In the century between the Congress of Vienna and the outbreakof the First World War international relations in Europe were largely dominated by ﬁve great powers: Austria (after 1867 AustriaHungary), France, Great Britain, Prussia (after 1871 Germany) and Russia. There was always a clear distinction between what contemporaries called ‘ﬁrst-rate powers’ and ‘secondary states’, and there was rarely any doubt into which category any state should be placed. The great powers jealously guarded their status and were at all times disinclined to admit new members into their ranks. After her uniﬁcation in the 1860s Italy liked to be regarded as a great power, but it was only in the capacity of an ally of the Central Powers after 1882, and as a member of the Concert dealing with the affairs of the Ottoman Empire that she could claim anything like equality with the other ﬁve. The dominance of the ﬁve or six powers over such a long period gave an underlying stability to international relations, a stability not found in either the eighteenth or the twentieth centuries. During the former both Spain and Sweden clung tenaciously to greatpower status long after they had ceased to possess its attributes, and both Prussia and Russia effectively transformed themselves from second-class states into great powers. In the twentieth century great powers have fought to destroy each other, and the status of a European great power has ceased to have the same importance as it had before the First World War. The nineteenth century witnessed no such dramatic changes. In the upheavals of 1848-49 Austria came close to the brink of disintegration, but Russia rallied to her defence and preserved the ﬁve-power system. The four great-power wars of the mid-century were not fought à l’outrance:
the belligerents were concerned essentially with limited and localized objectives. Despite two defeats, in 1859 and 1866, Austria continued to be treated as a great power, and so did France after her military collapse in 1871. For the most part the great powers respected each other’s status: they were accustomed to a great-power system, and strove to maintain it. There was a constant and conscious fear that its demise would bring untold disasters to them all. This was perhaps the most permanent consequence of Napoleon’s bid for the mastery of Europe.