World War I Centennial: The Treaty of Berlin

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, mental_floss will be taking a look back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. (See all entries here.)

November 4, 1911: The Treaty of Berlin

Ironically November 4, 1911, was supposed to ensure lasting peace, but actually set the stage for the conflict to come. This day saw the signing of the Treaty of Berlin, which was intended to resolve a series of diplomatic conflicts between Germany and France spanning not just Europe but the rest of the world, where their growing colonial empires increasingly ran afoul of each other.

Some of the main colonial strife took place in Africa, where European powers scrambled to take control of huge swathes of land (and their native populations) beginning in the 19th century. A young nation only unified by Otto von Bismarck in 1871, Germany was late to the party: by the first years of the twentieth century most of the continent had been carved up by Britain and France, leaving the ambitious newcomer hungrily picking over the scraps. This was the background to the Moroccan Crisis -- actually, two Crises -- which foreshadowed the coming of the First World War.

In 1905 Morocco was one of the few remaining independent kingdoms in Africa, but was falling more and more under French influence, raising the prospect of yet another chunk of Africa going to France. Angry about Germany getting the short end of the colonial stick yet again, Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to stick a spoke in France’s wheels with typical diplomatic finesse: he went to Morocco and gave a speech supporting Moroccan independence, immediately causing an international incident.

Only instead of driving Britain and France apart, as hoped, the Kaiser’s provocative action managed to push them closer together, as their colonial rivalries now took a back seat to shared fear of their increasingly powerful and aggressive neighbor in Europe.

U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt organized an international conference at Algeciras, Spain, where Germany was firmly rebuffed; it turned out the British and the French weren’t the only ones feeling nervous about the pushy, grabby Teutons. The conflict was finally sort of resolved (but not really) in April 1906 when Spain -- a weak European power that was less threatening to everyone -- stepped forward to take over police duties in Morocco.

Furious about being humiliated in the First Moroccan Crisis (and seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had been mostly his own doing), Kaiser Wilhelm II was determined not to lose face again … which led directly to the Second Moroccan Crisis. When a rebellion threatened Morocco’s weak puppet ruler in 1911, France rushed reinforcements to shore up the sultan’s government and protect their interests in North Africa. Not to be outdone, the Kaiser decided to flex Germany’s new naval muscle by sending the gunship Panther to Morocco, ostensibly for the same purpose. The move was provocative, to say the least: for one thing Germany didn’t really have any interests in Morocco, and the gunship looked a lot more threatening to French forces on the coast than rebels fighting in the interior.

It wasn’t long before the situation escalated: fearing that Germany planned to establish a naval base in the Mediterranean, Britain sent the Royal Navy to keep an eye on the Panther, and Europe seemed to be heading towards an all-out war pitting Britain and France against Germany (and possibly its weak sidekick Austria-Hungary).

Germany's Lovely Parting Gifts

But just as the situation was reaching the boiling point, fears of war (perhaps combined with machinations by French finance officials) helped precipitate a financial crisis in Germany, including a stock market collapse and bank runs. Suddenly weakening on the home front, Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to throw in the towel in Morocco, which now fell under total French domination. The Treaty of Berlin, signed on November 4, 1911, was supposed to provide a fig leaf for this second humiliating retreat by “compensating” Germany with a swathe of malarial marshland in central Africa -- but nothing could paper over the fact that the real prize, Morocco, went to France.

Perhaps even more important, the Treaty of Berlin left Germany nursing even bigger grievances against France and Britain, which the German right-wing military accused of conspiring to isolate and surround Germany (a policy denounced as “encirclement” by German nationalists). And there was a lot of truth in this accusation. Of course hyper-nationalist German officers, like their Kaiser, failed to appreciate that the encirclement policy was mostly a reaction to Germany’s own belligerent moves on the world stage. The countdown to the First World War had begun.

For the next few years, Erik Sass will be serializing the lead-up to World War I, covering events 100 years after they happened. See next installment or all entries.

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November 4, 2011 - 1:01pm
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