To find out more about the question of the origins of the First World War you can study AA312: Total War and Social Change: Europe 1900-1955.

A hundred years ago, in the summer of 1911, all eyes in Europe were on North Africa. Agadir and Tripoli were cities which made news headlines then as they do now – albeit for different reasons. Then, as now, European battle ships were sent to the Mediterranean Sea and positioned just off the North African coast, although then they were not intended to intimidate North African rulers. Rather, imperial rivalries led to conflict in northern Africa and threatened to embroil Europe in war. The so-called Great Powers had vied enviously with each other over diminishing potential to expand their spheres of interest in Africa which, at the beginning of the 20th century, had been all but carved up.

In April 1911, in a move that was contrary to international agreements, the French sent troops to Fez to put down a revolt in Morocco and, by implication, to extend their influence over that country. Objecting to France’s ‘dash on Fez’, Germany’s leaders tried, as they had previously done in the Moroccan Crisis of 1905, to assert Germany’s claim as a great power which could not simply be ignored in colonial affairs. In order to protest publicly about this perceived injustice, Germany’s decision-makers dispatched a gun-boat to intimidate the French.

The dispatch of the German gun-boat Panther to the Moroccan port of Agadir on 1st July 1911 marked the beginning of the second Moroccan Crisis (or Agadir Crisis). Germany felt provoked by French military intervention in Morocco which amounted in effect to the establishment of a French protectorate in Morocco. This was a move that ran counter to the Algeciras Agreement of 1906 and to the Franco-German agreement on Morocco of 1909. 

This act of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ brought Europe to the brink of war during the  international crisis that ensued – one of many which preceded the outbreak of the First World War. Germany’s pretext for getting involved was the protection of German citizens and German business interests in Morocco. The Times reported on 3rd July:

Times article

The issue was, however, much more about European concerns than colonial ones. As in the previous Moroccan conflict, Germany was intent on asserting her status as a great power, and on ensuring adequate compensation for any gains that another power made on the imperial stage, with an eye to weakening the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain in the process. The public response to Foreign Minister Kiderlen-Wächter’s forceful foreign policy was largely positive, even enthusiastic, and, not surprisingly, the mood among Germany’s leading military men was far from peaceable. They advocated unleashing a war over the Moroccan issue, especially in view of the relatively favourable military situation at the time. Russia’s attitude towards Germany was reasonably positive, and it seemed possible that she might choose to stay out of a conflict over Morocco, leaving Germany free to focus her military efforts on France.

The Bavarian military attaché to Berlin, Ludwig von Gebsattel, reported on 3 September: 'In military circles, particularly here in Berlin, the mood is more war-like than a little while ago, more war-like than I myself thought a few days ago. On our side – high-ranking, too – it is emphasized that we should use the situation, which is relatively favourable for us, to strike'.

However, as during the First Moroccan Crisis, France received support from her Entente partner Britain, and the links between the two countries were only further strengthened in the light of German aggression. While Britain was now more wary of Germany, the latter, in turn, developed a hostile, anti-British mood. Following David Lloyd George’s Mansion House speech on 21 July 1911, when the British Chancellor of the Exchequer warned Germany against any acts of aggression towards France, Britain became an antagonist in the eyes of the German public. Lloyd George made it plain that Britain intended to stand by France, threatening to fight on France’s side against Germany if the need arose. The speech caused great indignation in Germany. It confirmed what many in Germany felt they had known all along: that in a future war (which seemed inevitable to most contemporary observers) Germany would face France, Britain and Russia in an epic struggle.

David Lloyd George Creative commons image Credit: This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a10674

Sir Edward Goschen, Britain’s ambassador in Berlin, reported on 12 January 1912 to Understate-Secretary in the Foreign Office, Sir Arthur Nicholson: 'I wish I could give a better report of Anglo-German relations, but my few England-loving German friends tell me that they have never known the feeling of irritation against England so strong and so widespread as it is at present.' (quoted in Terence F. Cole; ‘German Decision-Making on the Eve of the First World War. The Records of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin’, in Röhl (ed), Der Ort Kaiser Wilhelm II, p.57).

Although the crisis was resolved peacefully following negotiations between Kiderlen Wächter and the French Ambassador Jules Cambon in Berlin, and Germany was given part of the French Congo as compensation for French gains, the affair amounted in fact to a diplomatic defeat for Germany, whose leaders were becoming increasingly worried that their foreign policy adventures did not lead to the breaking-up of alliances against her, but rather seemed to cement more firmly the ‘encirclement’ which they saw happening all around Germany.

On 19th August 1911, the German Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, wrote to his wife: 'The wretched Morocco-story is beginning to get on my nerves. It is certainly a sign of laudable stamina to be eternally sitting on [hot] coals, but it is not pleasant. If we once again emerge from this affair with our tail between our legs, if we cannot bring ourselves to make energetic demands which we would be ready to force through with the help of the sword, then I despair of the future of the German Reich. In that case I will leave. But before that I will make the request to get rid of the army, and to have us placed under Japan’s protectorate, then we can make money without being disturbed and we can turn completely simple-minded.' (Helmuth von Moltke’s letter to his wife, 19 August 1911, in Eliza von Moltke (ed.), Helmuth von Moltke, Erinnerungen, Briefe, Dokumente 1877-1916, Der kommende Tag A.G. Verlag, Stuttgart, 1922, p.362).

Germany’s military leaders saw their suspicions confirmed that in future only a war would hold any guarantee of changing the status quo in Germany’s favour. They also became more convinced that their impression that Germany was encircled by hostile powers was indeed based on reality. The consequences of the crisis were grave, both internationally and within Germany. ‘From Agadir to Armageddon’, the title of a study of the Agadir Crisis by Geoffrey Barraclough, suggests a causality of events leading from the crisis of 1911 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

More immediately, a war involving some of the ‘lesser great powers’ did ensue. In the light of the fact that both Britain and Germany were being compensated for the French gains in Morocco, Italy also claimed compensation. In 1911 Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (today’s Libya) were part of the Ottoman Empire. On 28 September 1911 Italy issued an ultimatum to Turkey to allow Italy to occupy Tripolitania and Cyrenaica by Italian troops. Italian warships were positioned outside the port of Tripoli even before the ultimatum had expired and an Italian destroyer entered the harbour on 29 September, sparking the Italo-Turkish war which would in turn lead to the Balkan Wars of 1912. Italy’s attack on Tripoli was a direct result of the French march into Fez which had sparked the Agadir Crisis. The Moroccan affair thus led to the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. European observers would have ample time to acquaint themselves with Balkan matters and geography by the time the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (pictured below) was shot in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in June 1914.

Franz Ferdinand Creative commons image Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 136-B0435

Recently, however, historians have highlighted the fact that pre-war crises did not necessarily have to lead to a Great or World War. In 1911, as in 1906, and again during the Balkan Wars of 1912, a war between the Great Powers was successfully avoided, and there was nothing inevitable about a trajectory leading from Agadir to the Armageddon of the First World War.