Diplomacy of World War One: Secret Agreements & Diplomatic Arrangements

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  • 0:01 Major Alliances of WWI
  • 1:50 Treaty of London
  • 2:58 Sykes-Picot Agreement…
  • 4:50 Zimmermann Telegram
  • 6:04 Treaty of…
  • 7:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the diplomatic history surrounding World War I. We will highlight the systems of alliances and take a look at key diplomatic events, such as the Zimmermann telegram controversy and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Major Alliances of World War I

Let's begin by reviewing the major alliances of World War I. In 1882, the Triple Alliance was formed between the countries of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. To counter this alliance, France, Great Britain, and Russia formed their own alliance in 1907, the Triple Entente. When World War I broke out in 1914, the Triple Alliance was more or less pitted against the Triple Entente.

The Triple Alliance became known as the Central Powers, while the Triple Entente became known as the Allied Powers, or just the Allies. There is one exception here, and that is Italy. Italy basically wimped out once the war started, and opted to remain neutral. Then it eventually switched sides, and joined the Allies.

The important thing to remember here is that even before war broke out in 1914, the major European powers were involved in systems of entangling alliances. This meant that if any one country went to war against any other belligerent country, all the countries would become involved because of their binding alliances. Not a good situation!

The spark that set off World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. This set off the July Crisis, a diplomatic crisis among the major European powers lasting throughout most of the month. Negotiations proved useless as ultimatums and counter-ultimatums eventually led to the outbreak of war.

The Treaty of London

A moment ago I mentioned how Italy switched sides during the war. Let's talk about this in a little more detail. When war broke out, Italy basically felt it had little to gain from entering the war on the side of the Central Powers. Furthermore, relations between Italy and Austria-Hungary had been strained for years.

Recognizing these facts, the Allies secretly tried to coax Italy into joining their side. On April 26, 1915, the Treaty of London was signed. Under this pact, Italy left the Triple Alliance and joined the Allies. Within a month, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungry.

In return for Italian cooperation, the Allies promised to grant Italy territorial concessions following the war. When the war ended, the Allies failed to follow through with their promises to Italy. This caused Italy to feel betrayed and, incidentally, helped lead to the rise of Mussolini and Italian fascism in the 1920s.

The Skyes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration

Between the end of 1915 and the beginning of 1916, with the war in full swing, France and Great Britain held a series of secret meetings to draw up plans for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire following an Allied victory. Russia was also involved in negotiations to a small degree. The result of these negotiations was the Sykes-Picot Agreement, or the Asia Minor Agreement.

The agreement divided up spheres of influence between France and Great Britain. Portions of what is now Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon were divided up between the British and the French. Russia was also to get a small portion of land in Turkey. The secret agreement was named after French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British Sir Mark Sykes.

Although the agreement was drawn up in secret, it came to light when the Bolsheviks blabbed. See, following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Allies refused to honor the agreement with the new Bolshevik government. This made the Bolsheviks mad, and to get back at their former allies, a copy of the agreement was printed in the communist newspaper, Pravda.

In November 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent a letter to Jewish leader Walter Rothschild. This letter has come to be known as the Balfour Declaration. In the letter, Balfour expressed Great Britain's support for a Jewish state in the region of Palestine. The Balfour Declaration ultimately led to the League of Nations granting Great Britain control over the region under the Palestinian Mandate of 1922.

The Zimmermann Telegram

The interception of the Zimmermann telegram, or the Zimmermann note, was an important event that helped sway American opinion toward intervention in World War I. Remember, up until April 1917, the United States had stayed out of the war.

So what was the Zimmermann telegram? It was a telegram sent in January 1917 from Germany to Mexico, inviting Mexico to join the Central Powers. In return for Mexican collaboration, Germany promised to assist Mexico in reconquering portions of the American Southwest. The telegram was named after German State Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Arthur Zimmermann. It was intercepted by the British, and passed on to the United States.

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