Triple Alliance Is Formed

The Triple Alliance among Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy was an agreement that each country would support and defend the other in case of military attack. The alliance remained in force into World War I.

Summary of Event

A major contribution to the system of entangling alliances that prevailed in Europe from 1871 to 1914 was the expansion of the Dual Alliance of 1879 Dual Alliance (1879) into the Triple Alliance of 1882. The Dual Alliance was negotiated by the German Empire and Austria-Hungary as a defensive pact directed explicitly against a possible Russian attack on either of the two signatories, and implicitly against France. Triple Alliance
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Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Triple Alliance[Triple Alliance]
[kw]Triple Alliance Is Formed (May 20, 1882)
[kw]Alliance Is Formed, Triple (May 20, 1882)
[kw]Formed, Triple Alliance Is (May 20, 1882)
Triple Alliance
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[c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 20, 1882: Triple Alliance Is Formed[5220]
Depretis, Agostino
Köröspatak, Count Gusztav Siegmund Kálnoky von
Mancini, Pasquale Stanislao
Umberto I

As soon as the Dual Alliance had been signed, Italy sought admission as a full-fledged member. There were two important reasons. Domestically, the Italians were concerned during the early 1880’s over the possible restoration of the Papal States to the papacy, since Leo XIII, who had succeeded Pius IX in 1878, had reached a religious rapprochement with the anticlerical governments of Austria and Germany. Of even greater significance was the French occupation of Tunis Tunis;French occupation of in May, 1881, because Italy cast envious eyes on that territory as part of a future Italian Empire in North Africa. Waves of anti-French sentiment swept through Italy. The government, realizing that it must take prompt steps to quell popular unrest, discarded any misgivings it might have had about entering into an alliance with Austria, Italy’s old enemy.

Indeed, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of the German Empire, made it clear to the Italians, whose partnership he was at first hesitant to accept, that they must negotiate their membership with Vienna before gaining admittance to the alliance. Accordingly in October, 1881, King Umberto Umberto I I of Italy, his premier, Agostino Depretis, Depretis, Agostino and his minister of foreign affairs, Pasquale Stanislao Mancini Mancini, Pasquale Stanislao , journeyed to Vienna to begin negotiations with their traditional Habsburg adversary, represented by Count Köröspatak, Count Gusztav Siegmund Kálnoky von Gusztav Siegmund Kálnoky von Köröspatak, the minister of foreign affairs of Austria-Hungary. The negotiations lasted for months, but finally, on May 20, 1882, Germany, Austria, and Italy signed the treaty creating the Triple Alliance.

The terms of the Triple Alliance supplemented rather than supplanted those of the Dual Alliance of 1879. Explicitly a defensive pact, the Triple Alliance bound Germany and Austria to come to the aid of Italy if it were attacked by France; similarly, if France attacked Germany, Italy would come to its aid. In the event that one or two of the signatories were attacked by two or more powers, the other allies or ally would render armed assistance. If one of the allies were obliged to make war on a nonsignatory power, the other allies would observe a benevolent neutrality. Finally, if war became imminent for one of the contracting parties, all the parties were to consult together; if war broke out and all the allies became involved, none of them would conclude a separate peace. The treaty of alliance was to be kept secret and last for five years.


The Triple Alliance brought advantages to each member. Italy gained the prestige of association with the two great powers of central Europe. However, the unlikelihood of a French invasion of Italy’s Alpine northwestern frontier diluted the significance of Austria’s and Germany’s promise to come to the aid of their ally if France were to attack. Italy was more likely to fight for Germany than Germany for Italy. However, in the event of involvement in a defensive war against France, Italy, backed by Germany, could look forward to the possible annexation of French Nice and Savoy Savoy , and perhaps even Tunis Tunis in North Africa. Finally, the price of Italy’s improved relations with Austria was the renunciation of Italy’s irredentist claims.

More realistic advantages accrued to Austria and Germany as a result of the alliance. Austria, in the event of war with Russia, would not have to withhold part of its army to guard its southwestern frontier against an Italy fighting either for its irredentist claims or on behalf of a French ally. The ability of Austria to commit all its forces against Russia would prove invaluable to Germany in case Germany had to face Russia and France in a two-front war. A French attack on Germany would now prove difficult, as some French forces would have to be diverted to hold the Italian Alpine frontier. Neither Bismarck nor Kálnoky was impressed with Italian military strength, but both statesmen wanted Italy to threaten France’s frontier rather than Austria’s frontier. “Sparing the Austrian forces,” as Bismarck put it, “rather than winning those of Italy is our aim.”

There was, as Bismarck himself realized, a great deal of truth in the second part of this remark, for while Germany and Austria recognized the advantage in an alignment with Italy, neither power ever trusted Italy. The traditional Austro-Italian rivalry soon flared up over territorial questions in the northern Adriatic and the Balkans. Meanwhile, Franco-Italian relations improved to the point where, in 1900, Paris and Rome arrived at a rapprochement over their disputes in North Africa, followed in 1902 by an Italian promise to France to remain neutral in the event of an attack on France. These steps had the effect of nullifying Italy’s participation in the Triple Alliance that, however, was renewed when required until 1914.

When World War I broke out and German troops threatened to break through to Paris, Italy remained neutral, an act that may well have spared France and Great Britain total defeat. In the Treaty of London in 1915, the two allies persuaded Italy to enter the war on the side of the Triple Entente. Hence, what Austria and Germany had feared and attempted to forestall—namely, an attack on Austria’s frontier—actually took place, to the strategic disadvantage of the Central Powers throughout the remainder of World War I.

Further Reading

  • Albertini, Luigi. The Origins of the War of 1914. Vol. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1952. Emphasis is on Italy’s participation in the alliance. French occupation of Tunis was the main reason for Italy seeking a formal relationship with Germany and Austria.
  • Fay, Sydney B. The Origins of the World War. 2d rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1930. An analysis of the alliance. The author rejects the contention that Bismarck actively sought Italy as an ally.
  • Hayes, Carlton J. H. A Generation of Materialism, 1871-1900. New York: Harper & Row, 1941. Provides a useful synopsis of the reasons for Italy’s entry into the alliance with Germany and Austria.
  • Langer, William L. European Alliances and Alignments, 1871-1890. 2d ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950. Author devotes a chapter to the Triple Alliance and provides brief and substantial descriptions and interpretations.
  • Schmitt, Bernadotte E. Triple Alliance and Triple Entente. New York: Howard Fertig, 1971. Account of the background of the alliance and its effects. A valuable source both for description and interpretation.
  • Waller, Bruce. Bismarck. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985. Biography of the statesman who was most directly responsible for the Triple Alliance. Places it within a more intimate context.

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