Europe, in the early months of 1914, seemed to be at peace. Sir Winston Churchill, writing in the 1920s, recalled that ‘the spring and summer of 1914 were marked in Europe by an exceptional tranquility’. Anglo-German relations, after years of tense naval rivalry, seemed to be improving as the two powers negotiated amicably about the possible future disposition of the Portuguese colonial empire in Africa. French bitterness towards Germany, centred on the lost provinces’ of Alsace and Lorraine, appeared to be abating. Austria-Hungary and Russia had refused to allow their Balkan ‘clients’ to draw them into war in 1912 and 1913.
But this picture of reduced tensions and of increasing stability amongst Europe’s great powers was illusory. It masked great underlying problems and increasing pessimism on the part of many European leaders about developments which they believed were undermining their countries’ position and great power status. Since 1900, Europe had been wracked by a series of crises, each of which had brought her great powers closer to war. These crises were provoked by a number of serious issues which were causing mounting friction amongst the powers and which, by 1914, in the opinion of many European statesmen, were becoming insoluble by means other than resort to war.