After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Europe entered a period of relatively stable peace. Initiated at the Congress of Vienna, the conservative powers led by Metternich in Austria developed a European geopolitical system based on the maintenance of the status quo and designed to avoid war through a balance of powers that eliminated the threat of any one nation gaining extreme strength by ensuring the relative strength of that nation's adversaries. The balance of power held through 1870, with brief periods of revolt in 1830 and 1848 that sprang from class differences exacerbated and made obvious by the industrial revolution. The revolts of 1830 and 1848 were also generated by the clash of ideologies present through the mid-nineteenth century. While 1815-1848 is often (and not incorrectly) characterized as teetering between conservatism and liberalism, it also saw the rise and maturation of radicalism, romanticism, nationalism, and socialism. Though the 1830 and 1848 revolts were quickly suppressed by the conservative powers, they did demonstrate a general trend toward an increasingly active working class desirous of economic and political power. In 1870 and 1871 Italy and Germany became unified nations, with Germany in particular emerging as an immediate international force.
The years between 1871 and 1914 brought liberal progress in England, social welfare in Germany, imperial expansion throughout the world, the spread of European civilization, and economic strengthening of England, Germany, the United States, and Japan. Newspaper editors and cultural pundits referred to these years contemporaneously as the "dawn of a new era" in scientific development, peace, economic expansion, and cultural civilization. Without war or major conflict in sight, Europe set out to perfect its home and spread its perfection throughout the world. The order of the day was, quite simply, self- improvement, national improvement, and attainable perfection; the great successes of Europe during these years seemed to prove that such was possible. Unfortunately, certain paternalistic policies developed out of such a perspective. While we cannot apologize for brutal treatment of Africans and Asians during the imperial period, we can understand such practices as the manifestations of a European polity that thought it was implementing the true inheritance of its liberal heritage. Further, though no major war seemed to threaten, the forty years after 1871 erupted in World War I, a catastrophic war that tore through Europe with a brutality unanticipated by any of its combatants. Any study of the period between 1871 and 1914 must be made with an eye to 1914, and the massive, transformative war that year held.