Europe at the turn-of-the-20th century was prosperous and the center of the world intelectually and scientifically, chalenged industrially only by the United States. Most Europeans thouht that a general war was impossible. There was considerable reason to think that this was the case. The last major war, the Napoleonic War, ended in 1815. Beneath the shining surface and glittering culture were a range of problems, some more vissible than others. There was a working class while increasingly prosperous, was disasistfied with social conditions and turning to Marxist politicans that questioned capitalism. Most of Europe was governed by four great empires (Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottomans, and Russia) which to varying degrees supressed the different ethnic groups which they governed, but were incresingly unable to control the growing nationlist sentimehts of these groups. Many assessments put Serbia and the Balkans at the center of European instability. There were certainly problems in the Balkans, but Europe itself was not the center of world stability often depicted. Rather it was a vast multipolar, fractured, multicultural world being contorted by cultural change resulting from industrialization and swept with clahing ideologies, terrorism, militancy, and instability. And there were trends which made war seem more than a remote possibility. Many of the wars had been fought in Germany or by Germany. German unification had been decided by war and Germany unified around the Prussian monarchy heabily influenced by the junker class. This gave the German military tremendous prestige as well as made the use of force acceptable to many Germans. On the other hand, Germany had the largest Socialist movement in Europe with a strong Marxist belief that that war the product of capitaism and imperialism. France was humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and saw no way of retreiving the lost provinces of Alsace-Loraine except through war. Turn of the century Europe was inter-conected to an incrdible degree. Railroads had made possible economic interactions possible to a greater extent than ever before. The economic interconnections and the costs of war were such that many felt that a major war would never occur. Even the royal families of Europe, in part thanks to Queen Victoria, were connected, making war even more unlikely. Ultimately these interconections failed because of the forces sweeping Europe. Historians vary as to just what ultimately brought on war. One author maintains that the very leaders whon prided theselves on modernity and rationalismacted like 'skleepwalkers' who cobeled together patchwork settlements to crisus after crisis without resolving the fundamental problems until finlly deciding on war. [Clark] Another author is even more acusatory. He believes that war could have been averted had not a small group of statesmen turned Archduke Ferdinand's assasination into the long-awaited showdown between two armed camps. Traditionally the acusatory finger has pointed at Austria and Germany with Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold and Germnan Chancellor Berthmann Hollwegthe key actors. Other historians believe that France and Russia may have been even more culable led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Szonov and French President Raymond Poincaré. [McMeekin]
Europe at the turn-of-the-20th centuy was prosperous and the center of the world intelectually and scientifically, chalenged industrially only by the United States. In no area was this more pronounced than in science. Europe had created scienced beginning with Gailileo (17th century). This of course does not mean technology. Cgian had been the primary generator of tevchnology for centuries, but never deloped science. We see Europeans making important scientific discoiveries based on the scientific method (18th century, but these were mostly men of indepedent means would could endulge their passion for discovery. This changed in The 19th century. Science for the first became a profession. Industrialists soughtbthem out to not only improve and perfect industrial processes, but to invent whole new industries. . With few exceptions only in Europe. Governmnts estblidhed institutes to pursue science and univeristies expanded scientific faculties. This was almost entirely a European development. The only important exceotion was yhe United States, but until the 20th century, the United States was a scientific, but not a tecjnologicsl, backwater. The word scientist was not even used until the 19th centuryy. William Whewell created it (1833). [Snyder] Until the 19th century what we now call scientists were called philosdophers, more specifically philosopher. Many of the giants of science appeared in the 19th century at this time--all European. Charles Darwin in England at mid-century revolutionized the study of biology with the theoiry of evolution and the concept of natural selection. [Darwin] It was in the 19th century that man for the first time develooed the germ theiry od disease. This development was led by Louis Pasteur made developed the first vaccine against rabies. He followed this with impoerant discoveries in the field of chemistry, including the asymmetry of crystals. Developments in phusics during the second half of the century were nothing sdhort of breattaking. Dmitri Mendeleev in Russia created the periodic table of elements. Michael Faraday (England), André-Marie Ampère (France), James Clerk Maxwell (Scotland), and others developed electromagnetism as a new branch of science. Thermodynamics was another new field. This led to a real undestanding of heat and the ideda of energy was defined for the first time in svsintific tems. John Dalton in England theorized the atmic structure of matter. He was a chemmist, but this soon became a fundmental concept of physics which would primarily be developed in the 20th century. What did ovccur in the late 19th century wamjor advances in electrical science wjich until this time had been primarily exercvises in parlor games. This new field of electr-magenism fundamentally changed physics. The first commercial use was the telegraph developded by Sammuel Morris (American). This new technology appeared made possible electric illumination and power in the final decades of the century. Here Edison (American) and Tesla (Italian/American) were major figures. And fimally radio communication appeared led by Marconi (Italian) at the end of the crentuty. There were important advances in astronomy. English astromer John Couch Adams discovered the last planet, Neptune, without actually seeing it. Mahor advabnces were made in mathematics. This inclided work on complex numbers. Important analytical theories appeared along with the use of hypercomplex numbers. Karl Weierstrass in Germany comducted the arithmetization of analysis for functions of real and complex variables. Other mthematucians worked on geometry and went beyond classical Euclidian concepts--the first major brekthough in two millennia. There were also advances in the mathematical science of logic. These mamy 19th century advances were crowned by the greatest leap of science yet after the turn of the 20th century -- the theory reltivity proposed by Albert Einstein (Gerrman). All of these advances led to great improvements in productivity and medical scinces, improving the lives of millions. Thus at the turn of the 20th century there was a great feeling of optimism in Europe. Based on what had been achieved in the 19th century, the possibilities for the 20th century seemed boundless. The unsinkabled HMS Titanic disaster was unsettling, but did not seriously dent the general feeking of optimism. Science no matter how advanced is nothing more thna a tool. It can be used for good or evil. And this would prove to be case with the rise of the great Totalitarian Powers of the 20th century (Fascist and Communist). Fortunately for humanity, NAZI dictator Adolf Hitler who admired nothing more thsn destructive weapory dismissed Relativity and nuclear physics in general because Einstein and other leading nuclear phyicists were Jewish.
Modern European history was bounded between two great wars, the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) and World War I (1914-18). Most Europeans at the turn of the 20th century, content with the optimism engered by the long period of relative peace and progress of the 19th century thouht that another general war was impossible. There was considerable reason to think that this was the case. The last major war, the Napoleonic War, ended in 1815. There had been wars in the 19th century, most prominently the Crimean War (1846-48) and and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), but they had been generally localized wars, short and resulting in limited deaths and destruction. The Civil War in Amneric did not register on the European conciouness. The generally feeling in Europe was that along with scientific and matertial progress, the countries of Europe had reached a level of sophistication in which war was no longer a serious possibility. Europeans believed that the cost of a great war would be so immense that European leaders would never again resort to a general European war. They bcould not bhave been more wrong.
Beneath the shining surface and glittering culture, Europe was beset with a range of problems, some more vissible than others. This fairly stable system was upset by a range of developments which had beconme significant by the 20th century. There were country trends which made war seem more than a remote possibility.First, the French Revolution fomented a rise in nationalism. This not only led to the unification of Germany and Italy, but the rise of nationalist spirit amoing the national ethnicities comprising the great empires--a highly destabilizing development. Second, the industrial revolution which began in Britain did not evenly spread throughout Europe crearting power dusparities. It created poweerful economies in Britain and Germany, but was much less pronounced in Eastern-Europe (Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire). And industry could be coverted into military power, including naval power. Third, in continental Europe's most powerful state, a united German Empire, a young monarch, Willian=m II, rose to the throne convinced of his own intelect, desoiring personanl glory, and believing that Germany needed to achieve an expanded role in European affairs. Fourth, the increasing lethality of weapory as a result of scientific advances which mean that weapnry more than ever before could overcome manpower. This significantly dhifted the bakznce between Russia and Germany. Fifth, some Euroean powers had overseas empires (especially Britain and France). These overseas empires in any porotracted war could be important supports. Sixth, the Brtish Royal Navy was the most powerful naval force in the world . In any protracted war, the Royal Navy could be used to cut off Germany from food and raw materials. Germany's efforts to bulld a high seas fleet would be seen as a threat in Britain. Seventh, a non-European power, America, had become a new power center, the leading industrial nation of the world. Britain understood the military consequences of this, Germany did not.
Europe at the turn of the 20th cntury, dominated the world, primarily because it had industrialikzed. And the rest of the world except America had not. And it was industry that produced powerful advanced weaponry in massive quantity. Germany was the leading industrilalized country in Europe, but were matched by in the West when Britain joined France and unlike Germany only had to fight on one primary front. European industry at the time of World War I was in transition. Coal had powered the industrial revolution. Europe had coal. What it did not have was oil in needed quantities. And oil was becoming increasingly important for both industry and the military. Oil had to be imported fom overseas and the British royal navy controlled the sea lanes. Britain and France were strong unified natioin states. Most of Eastern and Central Europe, hoever, was dominated by multi-ethnic empires: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Ottoman, and Russian. These empires and kingdoms varying degrees supressed the different ethnic groups which they governed, but were incresingly unable to control the growing nationlist sentimehts of these groups. Many assessments put Serbia and the Balkans at the center of European instability. There were certainly problems in the Balkans, but Europe itself was not the center of world stability often depicted. Rather it was a vast multi-polar, fractured, multicultural world being contorted by cultural change resulting from industrialization and swept with clashing ideologies, terrorism, militancy, and instability. And these stresses and strains affected even the most seemingly powerful of empires. This had been the case for several centuries with a degree of stability. The empires and kingdoms battled, but did not destroy each other. Poland was a rare exception and would be a disturbance even after the country diasppeared from European maps--a kind of poison pill for both Russia and Germany. Several countries in Western Europe developed important overseas empires: Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain which added to their power in Europe. The major powers except Russia lacked naturalm resources which meant that naval power would be imprtant in any protracted war. America was not yet a great power because it had not converted its industry to military power. Not fully understood at the time, especially by the Germans was that America with its industry, resources, agricultural sector, population, and financial strength already had the ability to wage war that no European country could match. And while America had not built an army, it had somehing that Europe lacked--an autmobile industry. Germany had invented the autmobile and internal cobustioin engine, but only in America developed an significant autmobile industry which had very significant military implications. Amnd unlike Germany, America had the oil to power the trucks, tanks, and aircraft engines that were transforming the war. This same dynamic would be repeated two decades later.
Turn of the century Europe was inter-conected to an incrdible degree. Railroads had made possible economic interactions possible to a greater extent than ever before. The economic interconnections and the costs of war were such that many felt that a major war would never occur.
Europe was still mostly governed bu royal houses. Some countruies had developed constitutional monarchies, but even here the monarchy still had considerable influence, often a dominant influnce. And in Russia the mobarchy was still basically absolute. Even the royal families of Europe, in part thanks to Queen Victoria, were connected, making war even more unlikely. Ultimately these interconections failed because of the forces sweeping Europe.
Historians vary as to just what ultimately brought on war. One author maintains that the very leaders whon prided theselves on modernity and rationalismacted like 'skleepwalkers' who cobeled together patchwork settlements to crisus after crisis without resolving the fundamental problems until finlly deciding on war. [Clark] Another author is even more acusatory. He believes that war could have been averted had not a small group of statesmen turned Archduke Ferdinand's assasination into the long-awaited showdown between two armed camps. Traditionally the acusatory finger has pointed at Austria and Germany with Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold and Germnan Chancellor Berthmann Hollwegthe key actors. Other historians believe that France and Russia may have been even more culable led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Szonov and French President Raymond Poincaré. He writes, "It is hard to think of a policy more inept than this. The original Austro-German plan was for a military first strike against Serbia so uick and decisive that the powers would be unable to react. Berchtold's final version, a kind of fait accompli ad absurdum, now offered the world a rapid-fire declaration of war--but without the actual war, which would only come two weeks later. As diplomacy for the Central Powers, it was suicidal; as strategy, it was nonsensical." [McMeekin]
The United States as part of Manifest Destiny had reavched the Pacific Ocean and become a continental power (1850s). It managed to avoid a potentiually devestating war with Britain which had claims on the Oregon Territory. America became the only important country outside of Europe. And a potentially powerful power because it had become the greated industrial power in the world (1890s). This was era became called the Guilded Age (the 1870s, the 1880s, and 1890s) because of the oppulence and wealth. Great attention is given to the wealthy, like the Hall family. Less attention is given to the fact that Americans workers were better paid than workers in competing European countries. And America did not build a large overseas empire. The difference in large part was America's embrace of market capitalim--something now never mentioned in American history textbooks. And European immigration was part of that industrial rise. And unlike modern China, America's rise was not built on cheap labor. Or the exploitation of colonies as in Europe. America was already the world's leading industrial power at the turn-of-the 20th century. Henry Ford and the Model-T turned America into an industrial power an order of magnituude beyond the European powers. Unlike the European powers, however, America did not turn its industrial might into military power. It built a navy of some consequence, but not an army. This was something that German officials watched. Their assessment was that a country without an army could not possibly affect a war in Europe. And the German admirals guaanteed the Kaiswe that the U-boats could prevent thr transport of any army America fielded to France. This would powerfully affect German dealoingds with the United States. The British in sharp contrast recognized the imprtance of Amrerica to any European war, both before after the United States declared war on Germany. American banks financed the Allied war effort and was a major sources of suppolies and raw material. Churchill had studied the American Civil War and knew what America was capable of. The Germans did not take the Civil War seriuously nor America's potential. President Wilson after winning reelection (1916) attempted to end World War I. The British and French had to listen because they needed American financing. The Germans ignored American iniatives and decided in a military sollution , incliding unrestructed submarine warfare. The result was the American declration of war (1917). And within the space of a year, the United States would create an army virtually from scarch that helped blast the German Western Front wide open. And even before the American Expoditionsary Force was creared, the American Navy helped the Royal Navy escort the all important Atlantic convoys. Tragically, two decades later another Germn leader would follow the same path.
Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War (2013), 736p.
Darwin, Charles. Origin of the Species (1859).
McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War (2013), 480p.
Snyder, Laura J. William Whewell (Stanford University: 2000).
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