YPRES - This is allready our fifth article on the events that lead up to the start of the Great War. The first contribution began with a sketch of the delicate political situation in Europe more or less a century before the First World War erupted.
In 1815 the Congress of Vienna had seen the way to achieve lasting peace by establishing a balance between the major European powers. A number of territories were redistributed to achieve the best advantage, with no concern being shown towards the people actually living there.
A classic example was Belgium. For many years it had been part of France, but without any consultation, the Congress decided to make it part of the Netherlands. Belgium was the first to kick over the traces and after a revolution in 1830 it subsequently gained its independence.
Traditionally both Germany and Italy had been made up of a number of independent states of varying sizes and a loose German Confederation had been established comprising an enlarged Prussia, together with 38 other states. Prussia was growing in power and by the mid-1840s there were distinct moves towards a union of German states.
It gradually became clear that Austria and Prussia both saw themselves as leaders of any such move towards German unification and by the end of the decade there was pressure for a national parliament and a unified Germany.
Since Prussia was the largest and strongest of the German states it seemed logical to seek unity under the leadership of the Prussian king, Frederick William IV.
This went against the whole philosophy of the Congress of Vienna, where European peace was felt to lie in the hands of a limited number of large powers, namely Britain, France, Austria and Russia, with a delicate balance depending on the fragmentation of smaller states rather than their union.
Meanwhile there were also moves towards a united Italy. Much of the north-eastern part of present day Italy was controlled by the Austrian Empire and any growing nationalist sentiments were vigorously repressed.
Unification was also opposed by the Holy See. The Papal States were extensive and Pope Pius IX felt that to relinquish control of these could lead to persecution of Italian Catholics.
A revolution in 1848 led to the First Italian War of Independence. This was fiercely put down by a large Austrian Army led by Field Marshal Josef Radetsky.
In 1857 King Frederick William IV of Prussia suffered a stroke and could no longer rule. After he died his brother William was crowned King William I and in 1862 he appointed Otto von Bismarck as Minister-President. Europe at that time was suffering from the aftermath of the Crimean War that had lasted from 1854 to 1856.
The Treaty of Paris managed to achieve a short-term peaceful solution, but it did very little to stem the tides of growing nationalism and search for national unity.
In addition, Austria although normally an ally of Russia, had chosen to remain mostly neutral during the very brutal war and after Russia’s defeat, relations between the two nations deteriorated.
Austria looked to the German states for support, but the last thing that the French and British wanted was a strengthened union between Austria and Germany. Not only would it pose a threat to French borders, but it would also threaten Britain’s political and economic interest in the east.
1859 saw the Second Italian War of Independence. An assassination attempt on the life of the French Emperor Napoleon III brought widespread sympathy for the Italian unification effort and in exchange for Nice and Savoy, France agreed to help the Kingdom of Piedmont in its struggle against Austria.
The climax was the Battle of Solferino where a combined French and Sardinian force defeated the Austrians.
The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph was faced with a revolution in Hungary and Napoleon III was worried about possible intervention by the German states, so the two met and signed an armistice at Villafranca on 11th June.
The following year, with British and French approval, the central Italian states were annexed by the Kingdom of Sardinia. Incidentally it was after the Battle of Solferino, when he was confronted by the sight of thousands of wounded men dying on the battle field, that Henri Dunant was inspired to establish the Red Cross.
In 1866 it was Prussia that defeated Austria and this enabled Prussia to gain control of German politics to the complete exclusion of Austria. That same summer saw the final battle that was to lead to the unification of Italy. Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy had already been crowned King of Italy in 1861, but his reign did not include Venetia and Lazio.
During the Austro-Prussian War, Italy had also declared war on Austria. In spite of a poor showing by the Italians, Prussia’s success forced Austria to cede Venetia. The remaining parts of Italy were incorporated a few years later.
Bismarck, meanwhile was yet to achieve his aim of a united Germany but this was finally achieved in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War.
The Congress of Vienna’s carefully crafted European Balance of Power was now in tatters. Only Britain was in more or less the same position as it had been in the beginning of the 19th century , but Britain continued to have little interest in Europe unless anything happened that was likely to upset its trade with the Empire.
It was Prussia that had risen to become the major force in continental Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was now a mere shadow of its former self and France and Russia had both been humiliated.
The Great War was inevitably a few steps nearer.