With a few marginal changes, the ‘Great Powers’ of Europe (as they were still called) were much the same as they had been for the previous two centuries, but the balance between them had changed radically. The most powerful of all was now the German Empire, created by the Kingdom of Prussia as a result of its victorious wars of 1866 against the Austrian Empire and 1870 against France. France had been reduced by her defeat to second-rank status and resented it. The polyglot lands of the Austrian Empire had been reorganized since 1867 as the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, and accepted subordinate status as an ally of Germany. Although Hungary was a quasi-autonomous state, the Monarchy was often referred to simply as ‘Austria’ and its peoples as ‘Austrians’, much as the United Kingdom was commonly known abroad as ‘England’ and its people ‘English’.
Flanking these continental powers were two empires only partially European in their interests: the huge semi-Asiatic Russian Empire, a major if intermittent player in south-east Europe; and Britain, whose main concern was to maintain a balance of power on the Continent while she expanded and consolidated her possessions overseas. Spain, the last vestiges of whose overseas empire (apart from a coastal fringe of North Africa) had been lost to the United States at the beginning of the century, had dwindled to third rank. Her place in the cast had been taken by an Italy whose unification under the House of Savoy between 1860 and 1871 had been more apparent than real, but whose nuisance value alone won her the wary respect of the other powers.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, these powers had been socially homogeneous. All were still primarily agrarian societies dominated by a landed aristocracy and ruled by historic dynasties legitimized by an established Church. A hundred years later all this had either been completely transformed or was in the course of rapid and destabilizing transformation; but the pace of change had been very uneven.