When some search for the roots of the First World War, there is a tendency to look towards the Balkans. After all, it was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo in 1914 that precipitated the kick-off of the greatest and most deadly bar-brawl in the history of the world. And of course the Balkans are a historical flashpoint, the price of being an avenue of approach between continents and nations.
Belgium and Israel can commiserate.
But even the Balkans present too simplistic of an answer – yes, I know, nothing in the Balkans is simple, but bear with me . The real roots of war go further back. Way back. And they lie in a year, not in a place.
It was a year that sowed the seeds of the Great War and – conversely – ensured that it would end with a defeated Germany. That year was 1866.
Two things of note happened in 1866 that would set the stage for the future, and in a very odd way, they served to counterbalance each other.
The first was the Austro-Prussian War. Now, why would a two month war between Germanic peoples be any type of benchmark in history? Well, it becomes incredibly important once you realize that it set the stage for the Franco-Prussian War and the Unification of Germany. Those two events nearly made World War I inevitable.
The other thing that happened in 1866? The Civil Rights Act and the readmission of Tennessee into the American Union. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Okay, so it’s 1866, and what we now know as Germany consists of a varying number of states, replete with grand titles and funny names for everything. There are two preeminent Germanic powers: the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire. Both vie for authority over the lesser Germanic states, kingdoms, duchies, etc. And in the summer of 1866, the verbal and diplomatic jousting turned into a shooting war.
Looking at a map, one would think that Prussia and Austria would be evenly matched, yet – as always with Prussia – this was hardly the case. Prussia’s conscripts were far better trained than their Austrian counterparts and Prussia had recently adopted a new model of rifle: one that was bolt action and so allowed for rapid fire, in comparison to the Austrians’ outmoded muzzle-loading Lorenz rifle-muskets.
In two months of fighting, the belligerents called up over a million men to the field. Total casualties in killed, wounded, and missing broke 100,000, with Austrian losses nearly doubling those of the Prussians. Otto von Bismarck convinced King Wilhelm I of Prussia to make a quick peace with Austria after having handed them a series of battlefield defeats, in order to prevent foreign intervention and to ensure that Austria would not be completely estranged from the unified Germany that Bismarck was crafting. Shortly after peace was signed, Bismarck created the North German Confederation, unifying many of the German states and solidifying Prussia’s dominant position in Europe.
But Bismarck did not yet have his unified Germany. There were still independent south German states. What could he do about this? Well, war against a non-German nationality might work to bring the Germanic peoples together. And luckily for Bismarck, the French were growing rapidly concerned about this militant power developing right next door, which was now far deadlier after its victory in 1866.
The year 1870 kicked off the Franco-Prussian War, or as I call it, the War of the Virulent Nationalists. Both sides entered enthusiastically, the French particularly so. French nationalism was at a high point, and they thought that their much larger armies would crush the Prussians at the outset. This backfired.
Using their superior general staff system, railroads, and tactical use of artillery, Prussia utterly humiliated France. In nine months of combat, the Prussians destroyed several French armies, captured Napoleon III, and marched into Paris. Combined casualties from the combatants (killed, wounded, missing) neared the 1 million mark.
Worse, however, was the blow to France’s national ego. Not only had the Prussians humiliated them on the battlefield, but they had marched through the streets of Paris – and if that wasn’t enough, they had taken the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine and added them to their Germanic realms. Additionally, since it was France that had declared war on Prussia, Prussia levied a war debt on France. Perhaps now you can understand the bitter and unrelenting hatred that the French began to foster against the Germanic peoples.
This seething hatred and a desire for revenge only grew over the years, especially after Bismarck unified the German states in 1871, creating a hegemonic Germany and breaking the status quo that had prevailed in Europe since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The seeds were now planted for another colossal and deadly conflict, as France prepared for the next war and Germany began to rapidly expand its sphere of influence throughout the world.
When war kicked off again in 1914, the Germans expected a quick victory, as they had seen in 1870, fighting now with the Austro-Hungarian Empire by its side. However, although the French displayed some of the tactical and operational failures of the Franco-Prussian War, they held. And then attacked. And all of a sudden, the war had spread across the entirety of Europe, and then the world. By 1917, millions were dead and the belligerents were still clawing at each other. With Russia’s collapse that year, however, Germany could now put all of its forces on the Western Front and try to deliver the final death blow to the Allies. That is, if it could just do it in time before legions of young men could cross the Atlantic to bolster the Allied line…
Back to 1866.
Across the ocean, the seeds of Germany’s undoing were going into the ground. 1866 saw a battered – yet still floating – ship of state for the United States of America. After four years of bloody civil war, the side of union had prevailed. The question now came in two points for the surviving American Republic: what to do with the now-quelled rebelling states and what to do with the millions of freed slaves?
The answer to the first question came in 1866, when the former Confederate state of Tennessee was returned to the Union, after undergoing loyalty oaths and reforming its government. The precedent was now set that the United States would become whole once again – although the healing process would take a very long time. And it gave an answer to the interested global powers: there would be no power vacuum caused by a fragmented American Union. Although Reconstruction was not optimal – and was over far sooner than it should have been – it signified a return of American hegemony. And thus a return of American power.
What of the second question? In 1866, the majority Republican Congress passed the Civil Rights Act over the veto of Democrat President Andrew Johnson, guaranteeing equal rights to African Americans. It was the precursor to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. What did equal rights mean? Citizenship. Voting. Land ownership. The right to bring legal suits. All the things that African-Americans had been denied – and all the things necessary for building a free and open democratic republic.
While the Civil Rights Act of 1866 – and the subsequent 14th Amendment – did not create an open and equal society right away, or even within decades, it gave the necessary legal grounds that were desperately needed at that time. And it meant that there was a precedence for taking up arms for equality and freedom…for a war that would, “make the world safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson put it in 1917 when he requested a declaration of war on the German Empire.
For just as 1866 guaranteed a militarily and culturally strong Germany which would wear down Britain, France, and Italy to a near breaking point in World War I, it also guaranteed a truly united United States, with a society that held the majority view that democracy and equality were worth fighting for – and which would intervene to defeat Germany just in the nick of time.
Was it a perfect society? Hell no. Civil rights, although codified in law, were essentially run over roughshod in the American south. African-Americans proved their fighting worth – yet again – during World War I. And they would have to do so again in World War II, wearing away at the vestiges of hate and extremism here in the U.S. It wasn’t until 1948 that the military was finally desegregated by President Harry Truman – himself a veteran of World War I. African-American military contributions in both wars were invaluable for guaranteeing Allied victories – again underlining the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
The U.S. military that desegregated in 1948 had recently assisted in putting down the second German attempt at empire in the 20th century – an attempt that itself grew out of bitterness and hate caused by the terms of surrender dictated by the French at the conclusion of World War I – which were an outgrowth of bitterness and hate caused by the Franco-Prussian War – which was caused by greater German hegemony as a result of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.
Which is why Germany saw the future Great War both won and lost in 1866.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.