The Balance of Power in Europe (1871-1914)
This summary and commentary is almost identical to a section in the World War I SparkNote. It is included here as a necessary element in the history of Europe from 1871 to 1914; it is included in the World War I SparkNote as a prelude to the eruption of World War I by painting the picture of Europe before war. Try to link the history we have discussed in this SparkNote with the buildup of tensions leading to World War I. If you can do that, you have mastered one important element of historical study--the identification of patterns and links in all historical events.
As the imperial game raged throughout the world, the map of Europe was changing as well. From 1815-1870, in the aftermath of Napoleon's near domination of Europe, the European power developed a system of military and political balance. The aptly-named balance of power in Europe was a system that aimed to maintain international order and peace by following any increase in strength of one nation-state with an increase in strength of his geographic or political enemy. By upholding this precarious system, the argument continued, no country would be willing to embark on a course of military expansion for fear of reprisal by an equally powerful force. The years 1870 and 1871 marked the consolidation of Italy and Germany, respectively, into viable and strong nation-states in the heart of Europe, changing the structure of the balance of power.
With the creation of Germany in 1871, the old balance of power involving France, a rump Brandenburg-Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia was replaced by a new system. Under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Germany forged ahead in 1873 by joining the two most conservative powers in Europe--Austria-Hungary and Russia-to form the Three Emperors' League. The three empires pledged to consult one another on mutual interests in Europe and to remain neutral when any one member state took military action against a non- member, particularly France or the Balkan nations.
This balance of power program is best illustrated in Europe's relations with the so-called "sick man of Europe", or the Ottoman Empire. At its height, the Ottomans controlled the Middle East, parts of northern Africa, and territories as far north as Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since the Ottomans held dominion over the Balkans, most of Europe preferred to maintain the Ottoman Empire, no matter how weak, in order to prevent any one European state from imposing its own dominion over the Balkan peninsula. By keeping Constantinople intact, the balance of power in Europe proper could be maintained. However, it was the volatile Balkan Peninsula that threatened the very foundation of the European balance of power.
The logic behind a system of power balance dates back to Europe's reaction to the near complete domination of Europe by Napoleon's France. (The following explains its origins and seeks to address the validity of the logic, but digresses from the strong focus on World War I.) In September 1814, the great powers of Europe--then, Russia, Prussia, Austria, France, and Great Britain--met at the Congress of Vienna to redraw the map of Europe after Napoleon's defeat. The main goal: to prevent another instance of French aggression. To accomplish their goal, Austrian Foreign Minister Prince Klemens von Metternich and British Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh probably developed the theory of balance of power. The manifestation of this theory was the strengthening of all of France's neighbors in an attempt to plug up a previously porous border.
The Congress united the Austrian Netherlands and the Dutch Republic in the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Great Britain gave William I, the Netherland's new king, £2 million to fortify his frontier with France. The Italian province of Piedmont--bordering Switzerland and France--was joined with Sardinia into the Kingdom of Sardinia under a new monarchy to contain France to the southeast. The bourbon royal family was re-established in Spain to secure France's southern border, and Prussia was given control over the left bank of the River Rhine, containing France on the east.
The logic was quite simple: if the countries around France are strong enough, their strength will balance out the potential military might of Paris and prevent further French aggression. This doctrine held sway for almost a century. Yet it eventually collapsed into World War One for three main reasons.
1. With all of Europe united against France, the creation of a balance against one enemy was quite simple; however, as time passed and French aggression seemed less and less likely, a more complex Europe emerged in place of the simple All versus France.
2. The consolidation of Germany and Italy as strong nation-states upset the balance completely. With new players in the game of European geopolitics, the old logic did not hold: though Europe failed to react.
3. The advancement of technology in warfare changed the criteria of power. Whereas in Napoleonic times population and infantry forces made a great power, the dawn of the twentieth century saw the increased importance of battleships, submarines, troop mobility via trains, et cetera, that could not be balanced by the fortification of a neighbor, but rather only by a dangerous arms race.