The Cold War of the mid- and late-20th century has been a profound influence upon our modern, 21st-century world. Though it experienced significant changes over the decades from 1945 to 1991, this period saw the world dominated by the competition between the Western democracies and the Soviet world. Even attempts by various nations to remove themselves from this dualistic view of the world still occurred within the context of Western-Soviet relations, and were forced to take this situation into account (one might say that the Cold War represented the zeitgeist of the second half of the 20th century). The problems of today—nationalist struggles, destabilized regions, terrorism, and state corruption among young nations—can largely be traced to the Cold War and its events.
However, the Cold War was not without precedent. The concept of two superpowers struggling against one another through indirect expansion and the acquisition of client states has existed ever since there have been superpowers to struggle. In particular, the concept of such a “peaceful conflict” is especially fitting in the context of the 19th century, which was marked by a continuation of Europe’s tradition of imperial expansion and mutual hostility, but was also marked by profoundly few general European wars. For all intents and purposes, the century from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the onset of the First World War (1914) was one of a general European peace. This is not to say that the European nations were peaceful by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, they were extremely aggressive toward the rest of the world and in general were engaged in extra-European conflicts for largely the entire century of peace. However, for the most part they were not at war with one another, certainly not to the degree found in earlier centuries, nor in the devastating manner of the First World War that would soon be upon them. In fact, Europe was at peace in much the same way that the Western powers and the Soviets were at “peace” during the Cold War, but were still engaged in wars and military actions in other parts of the world throughout the mid-late 20th century.
Conflicts that did occur in Europe during this period were generally brief and localized, involving only a couple of participant nations and only for a couple of years. Real damages in terms of loss of life, devastation of countries and destruction of matériel were light by comparison to the conflicts that enclosed the time of the European peace. The main participants in the Crimean War (1853-1856) were Russia, Britain and France; the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) was fought between France and a collection of German states that would, at the war’s conclusion, be united in the German Empire; and perhaps most telling of all, the Austro-Prussian War (1866) was fought essentially between the two rival powers of Austria and Prussia, with their allies, over hegemony in Germany (which Prussia was attempting to wrestle away from Austria). Bloody though they were, conflicts such as these paled in comparison to the Napoleonic and First World Wars, and had a profoundly smaller impact upon the lives of Europeans not engaged in fighting.
Part of the reason for this general peace was a form of deterrent. While the power of actual mutual assured destruction would have to wait until the invention of the atomic bomb, the massive industrialization of the 19th century did present politicians and military planners with a comparable problem. Wars had suddenly become fantastically expensive, owing to larger armies and navies that needed to be supplied and equipped, more complex modern machinery that was more expensive, and the greater volume of firepower that demanded incredibly large supplies of ammunition. Indeed, it was wrongly perceived that a lengthy, large-scale war (such as the First World War) would be impossible simply because it was too expensive. The 19th century’s mutual assured destruction was not physical, but economic.
In addition, there was simply more interaction between the various peoples of Europe than in earlier periods. Economically, the modern industrial economies were intimately linked through extensive trade. Socially, 19th century Europe was marked by an expansion of travel and tourism that included a much larger percentage of the population than in preceding centuries. Whereas previously travel from country to country in Europe was limited either to professional traders or to social and political elites, the rise of the modern middle class with its access to leisure time and expendable income meant that ordinary Europeans were now in a position to travel across the continent and to form contacts with people of other nationalities. This certainly did not make war impossible, but it changed the environment against which declarations of war were made.
Instead of internal struggle, the Europeans continued their policy of colonial expansion in other parts of the world. In particular, the powers of Britain, France and Russia expanded their empires across the world, increasing their holdings in Asia and Africa. They did not go to war with one another, but instead encouraged third parties and smaller states to either join one side or fight against the other.
In the end, war did break out. Like a 19th-century Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused a tension point that built and built until there was no going back. As with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Archduke’s assassination could have been resolved peacefully, but attempts to arrange this ultimately failed. Perhaps the threat of conventional war was not quite terrifying enough to equal the threat of nuclear annihilation. As Austria commenced localized hostilities with Serbia, Germany and Russia began to mobilize their troops, which forced each of them to continue their preparations for war lest the other catch them off-guard. Thankfully for us, the Cold War’s close scares never boiled out into open conflict in the manner of the First World War, but one wonders what the state of Europe might be today if the 19th century cold war had avoided going hot.
G. D. Falksen is a writer and student of history who has given lectures on the steampunk genre and subculture. He is very glad that the First World War did not see the use of nuclear weapons. Further details can be found on his website, www.gdfalksen.com