Historian Niall Ferguson introduced his seminal work on the twentieth century by posing the question “Megalomaniacs may order men to invade Russia, but why do the men obey?” He then sought to answer this question over the course of the text. Unfortunately, his analysis focused on too late a period. In reality, the cultural and political conditions that fostered unparalleled levels of bloodshed in the twentieth century began before 1900. The 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the years that surrounded it were the more pertinent catalyst. This event initiated the environment and experiences that catapulted Europe into the previously unimaginable events of the twentieth century. Individuals obey orders, despite the dictates of reason or personal well-being, because personal experiences unite them into a group of unconscious or emotionally motivated actors. The Franco-Prussian War is an example of how places, events, and sentiments can create a unique sense of collective identity that drives seemingly irrational behavior. It happened in both France and Germany. These identities would become the cultural and political foundations that changed the world in the tumultuous twentieth century.
The political and cultural development of Europe is complex and highly interconnected, making helpful insights into specific events difficult. It is hard to distinguish where one era of history begins or ends. It is a challenge to separate the inherently complicated systems of national and ethnic identities defined by blood, borders, and collective experience. Despite these difficulties, historians have often sought to gain insight into how and why European nations and identities developed as they did. Any answers gained can offer unique insight into how nation-states, cultural loyalties, and historical conflicts alter international stability. It may seem as though the political and military conflicts of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe have been examined with a fine-tooth comb; however, modern trends in evaluating this time period have obscured important antecedents.
In recent years, the study of World War One and World War Two has been viewed as a single twentieth century conflict defined by causes dating to the turn of the century. A genuine understanding of twentieth century events cannot be obtained though if the era is isolated from the actions and events which preceded it. This perspective limits genuine comprehension. It misses how far earlier military events, cultural ideologies, and expressions of nationalism drove the instigators of both world wars. In particular, the acute animosity between France and Germany originated in the modern era with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Each nation created ideals of national superiority that conflicted with the other’s, dwelt on a cultural desire for retaliation known as Revanchism, and established patterns of nationalistic expansionism through unilateral military action. All of these habits defined the culture of both countries well before 1914 and motivated their belligerence in the twentieth century.