It was the year 1870 and Europe was on the brink of an epochal turning point. Its historical relevance has been often forgotten and relegate to a background position inside the tale of European history. Nevertheless, the 1870 meant a radical swift inside the European game of power which shockwaves determined not only our past but also our present and, probably, future. The genius of the French illustrator and caricaturist Paul Hadol (1833-1875) depicted the situation throughout an anthropomorphic map of Europe where the main European countries are represented by humanized figures which borders respect the political geography of the time. It was the first caricatured drawn that ever used this technique, but as the story embodied inside it, it made history.
Indeed, all along the XX century, other famous European caricaturists copied the technique and widely used anthropomorphic map to explain the complicated situation of the time. Thanks to its enlightening simplicity, readers were able (and still are) to figure out what were the moods slithering between Old Continent countries. In 1870 the main characters involved were French and Prussia (soon enough, Germany), while the powerful Great Britain played only a secondary role. The English hegemonic power was too occupied to strengthen its grip all along its wide colonial empire for entering inside the continental struggle of power. Hadol depicted UK as an old steaming lady, who used to lord it over the rest of the continent, relying on its incomparable floats and colonial introits, but who suddenly has been left in the background of international affairs by the raising of younger and more vigorous forces. These forces are impersonated by the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s caricature. The typical helmet, worn by the technological advanced and well-trained Prussian Army, and the long moustache coming out from it, are peculiar features of the character. The Chancellor dominated the European political scene since the mid of XIX century, when, appointed Minister President of Prussia by the Emperor, he began a witty political strategy aimed to bring together all German principalities for the establishment of a united and unquestionable powerful Germany under the rule of Prussians. Indeed, Bismarck’s caricature is represented in the act of stretching its limbs, with the right arm covering a “feet” of Denmark, the hand covering all Holland and firmly laid on Belgium.
At the opposite way, the left hand is reaching parts of Russian territories, drawn in the act of grasping whatever beneath its fingers. Even more representatives are the reactions of the bordering countries. Austria seems gasping under the weight of the Chancellor, while Italy is attempting to push out the Prussian boots from its shoulder. But the most expressive reaction is the one visible on France’s face. France is portrayed as a heroic Zouave soldier from the French North Africa, ready to tussle with the intrusive Prussia. The sword half unsheathed and the dynamic pose, aggressively sloped forward against the neighbour, are simple but incisive details that enlighten us on the explosivity of the European atmosphere. France at the time was the most challenging adversary for Britain’s European hegemony.
The two countries often collided during the XIX century, but after the Wien Congress in 1814, they never did on European soil. The several conflicts in which the two sworn enemies had been involved, took place mostly on colonial territories, as both States had adjoining empires to defend. However, even if the relations between the two powerful States were embittered by these skirmishes, they were both excelling and ruling over their own portion of the world, with few possibilities to overthrown the other. Great Britain had the control of the seas, thanks to the strongest floats of the world, while France was the European continental hegemonic power. At the same time, France naval float would never cope with the grandiosity of the English one, and Great Britain would never establish a stronger political or economic dominion than the French one. This situation is technically defined as Balance of Power. On the field of International Relations, more specifically inside the Realist stream, this is a win-win situation in which, even if every country is attempting to reach a hegemonic position inside its region, none of them is strong enough for domineering over the others. Two or three countries could stand out for military or economic powers, but is one of the three shows some clear intention to expand its dominance then the other two will join forces to smashed down the attempt. The military and economic equilibrium between Great Britain and France is a clear example of Balance of Power, which endured for more than fifty years, keeping out the harmful effects of superpowers conflicts from the European continent.
At least until the 1870. As Hadol’s map wonderfully bring out, the expansion of Prussia and the joint forces of all other Germans States, dramatically altered the balance Europe enjoyed so far, bringing disruptive consequences. Indeed, the French dominant European position is soon destined to be challenged by the -emerging German power, strong of a bigger; more advanced and better trained Army. It was only matter of time. The resultant Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) signed a new era in the history of European international relations. The Battle of Sedan (1870), with its 20.000 casualties, signed the French Army defeat and the end of the Second French Republic with Napoleon III casted in exile. But even more meaningful, the victory of the Franco-Prussian War meant the realization of the political dream of the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck: the unification of all German states and principalities under the rule of Prussian emperor. The ceremony was held symbolically inside the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, causing a deep wound for the French national pride that will echo far beyond the 1871. The previous Balance of Power collapsed: the new German State had resources and population for reclaiming the title of greatest nation of Europe, with no other rivals on the continent. However, even if the Chancellor managed to avoid a Franco-Russian and Austro-Hungarian alliance thanks to its diplomatic genius, with its death the new-born Germany suffered of fear of encirclement for all the XX century, while French continued to seek revenge from the humiliation endured in Sedan.
The French wounded pride and the German fear of encirclement, i.e. to see its hegemonic aspirations challenged by the neighbouring States, had been the background national sentiments for the successive half of century. They generated a dreadful vicious circle that meant the escalation of violence World War after World War. In 1870 Europe had definitely lost the equilibrium between continental powers: the boiling conflict, sometime open sometime only latent, inside Franco-German relations led the way to the darkest period of the history of the continent.
In the interwar period, European and global leaders tried to avoid any other international scale conflict by smashing down German chances to reach a dominant position in Europe. Needless to say, it didn’t work at all. Only after the WW II, they finally realized that Europe needed a structured and externalized system of Balance of Power, able in first place to cement trust and peaceful relations between France and Germany. The Shuman Declaration, proposing the European Coal and Steel Community, made the first essential step.
An external and supranational High Authority checking the Franco-German production and the market of steel and coal, two fundamental materials for weapons construction, would made war “not only unthinkable but merely impossible”. None of the two States would have the chance to build an impressive and formidable Army, which means that none France neither Germany could ever reach a military dominant position again. But the first embryonic shape of what will become the European Union we know, didn’t just steam down the conflictual Franco-German relations, but it turned the secularly old antagonism into partnership. Since the 1870 European history rotate around the old and the new continental superpower relations. As the Realist theory explain it, these two countries, both struggling for the first place, had been destined to clashing against each other due to the disproportion of strength, with Germany surpassing France both in economic and military indicators. A durable Balance seemed therefore, unreachable.
Luckily, Realism is not the only International Relations’ theory. Indeed, the International liberalism stream believes the establishment and enhancing of peaceful relations is possible by linking countries with strong economic bounds. The Shuman declaration is based on both theories: balance of power could be achieved only if none country is actually able to dominate the other, while the better way to construct trustworthy relations is developing close economic ties that will make war less probable (but not impossible).
The check system united with the effort to eschew further antagonism by linking two countries interests, has been the magic ingredient for the construction of a durable Balance of Power, no more based on an equivalent and well distributed military capability but on the sharing of an economic and political project.
Seventy years of peace are the best proof of that. Nowadays, European affairs are still based mainly on Franco-Germans relations.
However, the project that now is called European Union, succeeded to transform them from hostility to alliance, assuring the longest period of peace Europe ever enjoyed.
By Irene Signorelli