** World War I -- World War I turn-of-the century Europe

World War I: Turn-of-the-Century Europe--The Great Powers

Figure 1.-- -Germany was the most industrialized country in Europe. But one thing that you do not see in German cities is cars and trucks. The autmobile and internal combustion engime was invented in Germany. But only in America would it become an imortant new industry. And with Henry Ford's Model-T you begin to see American cities with autombiles, something you do not see in Erope, especially Germany. Not only do you not see many cars and trucks, but oil was a major issue because it had to be imported by sea and the British Royal Navy controlled the sea lanes. This is what Munich looked like in 1910, notice that there is not a car or truck in sight. In the final year of the War this would make a real difference.

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.


Austria and Russia controlled most of Eastern Europe, resultung in a rivalry. Austria-Hungary was, however, a decling power. It was formed as a result of the Prussian vistory in the Austro-Prussian War (1866). Russia was also a diverse empire, but Russians were the largest ethnic group. In the Austrian Empire, Austrians (Germans) were a minmority ruling over Bosnians, Croats, Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Romnaians, Ruthenians (Ukranians), Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, and others. The Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hunarian Empire, essentially coopting the Hungarins with the dual monarchy. Bismarck engineered a soft-peace with Austri because he wanted a future ally for Prussia. (He would not get his way after the subsequent defeat of France.) Rising nationalist tension posed a serious problem for Austria-Hungary. Imperial authorities handled it resonably well, except for the Serbs who were implacable. There was a degree of local government and primry school was available in local languages. Secondary schooling where it existed was mostly in German. The principal religion was Catholic, but Pritestbts, jews and Muslims could exercise their rights. Jew were not as fully emancipated an in Germany. There was an imprtnt culturl life, especilly in Vienna and a few other cultural centers. Music in particular was impressive. The Empire was, however, not highly indusrtrialized which affected its great power potential. Rather shop and craft production was dominant, industries like porcelin, glass, and watch making. Heavy industry did develop in Bohenia (Czech lands) which were a major prize for thevNAZIs when they took over Czechosvakia just before World War II. Most of the Empire was largely agricultural. Austria-Hungary's major problem was the Russians. The Prussians did not have a problem with the Russians because both countries were intent on supressing the Poles. But Russia and Austria Hungary had different ideas about the Serbs. Russia became a protector of the Serbs as part of their Pan-Slavist policies. It is not clear as to how commitred to this the Russians were because the Poles were also Slavs. It may have been a largely excuse to destablize Ausro-Hungary. This is not clear. What is clear is that it was the assaination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand by Serb terrorists and Russian backing for Sernia that set off the powder keg of World War I.


Britain after the defeat of Napoleon (1815) emerged as the world's most powerul nation. Britain using the Royal Navy led the way in the abolition of slavery--the first country to do so. After losing its Americn colonies, Britain proceed to build the world's largest empire with India at its core. The industrial revolution began in Britain (mid-18th centiry). Industry remained the world's leading industrial power for more than a century. Prince Albert's Great Exhibition showcased British industry (1850). Btitish indutry was eclipsed by both America and Germany (late-19th century). Britain remained a financial powerhouse. It was also a key scientific and technological center. British scientists led the world until Germany at the turn of the century emrged as the world's tecnological powerhouse. There vwas also the perversion of science. Herbert Spencer promoted social Darwinism, something Darwin never argued, which provided a susposed scientific basis for racism. Rudyard Kipling spoke of the white man's burden. These ideas developed great currency throughout Europe and America. Steam power not only brought the first railroads to Britain, but greatly improved maritime transport to the colonies. Britain had avoided most of the most severe soicial unrest of the Continent because of social reforms adopted during the Victorun era. Here Prince lbert was a leading advocate. The Rrevolutions of 1848 which rocked Europe were limited to the relativly modest Chartist movement in Britain. Reform bills enlarged the sufferage, lowered food prices (the Corn Laws) and gradually epanded free public eduction. Here Britain lagged behind America and Germany because of the continued opposition of the landed aristocracy. Britain was one of the country's where the woman's sufferge movement waa the strongest, along with America. The power of Britain's monarchy had been curbed as a result of the English Civil War (1642-51) which among other inputs was a major factor in the development of democratic institutions in Amnerica--in sharp contrast to French and Spanish colonies. During the Victorian era, Britain emerged as a modern democratic nation with two competing political parties, the Conservatives and Liberals. The established church was the Angican Church of England, but often congrgations were small and lacked vitality. Many of the disenting churches (Baptists, Methodidts, Presbyterians, and Quakers) had more real following. Catholics, especilly Catholics in Ireland faced many barriers. Britain manaaged to avoid a another war with America after the War of 1812. Prince Albert was a force in keeping Britain neutral during the American Civil War. Without this the history of the 20th century would have been very different. Relations gradually improved with France despite occassional colonial flareups like Fashoda. Britain's primarily rivalry during the Late 19th century with Russia--the Great Game in Central Asia to protect India. Brittain signed a naval treaty with Japan to counter the Russians. The focus on Germany only began when Kaiser Wilhem began building build a major highseas fleet. Britain's primary military force was the Royal Navy. Unlike the Continentl powers, Britain maintained no large army or therevwas military conscription until well into World War I (1916).


France afternmore than two decades of revolution and war economiclly and demographically drained. Part of the country's power had been a large population, but with declining birth rate, this was no longer the case, it was increasingly eclipsed by Germany. One result of the Revolution was a landed peasantry which turned this once volitile group into a largely conservative force in contrast to the urban proleterit. France like Germany began to industrialize, but developed a more mixed economy than Germany. Despite tariff borders, there were importnt trade connections with Germany, Britain, and other European countries. France was basically self-sufficent in food. Even after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, France sparkled experiencing La Belle Époque (1880-1914). This was a period of inrestrained optimism. Peace prevailed, the economy prosered, the empire expanded, and there was unprecedented technological, scientific, and cultural achievements. France had a stong technological sector making imporatnt scientific advances. Photography was invented in France. Thevarts also flourished. France was in many ways the artistic and cultural center of Europe. The French impressionnists continue to dazzel us today. France was humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Bismarck wanted a sofvpeace as with Autria dso as not to create an emittered French nation. Instead there was a harsh peace. And the recovery of Sksace-Loraine became a rallying cry for the French nation. The Third Republic's leaders, however, saw no way of retreiving the lost provinces except through war. They realized, however, that this would require allies. After the Franco-Prussian War, France would not attempt to fight the Germans alone. The Third Republic operating after the Franco-Prussian War carried out many reforms, among them free compulsory public education. This had been largely a responsibility of the Catholic Church. Serious issues developed bbetween the Catholic clergy and seculr state. The population remained largely Catholic, but increasingly secular. Socialism was increasingly influential in French politics. France began building foirtifications long the German boirder. France found the ally it needed when Kaiser Wilhelm II declined to renew the treaties with Tsarist Russia. And began to improve relations with Britain with which Kaiswr Wilhelm despite dynastic ties was increasingly alienating, especially with naval construction. This was anonther major shift, as Britain and Freance had been hitoric enemies dating back centuries to the Hundred Years War. It was the English after all who were responsible for burning Joan of Arc at the stake. And Germany in cotrast often a British ally--it was Field Mrshal Blücher who hasd relieved the British at Waterloo. Wilhelm was engineering a sea change in European politics. All of this was complicated by minor, but potentislly dangerou colonial disputes, especilly in Africa.


Many European wars had been fought in Germany or by Germany in the centuries before Germany was unified. This swas common because og=f Germny's location in central Europe. The Thirty Years War had ravaged Germany (17th century). The climatic land battle between Britain and France was fought in of all places Bavaria (1704). Napoleoion's greatest victory was in the Austrian empire--Austerlitz (1805) followed by Jenna in Prussia (1806). German unification had been decided by war, in fact three wars masterfully orcestrated by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Unification was a contest between Austria and Prussia. In the end, Prussia which industrialized and Austria which did not won the rivalkry for unification. It was in Germany, especially Protestsnt northern Germany that public education began (18th century). Industrialization gave Prussia the military mussle to defeat Austria (1866). Germany after defeating France unified around the Prussian monarchy--the Hohenzollerns (1871). The king of Prussia becane the German emperor (kaiser). Imperial Germany was a new, highly nationalistic state heavily influenced by the Prussian Junker class. This gave the German military tremendous prestige as well as made the use of force acceptable if not ingrained into the German mind. 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. It was Bismarck of all people, who competing with the Socilists invented the welfare state. He created programs like social security, old age pensions, and sickness insurance. Imperial Germnny had a strong national government, but the kaiser was not a dictator. Imperial Germany was dominated by largely Protestant Prussia, but unificatuon added the largelky Catholic south. Bismarck's Kulturkampof was largely unsuccessful--a rare Bismarkian failure. Jews who fled oppression in Tsarist Russia became a small minority, but as a result of emancipation came to play an important cultural and economic role, leading to anti-semitism, although it was less pronounced than in France. What was pronouced was the increasing importance of Volkish thought, a reaction to the the huge impact of intdustrialization on German life. Even before unification, the German states, especially Prussia, were on their way to becoming highly indudtrislized. Germany led the industrial revolution on the Continent, but pursued a different path than Britain and America. The Prussian/German state played a major role in industrialization, a kind of state-guided capitalism. The railroads which played a huge role in the military victory over Austria (1866) were planned which took into account military uses. The Government also supported industrial expoansion with miltary contracts. Krupp Steel became a major arms producer. Steel production eventually surpoassed British, but not American production. Industry developed to the point that Germany was no longer self sufficent in food peoduction. It had to import food as well as the raw materials needed for its industry. Britain was in the same position, but had the Royal Navy to protect its maritime sea life lines. Germany did not have a navy of any consequence. And when with Kaiser Wilhelm II's support for beginning to build one, this along with the Kaiser's belicose behvior, was seen as highly provocative in Britain. And Germany's steel industry gave the country the ability to compoete with Britain. Germany had a rich cultural life. European music wa dominated by Germam composers. Kaiser Wilhelm II was Queen Victoria's grandson. But the Princess of Wales and future queen, Alexandria, was a Danish princess who despised both Bismarck and the Kaiser becuse of Prussia's invasion of her homeland (1864). Germany did not lead in the early European scientific advances This changed with German iundustrialization. By the turn of the 20th century, Germany was the world's leading scintific nation which can be seen by Nobel Prize awards. Germany was the leading nation, but Britain and France combined exceed the German awards by a substantial margin and America was becoming an important participant.


German Chancellor Bismarck helped engineer a war between a still disunified Italy (Piedmont-Sardinia) and France as part of his design to isolate France (1859). This led directly to the Risorgimento in Italy led by Giuseppe Garibaldi (1861). Italy after a millenia and a half was finally unified. King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy became the first Italian king. The architect of Italian unification was Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, Victor Emmanuel' chief minister. Issues developed between the Catholic Church and the political leadership primarily because of the Papal States. Rome itself continued for a decade under the Papacy. Napoleon III's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war brought an end to the French military protection for Pope Pius IX. Italian troops breached Rome's walls at Porta Pia and seized the city. Pope Pius IX retreated to the Vatican palace where he declared himself a prisoner until the Lateran Pacts were finbally dsigned with the Italian state (1929). While Italy was united politically, but cultually it was badly fragmented between the developing modern, industrial north and the still virtually feudal, agricultural south. Mortherners tebded tomlook on southerners with contempt. It would be from this depressed area (including Sicily that most Itlalian emigratd from America came. They would comprise one of the major immigrant groups. Italy bult a small African empire, but would be the only European natiin defeated by an African army--Adwa (1896). Italy produced two scientific giants at the turn of the 20tyh century, Tesla and Marconi, but notably they had to leave Italy to pursue their science. In part because of the great cultural divide, tlay would be the weakest of the Great Powers. Austria continued to control areas of northern Italy. Even so, Italy was allied with the Austrians and Germans. When war came, the British ans French sought to break that alliance.

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire which until the late-19th century had important territories in Europe (the Balkans) became known as the Sick Man of Europe. It survived only because the Great Powers could not agree as to its dismemberment. The Crimean War (1846-48) was fought to prevent Russian cointrol of the Empire, particulasrly the Dardanelles and acess to a warm water port. The Ottoman Empire by the late-19th century was not a modern state. While Europe prospered with public education, science, and technology, the Ottomans were still a largely feudal Islamic state. They bhad to import needed technology. The Tanzimat Reforms were an effort to modernize the Empire, but did not address msnby of the fundamental issues. The Ottomans were attracted to the Germans who offered technical and military support. Aswar approached the Ottomans saw great possibilities, including the reconquest of territory seized by the Russians and the great prize of the Suez Canal. The Germans for their part welcomed the an ally against the British and dreamed of the Berlin to Bagdad Railway and access to the oil resources of the Middle East.


Tsarist Russia was not only the largest European country, but the largest land empire. It ended from the Gerrman border all the way to the Pacific Ocean as well as south into Central Asia. This expansion was largely a geographical accidennt. Just as the United States expanded west because there was no major power to oppose it, Russia expanded east because there was no major power to impede it. In contrast, the other European powers were surrounded ny competung states of comparable powers. Wars were generally fought over small provinces, often ast substantial coist. Russia in contrast conquered a vast swath of Asia at virtully no cost. As a result, Russia had a huge populatioin nd vast resources. The Trans-Siberian Railway was completed (1890s), constructed much later than the American Trans-Continental Railway. And for sometime still involved a ferry connection rection across Lake Baikal. Russian society was dominared by serfdom, essentially a feudal system. Although abolished by Tsar Alexander II (1861), it had a lingering impact on Russian society. Russia began to industrialize, but was was far behind other European powers, especially Germany. At the turn of the 20th century it was still predominstrely an agrarin country, with the black soil area of the Ukraine, essentially the breadbasket of Europe. Most Russians were Eastern Orthodox Christians, but the Tsarist state was a multi-ethnic empire when mny different people and religions, inmcluding Cstholics, Muslims, and Jews. Tsar Alexander III, bear of a man, after the assainatiuin of his father (1881) launched a Russification programs. Msny ethnicities were impacted, but none more so than the Jews. Bloody pogroms were instituted by Tsarist agents. This was a factor in the massive flow of European immigrants to Anerica. This included Jews from the Tsarist Empire. While still largely agruicultural, Russia at the turn of the century was rapidly industrialising, brginning to close the gap with Germany. Prussian policy toward Russia unnder Bismarck was one of accomodation. Prussia unlike Austria did not join in the Crimean War against Russia. And Bismarck saw the Three emperor's League (1872) and the Reinsurance Treary (1887) as vital to German security. Kaiser Wilhelm II rise to the throne (1888). He viewed Russia differently and both got rid of Bismarck and allowed the treaties with Russia to lapse. France immediately saw the possibilities and signed a treaty with Russia (1891). Wilhelm did not think this posdible because Russian was absolutist monarchy and France was a Socialist influencede, democratic republic. This fundmentally altered the European treaty system. Russia since the time of Ivan the Terrible was an absolute monrch in contrast to the limited, constututionsl monarchies that had emerged in Western Europe. The Russo-Japanese War and Revolution of 1905 had forced a parliment on the Tsarist state, the Duma, but it had little real power. The poitical opposition was forced by the Tsar's secret police, the Okrana, into conspiritorial plotting. Socialist parties grew in strength. One of those parties were the Bolshevil=ks led by Vladamir Lenin. They attrcted considerable support among thv urbsn wirking class . The rural peasanbtry remained lsrhely apathetic. After the Revolution of 1905, Count Sergey Yulyevich Witte, Russian minister of finance (1892–1903) became Russia's first constitutional prime minister. He attempted to combine authoritarian rule with economic modernization and industrialization--essentially the modern Chinese model. The pase of industrial growth Russia was already closung the gapo with the West, but at the time of World War I, was still well behind Germany.


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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Created: 8:53 PM 4/6/2021
Last updated: 8:54 PM 4/6/2021