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Hack For More

Steampunk Backstory

by Edward McEneely
Feb 08,2005


Hack For More

Steampunk Backstory

In the interests of, you know, making the column look a little viable, here's some backstory for the universe my PCs are currently trapped in.

In the 1860s, Germany as we know it now didn't exist yet. It consisted of a bunch of loosely aligned states---each with its own hereditary ruler---that shared a common language, a love of short leather pants and oompah bands, and not much else. Out of all of these crappy little states, Prussia was the biggest and the strongest. Its king, or Kaiser, was named Wilhelm, and he was an aging general who had replaced his nutty elder brother. As might be imagined, Wilhelm had little love for anything outside of the army, but he certainly did a good job on it.

In addition to a Kaiser, Prussia had what passed for an elected body of officials, who were responsible for...very little, actually, thanks to the brilliance (and distinct lack of scruples) of one man: Otto von Bismarck.

Otto von Bismarck was the Chancellor of Prussia, and a devilishly clever one, at that. For years, the German states had been held in thrall by their powerful neighbor, the Austrian Empire, which, to purloin a phrase of comedian Eddie Izzard (talking about the even more anemic Ottoman Empire), spent most of its time "collapsing, like a flan in a cupboard". The reason for this was that the empire actually consisted of tons of different peoples, including the German-speaking Austrians, the Slavic Czechs and Slovaks, the Hungarians, a smattering of Italians, and quite a few Serbs (they're going to turn up again a bit later, so keep your eyes peeled). To a raging nationalist like Bismarck, this was no good. If Prussia did anything that made Austria mad, the Austrians would come over and kick their asses.

Or would they? In a short war in 1866, the Prussians, aided to a certain extent by the other, much less-interested German states, went to war with Austria and beat the living crap out of it. We don't want to get too sidetracked here, but a major reason for this was that the German armies were using a weapon called the needle-gun, while the Austrians were using old muzzleloading muskets. While it takes a long time to load a musket (you have to pour the gunpowder in, careful not to use too much or too little, push in the musket ball, and then probably jam some paper to keep everything in until you fire), it's a snap to use a needle-gun, which works a little like a modern rifle: the bullet is kept in a sort of paper tube, a little like a cigar, with the gunpowder and a mercury fulminate percussion cap (to explode when poked by the titular needle, thus propelling the bullet) and you just put it in the back of the gun, close it up, and blam! You're a killing machine. At any rate, the Prussians handily won the war and the German states moved a little closer to being one country. But they weren't all the way there just yet.

During all of this, the French (the old enemy of Germanic peoples everywhere, from Louis XIV to Napoleon and quite a few other Frenchmen as well) had been working up a few imperial ambitions of their own. After Napoleon had been beaten at Waterloo in 1814 and carted away to the island of St. Helena, the French had been the victims of several unfortunate experiments in government. First, the victorious allied powers had re-imposed the Bourbon monarchs upon them, but that couldn't last. The French had already bisected one monarch, and it should have been immediately apparent that none of his relatives would do much better. King Louis-Phillipe fled France in 1846, to be replaced by a very short-lived experimental democracy (the Second Republic; the first had been born out of the French Revolution and ended when Napoleon became Emperor). This, in turn, was replaced in 1851 by Louis Napoleon, better known to the world as Napoleon III.

"Who?" I hear you ask. Who indeed. The French don't like to talk about Napoleon III; they'd much rather you'd remember his more illustrious uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, AKA Napoleon I, the guy who lost the Battle of Waterloo but won pretty much everything else. Napoleon III, or Louis Napoleon, was the son of the first Napoleon's brother, and he grew up in exile (all of Napoleon's family was kicked out of France after his reign ended), spending time in Switzerland, Italy, and England.

This is all fine and dandy, but there's still the inexplicable fact that Louis Napoleon is Napoleon III, rather than Napoleon II. Patience, grasshopper.

Napoleon II was the son of Napoleon Bonaparte (that is, Napoleon I, the Little Big Man of Europe) by his second wife, Princess Marie-Louise of Austria. When Napoleon I was defeated at Waterloo, he abdicated in favor of his son, who first became Napoleon II, and then, about ten minutes later, was deposed and exiled. He died young, very young indeed, in his exile in Austria, which cleared the way for Louis Napoleon to take his shot at the throne, which he did.

By intricate maneuvering much too boring to get into here, Louis Napoleon managed to worm his way to the top of the pole, as it were, of French power. The 1850s and 60s were a good time to be a fashionable French autocrat; the American Civil War was fermenting, France was newly resurgent militarily, if not culturally, and Paris was still the most fashionable city in the world. Even the Germans, who were ever half-envious, half-contemptuous of their Gallic neighbors, had a saying: "Happy as God in France", the implication being that France was a sort of European paradise, of course. To a Prussian Junker (the German term for a landed nobleman in the eastern portion of Prussia, in what is now Poland and Latvia; in the quaint fashion of foreigners, it's pronounced as if the "j" were a "y", the exception that proves the rule wherein the Germanic tongue sounds like nothing so much as a pair of vicious dogs fighting), who eked out his living in the harsh soil of Eastern Prussia (although the land there is totally unsuited for crops, high tariffs on imported foodstuffs ensured a domestic monopoly and enriched the Military-Agrarian complex), France may well have seemed the perfect country. It was doubly galling to the Germans that the whole country should be wasted upon the French, who seemed to them lazy and tempestuous, ever feuding with themselves or dabbling in the dangerous sport of democratic government. (In 1848, an attempt to establish so-called liberal institutions like, oh, universal suffrage or some form of representative government in Prussia was dealt with by the army, which assumed its place as the most powerful political force in Germany, a position it retained, with disastrous results, well into the 1930s.) Internally, France had problems. Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III, for those of you still with me), wasn't really an effective autocrat; he was more interested in having lots and lots of sex, unwittingly creating the modern American's idea of the stereotypical Frenchman, useless in war and obsessed with lovemaking. (Previously, the French were considered to have the last word in military knowledge. Nearly all of the American generals in the Civil War and World War I, for instance, were heavily influenced by French military thinkers, and the training manuals used by both the Union and the Confederacy were pretty much translated directly from the French. Oh yeah, Americans are big tough guys, we know all about war, right? We sneer at those ineffectual French pansies, but our whole army is wearing berets. Obviously, closet Francophiles have infested the Department of Defense at the highest levels. Tangentially: American troops have been wayyy more likely to run screaming from a fight then French soldiers, who preferred to die where they stood. That's how 600,000 Frenchmen died in 1914 fighting the Germans; more war dead in a season that in every American war ever.) Napoleon III's sexual prowess waned as he grew older; he had this sort of weird moustache beard combo that looked like a T when seen from the front, with the moustache waxed into two fine points, one on either side of his face. During the Act, as it were, the wax melted, so at the zenith of the experience, so to speak, the moustache drooped quite comically.

Unfortunately for Napoleon III, a lot of Frenchmen weren't too keen on having a dictator on the throne, and many of his opponents were extremely vocal. As a result, the Second Empire was a police state, not much better than Prussia (maybe a little worse, actually), but it sure looked nicer. If there was a slum problem, well, that's what the army was for: when the citizenry erected barricades in the streets (you've seen Les Miserables, right? That's set during the time of Napoleon III), the soldiers came in with cannons and rifles and just cleared the riff-raff out. (And the French army had their own needle-gun rifle, the chassepot, which has achieved a sort of minor celebrity by appearing in The Major-General Song from Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Pirates of Penzance. Incidentally, the Major-General from the operetta is based upon Major-General (later Field Marshal) Sir Garnet Wolseley, a British officer who fought in the various small wars of Empire that the United Kingdom stumbled into so often during the last half of that troubled century, a man notable for an unfortunate foray into politics as well, since in 1863, after meeting Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson, he recommended that Britain enter the Civil War on the side of the South, which was by that point in time, to use a German expression, ausgeschslossen---out of the question. Theodore Roosevelt would later call him, and I'm not making this up, "flatulent". Perhaps unfair of Teddy to say, really; the two of them never met personally, and whatever his other faults, Wolseley was a master of colonial warfare. Still, it's pretty cool to have a then-future President of the United States call anyone flatulent, let alone an important foreign military officer.)

Like the Germans, the French army had been involved in a number of couple of wars prior to 1870. In 1854, the French and British had fought (and won) a war with Russia on behalf of Turkey (which bequeathed to the world the gallant, unnecessary, and mistaken Charge of the Light Brigade---a minor incident in a much larger battle), and in 1859, France and Italy fought a short war with Austria which France nominally won after an exceptionally bloody battle. Unfortunately, not too much was gained at the peace conference, which resulted in a distinct cooling of relationships betwixt France and both Italy and Austria. Cunningly, Napoleon III had managed to alienate the three powers in Europe who could have acted as a counterweight to Prussian militarism: Russia, Italy, and Austria, all of whom had a vested interest in a weak collection of German states. To exacerbate the situation, Napoleon III attempted to curry favor with Bismarck by trying to convince him to join in an invasion of Belgium, an independent state since 1833. Now, that might not have been a big deal, but the British had a vested interest in a neutral Belgium (and the neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by a treaty signed by all the European powers), because the ports of Belgium were ideal for anyone who wanted to control the English Channel, which strategically and psychologically was probably one of the most important parts of British foreign policy; anyone who wanted to invade would need to control Belgium. Had the British known of Napoleon III's proposal, things would have gotten pretty icy. The Germans, however, simply politely declined, and got everything in writing, for use later.

Thus, Napoleon III worked himself and his country into a position from whence there was no escaping. By 1870, France and Prussia were the two dominant continental powers in Europe. Both were spoiling for a fight; both were certain of victory. All that they needed to go to war was an excuse, which was provided when a Hohenzollern---a member of the Prussian Royal Family---was offered the throne of Spain, a position he wasn't particularly interested. In geopolitical terms, however, this was a big deal, because if Spain became aligned with Germany, France would be, as a later French Prime Minister was to put it, "trapped between two fires."

The process of jingoism and mob rule began in earnest, and France declared that a German on the throne of Spain would mean war. The armies mobilized. The diplomats were called in to resolve things, but Bismarck craftily reworded a telegram and "leaked" it to the press in such a way as to make it appear that Wilhelm I, Kaiser of Prussia, had grievously insulted the French ambassador. The war was on.

The British might have intervened on behalf of the French (whom the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, vociferously supported, despite the fact that Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, that is, his elder sister---also named Victoria, and the mother of the future Kaiser Wilhelm II---was married to the Kaiser's son, Crown Prince Frederick), but Bismarck produced the papers relating to the proposed invasion of Belgium, and all hope of aid was cut off for France.

The French never stood a chance. Their army was almost completely unprepared for modern war, and they suffered defeat after defeat as incompetent generals wasted the lives of their soldiers, who, even in defeat, were magnificent. The French army, even with the brand-new mitrelleuse machinegun, was in no way prepared to deal with the newest German invention: the Panzerartillerie, armored walking vehicles ("walking cruisers", as the British called them, tiggereing off an inter-service struggle as to who was to supervise the development of Queen Victoria's Land Ironclad Service) equipped with open-air turntables mounting light field guns. The German infantry could advance supported by artillery and clear out French positions far more easily than with only skirmishing lines of infantry armed with rifles and bayonets.

Still, the French held on for five months of bitter guerilla warfare, until German field guns began to bombard Paris daily, shelling the civilian populace until they finally surrendered in May of 1871; earlier, in January of that year, Bismarck had maneuvered the various German states into acclaiming Wilhelm I of Prussia Emperor of all Germany, thereby giving birth to modern Germany and cementing the centralization of power in Prussia.

In the main, the 1870-71 war was a disaster for France. Not only did Germany emerge stronger and more powerful than ever before, but she imposed a huge war debt upon France, and also annexed Alsace-Lorraine.

The Alsace-Lorraine territories are lush lands that border Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland; in the 1500s, they were Germanic, but during the course of the various wars that wracked Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, they gradually became culturally and politically French. Die-hard Prussians considered them German, and demanded their "return" against Bismarck's advice. While defeating France in a war might not have seriously affected the national psyche of the French---after all, they had won or lost plenty of times before, and the next time it would be their turn to win again---the loss of Alsace-Lorraine struck a deep chord throughout all classes and parties in France. "Think of it always," thundered one French politician (Leon Gambetta), "speak of it never." From 1871 onwards, the whole of French foreign policy was focused on regaining enough strength to crush Germany, once and for all and to return Alsace-Lorraine to France. Across France, the statues representing the lost territories---France, and her various departments, which are (very) roughly equivalent to states in America, have always been anthropomorphized, invariably as beautiful women---were draped in black mourning cloth. The Third Republic, which replaced Napoleon III's fallen Second Empire, worked carefully and slowly to build up the strength it would need to fight the numerically and---apparently---qualitatively superior German armies, building improved copies of the German walkers and expanding France's colonial possessions abroad.

The French made tentative steps towards an alliance Russia, which was about the only nation as poorly-regarded and isolated as they were. Russia was enormous, with the largest army in Europe, the most land, the most natural resources, and no direction or control whatsoever. The entire country seemed rooted firmly in the late 1700s at best, with an almost medieval society arranged around serfs bound to the land and owing fealty to the nobility, noblemen and priests responsible to the Czar in St. Petersburg, and the Czar, theoretically absolute and unquestioned Emperor of All the Russians, answerable only to God. At the time, the Czar was the autocratic, authoritative, and sadly limited Alexander III, an immense bear of a man. When the Austrian ambassador once mentioned that his government was planning on mobilizing a few army corps for maneuvers along the Austro-Russian border as a thinly-veiled threat, the Czar casually twisted a silver dinner fork into a pretzel and threw it on to the ambassador's plate.

"That's what I'll do to your army corps," he said. The Austrians backed down. Threats aside, though, the Russians hadn't really done well in battle---even against the Turks, it had required more men than any other army in Europe even had under arms to win battles, but the theoretical fighting power of so many soldiers overwhelmed the mind. Even in the era of the breech loading rifle and the machinegun, it was hard not to be almost hypnotized by the thought of what most of Europe called "the Russian steamroller" simply wading through any opposition, like a really fat Hell's Angel in a barfight. A million men dead would effectively destroy any army in Europe, but the Russians could easily afford to lose that many; after all, there were always more serfs. When the entire German army could field perhaps two million men, two-and-a-half million tops including reserves, the Russian army could field one and a half million...for the sixty days it would take to mobilize their three million reservists. Two million more recruits were also available. But Russia's vast army was distributed throughout her massive empire, and the country itself was remarkably backwards, buying up job lots of German Franco-Prussian-war-surplus walkers, which were already showing their age against the newer machines entering service, from the British "Isandlwana Pattern" Colonial Land Cruiser to France's massively well-armored Gloire quadruped, armed with a quick-firing 75mm field gun in a revolutionary enclosed turret.

With the dubious help availible to them, it was unsurprising that some Frenchmen might start to look elsewhere...

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