The Powder Keg of Europe During WWI

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  • 0:06 What Is a 'Powder Keg?'
  • 1:06 Shifting Geopolitical Dynamics
  • 3:33 Entangling Alliances
  • 5:02 The Spark That Ignited…
  • 6:15 The 'Powder Keg' in…
  • 7:23 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 way in which Europe was a sort of 'powder keg' in the years leading up to World War I. We will examine the sources of tension among the European powers and explore how these played a role in the outbreak of World War I.

What Is a 'Powder Keg?'

What is a 'powder keg,' and what does it have to do with World War I? That is today's question. Well, in its most literal sense, a 'powder keg' is, of course, a barrel of gunpowder. In times past, black powder was stored in wooden barrels. These barrels, or kegs, were extremely sensitive; a small spark could set off a huge explosion.

The term 'powder keg' has often been used figuratively to refer to the way a small event sets off something much larger. In history, the term is most commonly associated with the events leading up to the Great War, also known as World War I. Historians often refer to pre-1914 Europe as a 'powder keg.' Sometimes, the term is used as a specific reference to tension in the Balkan region, but more generally it applies to dynamics throughout the whole of Europe. Let's find out why.

Shifting Geopolitical Dynamics

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in the early 1800s, Europeans were weary of war. Throughout a good part of the nineteenth century, Europe enjoyed relative peace. The Congress of Vienna, which convened in 1815, was instrumental in securing a peace that, for the most part, characterized nineteenth century Europe. Sure, there were a few regional conflicts like the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War. There were also the Revolutions of 1848. But generally, Europe experienced relative stability throughout the nineteenth century.

Enter Germany. Before 1871, the land that is now Germany existed as a loose confederation of independent kingdoms. Under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, these independent kingdoms were united following the Franco-Prussian War to form the modern nation-state of Germany. Within a remarkably short period of time, the heavily industrialized Germany rose to the status of a world power and sought to exert itself as such. This upset the long-standing balance of power in Europe.

Which nations would Germany ally itself with? Which nations would Germany not get along with? This new dynamic, coupled with the fact that Germany was embarking upon a plan of rapid militarization, led to tension throughout all of Europe.

Turmoil in the Balkans also contributed to powder keg-like conditions. Just so we are clear, the Balkan region refers to the part of southeastern Europe where countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Yugoslavia, and others are located. Most of these countries had (and still have) high percentages of Slavic people groups. For centuries, many Balkan states had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire.

Nationalism and pan-Slavism caused many of these states to rebel against their Ottoman rulers, resulting in chaos throughout the region. What is pan-Slavism? It was basically a movement aimed at uniting various Slavic peoples into one modern nation-state. To exacerbate matters, Imperial Russia, who was sympathetic to pan-Slavism, often encouraged Slavic groups to resist their Ottoman rulers.

Entangling Alliances

We absolutely cannot discuss the pre-World War I 'powder keg' without discussing the systems of entangling alliances that European countries found themselves in. In 1882, the Triple Alliance was formed. This was a military alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Basically, to put it in our modern-day terminology, it meant these countries had each other's backs.

To counter the Triple Alliance, the Triple Entente was formed in 1907, composed of Great Britain, France, and Russia. The implications of these competing alliances basically meant that if any one nation went to war against any other belligerent nation, all the nations would become involved. Now we see why it's called a 'powder keg!'

Like players on a football team, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy were lined up on one side, with Great Britain, France, and Russia on the other. The Triple Alliance is often referred to as the Central Powers, while the Triple Entente is often called the Allied Powers, or just the Allies. When war broke out in 1914, the small country of Serbia aligned itself with the Triple Entente, while the Ottoman Empire aligned itself with the Triple Alliance. As you probably know, the United States joined the Allied Powers late in the war, but that is another lesson for another time.

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