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European Perspective

The Concert of Europe was established after the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) and lasted until the outbreak of World War I. It represented the system of governance of international politics in Europe during the 19th century, with the aim of preserving peace and security on that continent through constant negotiations among the Great Powers: Austria, the United Kingdom, France, Prussia and Russia.

The system of the Concert of Europe can be divided into four main phases:

From the Congress of Vienna to the Crimean War (1815–56)

During this phase, the Quadruple Alliance (United Kingdom, Austria, Prussia and Russia) and the Holy Alliance (Austria, Russia and Prussia) were the two main pillars of the system. In particular the United Kingdom and Austria played a crucial role in maintaining stability on the continent and on the seas. The repression of the liberal (1820) and liberal–national revolution (1830–31, 1848) in Spain, the Austrian Empire and the German Confederation confirmed the solidity of the system.

But two causes of disagreement among the Great Powers emerged during this period. On the one hand, the independence of Latin-American countries from Spain and Portugal led to conflict between the United Kingdom, France and Russia. On the other hand, the crisis of the Ottoman Empire (called at the time “the sick man of Europe”) and the Eastern Question emphasised British–Russian rivalry in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean.

National unification in Italy and Germany (1857–70)

The two processes of national unification, despite their differences, marked the main changes to the territorial borders established during the Congress of Vienna. In both cases, the struggles for national unification sharply divided the Great Powers of the Concert of Europe. Moreover, they left diplomatic and territorial legacies that had a great impact on the further development of the system, namely the conflict between France and Germany, the “new orientation” of Austro-Hungarian foreign and security policy towards the Balkans (the region of south-east Europe facing the Adriatic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea) and the question of Italian irredentism.

Bismarck’s “diplomacy of peace” (1871–90)

Otto von Bismarck was the first chancellor of the German Empire. After achieving unification through the “diplomacy of war”, which led to the defeat of Austria and France, the aim of the “diplomacy of peace” was to consolidate German unification. The main aim of his diplomacy was the isolation of France on the continent and the prevention of a clash between Russia and Austria in the Balkans.

The “diplomacy of peace” was implemented through a series of pacts and alliances between Germany, Austria and Russia and Italy. It was a diplomatic system centred on Germany. The United Kingdom was the second pillar of the system, as it had the task of maintaining security on the seas.This period also witnessed the colonial expansion of the main European countries in Asia, Africa and in the Mediterranean region (Egypt, Tunisia and Cyprus).

Under Bismarck’s strategy, imperialism was considered an instrument to divert tensions and conflicts away from Europe.

William II’s Weltpolitik, the crisis of the Concert and new alliances in Europe (1891–1914)

Emperor William II ruled the German Empire from 1888 to 1918. The main aspiration of his Weltpolitik (lit. “world policy”) was to affirm Germany as a global power, particularly in the commercial, colonial and naval fields. In the two Moroccon crises of 1905 and 1911, Germany openly challenged the French position in North Africa.

As a consequence, the other European powers aligned to challenge the hegemonic ambitions of Germany. In 1891, France and Russia signed a bilateral alliance against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy. In 1904, France and the United Kingdom, following the resolution of their colonial disputes in Africa, concluded the Entente Cordiale. Finally, in 1907 Russia and the United Kingdom reached an agreement on Persia and central Asia, leading to the formation of the Triple Entente

During this period the Italian occupation of Libya in 1911 and the Balkans War of 1912–13 marked the final step in the Ottoman Empire’s loss of territories in the Mediterranean and in south-east Europe.

On the eve of the eruption of World War I, the new balance of power in Europe was based on the two competing blocs of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente.

Paolo Wulzer, Rome

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