The Beautiful Game: 2. The Perfect Setting

If you haven’t read how the Great and Good ABC invented Diplomacy, then it’s probably time you did. You’ll understand a lot more about the game by understanding what he was aiming to achieve. There are a number of places you can do this, but try this article: “The Invention of Diplomacy” or this one: “A Dozen Years of Diplomacy” are perfect places to start.

Of these two articles (there is, as you’d expect, some crossover between the two as they’re on the same subject) it is the latter that I want to use today. In “A Dozen Years…” Calhamer has these paragraphs:

People have sometimes asked why I chose the scenario of 1914. That period was a period in which there were several Great Powers which were more or less equal in power. It was a period of alliances and coalitions. It was also a period, as I have indicated above, that we know a lot about today. Europe between the wars is not so good, because … the break-up of Austria-Hungary, the contraction of Turkey, etc., create too great a power vacuum in the Balkans. One game based on the world as of 1940 had to resort to Brazil as a Great Power, to balance the board. The destructiveness of present-day warfare makes it very difficult to model so as to represent the choices at all realistically.

Also, I believe it would be a mistake to model the present, because simple and unrealistic conclusions might be accepted uncritically. Something relevant to the present day can probably be learned from the existing game, but the required carry-over guards against hasty conclusions.

“A Dozen Years of Diplomacy. Calhamer, A. B. Diplomania #12, Aug 1966. Accessed from The Diplomacy Archive, 28 Dec 2022.

So, there you go, reason given.

Well, almost, I suppose…

If you read Calhamer’s articles, you can tell he’s fascinated by the international politics of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Me too.

When I was studying for A-level history, the course involved two branches: British History in the 19th century, and European History from 1789 (the French Revolution) to 1914 (WWI). We didn’t quite cover the latter period of European History. I think the last part of the syllabus we covered was about the ‘Scramble for Africa‘. I was a history buff before studying A-level History… I was well and truly hooked after it, for which I have to thank my teacher, William Barber. He even got me through the part of the O-level syllabus on architecture, and he deserves a helluva lot of credit for that! Gothic, Perpendicular… zzz.

For me, international politics in what is called the ‘Modern Era’ of history – post-(French)revolutionary – is fascinating. The interplay between the major European powers in the period after Napoleon’s defeat; the rise of liberalism (not the misnamed ‘liberalism’ of US politics, by the way, but the rise of the middle classes in politics) and nationalism, and the conflict these movements had with old-style imperialism in Europe; the unification of Italy and Germany, etc. Fascinating.

Following the unification of Germany, Otto von Bismarck took his place on the European stage. Bismarck had been Minister-President and Foreign Minister of Prussia from 1862. He was the major architect of Prussia’s re-emergence as a top level power in European politics. Prior to this, the Habsburg Empire (Austria-Hungary in Diplomacy) had been the major power in German politics.

The Habsburg Empire (or the Austrian Empire) and the Kingdom of Prussia were the two major powers in the German Confederacy, formed in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna to replace the Holy Roman Empire. This brought the many German states together as a bulwark against further French expansionism after the Napoleonic Wars. However, until 1866, Austria had been the leading power in the Confederacy.

In 1866 Bismarck used the excuse of Austria reneging on the Gastein Convention to launch a war against Austria. The Austro-Prussian War saw Prussia victorious and the Austrian Empire become the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria-Hungary). It was ruled by the Austrian ruling house, but the Kingdom of Hungary had some self-determination. It also saw Prussia ascend to the leadership of the Confederacy.

In short order, Prussia formed the North German Confederation, separating the mainly Protestant northern states from the mainly Catholic southern states, under Prussian leadership. Initially a customs union, the NGC became a political union.

In 1870, the NGC went to war with France. At the time, France was ruled by Emperor Napoleon III. It was Bismarck’s intrigues that caused the war; although it is debatable that his publication of the Ems Dispatch had any significant impact in causing the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1, it shows something of Bismarck’s methods: take a carefully edited version of a discussion and publish it. Again, Prussia (the NGC) was victorious. Again, it affected the defeated power: the Second French Empire dissolved, the Paris Commune was formed, and France became a republic again.

The more important outcome was the unification of Germany. The King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in 1871 in Versailles, no less. Bismarck was made Chancellor of the German Empire.

Bismarck was forced to resign as Chancellor in 1890, following a feud with the German Emperor Wilhelm II. He died in 1898.

Bismarck’s foreign policy became known as Realpolitik. This is best expressed as ‘pragmaticism’ – Realpolitik in foreign politics was about studying the national interests of other states and responding to them. Despite some of the tactics Bismarck employed being similar to those of Trump, Bismarck’s strategy had one driving interest: what was best for Prussia and how to achieve it. Trump’s version is clearly what was best for Trump and how to avoid appearing the numbskull he clearly is.

Now, if you haven’t picked up the influences on Diplomacy from this, let’s remind you that, when Calhamer first invented the game, it was called “Realpolitik”. If you want further proof, here’s the first draft or the rules; don’t expect to be able to read them clearly, though!

Of course, Diplomacy starts in 1901, in the post-Bismarkcian era. At that time, Bernhard von Bülow was Chancellor of Germany. However, Bismarck’s influence on European and German politics was so entrenched that any change, in both style and strategy, was almost impossible. The “Dual Alliance” with Austria-Hungary from Bismarckian; the “Triple Alliance” with Austria-Hungary and Italy was Bismarckian; the “Reinsurance Treaty” treaty with Russia was Bismarckian, although it wasn’t renewed after Bismarck left office.

Realpolitik meant taking the most practical route to further your interests. This is the driving idea behind Diplomacy. Bismarck created what has been described as a ‘web’ of agreements with other states. The Dual Alliance with Austria protected Germany and brought the two German speaking powers together. The Triple Alliance with Austria and Italy smoothed over the differences the two other powers had over Austrian lands on the eastern Adriatic coastline, which Italy claimed.

Bismarck strove to alienate the UK from Russia, France from the UK, and Russia from France. He accepted the Entente Cordiale, an Anglo-French agreement aimed at mutual support against German aggression, stating that it didn’t affect German policy. His main aim was to prevent France and Russia allying against Germany; whether this was ever achievable or not is up for debate but it failed under his successors with the Triple Entente, a treaty between the UK, France and Russia. He strove to build a better relationship with Turkey which led, eventually, to the ‘Triple Alliance’ of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey (Italy being swayed by Anglo-French promises of territory from Austria-Hungary).

Although the period from 1871 is probably more in line with the ideas Calhamer sought to bring into his game, it is clearly the lead up to WWI when the game is set, the post-Bismarckian era. And understanding Bismarck’s policies explains why: no matter what the subterfuge involved in Realpolitik, Bismarck managed to maintain wider European peace post-1871, in terms of keeping the major powers from conflict with each other. From 1901 onwards, German politics saw war as inevitable, specifically against Russia.

Diplomacy is adaptable to other eras. However, given that WWI was a conflict between European powers primarily, this is the perfect era for the game to be set. Calhamer explains why it wasn’t appropriate for other eras, certainly in Europe. Although it has been adapted to other European eras, these require much greater modification of the European state system of the time to make these variants playable.

All of this adds to the beauty of the design behind Diplomacy. There are some aspects of Realpolitik that I’ve heard decried by Dip players. This, for me, is silly; the game is based on Realpolitik – how can you complain about similar methods being used in Diplomacy?

For instance, the forwarding of messages. This has been around for ages: in Postal Diplomacy, letters from one player to another could well be forwarded to a third player. It is frowned upon in the Hobby, mainly because it discourages honesty in the game. In actual fact, it’s probably more likely to make the player who receives the forwarded correspondence trust the player who forwarded it less: if they are doing it to someone else, to whom are they forwarding your correspondence?!?

Bismarck used this a lot, although he went a step further and edited the correspondence. This is, of course, much easier in PBEM or Online play. The point is, of course, in these formats, can you really trust the message sent to you?

The time leading up to 1914 is ideal because the era saw the breakdown of Realpolitik. Europe was heading to war between the major powers, something that Bismarck had prevented. The major powers were playing the game of national interest, and this was probably at its height, just prior to the age of interdependence. It was also the height of multi-power imperialism by influence in Europe.

All of this is captured in the game… when it is played to the Calhamerian design. There’s no era in history which better reflects the design of the game.


SEE ALSO: The Ugly Game

Published by Mal Arky

I'm a Diplomacy nut... if you haven't guessed. I write about the game Diplomacy, mainly as played online on websites, such as Playdiplomacy, webDiplomacy and Backstabbr. I write books on Diplomacy, too. First one to be published soon!

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