World History 2 168 - 11.1.1 The Long Peace

The decades before the world erupted into the Great War, as World War I was known, were generally marked by great stability. The work done in 1815 to create a balance of power among European nations in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars had been quite successful. The Concert of Europe—an informal agreement to maintain the status quo—had been able to absorb some internal conflicts and the growth of more liberal political thoughts without incurring political or territorial instability. There were occasionally military conflicts, but these were usually of short duration and limited in scale.

Prussia, however, with its militarized culture, clearly did still see warfare as a means of achieving its own ends, as did other nations such as France. Austria-Hungary and Prussia went to war in 1866. The conflict lasted only about seven weeks and was handily won by Prussia, which had invested in better military technology and weaponry and now annexed several German states. Austria was effectively barred from participating in German affairs from that point forward, and Prussia became the dominant German state. The war also forced Austria into accepting the dual monarchy system, an unwieldy alliance with Hungary. Austria agreed because it needed allies after being ousted from German affairs, but it and Hungary had separate national governments and parliaments (and different goals) despite being part of the same empire.

The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and 1871 was another fairly brief conflict that resulted in major change. France declared war against Prussia after a dispute over who would inherit the Spanish throne. The fighting lasted only a few months, but Paris was besieged by the Prussian army, and Napoléon III was captured. The treaty that ended the conflict forced France to pay a large war indemnity to Prussia. France also had to pay for the occupation forces, while losing the territories of Alsace and Lorraine (which changed hands again several times during the first half of the twentieth century). This was a humiliating defeat for France, though it paved the way for the unification of the German Empire. The signing of the treaty in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles cemented Prussia’s leadership of the new empire and its successful achievement of what had been left undone by the revolutions of 1848: Germany automatically emerged as a major power in Europe.

The fighting in these wars was localized, and because they were short, the conflicts did not require the mobilization of a country’s economy or full resources. They did not involve numerous countries either, and the fighting rarely spilled over into other nations’ lands. With the exception of the Franco-Prussian War, their impact on civilian society was minimal, with little loss of civilian life or destruction of property. In a sense, their very nature lulled much of Europe into expecting that although there might be future wars, they would be swift and small affairs.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax