Saturday, 28 January 2017

Russia: autocracy, war, and terrorism

The extent of the country 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Russia was geographically the world’s most extensive country and its empire was expanding. From 1809 it controlled Finland and in 1815 the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was subsumed into Russia. In 1800 Georgia was annexed. In 1859 the rest of the Caucasus was conquered and the Chechen hero Imam Shamil captured. In 1860 the Amur and Maritime provinces were acquired from China and Turkestan from Persia in 1875. Turkmenistan was annexed in 1881. The Pacific port of Vladivostok was founded in 1860. The only territory lost was Alaska, which was sold to the United States in 1867 for $8 million.

The Russian Empire, 1914

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Books on the period: update

The New York Times has an interesting review of the latest book on nineteenth-century European history - Richard Evans' The Pursuit of Power. The review gives a useful oversight of the main themes of the period. There is another very positive review in the Irish Examiner.

Evans' approach is thematic and this might not suit readers who are relatively new two the period. Two more conventional histories are Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914, 3rd edn. (Oxford, 2003) and Michael Rapport, Nineteenth-Century Europe (Palgrave, 2005). 


Emperor Franz Joseph
photographed, 1910

Before 1867 

In 1806 the Holy Roman Empire was brought to an end following Napoleon’s victories over the Austrians. The last of the Holy Roman Emperors, Francis II, was now Francis I of Austria. After the fall of Napoleon (1814-15), Austria became once more the leader of the German states but following the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 she was expelled from the German Confederation. In the same year she lost her remaining Italian territories when Venetia became part of the Kingdom of Italy. It was an alarming picture of decline from great power status.

The Ausgleich 

Austria’s defeat at the hands of Prussia caused Emperor Franz Joseph to reorient his policy toward the east and to consolidate his multi-national empire. Austrian liberals, too realised that the dream of Großdeutschland. was over. Even before the war the Hungarians had been restive; now they had their opportunity.  In May and June 1867 the Ausgleich (‘Compromise’) was ratified by the Austrian and Hungarian Parliaments. This brought into being the new state of Austria-Hungary, also known as the Dual Monarchy. The other peoples of the Empire were never consulted.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

France: the Third Republic

The Republic proclaimed

When the news of the French surrender at Sedan reached Paris on September 4, crowds filled the streets and demanded the proclamation of a republic. The imperial officials put up no serious resistance; the Revolution of September 4 was the most bloodless in French history. 

The siege of Paris

A provisional Government of National Defence was set up. It refused to accept the surrender terms and vowed to continue the war against the invaders. The new government's most charismatic member was the new Minister of the Interior, Léon Gambetta hero of the radical republicans. He doubled the size of the National Guard bringing its numbers up to 360,000 men (virtually the whole male able-bodied population of Paris). However by 23 September the Prussian forces had surrounded Paris, having already occupied all of France north and east of Orléans. The new government was deprived of its contact with the rest of the country. On 7 October Gambetta left the city by balloon to join several members of the government at Tours, where he assumed the functions of Minister of War as well as Minister of the Interior. During the next four months, Gambetta's makeshift armies fought a series of indecisive battles with the Prussians in the Loire valley and eastern France. These battles took the Prussians by surprise and greatly enhanced the prestige of the republicans, but the French forces were no match for Moltke’s army and the delegation at Tours was forced to withdraw to Bordeaux. 

Resistance was now concentrated in Paris where the National Guard manned the defences of the city. But the Prussians had no intention of taking Paris by storm when it was easier to starve the city. This was the beginning of a humanitarian catastrophe. Soon the Parisians were eating the animals from the zoo and cutting down the trees in the Champs Élysées for firewood. 

Christmas menu, of zoo animals
but also fine wine!
Public domain

On 5 January in the middle of a terrible winter, the Prussians began to bombard Paris. By this time left-wing leaders were accusing the government of treachery. While still at war with the Prussians, the Parisians were beginning to fight each other. 

Monday, 2 January 2017

The German Empire

The Proclamation of the German Empire
Public Domain

New Germany, new Europe

The German Empire (Reich) was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, on 18 February 1871, with Wilhelm I, the King of Prussia, as its Emperor (Kaiser) and Otto von Bismarck as its Chancellor.

Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia
and Chancellor of German
Public Domain

The Kingdom of Prussia had been transformed into the German Empire through three wars: against Denmark, Austria, and France. Contemporaries had no doubt that a new Europe, dominated by Germany, had come into being. The British politician, Benjamin Disraeli wrote: 
‘The war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French. There is not a single diplomatic tradition that has not been swept away.’
Not all Germans were happy with this. Wilhelm I had only reluctantly assumed the title of Emperor (Kaiser). His liberally-minded son, Crown Prince Friedrich, had grave misgivings.
‘We are no longer looked upon as the innocent sufferers of wrong, but rather as the arrogant victors…Bismarck has made us great and powerful, but he has robbed us of our friends, the sympathies of the world, and – our conscience.’
The German Empire, 1871-1918

The constitution of the Empire

The constitution of the Empire came into being on 16 April 1871. It was a federal system, though in practice it was dominated by Prussia, which contained sixty per cent of the population of Germany. However, larger states such as Bavaria and Saxony remained separate kingdoms with their own governments and military forces.