Steampunk Month

The Steampunk Cold War, Part Four: Alliances of Convenience, or “Autocracy is like democracy if you say it in Russian”

During the Cold War, the United States and its allies supported certain governments and organizations that could well be regarded as being ideologically contrary to them. Though the term “the free world” was used to describe non-Communist states collectively, several of them were in no way freer than the Soviet Union and its allies. Dictatorships like Pinochet’s Chile and Batista’s Cuba were hardly in ideological accord with the United States’s fight to preserve freedom and democracy, but the threat of Communism was perceived as being so great that the US would rather prop up anti-liberal governments rather than risk losing the countries to the influence of the Soviets. Whether reasonable or not, these alliances of convenience rather than ideology were a significant aspect of the Cold War period.

Such alliances of convenience were hardly new to the world of international politics, but one can see a certain degree of absurdity added by the rise of powerful democratic states in the 19th century. Not only was it rather hypocritical of democracies like the United States, France and Britain to maintain empires over people who in turn were denied democracy, but they also had a habit of forming alliances with rulers who were ideologically opposed to the concept of instituting democratic reforms. Perhaps the most glaring one of these was the Russian Empire.

The Russians, the French and the British were three of the least likely allies one could hope for at the outset of the First World War. All three of them had been at war with each other at some point during the preceding century (Britain and Russia against France during the Napoleonic Wars, and France and Britain against Russia in the Crimea), France and Britain were longstanding enemies (since the time of the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries), and Russia was Britain’s chief competitor in Central Asia. Moreover, whereas Britain and France both maintained democratic systems of government, Russia was an autocracy. Indeed, the 1892 alliance between France and Russia would doubtless have been unthinkable if it had demanded any sort of political adaptations on the part of one or the other. When Britain set aside its differences with the two and established friendly relations with France (1904) and Russia (1907), it was in the context of a new, mutual threat in Europe.

This threat came in the form of the German Empire, established in 1871 after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. Animosity between France and Germany was longstanding and had been worsened in the 19th century first by Napoleon’s conquest of western Germany in 1806 and later by Germany’s annexation Alsace-Lorraine following its victory in the Franco-Prussian War—the issue of gaining “revenge” for Alsace-Lorraine was a hot item for the French all the way into the First World War. Germany and Russia were less logical enemies given that they were both controlled by conservative monarchies and had been united in an alliance in the 1870s; however, Germany’s close ties to Austria, who was Russia’s key rival in the Balkans, had destabilized their relations by the turn of the 20th century. The mutual threat of Germany drove the republican France and the monarchical Russia into an alliance of practicality. In turn, as Kaiser Wilhelm’s obsessive attempts to make Germany an imperial power with a great navy drove Britain into accord with its two traditional enemies.


G. D. Falksen is a writer and student of history who has given lectures on the steampunk genre and subculture. Though it may be difficult to believe, he is fascinated by the First World War. Further details can be found on his website, www.gdfalksen.com

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