WWI as the Culmination of an Era

The First World War was the inevitable result of the momentous transformations which Europe had experienced during the preceding century. While the nations of Europe long endured a history of violence equatable to that of any civilization of such ethnic and cultural diversity, the First World War is noteworthy in its causes, intensity, violence, duration and consequences. It is not however noteworthy in that it was the inevitable manifestation of its various causes, such is the very nature of any war of that relative magnitude. While the causes of the First World War were hardly inevitable, the conflict which would emerge as a result must, tautologically be an inevitability.

The emergence of Liberalism, industrial production, urban conglomeration, nationalism and imperialism created a highly, albeit subtle atmosphere of contention which would necessarily converge into what Ernst Junger titled a “storm of steel.” It was the inevitable consequence of an era of unprecedented progress and innovation such that the men, women, and nations which experienced such changes were so arrogant, so self-aggrandizing, so certain of their cultural superiority that they would risk total war to preserve this almost delusional sense of greatness. That war finally broke out in 1914 proves only that the plethora of other areas of competition had only in the early 20th-century finally become exhausted. Africa had been partitioned, the ports of China allotted, the states of Germany and Italy unified… By the dawn of the 20th-century there seemed to be no other distraction with which the nations of Europe could busy themselves and postpone the inevitable calamity.

The principles of Liberalism had instilled in the minds of successive generations of Europeans a sense of self-determination, of political and economic freedom which would encourage and serve as an ideological justification for both nationalism and imperialism. These two ideologies taken to their extremes, created a political and social atmosphere in which the First World War was made possible. The idea that an individual should be free from external coercion unless this freedom infringed on that of others, is Liberalism in its most primitive form. In its most processed and reconfigured form, Liberalism is Spencerian Social Darwinism, it is a “survival of the fittest” men and nations. By the time T.H. Green spearheaded a New Liberalism reminiscent of the morality and idealism of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith, the damage had been done. Liberalism became the ideology of the industrialist, the sovereign, and the financier. At odds were the old guard of Prussian, French, and English aristocracy and the avant-garde of socialism, communism and anarchism. The ideals of nationalism emerged from the competitive atmosphere, between both men and nations, which Liberalism had been interpreted to encourage.

As the empires of Europe consolidated, the incidence of international crises rapidly increased. Fashoda, Morocco, Libya… all these colonial disputes served to expose the underlying instability of the status quo in Europe. So too did the rapid rise of socialist movements exemplify the enduring class tensions which had long been overshadowed by economic progress at home and colonial adventures abroad.

As the great powers of Europe industrialized, urbanized and became political and economic hegemonies, nationalism emerged as a necessary consequence. Liberalism, both in economics and politics, had led to a thorough rejection of absolutism, of the divine rule of the monarch and of the economic theory of mercantilism. The political revolutions of the 19th-century resulted in the final deposition of the French monarchy and in many other nations, led to a compromise in the form of constitutional monarchism.

In this atmosphere of individual assertion and self-determination emerged the ideal that a nation, bound by language, culture, and blood could improve its people and mankind better than a chaotic multitude of interrelated kings, princes, dukes and barons. As nationalism spread across Europe, there emerged a competition between its various nations, all instilled with a sense of superiority over the other peoples and races of the globe. In this evolution, from the idealism of Mazzini to the brutalism of Treitschke, there emerged a more militant nationalism, in which every slight, every insult to a nation had to be challenged. The revanchism of France for its loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany is the most potent example of how the ideal, romanticized nationalism of yore morphed into a far uglier and dangerous form.

When war finally broke out in 1914, it is no surprise that the triggering incident took place on European soil. With foreign outlets of competition exhausted, the great powers of Europe had only their own continental system through which they could compete for dominance and prove their great power status. Equipped with the necessary technology, the European powers had divided (either politically or economically) Africa, Asia, and the Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of Europe.” The next point of contention would necessarily be the next weakest link in the international order, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With a multitude of nations, seemingly linked only in their reverence for their aging Emperor Franz Josef (r. 1848-1916) the dominions of the Hapsburgs were ripe for nationalist agitation. When Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand in the name of Serbian nationalism, he exposed the fragility of the European diplomatic order. The aspirations and honor of the great powers appeared at risk, and seemed very much dependent upon how the Austro-Serbian confrontation were resolved. It remains a matter of debate over how each nations’ handling of the crisis reflected their particular situations, and fears. No matter, it is evident that in the aftermath of the fatal shooting in Sarajevo, the leaders of the great powers were struggling to either maintain order or disrupt the status quo for their own nation’s benefit.

The unique, unprecedented character of the First World War was a result only of the inconsistencies between archaic notions of battle beheld by the old military order and the realities of scientific warfare. The highly immobile, highly lethal trench warfare into which the conflict quickly degenerated was a result of obsolete notions of offensive superiority (which military strategists initially favored) confronting modern warfare, which favored the defender and is exemplified by the trench, the machine gun and barbed wire.

As the First World War was the first major war of a generation, the strategies of the Bismarckian era war only gradually were replaced by a new, modern form of warfare which included aerial surveillance, snipers, storm-troopers, gas attacks, and eventually, tanks. The high fatality rate the French experienced in the first months of the war, partly a result of the ease in which German snipers could identify the bright red pants of the French infantry is a prime example of how the old and the new converged with destructive results.

For both the average and elite European, the character of the war was mysterious. What had been intended to be a short war of national assertion became a conflict which ended the age of European hegemony. The war destroyed a generation, both physically and psychologically, and the immense reorganization of the international order it engendered illustrates, in many ways, how the war was the last breath of the “belle époque,” as Victorian and Edwardian Europe has been so termed. In its character, the First World War was unique. In its role as the crescendo of a gradual intensification of European competition, it was nothing new. It was the Napoleonic Wars, the Hundred Years’ War, the Russo-Turkish Wars… It was, like any war of great consequence, an inevitable result of the manifold circumstances with which it had been made manifest.

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On the “Scramble For Africa”

The impetus behind the “new imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th century, and the “scramble for Africa” in particular, were the international rivalries which had gradually developed between the European powers. From the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), convened to officially conclude the Napoleonic wars, to the outbreak of the First World War (1914) the dominant concept in international relations was the so-called “balance of power,” wherein the European community of states would work to prevent any single nation from becoming too dominant on the continent. The “concert of Europe” which developed would only last until the unifications of the Italian (1860-61) and German (1870-71) states. These two events, excepting Russo-Turkish conflicts, produced the only wars on the continent in the hundred years between the Napoleonic wars and WWI. These two outbursts of nationalism, coupled with the earlier revolutions of 1848, indicated an instability in the geopolitical make-up of Europe.

It is no surprise then, that the great powers of Europe, all imbued with an unprecedented spirit of nationalism, had to move beyond the static borders of Europe to find an outlet to spread their separate cultures, economies and weapons industries. To control a vast empire was to occupy a coveted position on the international stage. While conservative forces stifled nationalist ambitions for territorial expansion on the continent, the masses of Europe became imbued with a spirit of positivism and progress and were more than ever confident in man’s ability to improve himself and his nation. Thus while the governments of Europe made every effort to stifle nationalism at home (to avoid conflict), they encouraged imperialism as a means of improving the prestige of the nation and creating the illusion of economic dominance through the acquisition of resource and labor rich colonies (an illusion, because empire did not mean economic hegemony over neighbors).

British economist J.A. Hobson, in his seminal Imperialism (1902), argued that economic interests were the driving force behind the acquisition of colonies. Hobson claimed that capitalist economies naturally sought new markets, and that by the late 19th century, untapped markets could only be found overseas. Hobson argued that although colonies cost a nation more than it can profit from them, the most moneyed sections of society can make immense profits, and therefore lobby successive governments to pursue imperialist policies. Hobson’s theory certainly has merit, but it does not explain “new imperialism” in full.

For one it fails to explain why the government would actively involve itself in colonial affairs, rather than take a more indifferent stance. The policies of the European governments during the age of the “old imperialism” were based upon the economic principle of mercantilism. Believing that material resources were limited, and  that power and prestige meant autarky and greater rates of export than import, governments often gave commercial interests a free hand in the colonies. This arrangement would remain, unless the incompetence of trading interests necessitated direct intervention by the government. Hobson’s theory seems more in tune with this former arrangement of colonial policy. It fails to explain the sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden interference of the home country in the internal affairs of its colonies in the “new” imperial age.

Secondly, Hobson’s theory fails to explain why some European powers (especially those that entered the imperial game later) would seek colonies, even where there was no noticeable source of revenue, either for the government or individual business interests. Bismarck’s famous about-face in the mid-1880s on foreign policy is a notable counter-example to Hobson’s claims. Having long held a Euro-centric view of hegemony, German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck openly disdained the perceived irrelevance and ostentatiousness of colonies. Bismarck’s eventual endorsement of overseas imperialism, while partly spurred by economic considerations, was primarily the result of international rivalry. Hobson’s theories can perhaps explain the original impulse behind “new imperialism,” but it does not sufficiently explain why the European powers took such an active role in the maintenance of their colonies, and all too often came to the brink of war over its claims. In short, Hobson’s theory only explains the original incentive for imperialism, not its perpetuation (even to the point of national destruction).

On the opposite spectrum of theories regarding the “new imperialism” were those of German political scientist Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter believed that the acquisition of colonies, the repression of native populations were all a result of man’s “need to hate.” To Schumpeter, there was no calculated reasoning behind colonial pursuits, only a natural human need to dominate and despise other people. Schumpeter misses the mark in a crucial respect. Many imperialists in fact viewed empire as a means of bettering humanity. To many missionaries, soldiers and educators imperialism was a means to improve the life of indigenous peoples. Schumpeter’s theory may explain the racism and nativism which were ubiquitous in the Western world in this period, but it fails to explain the actual circumstances of the “new imperialism.”

The unique character of the the new form of imperialism: annexation, conquest, direct administration… all bespeak of the deeper meaning “empire” took for the various nations of Europe. For the financiers, industrialists and merchants empire did mean capital and profit. For the Spencerian, social-Darwinians of academia, it meant dominance and hegemony. But how can the particularities of “new imperialism” be explained as a product of its context in history?

As professor Porter-Szucs explained, in the mid-19th century, the colonial empires of Europe had for the most part, disintegrated, and where they did exist there was significant political devolution between the home country and the colony. In the wake of French occupation, the Spanish Empire rapidly lost control of its Latin American empire, as did Portugal of Brazil, its largest and most prestigious colony. For Britain, colonialism remained an economic endeavor. Across the globe, the age of European imperialism appeared complete.

The circumstances which drastically reoriented international relations and led to the unprecedented proliferation of European imperialism are manifold. Early indicators of a movement toward more direct control over colonial empires include the First Opium War (1839) and the Sepoy Rebellion (1857). The former, a war between Britain and China over opium imports from India, indicated the greater involvement the government and military of the home country would be willing to play in the protection of colonial interests. The latter led to the consolidation and increased centralization of British authority over India (Queen Victoria became Empress of India).

The rise of nationalism in Europe made the acquisition of colonies almost a national hobby. For Britain, colonies became a symbol of its economic preeminence and naval superiority. Thus for the nation as a whole, the symbol was far more valuable than the costs, in lives and capital, that it took to maintain an ever-growing empire. For France, especially in the wake of defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, empire became a way to reposition itself on an equal footing with the other European powers, which were quickly outpacing France in industrial capacity and demographics. For recently unified Italy and Germany, prestige was from the first a more important consequence of empire than economic gain.

The “scramble for Africa” was unique in all imperial pursuits in that it was more flagrantly the result of rivalry than anything else. There were of course economic considerations; the Suez Canal being the most notable. However, the intensity and competition of this colonial race indicated the sea-change which had occurred in the realm of international affairs between the implementation of the Concert of Europe and the rise of nationalism.

By 1914, the economic benefits of empire had been largely debunked, and the imperial pursuits of the European powers (and now the United States as well) became mere indicators of a nation’s power. In much the same way that the leisurely life of an upper-class woman was evidence of her husband’s wealth and social standing, so too was empire a symbol of a power’s standing among its rivals.

Britain, secure in its colonial holdings, grew increasingly wary of German ambitions in the late 1880s. Germany after Bismarck, under the far less prescient, far more militaristic Kaiser Wilhelm II became increasingly irrational in international affairs in its pursuit of a “place in the sun.” France remained a dispirited nation, its defeat at the hands of a unifying Germany and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine still fresh in the collective memory of its people. Italy, perennially looking to become a more prominent power, pursued a haphazard imperial policy which led to defeat at the hands of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) at Adowa in 1896.

The “scramble for Africa” is proof of the competitive nature of the European powers’ pursuit of colonies in the age of the “new imperialism.” The new European empires were regarded as permanent signs of prestige, thus direct control and military administration was necessary. This more direct control, often implemented on a case by case basis before the “scramble,” proved to be a fundamental element in the European powers’ colonies in Africa from the start. Thus the “scramble for Africa” provides the most flagrant example of a new form of imperialism, where direct governance and military administration were crucial elements. This new form was evidently more a manifestation of international rivalries between the European powers than anything else.


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The Evolution of Nationalism in 19th-Century Europe

The English playwright George Bernard Shaw once claimed that “patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” In the very etymology of Nationalism can be seen an inherent chauvinism, arrogance, and exclusionary air. Unlike any economic or political movement, nationalism is an inherited ideology, a notion instilled in men and women from cradle to grave; a principle so fundamental to a man’s identity that he would give his own life or take another’s to ensure its preservation.

Nationalism emerged both gradually and suddenly. Nationalism requires a nation to revere, and thus in this sense it evolved over centuries of political and economic centralization in Europe. It emerged suddenly in that it manifested itself in an era of revolutions and civil wars the chronological parameters of which still remain ambiguous.

Nationalism, is in principle an innocuous and even noble ideal. Its earliest adherents saw it as a means to unite a nation, rather than destroy others. The early Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini claimed that “country is not only a mere zone of territory. The true Country is the Idea to which it gives birth; it is the Thought of love, the sense of communion which unites in one all the sons of that territory.” (Mazzini) How did such a noble ideal evolve into such an ugly reality?

Nationalism evolved because it devolved into a series of sub-national forms. It became an immensely popular notion as social, religious, and economic divisions became increasingly pronounced during the 19th-century. It was a banner under which a displaced and often desperate people could give their life greater meaning: “Your country is the sign of the Mission God has given you to fulfill towards humanity.” (Mazzini)  As nationalism spread across the western world however, its fundamental instability became increasingly evident. No longer, as Mazzini had believed, was a government or class of men the sole obstacle to the God-given right of national unity, progress and salvation. It was inevitable that the nationalisms of different peoples and cultures would clash, with increasingly destructive results.

The idealism of Mazzini stands in contrast to the realistic, albeit brutal nationalism of the German intellectual Heinrich Von Treitschke. Treitschke recognized that the preservation of the nation must inevitably lead to the destruction of others. Social evolution, the “survival of the fittest” was a struggle between peoples as much as it was one between individual men and women. Treitschke, having witnessed the destructive power of nationalism, believed that “war… will endure to the end of history, as long as there is multiplicity of States.” (Politics) An even elementary study of human history will reveal this truth. It is important to realize, however, that nationalism merely replaced other ideologies and movements which had in the past driven men to violence and warfare. Countless wars of succession and religious conflicts from the inception of modern western civilization reveal that nationalism was anything but unique in its purpose to adherents and in the passions and actions it inspired.

National anthems merely replaced religious hymns, military heroes were revered with an air of divinity. As societies in the western world underwent drastic and rapid changes, it was inevitable that associations and affiliations would evolve as well. No longer would the individual live for their lord or their king, no longer would they fight or kill for their God. Thus nationalism emerged as an answer to new existential questions which emerged as many individual lives underwent such immense transformations. Though the ideology was new, its purpose and function remained the same.

As the 19th-century was one of great change, it was also one of constant experimentation. The purpose and meaning of nationalism was certainly no exception. In some countries, nationalism became a pillar of the state alongside religion and/or the sovereign, and in others it replaced them. Nationalism meant many things to many different people. It served to create new antagonisms, as others became less relevant. German nationalism is a compelling case in point. For centuries, the German people were divided along royal and religious lines. By 1870, these divisions had eroded to the point where a Catholic Wurttemberger could fight alongside a Protestant Prussian, and the former’s leader could, for the sake of the nation, surrender much of his political authority to the Prussian House of Hohenzollern.

It was inevitable that nationalism would become exclusionary and violent. In its ability to unite people it was certainly not unique; it merely was a new banner under which a people could unify and give their life purpose as older purposes, such as religion and sovereign became less relevant.

Fascism was an inevitable result of nationalism. Mazzini had appealed for national unity to better the whole of humanity. Treitschke, having witnessed the warfare nationalism had engendered, saw national unity as a necessary means of survival. Over a century, the idea of what nationalism was, what the nation-state was meant to preserve or promote, became increasingly extreme. As the nations of Europe became more distinct, more powerful, and more imperialistic, the manifestations of patriotism became more dangerous. The United Kingdom needed a more powerful army. Germany needed a stronger navy and a “place in the sun.” France needed Alsace-Lorraine, and became increasingly revanchist and xenophobic (e.g., the Dreyfuss affair). As economic, political, and imperial competition became ever more pronounced, the nations of Europe took an increasingly more offensive and antagonistic stance towards it competitors. The World Wars, the two greatest manifestations of rival nationalisms, were the inevitable results. The first because a plethora of nations could not claim various pieces of one another’s territory and culture without coming into conflict. The second because the result of the first had so devastated the national character of those defeated or denied the fruits of victory. Fascism is irredentism. For the Germans, the loss of territory and other concessions led to a thirst for vengeance. For the Italians, the unfulfilled promise of greater territory became a national fixation. Fascism is merely a form of nationalism which happened to fit the specific circumstances of the countries in which it became the dominant political and social discourse.

It was inevitable that nationalism would “take a turn to the right” because it can be construed to serve the interests of a variety of different people. Thus just as Christianity, Socialism and Liberalism led many to violence and war, so too would nationalism, but on an unprecedented scale. That single notion on which nationalism rests, that one’s “country is superior… because [he or she] were born in it” has killed more people than any other idea in human history. What is perhaps most shocking is that there was no critical divergence of nationalism from its pure form to its ugly results. It was a smooth and gradual transformation.


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How Perceptions of Time and Speed Began to Change in Belle Epoque Europe

The late 19th and early 20th-century was a time of progress and advancement in the Western world which in its rapidity and totality, was arguably the most immense period of change in human history. Although the scope and speed of change appeared unprecedented, like any other epoch of human development it witnessed a reactionary, often paranoid fear of the new. As Professor Porter-Szucs indicated in lecture, the changing nature of time and space became a troublesome prospect for the masses of Europeans raised in a centuries-old provincialism and quasi-feudalism.

The world was becoming smaller and more accessible, families were being uprooted, and the constructs of time were transformed from a natural synchronism with night and day to a dystopian reality run by clocks and illuminated by artificial light. Simultaneous with the emergence of a new definition of time, was an unprecedented, seemingly impossible conquest of distance and space. The ancient truisms of just a few decades past had been almost entirely deconstructed by the emergence of rail transport, the nascent automotive and aviation industries, the bicycle, and communications tools such as the telegraph and the telephone. Like any other advancement, the implications of such new technologies were at once advantageous and detrimental. News became more efficiently disseminated and thus average persons more worldly. Mass produced items became more easily acquired and the market more competitive. But for many, these new means of accessibility were viewed as potential sources of insecurity and instability. Professor Porter-Szucs used the bicycle as a stark example of how a new tool of convenience could be construed by reactionary forces as a precipitator of social disorder and even licentiousness. The transformation of the very perceptions of time and space became a prominent theme in the creative arts. Professor Porter-Szucs indicated the works of Stravinsky, Joyce, Joplin, Eiffel as evidence of this sense of discord pervading the dawning modern age. Another outlet for this anxiety was a new literary genre which either predicted or imagined a dystopian consequence to the drastic transformations of the age. In this genre, innovations in transportation and communication often appear as pivotal tools in the transformation of society from the romanticized halcyon of the past to the future dystopia which will emerge in its place. British author H.G. Wells became immensely popular in Victorian and Edwardian England for such works as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, the former being a thinly-veiled indictment of man’s foray into the manipulation of time. In the context of imperial rivalry, emerging nationalism and rising militarism, dystopian novelists often employed new forms of transportation and communication as the facilitators of diabolical schemes. A sub-genre of the dystopian novel dwelled on the fear of invasion by the increasingly militaristic German Empire of the unsuspecting United Kingdom. Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands and William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 are just two of hundreds of novels and short stories which both excited and terrified the British public as the arms race between Britain and Germany was in full swing. For these authors, the seeming conquest of space and time was a terrifying notion, for as much as these new technologies could be used for good, they could equally become tools for evil machinations and conspiracies by the nation’s rivals. Greater speed and communication seems, from our contemporary perspective, to be incredible conveniences, but for the generation of Westerners who witnessed the birth of the telegraph, the telephone, complex rail systems, the automobile and time zones, they were things to be both celebrated as great human achievements as well as feared for their potential role in destruction.


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How 19th-Century Liberalism Would Evolve into its Ugly Cousin: Social Darwinism

The 19-century was one of transformations. Science, medicine, politics and industry progressed and advanced at a greater rate than it ever had in human history. As Professor Porter-Szucs put it “nothing seemed permanent.” Out of this new notion of perpetual mobility grew a revolutionary, if not entirely unique political philosophy, Liberalism. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was an early work which illuminated the natural, self-correcting tendencies of market forces. In this same vain of reasoning, Liberal thinkers began to admonish coercion, violence, and interference in all facets of life. In On Liberty John Stuart Mill established himself as a pioneer of Liberalism. Mill interpreted liberty to mean protection from tyranny, either of one man, many or a majority, and the freedom to do what one wills, as long as his course does not infringe on the liberty of others. Mill wrote in, or perhaps helped spark, a period of thought termed the Age of Liberalism, as it was in this age that the notions of human rights and limitations on government emerged. By the end of the 19th-century, Liberalism had evolved in a similar rapidity as had science, economics, demographics and technology.

As progress continued with greater inertia, as innovations built upon innovations, the use and interpretation of Liberalism changed immensely. Adam Smith and the late-19th century New Liberals (such as T.H. Green) focused on morality and ethics in human interaction. Mill similarly emphasized that power could only be employed “to prevent harm to others.” (Mill 13) Such idealism, however, contrasted with the true form society was quickly taking, in which man himself became a commodity, and David Ricardo’s theories of labor seemed to become a grim reality. The Liberalism under which so many nations and states had transformed into quasi-democratic societies became at once a tool for proponents and opponents of the new age, in which the peasant had become the wage laborer, the noble the factory owner. While, as previously noted, T.H. Green lamented this new, but vaguely familiar construct of society, Herbert Spencer celebrated. For Spencer, Liberalism meant the freedom for the “survival of the fittest” and the advancement of humanity to progress unabated by external forces. For Spencer, evolution was a path to perfection, rather than a readjustment to changing circumstances. Applying this theory to human society, Spencer’s perversion of Liberalism would in part lead to the emergence of Social Darwinism and eugenics, and eventually to the horrors of Nazi racial theories.

While the legacy of Liberalism is at once human rights and freedom, it also produced a terrible second legacy. Such is the nature of the legacies, in fact, of all the major transformations of the 19th-century. Medicine produced both increased longevity and provided the tools for eugenics to be implemented. Industry produced both a greater material base and an almost permanent subsistence class. Technology produced both unprecedented new tools for progress as well as tools of unprecedented destructive capabilities.

Such a dual legacy of new ideas and capabilities illustrates that in every age, it is incumbent upon contemporary men and women to utilize the new means of their age to a particular end. Just as so many countless other political and social movements have perverted its original ideas, so too did enough adherents of Liberalism.


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