German Empire Map

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Prussian armies poured across the border into France, intending to force battles of encirclement to take full advantage of their numerical superiority. A month and a half after hostilities began, the Prussians had trapped the French Army of the Rhine in Metz and had surrounded the French Army of Châlons at the Battle of Sedan, an action that ended with the surrender of the entire French army and the capture of Napoleon III himself [1]. These two encirclements decided the war in Prussia’s favour; no more French forces remained to resist the invasion. However, the war did not end immediately; in Paris the Third French Republic was declared on 4 September 1870 and resistance continued for five more months [2]. On 18 January 1871, while the Prussian army continued the Siege of Paris, German unification was at long last achieved. The North German Confederation and the hitherto independent South German states fused into the German Empire and the Prussian King Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles; Bismarck was made the first Chancellor of the German Empire [3].


Subsequently, the Treaty of Frankfurt, signed on 10 May 1871, brought an end to the Franco-Prussian War. Germany annexed the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and France paid a punishing war indemnity [4]. The Kingdom of Italy took advantage of France’s defeat to march into Rome, still part of the Papal States and under French protection. The Capture of Rome by the Italian army on 20 September 1871 represented the final step in the long road to Italian Unification; an independent Italy finally had its capital. Neutral observers were stunned by Prussia’s rapid victory; ever since the days of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia had traditionally been seen as a lesser power than France; this myth had now been dispelled [5]. A unified Imperial Germany became dominant in Europe, effectively ending the balance of power established by the Congress of Vienna fifty-six years previously [6]. The balance of power had been fatally disrupted; it would henceforth require a huge effort to maintain peace in Europe.

The Concert of Europe Closes

Once Bismarck had united Germany he devoted himself entirely to promoting peace, desperate to avoid a feared two-front war with France and Russia. In the years following the Franco-Prussian War, he managed to substantially reduce the threat of French revanchism by pursuing a policy that isolated France diplomatically while maintaining good relationships with the other European nations [7]. In 1873, he established the League of the Three Emperors with Austria-Hungary and Russia, a reincarnation of the Holy Alliance. However, the league was dissolved in 1878 due to heightened competition between Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans following the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War and the subsequent Congress of Berlin, during which the Great Powers had redrawn the map of the Balkans [8]. This left Germany and Austria-Hungary free to ally with one another against Russia; the two nations formed the Dual Alliance in 1879. Italy would join this alliance in 1882, creating the Triple Alliance. In 1881, the League of the Three Emperors was revived, but again it did not last long, breaking apart in 1887 for identical reasons. Bismarck reacted by negotiating the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia the same year, committing both nations to neutrality towards one another, unless Russia attacked Austria-Hungary. Despite the Iron Chancellor’s best efforts, the untenable balance of power meant strained German relations with France and Russia; his treaties could only slow an escalation of the situation. 


With Bismarck’s resignation, forced on him by Wilhelm II on 18 March 1890, all his peace-preserving diplomatic achievements were undone [9]. Wilhelm II’s bellicose foreign policies gradually united Britain, France and Russia in the Triple Entente against Germany. The Kaiser refused to renew Germany’s Reassurance Treaty with Russia, allowing the signature of the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1892 [10]. In 1904, partly in response to Germany’s expansion of its battle fleet, the United Kingdom signed the Entente cordiale with France [11]. Lastly, in 1907 the UK and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Entente, ending the rivalry of the Great Game. The immense development of German industry during the Technological Revolution could not compensate for the fact that Germany now faced the combined might of the UK, France and Russia with only the relatively weak allies of Austria-Hungary and Italy [12].

By 1914, the balance of power had shifted dramatically and the Concert of Europe was on the verge of collapse. The British and French Empires, while still massively influential, can no longer claim to possess dominance in Europe. Imperial Germany is now the foremost industrial and economic power on the continent. Crucially, the Kaiser’s military is also significantly stronger than of the other Great Powers. Having desperately attempted to redress this power discrepancy, Europe finds itself split between the nations of the Triple Alliance, composed of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and those of the Triple Entente, composed of the UK, France, and Russia. Alliances designed to promote peace have instead created a situation in which a declaration of war, by virtually any European nation, would drag the rest of the continent into conflict. Bismarck’s prediction, in 1898, that “Jena came twenty years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this” is set to become reality. The stage is set for the Great War.

Europe before WWI Map

for part 2, please see


[1] Mosse, The European Powers and the German Question 1848-71, 328.

[2] Ibid332.

[3] Ibid, 355.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 331.

[6] Ibid.

[7] W.N. Medlicott, Bismarck, Gladstone, and the Concert of Europe, 9.

[8] Ibid, 3.

[9] John Tenniel, “Dropping the Pilot,” Political cartoon, 1890, Germanhistorydocs.org (accessed October 23, 2012).

[10] William Dawson, The German Empire 1867-1914 and the Unity Movement (Hamden: Archon Books, 1966), 372.

[11] Ibid, 407.

[12] Ibid, 432.