Why is everyone hating on the 19th Century? 1.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin for attempting a return to 19th Century diplomacy in his handling of relations with Ukraine.[1] Everyone agrees that such a “return” is undesirable.

For a historian this attitude is puzzling. In comparison with what had gone before and what would come afterward, the 19th Century was remarkably peaceful. By 1815 Europeans had lived through more than twenty years of devastating wars and terrifying revolutions.[2] They wanted it to stop. Generally, they got what they wanted.

The Poles rebelled against the Russians (1830-1831).

The Revolutions of 1848-1849 led to much bloodshed in within the Austrian Empire and sphere of influence. The Austrians battered rebellious Italians, and Bohemians and Moravians into submission, and then called in the Russians to do the same with the Hungarians.

The Prussians and the Danes fought over the fate of Schleswig-Holstein (1848-1851).

Britain and France fought Russia in the Crimean War (1853-1856).

The German-speaking countries fought Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein (1864) .

France and the Italian states fought Austria (1859-1860).

The Poles rebelled against the Russians (1863-1864).

Prussia fought Austria (1866), with Italy piling-on.

The German states fought France (1870-71), with Italy piling-on.

Russia fought the Ottoman Empire (1877-1878).

Russia fought Japan (1904-1905).

Italy fought the Ottoman Empire (1911-1912).

Two Balkan Wars (1912-1913) finished the process of driving the Ottoman Empire out of Europe.

A lot of mostly small-scale fighting took place outside of Europe as Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and Germany built empires. This race for empire only led to war between the powers on two occasions: Britain and France fought Russia over the fate of the Ottoman Empire (1853-1856), and Japan fought Russia over Manchuria (1904-1905). Although many other opportunities for war offered themselves, the powers composed their differences through diplomacy.

Civil strife within Europe did lead to shooting at times: the July Days (1830) and the Commune (1871) in France; the suppression of revolutions in Germany and Austria (1848-1849); the Carlist Wars in Spain (1833-1840, 1872-1876); and the “Risorgimento” in southern Italy (1859-1860).

The epically long and destructive wars of the 19th Century were civil wars fought outside of Europe over messianic causes (Taiping Rebellion in China, 1850-1864; American Civil War, 1861-1865).

Grim as this record may look, it has to be seen in context. Rapid population growth and industrialization de-stabilized European society and politics. Nationalism undermined the existing system of states. The competition for empire brought European states into conflict all around the globe. The potential for frequent, prolonged, and devastating wars was very great. In reality, the history of the 19th Century is the history of wars that never happened.

[1] Certainly, no one would accuse President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry, or the previous Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, of being either Machiavellian or Bismarckian in their diplomacy.

[2] The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802); the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

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