A Centennial On: Before the Fall

3 years ago ccwa 0

marching soldiersLike a Greek tragedy of old, The First World War is a tale of hubris. Blinded by jingoism and unaware of the horrors of modern warfare, one of the world’s most advanced societies set about burning itself to the ground. World War I was truly an epic conflict, for what we see a hundred years ago is not a fight for civilization but one for its destruction. Four of the world’s mighty empires were destroyed and two more were brought to their knees. The conservatism that upheld monarchs for centuries was replaced by more radical ideologies such as communism and fascism. An entire generation of Europeans was lost, mercilessly slaughtered by the machines that had been hailed for launching the progress of mankind.

A century after the outbreak of one of the most deadly conflicts in history, The Great War is often forgotten, eclipsed by the more theatrical conflicts that followed, WWII and The Cold War. But to comprehend why and how Europe set about destroying itself over the next half-century, we must fully grasp the historical context leading up to 1914. In essence, we must understand the pride before the fall.

By 1914 Europe had long since achieved a status of greatness as a hub of civilization. With Christianity continuing to spread and Europe’s artists in the vanguard, European culture was dominant and imitated around the world. Europe’s intellectual movements had thrust it ahead of the rest of the world by stressing reason and fostering scientific progress. Nowhere was this progress, and consequently European dominance, more evident than in the great advances of the Industrial Revolution. With the mechanization of the production process came a colossal boom in capitalism. Levels of wealth that had been unimaginable just a few decades prior were achieved by a growing number of individuals, and Great Powers amassed an astounding amount of capital.

This massive buildup of capital was largely concurrent with the consolidation of disparate political powers into modern states, giving birth to the powerful force of nationalism. No longer was Europe a continent of tiny principalities; in their place, mighty nation-states dominated the geopolitical landscape. As these formidable states looked to expand their territory and their wealth, they turned overseas to exploit vast natural resources. By 1914 the nations of Europe had quickly grown from large countries to colossal global empires. The British Empire, for instance, constituted nearly a quarter of Earth’s landmass.

For all that had changed in Europe over the last hundred years—the maturation into modern capitalist economies, the drive for global empire, and the emergence of new Great Powers—the structure of interstate and intrastate politics had remained remarkably static. Since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Concert of Europe had dictated state behavior and international structure. The horrors of the French Revolution and the destruction of the Napoleonic Wars had made the Princes of Europe yearn for the status quo of 1789.

Largely developed by Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Concert of Europe aimed to balance the powers of Europe against one another and suppress revolutionary movements, thus maintaining the status quo. Though no formal institution for peacekeeping was created, the Great Powers reserved the right to convene a conference to avert hostilities. Initially, the Concert of Europe successfully maintained peace and quelled the numerous revolutions of 1848.

By the turn of the 20th century, the way states interacted with each other had changed very little. The diplomats of Europe were a tight-knit community. They were all of noble upbringing, shared French as a common language, and typically conducted the diplomacy of great empires at opulent soirées. An even more intimate group that played a key role in diplomatic relations in Europe was the ruling monarchs. On the eve of the First World War the only major country without a royal family was Republican France. Some of these families had been ruling for centuries and were connected to each other by byzantine networks of marriage and blood lineage.

Turn of the century Europe, then, had at its core a seemingly intractable contradiction. European society, with all its achievements, had become synonymous with modernity, a beacon for progress. And yet, it was governed by theocratic monarchies. The rulers of such an advanced civilization drew their legitimacy from the divine right of kings. Moreover, an elite aristocracy guided the relations between these crowned sovereigns. At its zenith, Europe was at its most fragile. The misguided behavior of one individual could tear down what Europe had worked so hard to build up.


by Peter Giblin

(photo credit: www.stevelewis.me.uk)