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Peaceful war: was the 19th century a time of relative peace?

In Europe, the hundred years between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War were far less bloody than the periods that preceded and followed them. Richard J Evans examines why the 19th century was a time of relative peace

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Published: February 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm
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Warfare had been a way of life in Europe for centuries by the time the Napoleonic Wars came to an end in 1815. At times it was truly devastating in its impact. The Thirty Years’ War, from 1618 to 1648, is estimated directly or indirectly to have caused the death of anything up to a third of the entire population of Germany, for example, and in some areas such as Württemberg the proportion was even higher.


The 18th century saw repeated and often prolonged wars ranging from the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) through the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from 1792 to 1815, involving virtually every European state at one time or another.

By contrast, the century between the Congress of Vienna, which met in 1814, and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, witnessed only a small number of wars in Europe, and these were relatively limited in impact and duration and did not involve more than a handful of European states. Some of them indeed were bilateral conflicts: the Crimean War in 1853–56 between Britain, France, Turkey and Russia; the Wars of Italian Unification involving France, Austria and Piedmont-Sardinia; the Wars of German Unification in 1864 between Austria, Prussia and Denmark; Prussia’s clash with Austria in 1866, and a war between the German states and France (1870–71).

There were brief conflicts between Russia and the Ottoman empire in 1828–29 and 1877–78, but these contrasted with the seven wars between the two states that took place in the 18th century and up to 1815, lasting nearly a quarter of a century between them. Altogether, the death rate of men in battle from 1815 to 1914 was seven times less that of the bloody previous century.

How can we explain this startling contrast? Famously, the historian Paul W Schroeder, in his magnificent survey The Transformation of European Politics 17631848, published in 1994 as part of the Oxford History of Modern Europe, argued that it could largely be explained by the European states abandoning their traditional emphasis on the Balance of Power – according to which no single state should be allowed to become so strong that it dominated all the rest – and its replacement by a network of collaborative institutions. These were summed up in the idea of the 'Concert of Europe', whose main purpose was the maintenance of peace, based on the settlement arrived at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

There is much to be said for this view. European states – crucially including, after a brief hiatus, France – became used to meeting on a frequent basis to thrash out their differences. In doing so, they managed to take common action on a number of occasions, despite their opposing interests – for example, over the issue of Greek independence in the 1820s, which reached a generally agreed settlement in the face of strong mutual suspicions between Britain and Russia. What lay behind this powerful desire for co-operation was, of course, fear of revolution and upheaval, which, on the evidence of the 1790s and 1800s, could, it was believed, very easily cause international instability and conflict. Therefore, when the Great Powers collaborated, from the 1820s to the 1840s, it was as often as not in order to put down liberal revolutions of one kind or another.

But there was more to it than that. A number of other factors were responsible too, some given prominence by Schroeder, others not. To begin with, the balance of power still in fact counted for a good deal. Ever since the time of Louis XIV, the main contender for European domination had been France, in wealth and population and military organisation by far the greatest of the European powers. But the prospect of French hegemony was destroyed for ever by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

The other European states remained deeply apprehensive about French ambitions for decades to come, but in fact the defeat of Napoleon was decisive. France’s population growth was beginning to stagnate, and was unable to make good the loss of nearly a million and a half men on the battlefield. France’s share of the European population became steadily smaller. For the rest of the 19th century, there was more or less an equilibrium of power between the major European states.

Moreover, the British command of the seas established at the latest by the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 effectively destroyed French overseas trade. Before 1789, the French economy had been industrialising at a pace not dissimilar to the British, and economic development continued behind the tariff walls erected by the Continental System (a large-scale embargo of British trade enforced by Napoleon Bonaparte). But after 1815, when the French economy was exposed to British competition once again, it became clear it had fallen behind, and that continual warfare, allied to world trading links and ruthless competition between entrepreneurs, had given the British economy a boost that put it far ahead of any European competitors.

This made Britain the world superpower, a factor that had enormous influence in shaping Europe’s destiny and its place in the world. By and large, European states had little option but to acquiesce in British dominance of world trade and shipping, and British control of the high seas for the rest of the century. The British did not try to exclude other nations from trading, as had been the custom in the age of mercantilism up to the late 18th century, but promoted free international trade, in a competition that their economic advantage would ensure for the ensuing decades that they would almost always win.

British global hegemony had another consequence too. It meant that wars over the colonies, so common in the 18th century, when Britain and France clashed repeatedly over India and North America, no longer had the potential to ignite conflict in Europe itself. The French had lost their overseas empire, and when they began to build another one, it had to be with the acquiescence of the British. And it was the British, along with the United States of America, whose tacit support ensured that Spain and Portugal lost their American colonies in the 1820s, thus removing another potential cause of conflict.

By carefully bracketing colonial and overseas issues out of the peace settlement, the Congress of Vienna ensured that European and colonial rivalries were fought out in separate spheres; by instituting the Concert of Europe, it made it easy for these rivalries to be settled by international agreement, as they were, most famously, in the Berlin Congress that laid down the ground rules for the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in 1884.

Some historians have claimed that it was the ancien régime that ultimately triumphed over Napoleon in 1814–15. But in fact, the French Revolution had among other things fundamentally changed the nature of sovereignty in Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a major, perhaps the major cause of European wars had been dynastic disputes arising on the death of a sovereign – the War of the Spanish Succession, for example, or the War of the Austrian Succession. This was no longer the case after 1815. For all the insistence of monarchs like Louis XVIII or Alexander I on their Divine Right to rule, the basis of sovereignty had shifted perceptibly from individuals and families to nations and states.

Before 1815, all international treaties were considered to have been rendered invalid on the death of a sovereign, and had to be immediately renewed with the signature of the new sovereign if they were not to lapse. After 1815, this rule no longer applied. Treaties like those of 1814–15 were concluded between states, not between individual monarchs, and retained their validity unless and until one or other party to them deliberately abrogated them. The prince or ruler became, in effect, the executor of national or state sovereignty guaranteed by international agreement with the virtual force of law.

Of course, there were to be succession disputes in the 19th century too, notably over Spain and Schleswig-Holstein, but they gained their potency largely from their exploitation by state governments for national purposes, and had no real impact of their own.

Along with the diminished importance of dynastic politics came the virtual disappearance of dynastic marriages as a real factor in international relations. The Habsburgs, who had acquired many new territories over the previous centuries through a mixture of luck and calculation in their policy of marrying into other European dynasties, were no longer able to do so in the 19th century. Dynastic marriages dwindled to mere symbols of amity between nations, alongside state visits. Similarly, armies now owed their allegiance to states rather than to individual sovereigns; the old 18th-century system of mercenary armies and soldiers disappeared.

Until the very end of the century, however, national sovereignty was not followed by popular participation in politics. Electoral systems limited the right to vote everywhere, just as constitutions limited the right of legislatures to influence policy-making, above all in matters of war and peace. Bellicose popular movements did not emerge to put pressure on governments to take a tough stance in foreign affairs until after the turn of the century, nor did governments, except to a degree in the United Kingdom, feel much need to take account of public opinion when it came to deciding what line to take in international conflicts.

By 1914, of course, this situation had been transformed by the rise of the German empire. It disturbed the balance of power, it brought colonial conflicts back into Europe with its claim for ‘a place in the sun’, it threatened British naval hegemony with its construction of a big battle fleet, and it was overtaking Britain economically.

Under this pressure, the Concert of Europe was replaced by rival alliances, whose willingness to fight each other was increasingly driven by popular nationalist enthusiasm and a Social Darwinist belief in the virtues of war.

A century of peace had caused Europeans to forget the horrors of war they had experienced between 1792 and 1815. They looked to the swift victories won by the Prussian army in 1864, 1866 and 1870, and put the murderously indecisive encounters of the Crimean War, or the prolonged attrition of so many battles of the American Civil War, to the back of their minds. In 1914, they were to pay the price of such selective memories in a war whose destructiveness outdid anything seen since the 17th century.

Five 19th-century conflicts

The Crimean War, 1853–56

After A long period of peace, the coup of 1851 brought Napoleon III to the French throne, dedicated to the pursuit of glory through an aggressive foreign policy. At the same time, the growing problems of the Ottoman empire opened up to the Russians the possibilities of their first territorial gains since the short Russo-Turkish War of 1827–28, perhaps fulfilling the ambition of gaining a warm-water port on the Mediterranean. The conflict began with a Russo-Turkish clash in 1853, and was joined by Britain, France and Piedmont-Sardinia on the Turkish side in 1854–55. It was ended by negotiation when it became clear to the Russians that they could not gain their objectives.

The Franco-Austrian War, 1859

AS IN THE Crimean War, the aims of both sides were limited: by backing the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in its drive to expel the Austrians from northern Italy and push on towards the unification of Italy under moderate nationalist auspices, Napoleon III gained a small amount of territory. He also hoped to defuse the radical wing of Italian nationalism, which had led to an attempt on his life by Felice Orsini the previous year. The war ended with the defeat of Austria at the battle of Solferino and the creation of a new kingdom of Italy.

Austro-Prussian War, 1866

LIKE THE Piedmontese leader, Cavour, the Prussian chancellor, Bismarck, realised that nationalism could only be tamed, not destroyed, so in order to preserve Prussian institutions he engineered a war with Austria aimed at expelling the Austrians from the German confederation. After a quick victory at the battle of Sadowa, Bismarck successfully resisted military pressure to annex territory. Instead, he disbanded the confederation and prepared the next step towards German unification. He realised that it would be disastrous if Austria was left with a desire for revenge. This was another short war because, like all 19th-century conflicts, it had limited objectives.

Franco-Prussian War, 1870–71

HERE, TOO, Bismarck engineered a war to remove the main obstacle to German unification, while Napoleon enthusiastically fell into Bismarck's trap in the belief that the defeat of Prussia would improve his weakening position at home. French forces were heavily defeated at the battle of Sedan, but the war dragged on for more months with a siege of Paris and German occupation of eastern France. Eventually the Third Republic, which replaced Napoleon on his defeat, realised the inevitable, and peace was concluded. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine fuelled a desire for révanche that came to fruition in 1914.

Russo-Turkish War, 1877–78

NATIONALIST revolts in the Balkans, still under Ottoman rule, led to Turkish repression, and Russia saw the opportunity to step in and make good the reverses of 1856. The Russians inflicted a series of defeats on the Ottoman forces, who sued for peace, backed by the British, who feared any further growth of Russian influence in the region. The treaties of San Stefano and Berlin gave independence to Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria, depriving the Ottoman empire of nearly all its remaining European territories. The Russians were compensated with some minor territorial gains, and the British had the satisfaction of seeing the Russian march towards the Mediterranean halted again.

Richard J Evans FBA is Regius professor of modern history at Cambridge University and Gresham professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London. He is writing the volume on 1815–1914 in the Penguin History of Europe

BOOKS: The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 by Paul W Schroeder (Oxford, 1994); The Struggle for Mastery In Europe by AJP Taylor (Oxford, 1954); Military Modernization, 1789–1981 by Hew Strachan in The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe (Oxford, 1996)


This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine


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