The rise of the great power carve up

  • Themes: History

The peace that followed European wars was once framed by a congress of belligerents, both winners and losers. Conflicts, in Europe and elsewhere, now tend be resolved by one or two superpowers.

The Congress of Vienna
The Congress of Vienna. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

When and how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will end is impossible to tell, but one thing seems certain: its outcome will not be negotiated solely by the two belligerents, and history leads one to believe it will be dictated over their heads.

Traditionally, it was only those directly involved in the hostilities who hammered out the peace settlement. Sometimes a supposedly neutral higher authority, such as the pope, might be involved, but no outside power could exert much influence as there were no superpowers in existence. Though vast, China did not exert much influence beyond its borders, and, despite its transatlantic empire, even 16th-century Spain could not achieve dominance in Europe; it struggled to maintain dominion in Italy and the Low Countries, and failed to conquer England with the Armada of 1588.

As a result, even when European wars came to affect most of the continent and its colonies, all those involved took part in framing the outcome: over a hundred delegates contributed to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648; that of Utrecht in 1713-4 was settled by Britain, France, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Portugal, Prussia, Savoy and other minor players; while that of 1763, was signed at Paris and Hubertusburg by eight powers (Britain, France, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Prussia, Saxony and Hanover). In 1648 the proceedings were underpinned by the principle of the sovereignty of each party. All had to have their say, even if they had lost the war, on the basis that only a mutually agreed settlement could be expected to last.

Things changed dramatically in the second half of the 18th century. Notions of state sovereignty and the sacrality of monarchy were subverted by the king of France’s support for the American rebels against their rightful sovereign George III, and were flouted by the rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria when they carved up Poland and deposed its anointed king. This was compounded by the emerging might of colonial powers, such as France and Great Britain, of Austria under the Habsburgs, Prussia under the Hohenzollerns, and, in the east, of Russia, which, in the space of 50 years, moved its western frontier 600 kilometres into Europe, while extending its sway eastward to the Pacific, Alaska and California. By the late 18th century, like ships of the line, European states were being referred to as first-, second- and even third-class powers. Ships of the line could safely defy second-raters.

The French Revolution of 1789 challenged not only the idea of absolute monarchy, but also of one nation dominating another, and proclaimed a doctrine of liberty, equality and fraternity among nations as well as individuals. This was intolerable to every monarchy, established elite and traditional institution on the Continent, and inevitably led to war. French armies exported revolutionary ideas and wrought fundamental changes in areas they occupied, overthrowing existing rulers and authorities, abolishing and dispossessing individuals and institutions, both religious and secular.

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, he sought to re-establish France’s position among the other states of Europe, not just by military might but also by challenging their right to rule over other nations. In the wake of his triumphs, he redrew frontiers, abolished states and created new ones, riding roughshod over every sort of political and social arrangement.

Unsurprisingly, his defeat in 1814 let loose a cacophony of claims for restitution, of greater or lesser sovereignties, of republics as well as kingdoms, of civic as well as religious institutions, and of individuals’ property, prerogatives and rights. As it was clearly impossible to go back to 1789, this was accompanied by an idealistic clamour for seizing the opportunity to create a brave new world based on more spiritual values.

The Napoleonic Wars’ victors, Great Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia, who now styled themselves ‘the Great Powers’, had already agreed the outlines of the peace settlement they envisaged, one dominated by the consideration of containing France and establishing a ‘balance’ of power in Europe that would prevent any one state becoming dominant. Having expended money and manpower on defeating Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, they believed themselves entitled to impose this settlement and to set themselves up as its guarantors. They agreed to convene in a congress at Vienna in the autumn of 1814 to settle the outstanding business and formalise their arrangements.

Once the congress had been announced, dozens of lesser sovereigns and representatives of abolished republics, such as Venice and Genoa, of free cities, bishoprics, abbeys, corporations and other bodies converged on Vienna, along with hundreds of individuals whose properties had been seized by one side or another in the wars of the past quarter of a century, not to mention associations of publishers concerned about the re-imposition of censorship and Jewish communities concerned about their rights.

With the best will in the world it would have been impossible to resolve all these with any degree of fairness, and the great powers had no such wish, let alone will. The only way of avoiding the plethora of issues raised was to delay the opening of the congress, so they announced a procedure of registrations that would never actually take place and encouraged all those who had turned up to enjoy the festivities laid on for them by the Austrian imperial court.

The great powers did not have it all their own way. The foreign minister of France, Prince Talleyrand, refused to be excluded, and blackmailed them by threatening to rally the excluded hundreds and disrupt the congress. Once admitted, he joined the other four in their determination to wrap everything up between themselves.

This involved shameless horse-trading between the five of them, in total disregard of any notions of legitimacy, sovereignty or popular feeling. The arrangements were then guaranteed by the original four great powers, who pledged themselves to provide a set number of troops to defend them, and to reconvene regularly, thus initiating what is often referred to as ‘the Congress System’, which was meant to perpetuate their control over the Continent.

Large states, particularly those composed of conquered or annexed nations and colonies, are highly vulnerable to notions of sovereignty, legitimacy and rights, civil or national. They reinforce their unwillingness to divest themselves of their possessions with the argument that a reduced number of greater states ensure stability. And they do not like wasting time dealing with small states; the powerful share a common language, even when they are in conflict. Nowhere was this more in evidence than at the Paris peace conference of 1919.

The First World War had involved an unprecedented number of states and peoples, its operations covering a wider area than any previous conflict, and it had laid waste to swathes of Europe. As in 1814, there was a widespread longing not just for reconstruction but for a settlement that would take into account the aspirations of nations oppressed by the imperial powers that had actually started the war. All the more so as President Woodrow Wilson of the United States had proclaimed his belief in self-determination as the basis of a lasting peace. He had been made aware by the Polish pianist and Ignacy Jan Paderewski of the injustice of his country’s enslavement by Russia, Germany and Austria, and resolved that the future settlement must include a free Poland. To that he added the Czech patriot Tomáš Masaryk’s concept of creating a Czecho-Slovak state. This unleashed claims by ethnicities great and small, most of them conflicting with each other, all highly inconvenient to the peacemakers.

France had borne the brunt of the fighting and suffered greater loss of life and devastation than any of the other victorious allies. The French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, was determined she should be compensated for it. Great Britain had also lost a generation of young men and the war had not only cost it a great deal in material terms, but had also strained relations with the populations of its overseas empire to a dangerous degree. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, was interested in stabilisation rather than creating a new order. The United States had only joined the allies late, but, as her intervention had been decisive, Wilson assumed a dominant role. Italy had joined the allies earlier, in 1915, and although her armies had contributed little to the defeat of the Central Powers her representative at the Paris conference, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando, anticipated extensive territorial gains, some of which impinged on the self-determination of peoples such as the Croats.

Although these four had many conflicting interests and opinions, frequently clashing over them, they agreed on the one point of keeping matters firmly in hand, and even excluded their ally Japan when they formed the Council of Four. The principal question confronting them was how to deal with the defeated Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

The Ottoman Empire had been labelled the ‘sick man of Europe’ for decades and had finally succumbed, so the victors’ principal concern was to divide it up into states and protectorates that would ensure stability in the region and allow European and American companies to exploit its vast oil reserves unhindered.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire had always been a multi-ethnic state. An obvious solution was to fragment it into its various components – though this turned out to be more difficult than at first appeared. The Kingdom of Hungary contained not only Hungarians but Romanians and other ethnicities. Galicia, which the Austrians had seized from Poland in the 18th century, contained not only Poles but also Ukrainians. Austrian possessions in the Balkans consisted of various ethnic groups intermixed and often hostile to each other. Rather than having to deal with what they regarded as pygmy nations, the peacemakers bundled them up into a kingdom of Yugoslavia, under a Serbo-Croat prince, Alexander I.

The prejudice against what were often termed ‘small nations’ or ‘new nations’, even though some of them were by no means small and in some cases had long and glorious histories, is apparent in their approach to the problem presented by Russia. Originally one of the original allies, the Bolsheviks who seized power in 1917 had made a separate peace with the Central Powers, and it was now embroiled in civil war. France, which had raised a huge loan to support Russia’s war effort, was eager to back the ‘Whites’ fighting against the ‘Red’ Bolshevik forces in the hope of one day recovering it. French and British troops sent to Russia earlier to bolster its fight against Germany, were now engaged in supporting the Whites. This antagonised trades unions and popular feeling at home, captivated by a rosy vision of the communist dawn, and soon the view prevailed that it was best to leave Russia to itself.

There was no appetite among the peacemakers for supporting subject nations, such as the Georgians and the Ukrainians, seeking to free themselves from Russian rule. The right of Russia, White or Red, to own what are now Belarus and Ukraine was unquestioned, but when the Poles occupied areas that had belonged to Poland and contained large Polish populations they were accused of imperialism.

Most revealing of the mindset of the peacemakers was their attitude to Germany, a relatively new state, only created in 1871 in a spirit of nationalist exhilaration by no means shared by the majority of its population. Until 1806, the area had been divided up into hundreds of sovereignties of varying size bound together loosely in the Holy Roman Empire. Embracing some of the most developed and richest lands at the heart of Europe, this arrangement both neutralised their potential and prevented any other state from annexing them. When he dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon replaced it with the Confederation of the Rhine, consisting of a greatly reduced number of states that fulfilled the same function, guarding against the encroachments of Russia and Prussia. The Congress of Vienna abolished it in name but did not make any radical changes to this territorial arrangement.

Given that within a couple of decades of its foundation the German Empire had turned itself into a major power with global ambitions which was largely if not wholly responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914, consideration might have been given to breaking it up into the 25 states it had absorbed less than 50 years earlier. Studies have revealed that most of the soldiers sent off to war in August 1914 had no idea who or what they were fighting for, and the inhabitants of the southern Catholic states such as Saxony, Württemberg or Baden, whose royal houses were popular, had little in common with the Prussians of the north-east.

Such a settlement may well have been unworkable – and it would certainly have made the exaction of reparations problematic – but the fact that the idea was not even floated seems significant. None of the ‘Big Four’ liked the idea of dismemberment, as they were all global powers, and three of them actually acquired new colonial outposts in the peace-making process. In the case of Woodrow Wilson, the very concept of provinces seceding from an established state would have been anathema: born in Virginia in 1856, he well knew what bloodletting, destruction and trauma secession could lead to.

His successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had no problem with dismantling empires, and his actions contributed to the demise of the British, French and other European empires. But he, too, preferred to restrict the number of decision-makers – to two. From the moment he met Stalin behind Churchill’s back at Tehran in 1943, it would be the United States and the Soviet Union that called the shots, with scant regard for the sovereignty of smaller states or the legitimacy of their claims.

Thus, the more than 100 contributors to the Peace of Westphalia had shrunk progressively, to no more than eight at that of 1763, four plus one at Vienna in 1815, three plus one in 1919, to a mere two in 1945.

The war in Ukraine has gradually been subsumed into a subtle global conflict, whose priorities have already been diluted by events in Gaza and may well be further added to by other crises. This raises the possibility that, like Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 will become sidelined. The two who will be in a position to broker and impose a settlement, no doubt bedecked with fig-leaves lent by the UN and EU, are likely to include the ruler of China, whose position on Taiwan hardly needs comment. On past evidence, they will be as reluctant to contemplate the disintegration of Russia and show as little regard for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as Stalin and Roosevelt did for Poland’s in 1945.


Adam Zamoyski