War, who made a name for himself as a reforming Republican in the often corrupt world of New York politics. He became president following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. After decades of corruption and commercial cartels, in which Congress had the upper hand over a succession of weak presidents, Roosevelt restored the White House to a leading role in government. He used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up the railway monopolies. Famously when miners threatened a strike, he invited the mine owners to the White House and demanded that they accept arbitration. However, the initiative he was most proud of was the National Conservation Commission (1908); during his presidency 150 million acres of new national forest were planted. On foreign policy, Roosevelt was hawkish. He commissioned ten new battleships during his first term in office, and in 1907 sent a fleet of warships on a cruise round the world to show any potential enemies that America was not to be meddled with lightly. American was now a major power, as evident in Roosevelt’s involvement in the First Moroccan Crisis and Russo-Japanese War where he chaired the peace negotiations. In 1904, the United States also began construction of the Panama Canal with the agreement of the Panamanian government; the canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific opened to shipping on 15 August 1914.

End of Dynastic Rule in China[]

Empress Dowager Cixi, the effective ruler of China for 47 years from 1861

The Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century were a major wake-up call for the Qing dynasty in China. Prince Gong and other reformers initiated the Self-Strengthening Movement (1864-95) aiming at the institutional reform of the empire and modernisation of the military. However, it was undermined by a combination of corruption, nepotism, and opposition from the Empress Dowager Cixi (1861-1908) who emerged as the effective ruler of the late Qing government for 47 years. As a result, the Chinese were soundly defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). The reformers then launched another more comprehensive reform effort, the Hundred Days' Reform (1898), but it too was soon overturned in a military-coup by Cixi, who feared it as detrimental to dynastic rule.


By the 1890s, anti-foreigner and anti-Christian sentiment coalesced into a new movement, the Righteous and Harmonious Society; nicknamed the Boxers from their street-displays of martial arts. Violence erupted in the late-1890s with attacks on foreigners and missionaries; the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). Empress Dowager Cixi and the Qing government soon aligned themselves with the Boxers, in the hope that they would rid China of foreign influence. When Cixi refused to condemn the Boxers, the immediate Western response of 2,000 troops was ambushed and defeated at the Battle of Langfang (June 1800). In the aftermath, the Qing government ordered all foreigners to leave Beijing, but they refused and instead found themselves besieged in the capital’s foreign quarter. The Chinese forces were ultimately defeated by an eight-nation alliance of Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. 55,000 troops under British General Alfred Gaselee seized the port of Tianjin in July 1900, and by August the international force had defeated the Imperial Army and taken Beijing. Uncontrolled plunder of the capital ensued, along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers. The Qing government were forced to accept the remarkably mild Boxer Protocol (1901): the reign of Empress Dowager Cixi was allowed to continue, and China did not cede any territory, but had to pay high war-reparations. The policy of the Western powers was to sustain the feeble Qing government in power in China.

Sun Yat-sen, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China

Nevertheless, frustration at the weak Qing dynasty and their failure to modernise China eventually boiled-over in the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Veteran revolutionary Sun Yat-sen united many anti-Qing groups under the leadership of his new Tongmenghui (United League), which included: local gentry who felt excluded from the Qing political system; and officers and soldiers in the imperial army who wanted to modernise China. The revolutionaries tried to take advantage of the unrest that erupted in the country when the Qing government granted rights to build railway lines in China to foreign companies. However, the planned uprising was exposed but with the implication of many senior officers in the plot, much of the imperial army mutinied. The revolutionaries and army eventually joined forces, and succeeded in overthrowing the Qing dynasty; the end of 2,000 years of dynastic rule in China. Together they formed a new government of the Republic of China (1912-15), with Sun Yat-sen and General Yuan Shikai as co-leaders. However in 1915, Yuan Shikai overthrew the government and ruled China as a military dictator. Yuan death a year later left a power vacuum in China, ushering in the Warlord Era (1916-28), during which the country fragmented with local military leaders asserting autonomy over their regions. The subsequent prolonged Chinese Civil War (1927-50) would eventually re-unite the country as the Communist People's Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong.


During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Balkans became known as the Eastern Question or the "powder keg of Europe", as new nations emerged and contended often violently for territory. Meanwhile the great powers of Europe vied for influence in the region, especially neighbouring Russia and Austria-Hungary.


Since the early 19th century, as the Ottoman Turks continued to decline, independence movements had sprung-up across the empire; Greece achieved her own independence in 1832. Exacerbated by high taxes due in part to debts accrued in the Crimean War, in the 1870s a series of violent rebellions erupted in the Balkans, and equally violent and repressive responses from the Turks. After the brief Russo-Turkish War (1877–78), the Western powers intervened to stabilise the Balkans, while trying to stem the ambitions of Russia and Austria-Hungary in the region. Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania were granted their independence, and Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia. Bulgaria also became an autonomous region within the Ottoman Empire, but eventually achieved her independence during the chaos of the Ottoman Young Turk Revolution (July 1908).

Bosnian Crisis.jpg

Then in October 1908, Austria-Hungary announced the formal annexation of Bosnia, sparking the Bosnian Crisis. Austria-Hungary's Balkan neighbours vehemently objected, especially landlocked Serbia who had aspirations of her own on Bosnia to gain access to an Adriatic port. Russia supported her ally Serbia, but when the Germans made it clear that they would uphold their alliance with Austria-Hungary, the Russians and Serbians backed-down rather than face war over the issue. The crisis laid the grounds for World War 1, with Austrian–Serbian relations becoming even more strained, and fresh determination from Russia not to back-down again.


Meanwhile, the Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya in 1911 both demonstrated the weakness of the Turks and that the great powers had no intention of preserving the declining Ottoman Empire. The next Balkan upheaval was triggered by another successful national uprising against the Turks in Albania. This success stirred the Balkan states to action, for an independent Albania was not part of their plans. In October 1912, an alliance of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece declared war on the Ottoman Turks; the First Balkan War (1912-13).  The allies rapidly made inroads into Macedonia, Thrace, and Albania, but the issue was quickly taken into international hands, with Austria-Hungary determined not to have a strengthened Serbia on her border. At the conference of London, Macedonia and western Thrace was divided among the allies and the independence of Albania was recognized. Numerous disputes soon erupted over the share of the spoils, and war broke-out between the former allies in June 1913; the Second Balkan War (June-August 1913). The war between Bulgaria, and Greece and Serbia, eventually drew in Romania and the Ottomans, before it was settled with Bulgaria losing some territory to all four belligerents. The wars emboldened the Serbians, straining relations even further with Austria-Hungary. This tensions would boil-over when Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was shot by a Serbian nationalist on 28 June 1914; five weeks later all the great powers of Europe were at war with one another in World War 1.

Turn of the Century Science[]

Wright brothers, Henry Ford's first Model-T, and Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity.