A scene in Blackadder goes Forth has Captain Edmund Blackadder setting the stage for World War One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGxAYeeyoIc

Edmund: Do you mean “How did the war start?”
Baldrick: Yeah.
George: The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire- building.
Edmund: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.
George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. (aside, to Baldick) Mad as a bicycle!
Baldrick: I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry.
Edmund: I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.
Baldrick: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.
Edmund: Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.
George: By Gum this is interesting; I always loved history — The Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and his six knives, all that.
Edmund: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side; and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?
Edmund: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
George: What was that, sir?
Edmund: It was bollocks.

This explanation doesn't sit well with me - given that Blackadder goes Forth was made in the late-1980s, before the fall of the Soviet Union, it comes across as the show's scriptwriters giving us an allegory on Mutual-Assured Destruction, and their personal concerns that we'd eventually face nuclear Armageddon; I thought that the idea of deterrent through massive retaliation only came about during the 1950s - so if that was the case then it couldn't possibly be the strategy of the early 20th century.

From what I remember from history class I thought the state of Europe immediately preceding WW1 was not a contrived state of affairs, but the natural consequence of developed nations' designs of empire and a constant military build-up to prepare for the eventuality of war, and not as a means to prevent it.

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    Can you clarify the purpose of citing the Blackadder dialogue? It's a sitcom — not all (or rather hardly anything at all) that is said in it is to be taken seriously. As for the question in the title, I would say the alliances were created to protect each other in the war, rather than to prevent a war — the balance of power, concert of Europe system was already broken by the mid-19th century. Furthermore, the war finally broke out because of "a damned foolish thing in the Balkans" (and not technically due to the alliances). Although that is very much debatable.
    – taninamdar
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 0:50
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    Actually, the alliances did cause the war in a technical sense - the alliances almost automatically triggered a spate of declarations of war on both sides. In an alliance-free hypothetical alternative the conflict might well have been localized, with some of the great powers mediating instead of being sucked in as participants. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 1:19
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    @FelixGoldberg Fair enough. I meant in the sense that the key events, i.e. assassination of the Archduke and violation of Belgian neutrality were both "unpredictable", i.e. it's difficult to predict if and when the "global" war would have broken out, had it not been for these two incidents. But it's intricate, I agree.
    – taninamdar
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 4:21
  • Cheers for through your question revealing another answer to this: history.stackexchange.com/questions/42646/…
    – uprofxyz
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 16:20

1 Answer 1


Short answer: Yes.

Bismarck carefully maintained network of alliances designed to contain France after the Franco-Prussian War in order to prevent a war where France might conceivably try and regain control of Alsace-Lorraine.

Bismarck believed that France would always oppose the unification of Germany as it would create a powerful neighbour on its northern border, and of course a powerful rival on the continent. See below for more details:

France was strongly opposed to the annexation of the Southern German States (Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden and Hesse), which would have created a too powerful a country next to its border. In Prussia, a war against France was deemed necessary to arouse German nationalism in those States that would allow the unification of a great German empire. This aim was epitomized by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's quote: "I knew that a Franco-Prussian War must take place before a united Germany was formed."[1] Bismarck also knew that France should be the aggressor in the conflict to bring the Southern German States to side with Prussia, hence giving Germans numerical superiority.[2]


This meant that preventing war with France via diplomatic means was a vital interest to the Germans.

It is quite interesting that when Wilhelm II came to power, he let the threads of this tapestry of alliances aimed at containing France unravel, mostly due to pride and incompetence, that ancient enemy of monarchs and autocrats through history. Liddell Hart (despite his other flaws as a historian, military scientist and human being) noted this break down in the diplomatic topography of Europe in his History of the First World War.

This is just a quick answer as I didn't get around to writing this earlier and I hopefully haven't missed the boat on this question - I will edit in more details/generally flesh the answer out over the course of the evening.

There's some more details here regarding the 'containment of France' - some of it is in French though. https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-15772192/bismarck-and-the-containment-of-france-1873-1877

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    But the quote you posted has: "In Prussia, a war against France was deemed necessary to arouse German nationalism in those States that would allow the unification of a great German empire" - so Prussia (Germany) did want a war, and it didn't have the alliances just to contain France, but to intentionally provoke it into war?
    – Dai
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 17:31

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