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The first half of the century, the age of the World Wars and the start of the Cold War , was dominated by the rivalries of those powers. The second half saw the replacement, largely through the agency of those wars, of the European state system by a world system with many centres of both power and discord. This article provides a single integrated narrative of the changing context of world politics, from the outbreak of World War I to the s.
The roots of World War I , — Forty-three years of peace among the great powers of Europe came to an end in , when an act of political terrorism provoked two great alliance systems into mortal combat.
The South Slav campaign against Austrian rule in Bosnia, culminating in the assassination of the Habsburg heir apparent at Sarajevo , was the spark. This local crisis rapidly engulfed all the powers of Europe through the mechanisms of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, diplomatic arrangements meant precisely to enhance the security of their members and to deter potential aggressors.
The long-term causes of the war can therefore be traced to the forces that impelled the formation of those alliances, increased tensions among the great powers, and made at least some European leaders desperate enough to seek their objectives even at the risk of a general war. These forces included militarism and mass mobilization, instability in domestic and international politics occasioned by rapid industrial growth, global imperialism, popular nationalism , and the rise of a social Darwinist worldview.
But the question of why World War I broke out should be considered together with the questions of why peace ended and why in rather than before or after. The Bismarckian system, —90 The era of the great powers The European map and world politics were less confused in the decades after than at any time before or since. The unifications of Italy and Germany removed the congeries of central European principalities that dated back to the Holy Roman Empire , while the breakup of eastern and southeastern Europe into small and quarreling states a process that would yield the term balkanization was not far advanced.
The lesser powers of Europe, including some that once had been great, like the Netherlands , Sweden , and Spain , played little or no role in the affairs of the great powers unless their own interests were directly involved. Both physical size and the economies of scale important in an industrial age rendered smaller and less developed countries impotent, while the residual habits of diplomacy dating from the Congress of Vienna of made the great powers the sole arbiters of European politics.
In the wider world, a diplomatic system of the European variety existed nowhere else. The outcome of the U.
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Civil War and Anglo-American settlement of the Canadian border ensured that North America would not develop a multilateral balance-of-power system. South and Central America had splintered into 17 independent republics following the final retreat of Spanish rule in , but the new Latin American states were inward-looking, their centres of population and resources isolated by mountains, jungle, and sheer distance, and disputes among them were of mostly local interest.
When the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian tsar and Canada acquired dominion status, both in , European possessions on the American mainland were reduced to three small Guianan colonies in South America and British Honduras Belize. North Africa east of Algeria was still nominally under the aegis of the Ottoman sultan, while sub-Saharan Africa , apart from a few European ports on the coast, was terra incognita.
The British had regularized their hold on the Indian subcontinent after putting down the Indian Mutiny of —58, while the Chinese and Japanese empires remained xenophobic and isolationist. Thus, the cabinets of the European great powers were at the zenith of their influence.
Europe itself, by , seemed to be entering an age of political and social progress. International peace also seemed assured once Otto von Bismarck declared the new German Empire a satisfied power and placed his considerable talents at the service of stability.
The chancellor knew Germany to be a military match for any rival but feared the possibility of a coalition. Since France would never be reconciled to her reduced status and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine imposed by the treaty ending the Franco-German War , Bismarck strove to keep France isolated. Such a combination was always vulnerable to Austro-Russian rivalry over the Eastern Question —the problem of how to organize the feuding Balkan nationalities gradually freeing themselves from the decrepit Ottoman Empire.
After the Slavic provinces of Bosnia and Hercegovina rebelled against Ottoman rule in and Russia made war on the Ottoman Empire two years later, the Dreikaiserbund collapsed. Bismarck achieved a compromise at the Congress of Berlin , but Austro-Russian amity was not restored. In , therefore, Bismarck concluded a permanent peacetime military alliance with Austria, whereupon the tsarist government, to court German favour, agreed to a renewal of the Dreikaiserbund in Italy, seeking aid for her Mediterranean ambitions, joined Germany and Austria-Hungary to form the Triple Alliance in The next Balkan crisis, which erupted in Bulgaria in , again tempted Russia to expand its influence to the gates of Constantinople.
Bismarck dared not oppose the Russians lest he push them toward an alliance with vengeful France. Should that temper change, or less adept leadership succeed Bismarck, Germany had the potential to become the major disrupter of European stability. For the constitution drafted by Bismarck for the Second Reich was a dysfunctional document designed to satisfy middle-class nationalism while preserving the power of the Prussian crown and the Junker class the Prussian landed aristocracy.
Apparently a federal empire, Germany was in fact dominated by Prussia , which was larger in area and population than all the other states combined. The king of Prussia was kaiser and chief warlord of the German armies; the prime minister of Prussia was the federal chancellor, responsible, not to a majority in the Reichstag , but only to the crown.
Furthermore, Prussia retained a three-class voting system weighted in favour of the wealthy. The army remained, in Prussian tradition, virtually a state within the state, loyal to the kaiser alone. In sum, Germany remained a semi-autocratic military monarchy even as it blossomed into an industrial mass society.
The lack of outlets for popular dissent and reform was especially damaging given the cleavages that continued to plague Germany after unification: Protestant North versus Catholic South, agriculture versus industry, Prussia versus the other states, Junkers versus middle-class liberals, industrialists versus the increasingly socialist working class.
Bismarck manipulated the parties and interests as he did foreign powers. Austria-Hungary and Russia, still overwhelmingly agrarian, faced different challenges by the end of the 19th century. Most acute for Austria-Hungary was the nationality question.
An heir to the universalist vision of the Holy Roman Empire , Austria-Hungary was a multinational empire composed not only of Germans and Magyars but also of in 4,, Czechs and Slovaks, 3,, Ruthenes, 2,, Poles, 2,, Romanians, 3,, Serbs and Croats, about 1,, Slovenes, and , Italians.
Thus, the Habsburgs faced the challenge of accommodating the nationalism of their ethnic minorities without provoking the dissolution of their empire. In British, French, and, increasingly, Russian opinion, Austria-Hungary was simply out of step with the times, moribund , and, after Turkey , the most despised of states.
But the progress of nationalism gradually undermined the legitimacy of the old empires. Ironically, Austria existed from to in a symbiotic relationship with her ancient enemy, the Ottoman Empire.
For as the Balkan peoples gradually pulled free from Constantinople, they and their cousins across the Habsburg frontier inevitably agitated for liberation from Vienna as well. Russia was also a multinational empire, but with the exception of the Poles her subject peoples were too few compared to Great Russians to pose a threat.
Ever since the humiliating defeat in the Crimean War , tsars and their ministers had undertaken reforms to modernize agriculture, technology, and education. But the Russian autocracy , making no concession to popular sovereignty and nationality, was more threatened by social change even than the Germans. Hence the dilemma of the last tsars: In sum, the decades after did not sustain the liberal progress of the s.
Resistance to political reform in the empires, a retreat from free trade after , the growth of labour unions, revolutionary socialism , and social tensions attending demographic and industrial growth all affected the foreign policies of the great powers.
Patterns of population European demographic and industrial growth in the 19th century was frantic and uneven, and both qualities contributed to growing misperceptions and paranoia in international affairs. European population grew at the rate of 1 percent per year in the century after , an increase that would have been disastrous had it not been for the outlet of emigration and the new prospects of employment in the rapidly expanding cities.
When the French Revolution unleashed this national power through rationalized central administration, meritocracy , and a national draft based on patriotism, it achieved unprecedented organization of force in the form of armies of millions of men. The French tide receded, at the cost of more than a million deaths from to , never to crest again. Should Russia ever succeed in modernizing, she would become a colossus out of all proportion to the European continent.
Population pressure was a double-edged sword dangling out of reach above the heads of European governments in the 19th century. On the one hand, fertility meant a growing labour force and potentially a larger army.
On the other hand, it threatened social discord if economic growth or external safety valves could not relieve the pressure. The United Kingdom adjusted through urban industrialization on the one hand and emigration to the United States and the British dominions on the other.
France had no such pressure but was forced to draft a higher percentage of its manpower to fill the army ranks.
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Russia exported perhaps 10 million excess people to its eastern and southern frontiers and several million more mostly Poles and Jews overseas. Germany, too, sent large numbers abroad, and no nation provided more new industrial employment from to Industry, technology, and trade Industrial trends magnified the demographic, for here again Germany was far and away the fastest growing economic power on the Continent. This was so not only in the basic industries of coal and iron and steel but also in the advanced fields of electricity, chemicals, and internal combustion.
By the end of the century Germany had become a highly urbanized, industrial society, complete with large, differentiated middle and factory proletariat classes, but it was still governed largely by precapitalist aristocrats increasingly threatened by demands for political reform.
Industrialization also made possible the outfitting and supply of mass armies drawn from the growing populations. After the monarchies of Europe had shied away from arming the masses in the French revolutionary fashion, and the events of further justified their fear of an armed citizenry.
But in the reserve system Prussia found a means of making possible a rapid mobilization of the citizenry without the risk to the regime or the elite officer corps posed by a large standing, and idle, army.
In Austria-Hungary the crown avoided disloyalty in the army by stationing soldiers of one ethnic group on the soil of another. The final contribution to the revolution in warfare was planned research and development of weapons systems.
The demographic, technical, and managerial revolutions of the 19th century, in sum, made possible the mobilization of entire populations and economies for the waging of war. The home of the Industrial Revolution was Great Britain , whose priority in the techniques of the factory system and of steam power was the foundation for a period of calm confidence known with some exaggeration as the Pax Britannica.
The pound sterling became the preferred reserve currency of the world and the Bank of England the hub of international finance. British textiles , machinery, and shipping dominated the markets of Asia , South America , and much of Europe. But that hegemony very naturally impelled other nations somehow to catch up, in the short term by imposing protective tariffs to shield domestic industries and in the longer term by granting government subsidies for railroads and other national development work and the gradual replication of British techniques.
France , Prussia , and other countries then reversed earlier policies and followed the British into free trade. In the depression of —96 actually years of slower, uneven growth industrial and labour leaders formed cartels, unions, and lobbies to agitate for tariffs and other forms of state intervention to stabilize the economy. Bismarck resisted until European agriculture also suffered from falling prices and lost markets after owing to the arrival in European ports of North American cereals.
In the so-called alliance of rye and steel voted a German tariff on foreign manufactured goods and foodstuffs. Free trade gave way to an era of neo- mercantilism. France, Austria, Italy, and Russia followed the new or revived trend toward tariff protection. After the volume of world trade rose sharply again, but the sense of heightened economic competition persisted in Europe.
Social rifts also hardened during the period.
Conservative circles, farmers as well as the wealthier classes, came gradually to distrust the loyalty of the urban working class, but industrialists shared few other interests with farmers. Other countries faced similar divisions between town and country, but urbanization was not advanced enough in Russia or France for socialism to acquire a mass following, while in Britain agriculture had long since lost out to the commercial and industrial classes, and working-class participation in democratic politics was on the rise male suffrage was still dependent upon property qualiifications, but the Second Reform Act  had extended the vote to many workingmen in the towns and cities.
The social divisions attending industrialization were especially acute in Germany because of the rapidity of her development and the survival of powerful precapitalist elites. Moreover, the German working class, while increasingly unionized, had few legal means of affecting state policy.
The foreign counterpart to this phenomenon was the New Imperialism. The great powers of Europe suddenly shook off almost a century of apathy toward overseas colonies and, in the space of 20 years, partitioned almost the entire uncolonized portion of the globe.
Only Britain and France were capital-exporting countries in , and in years to come their investors preferred to export capital to other European countries especially Russia or the Western Hemisphere rather than to their own colonies. The British remained free-trade throughout the era of the New Imperialism, a booming home economy absorbed most German capital, and Italy and Russia were large net importers of capital.
Once the scramble for colonies was complete, pressure groups did form in the various countries to argue the economic promise of imperialism, but just as often governments had to foster colonial development. In most cases, trade did not lead but followed the flag.