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The Great War. Part II

The second stage: 1871 – 1890

Sedan, 1870. The guns are silent now, the soldiers can rest. And they can smile, because their nation raises victorious after the battle. And then they see him, the architect of the victory, the creator of the diplomatic moves that led to the wars that he won, the man that on the following year would materialize the dreams of many and create a new nation that would be one of the main protagonists of the 19th and 20th century. Even nowadays it is among the most relevant nations of the world. They see him on a horse, escorting a carriage that transports a very important prisoner: Napoleon III. From that very day, a new nation would emerge, and its impact would be of an unprecedented scale to such an extent that it would become one of the most important nation of the era.

That very same day also marked the beginning of the second stage on the path towards the First World War, setting the course of the defeated nation and its hunger for a revenge, while in turn the challenges of the victorious nation were increased. The two decades following that battle had a key figure that not only brought Prussia a decisive victory over France, but marked the pace and shaped the diplomacy that would eventually increase the speed at which the Great War was approaching after his dismissal in 1890: Otto von Bismarck.

The rise of Prussia and the Birth of Germany

The appearance of a new power such as Prussia had a huge impact for the other great powers but it did not come from nowhere. It’s appearance on the world stage shattered the status quo that the Austrian Empire was so keen to keep and the same status quo that even Prussia itself had sought to keep. For both Prussia and Austria, the issue was the impending German unification and under whose leadership it should be under: Berlin or Vienna. These tensions finally led to the German War; the clashes over the administration of Schleswig-Holstein, the immediate spark of the war, and the first victory of Prussia against a former ally and a local important foe.

This war was just the first milestone of the German Unification and the country’s eventual rise as a Great Power. As Kennedy (2004) points out, it was a victory that no one expected given the relatively weak position of Prussia and the small size of its army. This surprise was possible simply because of two main factors: the diplomatic abilities of Otto von Bismarck, which meant that no other power would intervene during the German war, and the fact that the already weakened Austrian army was more concentrated on asserting its interests in Italy rather than over the small German States[i]. Moreover, the Austrian concentration on Italian matters were, again, a result of Bismarck’s diplomacy after pushing Italy into a limited war against Austria as a strategic diversion. As a result, Prussia incorporated territories such as Schleswig Holstein, Hannover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau and Frankfurt, while Italy in turn received Venetia[ii].

The second milestone was the Prussian-French War which led to the definitive rise of Germany and which, in turn, increased the tensions between Prussia and France following the annexation of the aforementioned territories. As Kennedy (2004) remarks, it was the fight for supremacy in the West. This war in particular saw the defeat of France as a result of its overconfidence in its military strength and a misled belief in a possible Austrian and Italian intervention in its favour, as well as in its increased naval power. But yet again, Bismarck’s diplomacy in rallying allies among the same German states while securing the promise of no intervention from other great powers played in favour of Prussia and against France.

The other factor behind the Prussian victory was the military preparedness of Prussia which marked the country as one of the first to begin a military revolution and take advantage of the new technologies brought by the industrial revolution[iii]. That same preparedness would be feared and be a cause of concern primarily for France, and later on for the British Empire, in the years prior to the war. Along with that preparedness came the fact that Prussia was economically strong and thus able to sustain a powerful army, and its population had a generally high level of education and preparation in comparison to other nations (Kennedy, 2004).

This means that despite the efforts of the previous Kanzler to maintain the status quo along with Austria and Russia, the matter of the German Unification and the fact that Prussia was strong (despite being the less important of the Great Powers after the Napoleonic Wars), such status quo was doomed to be altered by a rise that now seems imminent but was unexpected at that time.

An altered equilibrium

Does this mean then that the rise of Prussia and the unification of Germany are the ultimate cause for the outbreak of the First World War 42 years later? The answer might be obvious for some but in reality it isn’t. Simply because, as it was stated in the first part of this series, the same multipolar structure of the international system and the eagerness to preserve the equilibrium after the Napoleonic Wars paved, if not shaped, the long path towards the tragedy of 1914 – 1918 and each and every Great Power, by its action, ingenuity or even inaction and the lack of the study of the American Civil War, shares its part of the blame[iv].

Indeed, the rise of Prussia/Germany caused a great trauma to the equilibrium of power and left the French without the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, paying war compensations to the Germans (the idea was to leave France weakened) and with a thirst for a revenge[v]. Russia was also concerned and resented witnessing the rise of a stronger Germany instead of the weak and always keen to cooperate Prussia, but it approached Germany to obtain support for its interests in Central Asia and the Balkans regardless. Meanwhile Italy – also recently unified – closed ties with Germany as well as Austria (Kennedy, 2004).

In turn Italy, with its own emergence, concerned the French sparking a strong rivalry between the two for the control of the Mediterranean Sea.

The British Empire expressed little concern on the German Unification and rise until the 1890’s while facing a naval race and a colonial contest mainly with France and facing some clashes with Russia in Central Asia. Germany in turn, found itself being an even stronger power with considerable influence backed by an industrial and economic strength and by being the center of diplomacy in Europe. But that same strength was creating concerns for others and challenges for the new Great Power itself; challenges that needed to be tackled (Kennedy, 2004).

However, Germany was not alone in affecting the equilibrium of Europe. It was Austria that really helped further accelerate the path towards the Great War. After its catastrophic wars with Germany and Italy and after losing territories in the latter, the Empire focused more on the Balkans by annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina, infuriating both Russia and the Ottoman Empire. It was Russia, the strongest contender and the main cause of concern for Vienna, who came closest to provoking a war in 1879 until Bismarck came to the rescue. Ultimately, despite the avoidance of war, the annexation simply increased the internal problems that Austria had been already facing for many years (Segesser, 2013)

Bismarck: Realpolitik and Gleichgewicht.

Bismarck was conscious of the impact that the victory in the German War and the subsequent Unification and rise of Germany and the concerns it raised. In response, he decided to set up diplomatic and strategic schemes in order to decrease the impact on the international system, keep the peace and even keep the new equilibrium, while promising that Germany would not make further expansions and keeping the decadent yet useful Austria alive, and also avoiding a war in 1875 against France and aiding conflict resolution in the Balkans that would have sparked another war (Kennedy, 2004)[vi]. But Bismarck also intended on keeping the newly political position of Germany intact. To prevent a French revenge war, he created diplomatic and strategic schemes that were essentially a set of alliances, such as the Triple Alliance (Germany, Italy and Austria) in order to neutralize Austria and France should the latter seek support from Italy or Austria (Kennedy, 2004).

The League of the Three Emperors (Germany, Austria and Prussia) was also created and in turn, by 1879 a secret defensive alliance between Austria and Germany against Russia was created, along with a treaty of reinsurance with the latter in order to ensure its neutrality in case Russia or Prussia were at war with a third party (Kennedy, 2004; Morgenthau 2006). Besides securing Germany and its new position, German foreign policy had another aim and tool which was the intended isolation of France so the latter could not find a potential ally to wage a revenge war against Germany (Segesser, 2013)

As a result, Germany, through these alliances, not only secured itself against France and its own position within the international system, but also persuaded Russia and Austria away from supporting France and succeeded in being perceived as a country that promoted peace to such extent that during the Anglo-Russian clashes, German neutrality was useful for Bismarck to drive attention away from German and French clashes.

The main countermeasures made by France were an investment of capital in Russia and making some efforts to modernise the Russian army and also investment in Italy in order to take away from German influence (Kennedy, 2004). This counter diplomacy contributed to the acceleration of the pace towards the Great War simply by shaping a later coalition against Germany, an objective aided by the clumsy policies adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II after Bismarck’s dismissal which ended the isolation of France allowing it to find powers like the British Empire a useful ally to fight against Germany.

The Colonialism

The decade of the 1880’s also saw a spark of colonisation primarily in Africa leading to competitions and races, not to mention clashes, between France and the British Empire in which the Suez Canal was the main object of disputes, along with Egypt, West Africa and Congo. This went along with a naval race while France was having tensions with Italy and while it was also preparing for a revenge on Germany (a fruitless effort at the time). This colonial contest and naval race was frightening the British Empire as it was not only affecting its strategic strength but was also creating a general atmosphere of a potential conflict between England and France, and perhaps repeating the same set of alliances and belligerents of previous wars waged by each Great Power (Kennedy, 2004).

In the short term this situation was countered by the Berlin Conference of 1884 – 85 in which Germany played again as the great balancer by contributing to the definition of the African colonial borders, trade and navigation and was helped by Germany’s apparent lack of interest for its own Colonies, despite actually creating some (Kennedy, 2004). The problem with the African issue in the long term is that later on Germany was not satisfied with the division and unleashed its own challenge to the order – and the British Royal Navy – after 1890, the next and last stage of study. Italy would do the same even after the First World War. Still, and paradoxically, a conference that was intended to be a mechanism to solve disputes and set a new status quo on Africa was later used by a less brilliant late German government as an alibi to contest the division over the continent.

The lessons (?) of the Prussian – French War

This par might sound positive but it wasn’t at all, simply because every European army, following the defeat of France by Prussia, wanted to structure its military actions for the future with victories a la Prusse: the use of railroads for deployment and supply; a large scale mobilization of troops; and the implementation of their own General Staff preparing fast and short-term operations (or wars) to be executed by troops equipped with fast-shot rifles and with those troops coming from massive and short service-based armies. This in the hope of gaining a victory within a few weeks.

The problems here are twofold. First, that the dynamics of the American Civil War were not studied despite the fact that many of the previously named elements were already present and secondly that there was little understanding of the new weaponry’s nature, which would help the troops that were more of a defensive rather than an offensive attitude (Kennedy, 2004).

If that explanation is not evident enough just remember that 100 years ago, when the declaration of war began to cascade, all of the General and Staffs believed that a short victory could be achieved in few weeks by troops with fast-shot rifles in their hand or at least by Christmas. Moreover, all of the plans made in the final stage (1890 – 1914), had that assumption as their core or to put it in other words, a victory a la Prusse was the soul of every plan and the undeclared objective of all of the armies. But the First World War would teach a terrible lesson with the lives of many soldiers that had expected to be back home and victorious by Christmas of 1914, but would instead find death by the hand of those new weapons that favoured defence more than the offence with the trenches being their mortal sister. At some point, then, the victory of Prussia/Germany in 1870 not only altered the international equilibrium and opened the way for a crisis just waiting to explode, but also set an unfortunate mindset in every army as a consequence of its brilliance and impact.


Austria was the most affected by the German rise aside from France. It won a new ally by securing an alliance with Germany after it sought for German assistance in the event that it were attacked by Serbia as a result of its ethnic problems thus shaping one side of War that by now was almost an inevitability. However, despite this alliance, Austria was the least important power and suffered the sad fate of being important only because of its position on the map, acting as a counterweight of convenience.

Elsewhere, Japan was under the Meiji restoration and despite being on the rise was yet to play a significant part during this period and focused instead on asserting its domestic interests. Similarly, the United States was simply increasing its economic power, while Russia was witnessing a gradual worsening of its inner problems (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013).

Towards the last stage (1890 – 1914)

It is clear that the efforts made by Bismarck to secure an equilibrium were initially fruitful but they were not able to counter the French desire for revenge and to some extent paved the way towards a war. His diplomacy granted the equilibrium and contributed to the change in the international structure by unifying Germany as well as to decrease the impact of such an event. But that style of diplomacy and the institutions or alliances that he created were useful and harmless in skilled hands such as his. The war he fought in France marked a brilliant milestone but had the unintended and unfortunate effect of reshaping the military mindset of the Generals of practically every army. The problem is that a successful strategy can be used, at most, twice – something that by 1914 not every commander fully understood and as a result, many would pay with their lives, especially when the weapons used in 1870 weren’t that much akin to those of 1914. It simply stimulated an unrealistic strategic approach.

Overall, Germany with Bismarck at the head, was able to keep the equilibrium and maintained the peace for a good amount of time until 1890 when he was dismissed by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The mechanisms and policies implemented by him then fell into less skilled hands and that dismissal, rather than Bismarck’s policies of the German preparedness for 1870 war, are an important factor to explain what really sparked the Great War. The fact that Austria also decided to intervene in the Balkans as a way to compensate for the defeat with Prussia simply worsened the overall situation and created a condition that in the long run was impossible to tackle for less prepared decision makers (Wilhelm II, for instance), regarding German Foreign Policy. Last but not least, France was preparing for a revenge on Prussia and to recover Alsace and Lorraine. As a result it also shares a large part of the responsibility due to this political obsession.

If a sentence of Otto von Bismarck could sum-up the times to come after his dismissal, it is certainly this: “Jena came twenty years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this”. And the crash came in a very tragic way, a crash that not only caused a certain crown to be lost, but shattered the lives of many and irreversibly changed the course of world history, politics and the future of warfare.


Encyclopaedia Britannica (2014). Seven Week’s War. Retrieved from on 26.07.2014

Kennedy, P. (2004). Auge y caida de las grandes potencias [The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers, Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Mondadori (Original work published in 1987)

Morgenthau, J. A (2006). Politics Among Nations. The Struggle for Power and Peace (Revised by Thompson K. W, & Clinton D. W. 7th Edition). New York: McGraw Hill.

Segesser, D. M (2013). Der Erste Weltkrieg in globaler Perspektive. Stuttgart, Deutschland: Marixverlag.

[i] It also helped the Prussian cause the fact that Russia was very weak and still recovering from its defeat in Crimea. Great Britain was also not so interested in interfering on continental issues, precisely as a consequence of the aforementioned war and its own policy of not interfering.

[ii] See: Encyclopaedia Britannica (2014). Seven Week’s War. Retrieved from on 26.07.2014

[iii] Kennedy (2004) denominated such preparedness as a “Military Revolution” that implied an investment not only in equipment but also in the quality of the army, by introducing a short service time and reserve, increasing (and taking advantage of) the high level of education among troops and officers and by introducing the General Staff system, which in turn, made the operation plans prior any contemplated conflict, introduced the implementation of manoeuvres, the study of the military history, the supervision of the railroad for the sake of a fast an effective deployment of troops and supplies, the operational independence of the units and the stimulation for initiative and the openness for self-learning.

[iv] And that is why it is important to look, with a more historic and retrospective maturity, the causes for the First World War in a longer term and assessing the factors that appeared in the three proposed periods of study and their responsibility that each Great Power had for the First World War.

[v] That thirst set the course of most of the French foreign policy for the rest of the century until the Great War, and such attitudes explain not only the patriotism during the war but also the French insistence on a high and strong punishment for Germany in 1919. See also: Segesser, 2013, pp. 29 – 30.

[vi] This mediation led to a compromise for Russia to be respected. This unleashed nationalism in Russia that was resentful against Germany due to that same compromise forged by Berlin. The conflict in question is the Russo – Turkish War of 1877 – 1878.

*Cover image ‘17th Battery C.F.A. firing a German 4.2 on the retreating Boche. Photograph taken during Battle of Vimy Ridge’ by Library and Archives Canada


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