Background to the War Nobody Won: World War I, 1914-1918

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A Century of Peace in Europe, 1815-1914

The massive casualties of the Napoleonic Wars that ended in 1815 finally taught the warlike Europeans to hate war. The "balance of power" designed by the diplomats at the Congress of Vienna (1815) helped to curtail Europe's historic tendency to settle national differences via bloody conflicts. Except for limited regional wars such as the Crimean War between Russia and Britain (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Europeans enjoyed nearly a century of relative peace and stability before the "Great War" erupted in late summer 1914.

The Rise of Modern Germany Upsets the Balance of Power

Before 1871 Germany was actually a loose confederation of independent kingdoms known collectively as the Holy Roman Empire. The largest of these kingdoms, Prussia, increasingly dominated the other German states; the Prussian king's chief minister, Otto von Bismarck, put together a plan to weld the German-speaking kingdoms together into a modern nation-state under the rule of Prussia.

He accomplished this at the successful conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War with his fellow German princes hailing the Prussian King Wilhelm as their new "Kaiser" (Emperor), Wilhelm I of the German Empire. The heavily industrialized new Germany soon possessed the most powerful economy in Europe and sought a military to match. The diplomats of 1815 had not figured a united Germany into the balance of power. For better or worse, the arrival of Germany as a world power almost over night upset the traditional alignments within Europe.

Early Twentieth Century Major European Powers

(Map From PBS site "The Great War")

The Alliance System: From the Three Emperors' League (1881)

to the Triple Entente (1908)

After the Franco-Prussian War both France and Germany sought to outmaneuver each other diplomatically. Under Bismarck's direction, Germany's foreign policy focused on keeping France isolated and vulnerable.