League of Three Emperors

League of Three Emperors
League of Three Emperors

After the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck united Germany in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, he desired peace in which the new unified Germany could mature and prosper. With France effectively neutralized by the war and the Paris Commune uprising in 1871 that followed, Bismarck set to make peace with Germany’s two traditional rivals in central Europe, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

It had only been in 1866 that Bismarck’s Prussia had defeated Austria-Hungary for leadership of the German peoples, and Bismarck was anxious that hostilities not be renewed. Bismarck’s solution to this problem was the League of the Three Emperors, or the Dreikaiserbund. The emperors were Wilhelm I of Germany, Franz Josef of Austria, and Czar Alexander II of Russia.

All three empires desired stability for diplomatic and domestic reasons. Anarchist and communist groups, inspired by the Paris Commune, were becoming internal security problems for all three empires, which needed to focus their energies at home.

Despite these efforts, Czar Alexander II was still killed by anarchists in Russia in 1881. Bismarck’s plans were helped by foreign ministers Julius Andrassy of Austria and Prince Alexander Gorchakov of Russia.

Bismarck realized that France was seething in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. Thus for Bismarck, the paramount reason for soliciting the League of Three Emperors was that, should Germany become involved in another war with France, it would not have to fear either Russia or Austria joining in an alliance with France against the Germans.

In addition, all three empires were concerned about the continuing disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Since both Austria and Russia had ambitions in the Balkans, both were concerned that their desire to profit from Turkish misfortune did not lead to a clash between them.

The League of Three Emperors, ratified by the three parties in 1873, was essentially a secret agreement, and none of the three signatories were in any way anxious for the other Great Powers in Europe to learn about it.

In 1875 the new league had its first major test when the Christians of the Balkans rebelled against their Turkish overlords. When the rebellion began in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sultan Abdul Hamid II reacted with a savagery that resulted in the deaths of thousands of peoples. The atrocities caused the rebellion to spread throughout the Balkans.

In addition to having designs on the Balkans, Russia also embraced the philosophy of Pan-Slavism, which held that all Slavs were mystically united as a brotherhood. Furthermore, they all professed the same Christian Orthodox faith. Hence it was that Russia saw it as its duty to intervene to save the Slavs in the Balkans, and in April 1877 Czar Alexander II declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Although British prime minister William Gladstone condemned the Turkish atrocities, he was keenly aware of the change in the European balance of power should the Russians win the war. Gladstone offered naval support to the Turks, as well as a British squadron anchored near Constantinople in February 1878. For a while, war between England and Russia seemed imminent.

Wanting the war to end before British intervention, the Russians forced a victor’s peace on the Turks at San Stefano on March 3, 1878. Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Andrassy felt the settlement was adverse to future Austrian designs on the Balkans, and a potential Russo-Austrian crisis loomed. Bismarck could see his League of Three Emperors quickly dissolving into a possible Russo-Austrian War and hurriedly called for all parties to meet at Berlin.

The Congress of Berlin, which met from June to July 1878, managed to avoid a European war, but profoundly soured Russia because it was forced to disgorge much of the territory it had won from the Turks at San Stefano. Consequently, Russia withdrew from the League of Three Emperors.

Concerned now of possible hostilities with Russia, Bismarck signed an alliance with Austria in 1879, which became known as the Dual Alliance. Both countries realized the need to lure Russia back into an alliance.

This took place in 1881, with what could be called the Second League of Three Emperors. The terms of the treaty were specific and took into account the changing European situation since the first league of 1873.

Although the three empires intended at the time that the treaty would be permanent, the continuing changes in the European situation were continually changing their alliance. In 1890 Bismarck was replaced as German chancellor by the new German emperor Wilhelm II. From there the terrible slide toward World War I began.

However, when seen in retrospect, the efforts of Bismarck, Andrassy, and Gorchakov in creating the first league of Three Emperors in 1873, and the league’s rebirth in 1881, did secure almost 20 years of peace in which, without foreign wars or domestic insurrections, the countries emerged into what ever after would be referred to as the “Age of Progress.” To accomplish this was no mean feat for any diplomats to achieve.