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1870-1914: Global economy, nationalism and the First World War

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  1. Introduction
  2. If Norman Davies' description of a prosperous and peaceful late 19th century Europe is accurate, how in your opinion, was it possible for a world war to break out in 1914?
  3. Global economy, nationalism and the First World War
  4. Conclusion

Though Professor Davies was essentially right in his description of a prosperous late 19th century in the wake of the Industrial Revolution which brought major industrial and scientific discoveries, the outbreak of the War in 1914 was not regarded as a surprise. The German state has often been held responsible for the Great War being a young and ambitious state having a rather aggressive foreign policy. In 1918 it was improperly regarded as the trouble-maker (as Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles states).

But a closer look shows that Europe had been preparing for war since the early years of the 20th century. Profound strengths had been at work decades before through the exaltation of nationalisms which drove the peoples apart. At first the idea of a nation was voiced by the elites at the beginning of the 19th century, it then became a matter of masses at the dawn of the First World War. In the European states which had already achieved the Nation-state, public education, the media and the army soon crafted the nationalistic feeling.

This nationalistic exaltation fuelled what Nietzsche called the ?will to power? of the greater European states, namely imperialism as a policy reinforcing numerous tensions in the context of a more intense economic and colonial competition. Europe and the world soon became too confined for ambitious powers facing new challengers such as the United-States and Japan.

[...] Nationalism increases imperialism, the nationalist exaltation grew strong namely with the poem The White man's Burden by the English Rudyard Kipling, follower of jingoism (extreme patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy) and the works of Nietzsche, namely his ?Will to power?. Imperialism expresses the need for the bourgeoisie to expand in Marx's view. In fact, imperialism destroys capitalism Marx could argue: old- established industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones?.[13] In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism dominated the 19th century but especially in the hands of the bourgeoisie. [...]


[...] Hence ?Marx perceived nationalism as a bourgeois ideology and viewed List as a spokesman for the German bourgeoisie?.[8] Responding to List's theory in the ?List critique?, Marx presents the ?national? bourgeoisie as completely ?materialistic? and selfish. Indeed, Roman Szporluk wrote that ?according to Marx, nationalism is the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie in a backward country that wants to be protected from the more advanced and more powerful bourgeoisie abroad. This bourgeoisie wants freedom to exploit the proletariat at home without having to compete in such exploitation with foreign bourgeoisie?.[9] In that sense, Marx follows his idea of the Communist Manifesto when he wrote bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle ( ) at all times, with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries?[10]. [...]


[...] The war was no surprise; countries braced themselves through heavy capitalistic industry (Schneider, De Wendel) and the arms race; through the mobilisation of spirits due to nationalism and through the policies of the government (in Germany the 1913 law on the raise of the strength of the military, followed by France's law to extend military service up to three years). All conditions were gathered for the war to explode as the 1870-1914 period was all but peaceful. Indeed the War had more complex causes than the simple daring policy of Wilhelm II. [...]

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