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3.0 out of 5 stars diplomatic history of tumultuous, chaotic nationalist machinations, 27 Aug 2012
This review is from: The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) (Paperback)
This is the story - told from the point of view of the diplomatic players - of the last decades of European domination of the world. It is also about the death of the balance of power and the decline of both France and Austria-Hungary. The focus of the book is what leaders were thinking, how they pursued their goals, and the outcome of their machinations and wars, most petty, some major. This approach (diplomatic history) contrasts sharply with analytic or narrative histories whose principal aims include the search for broad trends, the interpretation of deeper causes, and portraits of culture and everyday life. Instead, here, you get what the powerful were trying to do, literally from moment to moment. For myself, while fascinating in many aspects and essential, I found it pretty dry as a reading experience.

The beginning of the period, in the wake of the 1848 revolutions, marks the end of a long period of "revolutionary diplomacy", whereby the ideals of the French Revolution influenced many diplomatic actions. Napoleon III seized power and concentrated on more traditional balance of power diplomacy, as head of the most powerful nation-state at the time. The Brits were content to develop on their own, only stepping into continental entanglements when they could no longer avoid it. Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey were in perhaps terminal decline, though clinging to the perquisites of power in their respective multi-ethnic autocracies, in which nationalistic ambitions of an astonishing array of players were threatening them with territorial dissolution. In the effort to unify the country, Italy was having its own revolution. The great wild card was Prussia, at the beginning of the period a small kingdom that, under the leadership of a strategic genius, Bismarck, was slowly consolidating its hold over a vast territory of Germanic speakers; it was a nation in birth, a coming industrial superpower with a huge population that would irrevocably shatter the balance of power.

Until 1870, these powers struggled for the typical fruits of the time: gaining territories, trade rights, and any number of privileges or concessions from each other. The complexity of these concerns is daunting and almost without exception obscure, but they were indeed the principal concerns of the leaders of the time. When disputes reached a certain point of impasse, they were often resolved by small-scale war, giving the victor the spoils of whatever was demanded, be it passage into and out of the Black Sea, domination of Poland, or control of the Suez Canal for trade with Asia. The book attempts to cover every single one of these disputes, showing exactly what was contemplated in chronological succession and the what happened in the end. Some readers seem to like this detail, and the gist is important to understand, but a lot of it is historical trivia of little interest, at least in my estimation.

Each power was juggling so many interests that the whole is like a dark forest of thorny complexities, obscure secret agreements, and tenuous alliances of mutual benefit. It was like they were all playing chess on the same board - some controlling the major pieces, some smaller ones, all in potential conflict or cooperation at one time but not another. Another analogy that comes to mind is competing LEGO constructions in a limited space, each player endowed with its own array of pieces that they traded and fought over or used collaboratively.

Beyond the petty wars (to 1870), there were 3 major engagements that led to decisive consequences. 1) The Crimean War removed Russia as a top-tier player until after WWII. 2) The Prussian victory over Austria-Hungary reduced the latter, with all its ethnic divisions, to a dependent power, ratifying German domination of central EUrope. 3) In 1870, France also fell from the top tier, when it capitulated to Prussia after a brief war.

The Conference of Berlin led to the longest period of peace in Europe since the Roman Empire. Over the next 40-odd years, European diplomats played the game of the balance of power, all the while investing in the new determinants of power: commerce, heavy industry (in particular steel production), and military technology; they avoided outright war. The two greatest achievers in this realm were Great Britain (with its mechanized navy) and Germany (split between navy and ground forces), leaving others behind in one or more areas. They created innumerable systems of alliances, peacekeeping, and trade, but all for the traditional parochial reasons. It should be noted that many of their motivations were face-saving and for appearance and prestige, for they had to take public opinion increasingly into consideration. This added to inflexibility.

The outbreak of WWI is part of a long discussion in the book. This was one of the most interesting dissections of diplomatic detail that I have ever read. According to Taylor, the bottom line was that the various powers thought the war would be short and decisive. Germany wanted to dominate Europe and thought it could do so by aggrandizing its territories. France, Russia, and Great Britain feared this and hoped to preserve the balance of power to their advantage. Austria Hungary and Turkey wanted to maintain the integrity of their territories from splitting into ethno-linguistic nation states. Oddly, none of the major powers seemed to have any clear goals, backup plans, or even coherent strategies, but went into it as a way to impose solutions to their advantage by force rather than diplomacy - that is, the way things had been done prior to 1870, but with far more advanced military machines that mobilized not just whole populations but industrial economies. Once started, no one could back down and it became a catastrophic war of attrition, bringing in the USA and ending the era of EUropean domination of the world. That brings us to 1918.

I believe Taylor's interpretation of the European modus operandi - the fight to maintain yet disrupt the balance of power - is correct. What I missed was a lively narrative with biographical texture and descriptive detail. I know that that is not part of the strict discipline of diplomatic history, but potential readers should be aware of this.

Recommended. It is a fundamental text, but something of a chore to read.
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