In 1873 he conjured up the ghost of monarchical solidarity and formed a Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors’ League) with Austria-Hungary and Russia.
Such a combination was always vulnerable to Austro-Russian rivalry over the Eastern Question—the problem of how to organize the feuding Balkan nationalities gradually freeing themselves from the decrepit Ottoman Empire.
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Both physical size and the economies of scale important in an industrial age rendered smaller and less developed countries impotent, while the residual habits of diplomacy dating from the Congress of Vienna of 1815 made the great powers the sole arbiters of European politics. Civil War and Anglo-American settlement of the Canadian border ensured that North America would not develop a multilateral balance-of-power system.
In the wider world, a diplomatic system of the European variety existed nowhere else. South and Central America had splintered into 17 independent republics following the final retreat of Spanish rule in 1820, but the new Latin American states were inward-looking, their centres of population and resources isolated by mountains, jungle, and sheer distance, and disputes among them were of mostly local interest.
Should that temper change, or less adept leadership succeed Bismarck, Germany had the potential to become the major disrupter of European stability.
For the constitution drafted by Bismarck for the Second Reich was a dysfunctional document designed to satisfy middle-class nationalism while preserving the power of the Prussian crown and the Junker class (the Prussian landed aristocracy).
Because domestic affairs figure heavily in the Forty-three years of peace among the great powers of Europe came to an end in 1914, when an act of political terrorism provoked two great alliance systems into mortal combat.
The South Slav campaign against Austrian rule in Bosnia, culminating in the assassination of the Habsburg heir apparent at Sarajevo, was the spark.
The history of the 20th century was shaped by the changing relations of the world’s great powers.
The first half of the century, the age of the World Wars and the start of the Cold War, was dominated by the rivalries of those powers.
This local crisis rapidly engulfed all the powers of Europe through the mechanisms of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, diplomatic arrangements meant precisely to enhance the security of their members and to deter potential aggressors.
The long-term causes of the war can therefore be traced to the forces that impelled the formation of those alliances, increased tensions among the great powers, and made at least some European leaders desperate enough to seek their objectives even at the risk of a general war.
The second half saw the replacement, largely through the agency of those wars, of the European state system by a world system with many centres of both power and discord.