YPRES/BELGIUM - Besides keeping our public up-to-date about everything conceirning the First World War centenary in Belgium, we are publishing a series of blog posts giving some background to one of history's darkest events that later became known as The Great War.
This article is part two of a detailed and historical sketch of the delicate political situation of Europe before the first World War. Part one, "The Unimaginable Events Draw Nearer" was published last week.
For the best part of a thousand years, since the time of Charlemagne the Great, most of Central Europe had been part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Emperor was often called the “Emperor of the Germanies” and the Empire itself became known as “The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”.
There were about 500 states in all and although there were a few large ones such as Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden and Prussia, there were dozens that were little more than a modest town and some surrounding countryside.
Although part of the Holy Roman Empire, these states were all very independent and given the nature of the often very mountainous landscape.
Over a period of hundreds of years these isolated peoples had developed their own cultural, educational, linguistic and religious characters. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who was responsible for the end of the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon was determined to re-organise the political makeup of Central Europe and one of his acts was to form the Confederation of the Rhine, where a number of German states were forced to submit to French influence.
As a result the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated in 1806 during the War of the Third Coalition. Following "the defeat of Napoleon" in 1815, the German states became independent again, with their individual leaders and Princes endeavouring to re-establish their authority.
The Congress of Vienna had endorsed Austria as being dominant in Europe, but no account was taken of Prussia’s growing strength and influence among the German states.
It also failed to foresee the possibility that one day Prussia might rise up and challenge the might of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Iron Chancellor
In 1818 Prussia established a customs union which was gradually expanded to include other states within the loose German Confederation. This, together with the development of transport links, increased trade and contact between states. As Prussian industry began to develop, its influence and wealth increased, but it was not until the 1860s when Otto von Bismarck came on the scene that Prussian power and expansionism really began to express itself.
Bismarck was a Prussian aristocrat who was Minister President from 1862 until he was sacked by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890. During this period he united the smaller German states behind Prussia and made Prussia dominant over Austria and France.
He was fiercely loyal to his king and although his new Germany had universal male suffrage, Bismarck distrusted democracy and ruled through a strong well-trained bureaucracy with power in the hands of the Prussian aristocracy. It was understandable that he acquired the name of “Iron Chancellor”.
The Austrian exclusion
In 1863 following the death of the King of Denmark there was a dispute over who should rule the Danish duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. There were both largely German speaking and both the King of Denmark and a German duke laid claim to them. The outcome was that Prussia and Austria invaded Denmark and following this, Prussia received Schleswig and Austria received Holstein.
Three years later Austria reneged on the agreement and Prussian troops were sent to occupy Holstein. Austria then called for the aid of other German states and this resulted in the Austro-Prussian War, often known as the Seven Weeks War.
To the surprise of most of Europe the Austrians were defeated. The King and his generals wanted the Prussian army to continue onward and take Vienna, but Bismarck advised them not to push their luck.
The outcome was that Austria was henceforth excluded from German politics, the German Confederation was dissolved and Prussia annexed Schleswig, Holstein, Frankfurt, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel and Nassau. The following year a number of other states joined the newly formed North German Confederation.
A concerned neighbour
The country that had been most worried by Prussia’s victory was France. France was being ruled by Napoleon III, nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bismarck realised that if he could provoke France into declaring war on Prussia, this could have the effect of persuading the South German states to join in on Prussia’s side, bringing complete unification one step nearer.
Bismarck published what became known as the Ems Dispatch. This was a diplomatic telegram that had been carefully edited to make it full of implied insults to both France and Prussia. The outraged French declared war on 19th July 1870. This was a war that France firmly expected to win, but on 2nd September at the Battle of Sedan, Napoleon III and his whole army were captured and the Prussian army marched on Paris.
Paris eventually fell on 28th January 1871 after a long siege and the German states proclaimed their union as the German Empire, with Prussian king Wilhelm I as its first Emperor. At the Treaty of Frankfurt on 10th May, France was forced to add most of Alsace and some parts of Lorraine to German territory.
In less than ten years Bismarck had orchestrated the union of the German states. His Greater Germany grew into one of the most powerful nations in Europe. Although France was now a bitter enemy, Bismarck’s pragmatic foreign policy ensured that Germany was not involved in another war for more than 40 years.
However, following his dismissal by the Kaiser in 1890, Wilhelm II’s “New Course” set the country on a downward path that ultimately led to "The Great War".