From Waterloo to the Marne: The Road to World War I

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The battlefields of Waterloo and the Marne are separated by a physical distance of approximately 180 miles and by a time span of roughly a century. They mark the defeat of two successive attempts for the mastery of Europe -- the first by Napoleon and the second by Kaiser Wilhelm. They frame an era of unprecedented peace, more or less, and economic prosperity on the European continent -- a peace and prosperity that would be shattered by the onset of World War I.

In the summer of 1815, on the field of Waterloo, in what is now Belgium, a French army under the command of the former Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was decisively defeated. The victors were a pan-European force under the overall command of British Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, supported by Prussian troops under Marshall Gebhard von Blücher. The defeat ended once and for all Napoleon's ambitions for mastery of Europe.

The peace that followed the Congress of Vienna, the Pax Britannica or the British peace, did not end war on the European continent, but it did bring a measure of stability. By creating a system of checks and balances, backed with Great Britain's money and the powerful Royal Navy, while ostensibly remaining neutral, London ensured that no single European power would emerge to dominate the continent and risk another all-out war.

Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, summed up Great Britain's European policy as, "We have no permanent allies. We have no permanent enemies. We have only permanent interests." Preventing the emergence of a dominant European power was at the core of those permanent interests. For just more than a century, Europe was spared the destructive, continent-wide wars that had dominated its politics for almost three centuries previously. The ambitions of would-be conquerors, from Philip II of Spain, to France's Sun King, Louis XIV and finally Napoleon Bonaparte, had been checked for good. Or so it seemed.

The Rise of Prussia

Prussia, a small German principality on the periphery of Western Europe, was an unlikely candidate to aspire to the mastery of Europe. Located on the north German plain, it was poor, predominantly agricultural, with few natural defenses. To the west and south were a bevy of small German duchies. It was vulnerable, however, to its larger neighbors. There were two formidable powers, Poland to the east and Sweden to the north. Beginning in the 18th century, Frederick William I, and then his son, Frederick II, began transforming their Prussian kingdom into a major military power.

The ambitions and actions of one man, Otto von Bismarck, would transform Prussia into a German empire stretching from the Rhine in the west to the Oder in the east, and from the Baltic to the foothills of the Alps. As prime minister of Prussia, and later as the chancellor of the German Empire, von Bismarck figured large in European politics from the 1860s until his dismissal by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890. It was von Bismarck who, by intrigue and warfare, succeeded in creating an empire out of a loose collection of confederated German states.

His first step in 1866 was to reduce Austria's influence as the most important Germanic state by drawing it into a war over disputed territory in the duchy of Holstein. The seven-week war was fought between the Austrian Empire and its allies in the German Confederation and the Kingdom of Prussia and its German allies. Italy was also allied with Prussia. Italian troops attacked Austria and took control of Venice and the province of Venetia.

After some initial setbacks, the Prussian military quickly established its dominance on the battlefield. The result was a shift in power among the German states away from Austria and toward Prussia. The German Confederation was abolished and replaced by the North German Confederation. The latter excluded Austria and the south German states, and was dominated by Prussia. Austria also ceded Schleswig, Holstein, Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt to Prussia.

Next, von Bismarck turned his attention to the south with the aim of uniting the remaining German states under Prussia. To facilitate this, he engineered a war with France -- the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A dispute had arisen between France and Germany over the succession to the Spanish throne. A German prince, a member of the Catholic wing of the Hohenzollern dynasty, had been offered the position.

French emperor Napoleon III, already concerned by the growth of German power and influence, feared encirclement between a rising Prussia and a German-influenced Spain. He had objected to the German Prince Leopold and had instructed his ambassador to Prussia to obtain a promise from King Wilhelm I that Prussia would never again support the nomination of a Hohenzollern prince to the Spanish throne. Von Bismarck arranged for the release of a transcript of the conversation between King Wilhelm I of Prussia and the French ambassador. Von Bismarck's carefully edited version, the "Ems Telegram," gave the impression that the two men had insulted each other and caused an uproar in Paris and Berlin.

Napoleon III, pressured by the French press and public opinion, seized upon the telegram as an insult to the French ambassador and his government, and promptly declared war. Forced to choose between France and Prussia, the south German states rallied to Prussia. German military forces proved superior in the field. A series of swift Prussian victories in eastern France culminated in the Battle of Sedan on Sept. 1, during which a large portion of the 120,000 strong French Army of Chalons, along with the French Emperor Napoleon III, were captured. Fighting continued for five more months, culminating in the siege and subsequent fall of Paris on Jan. 28, 1871. 

Hostilities were brought to a close with the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871. France agreed to pay reparations of five billion francs, gave Germany the city of Strasbourg and the fortifications of Metz, and relinquished control of the province of Alsace and the northern portion of Lorraine, Moselle.

Alsace was home to a majority of ethnic Germans and had been part of the Holy Roman Empire until seized by Louis XIV. Lorraine, however, was predominantly French. For Germany, it was simply taking back a region that was historically a rightful part of the German-speaking world. For the French, "to the injury of Alsace was added the insult of Lorraine."

The "lost provinces" of Alsace-Lorraine became a source of resentment that would poison French-German relations for the next three-quarters of a century, and it would become one of the contributing factors leading to World War I. Significantly, von Bismarck had opposed the annexations, but had finally conceded the point in the face of overwhelming German support for their seizure.

With the south German states now solidly in Prussia's orbit, von Bismarck, on Jan. 18, 1871, at the Palace of Versailles just outside Paris, had orchestrated the proclamation of the new German Empire, the Deutsches Kaiserreich. The Reich would be led by the now-Emperor Wilhelm Fredrick, with Berlin as its capital.

He had brought into being a new European superpower. The German Empire had the largest population of any European state, was the most industrialized and boasted an economic output that would soon overtake even that of Great Britain. Having unified Germany, von Bismarck now needed to ensure its stability. This he intended to do by building alliances with key European powers and forestalling the creation of any alliances that might conceivably threaten the German Empire. The "Bismarckian System" that he created proved instrumental in preventing the rise of anti-German alliance for almost a quarter century. Its ultimate collapse would lead to the formation of the pan-European alliances that would eventually precipitate World War I.

The Collapse of the Bismarckian System: Alternative Alliances and WWI

Von Bismarck is said to have once observed that, "German foreign and military policy was hostage to its geography." Lying astride the heart of the continent, the rise of German military power could simultaneously threaten virtually all of Europe. Bismarck's principal aim was to guarantee that the rise of Germany would not precipitate an anti-German alliance by its neighbors. Above all else, he wanted to ensure that Germany would not find itself in a position where it would have to fight a war on two fronts concurrently.

The Bismarckian international system that he implemented had three principal objectives: maintain friendly relations with Great Britain to ensure continued British neutrality, isolate France and seek an alliance with the conservative monarchies of Austria-Hungary and Russia.

While aware of the danger of French ambitions to retake Alsace and Lorraine, Bismarck realized that France alone could not stand up to German military power. The possibility of any kind of French-British alliance, while possible, seemed remote. Britain was continuing to pursue a policy of non-involvement in European politics. Moreover, France, its historic enemy, remained a potent rival in the race to colonize Asia and Africa.

In 1873, Bismarck turned his attention to Russia and Austria, creating the League of the Three Emperors. The League was designed to bring the conservative monarchies of Austria-Hungary, under Emperor Franz Joseph I, and Russia, under Tsar Alexander II, into alignment with Prussia. Each party was obliged to come to the others' aid in time of war. In this way, Bismarck intended to maintain the balance of power within Europe and ensure that no anti-German alliance would be formed. The Three Emperors League had an inherent weakness, however. Austrian and Russian interests were increasingly at odds in the Balkans.

Ultimately, Germany would have to choose between an alliance with Austria-Hungary and an alliance with Russia. Wilhelm Fredrick I and Alexander II had both favored a German-Russian alliance. This was not without precedence. A similar alliance had existed between Catherine II (the Great) of Russia and Fredrick II of Prussia.

Their mutual animosities notwithstanding, the two had signed a defensive alliance in 1764, and had collaborated in the successive partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth that began in 1772. A similar alliance would be made between Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin in 1939. Bismarck, however, was determined to unite the German-speaking people under Prussian leadership, and insisted on Austria-Hungary as Germany's main alliance partner. He threatened to step down as chancellor if he did not get his way. 

There was nothing inevitable about the alliance structure that would ultimately coalesce in the period from 1890 to 1910. A German-Russian alliance had always been a distinct possibility. Indeed, were it not for Bismarck's opposition, it might well have come about. Such an alliance would have left Austria and France as the two "isolated" parties.

Having both been victims of Prussian aggression, the two countries would have been natural allies. Moreover, their foreign policies were highly compatible. France had little interest in the Balkans, and Austria-Hungary had little interest in overseas colonies. A Russian-German versus an Austrian-French alignment would have left Italy surrounded by two historic enemies and put it firmly in the German-Russian camp. Such an alignment would not only have been plausible, but it would also have been more consistent with historical precedent.

We can only speculate how an alternative alliance structure would have affected British and Turkish policy. One thing seems clear, however. Confronted by a German-Russian alliance that included its historic enemy, Russia, it's likely that the Ottomans would have looked to Britain and France, as they had in the Crimean War, for support in resisting Russian aggression. Great Britain, rather than being the main antagonist of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, might instead have emerged as its primary defender. We cannot even begin to imagine how the Middle East would be different today if the Ottoman Empire had survived World War I or how that empire might have subsequently evolved.   

Angered by what it perceived as a lack of German diplomatic support for its gains from the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, Russia abandoned the pact in 1879. Bismarck tried again, creating a formal Three Emperors Alliance. The alliance was concluded in 1881, for a term of three years, and was renewed in 1884, but it lapsed in 1887. Bismarck then proposed a "reinsurance treaty" with Russia under which Germany and Russia both agreed to observe neutrality should either party be involved in a war with a third country. The fact that Russia and Germany had moved from mutually supporting each other in the event that one of them found itself at war to being neutral underscores the steady divergence in Russian-German relations over this period.

The three-year treaty remained in force until 1890. The Russians asked for a renewal, but by then, Bismarck had been dismissed and his successor, Leo von Caprivi, was unsupportive. Moreover, the German Foreign Office had concluded that the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia was incompatible with the aims of the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria.

Even though Bismarck had insisted on an alliance with Austria, he had repeatedly sought a diplomatic accommodation with Russia to forestall any kind of French-Russian alliance. Such an alliance seemed a remote possibility. Republican, revolutionary France seemed to have little in common with conservative, backward Russia. But driven by what they both perceived as an increasingly belligerent Germany, the two countries increasingly found common ground. The rapprochement was rapid.

In 1891, barely a year after the collapse of the Russian-German reinsurance treaty, a contingent of the French naval fleet visited the Russian naval base at Kronstadt and was warmly welcomed by Tsar Alexander II. On their arrival, a Russian military band playing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, serenaded the French fleet. This was the first time that the song had been performed in public in Russia. Up until then, its performance had been a crime, punishable by imprisonment. Two years later, the Russian fleet reciprocated with a visit to the French naval base at Toulon.

The two countries agreed on a military convention in August 1892, signed by the chiefs of the respective Army general staffs, pledging that if either was attacked by Germany, or by one of Germany's allies supported by Germany, the other would immediately attack Germany. The agreement further stipulated that in the event of war, France was obligated to mobilize at least 1.3 million troops and Russia 700,000 to 800,000. After extensive negotiations, this Franco-Russian alliance was formally accepted in both countries on Jan. 4, 1894. The new alliance made all things Russian the height of fashion in Paris. From the Ballets Russe to vodka and caviar, Russian culture was greeted with open arms by Russia's new French allies.

In 1898, Germany enacted the first, of what would eventually be four, Fleet Acts as part of a deliberate policy of challenging British naval supremacy. The German action came at a time when London was acutely aware of a sense of imperial over-reach. Great Britain remained a powerful country capable of meeting the challenge of any of its adversaries, but increasingly it was clear that it would be hard-pressed to meet the challenge of multiple adversaries simultaneously.

Faced with a direct threat to its naval supremacy, the Admiralty developed and launched the Dreadnought class of battleships. Named after the first ship launched in the class (1906), the Dreadnought design offered two revolutionary innovations: an "all big gun" armament configuration with an unprecedented number of heavy caliber guns and a steam turbine propulsion system. Subsequent innovation saw the power plant converted from coal to fuel oil, increasing both speed and cruising range. These super battleships, by the standards of the early 20th century, instantly made all previous pre-Dreadnought battle ships obsolete, towering over them in both speed and firepower.

Confronted by what it perceived as a direct and growing threat from Germany, Great Britain slowly abandoned its historical neutrality and began to look for allies to contain German ambitions. The search brought an unlikely set of allies, from an accommodation with the United States to an alliance with Italy in the Mediterranean and Japan in East Asia. Two additional allies, in particular, would, historically, have been highly unlikely ones.

France had been Great Britain's historic nemesis. Between 1066 and 1815, the two countries had found themselves at war more than 50 times. Even after Waterloo, it remained a formidable competitor to Great Britain for power and influence around the world, and it had emerged as a strong rival in the race to colonize Africa and Asia. As late as 1898, the two countries had almost gone to war over the Fashoda incident in the Sudan. But now, British attitudes toward its historic rival began to change. In 1904, London and Paris signed a series of agreements called the Entente Cordials. The agreements marked the formal end of Britain policy of neutrality in European affairs.

There was still one more unlikely reconciliation required to form the alliance. For decades, Russia and Great Britain had engaged in "The Great Game" for power and influence across central and East Asia. Russia's steady expansion to the east had often brought it into conflict with British interests in Persia and the Indian subcontinent. By 1907, however, the tensions and rivalries of "The Great Game" had been set aside for a newer and more acute concern, containing German ambitions. That year, Great Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian convention.

Bismarck's carefully constructed foreign policy was in ruins. One by one, the core principles of the Bismarckian system had collapsed: Britain had abandoned its historic neutrality to join an anti-German alliance and had reconciled with Russia, its great power rival in Asia. France had ended its isolation by reconciling with its historic nemesis, Great Britain, and had successfully forged a military alliance with Russia. Germany now faced the one scenario that Bismarck had worked so tirelessly to avoid -- powerful enemies joined together in mutual support on both its eastern and western borders. That alliance would ultimately shape both the character and scope of the war and its principal battlefields.

Joseph V. Micallef is a military historian, bestselling author, keynote speaker, syndicated columnist and commentator on international politics and the future.

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