How Napoleon started the First World War

This month marks the centenary of the beginning of The Great War. And while the June 28th, 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is often times considered the trigger for hostilities, history seldom turns on singular events. The entire century previous had laid the foundation for conflict and it is because of that foundation that many believe the First World War to have been inevitable.

I have been listening to the lectures of Professor Robert Weiner titled “The Long 19th Century” and I was struck with how early and how prominent the structures that lead to WWI appeared in the narrative. Surely, hindsight is 20/20 but even then, diplomats and world leaders saw conflict on the horizon and not only seemed powerless to stop it but actively pursued policies that would lead to war.

We start with the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.


The Napoleonic Wars, twelve years long with upwards of six million dead, were so devastating to Europe that the Great Powers vowed to never let such a thing happen again. To this end, at the Congress of Vienna they formed the Concert of Europe in 1815, a series of diplomatic protocols founded on the ideas of compromise and balance that would serve to mediate conflict between the Great Powers. The relatively peaceful period that reigned for rest of the first half of the century became known as the Age of Metternich, crediting the conservative and stabilizing influence of Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich.

But there were echoes of Napoleon that continued to ring through the Age of Metternich. Where the French army went, they also brought French administration, culture and ideals. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Napoleon was defeated and the original, monarchical governments returned to power, but the seeds of revolution had been planted and in 1848, a series of revolutions swept across Europe.

They lost. In pretty much every case, the revolutionaries were put down, but not without cost. While the monarchs and conservatives remained in power, quite a number of the liberal reforms demanded by the revolutionaries were enacted to placate the masses. And while still conservative, the European government some incremental changes in the interests of peace.

At least, internally. As to international relations, the Revolutions of 1848 had brought about many changes in government. While those administrations were still overwhelmingly conservative, the old guard was replaced by new faces. Those who did not remember the devastation caused by the Napoleonic Wars and had no confidence in the usefulness of the Concert of Europe.

Crimean War

A depiction of the Crimean War

Nothing illustrates this change more than the Crimean War which began with Russia presenting themselves as the protector of Christendom. In the Holy Land, under the influence of the Ottoman Empire, Russia supported the Orthodox Christian minority while France promoted the rights of Catholics. One might think that these two Christian nations would cooperate against the Turks but both France and England were concerned more with the expansion of Russian influence in the region more so that the protection of Christianity. Russia invaded some Eastern European territories. Destroyed the Ottoman Black Sea Fleet. France and England countered with the invasion of the Crimea in 1853 and the ugly mess went on for three years.

Under the protocols of the Concert of Europe, conflict may have been avoided. And, even after the conflict was over, the ideas of compromise and balance may have built a fair peace. Instead, harsh terms were placed on Russia by the victorious French and British allies.

The Age of Metternich was over.

The Holy Roman Empire was not quite an empire. It was much more a loose association of some 200 kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and city states. After Napoleon defeated the German armies, he rebuilt the governments into the Confederation of the Rhine so that he could more readily administer this new territory, reducing 200 to just 16. When Napoleon was defeated, things did not return to the way they were. The Congress of Vienna rebuilt a German Confederation consisting of 39 countries.


Otto von Bismarck

The Revolutions of 1848 brought two new players onto the field. One was a new form of nationalism, born from a combination of French idealism and a conservative pragmatism. The other was Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck provoked a series of wars with Denmark, Austria and France and the increased prestige and power gained from those victories gave him the strength in 1871 to unite the 39 countries created by the Congress of Vienna into a single powerful nation that would dominate European politics for the rest of the 19th century.

Napoleon and the Great Powers had created the conditions for Bismarck’s success a generation before.

All the dominoes were in place. Gavrilo Princip’s trigger pull may have set them tumbling but, given the events of the previous thirty years, it might just have been some other event. Even the British had been fearing a German invasion as far back at 1871 when Bismarck has just unified Germany. It is perhaps only the random chance of history that Europe avoided the Great War for as long as it did.

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