THE WORLD IN 1914
(a) Europe still dominated the rest of the world in 1914
Most of the decisions which shaped the fate of the world were taken in the capitals of Europe. Germany was the leading power in Europe both militarily and economically. She had overtaken Britain in the production of pig-iron and steel, though not quite in coal, while France, Belgium, Italy and Austria-Hungary (known as the Habsburg Empire) were well behind.
Russian industry was expanding rapidly but had been so backward to begin with that she could not seriously challenge Germany and Britain. But it was outside Europe that the most spectacular industrial progress had been made during the previous 40 years.
In 1914 the USA produced more coal, pig-iron and steel than either Germany or Britain and now ranked as a world power.
Japan too had modernized rapidly and was a power to be reckoned with after her defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.
(b) The political systems of these world powers varied widely
The USA, Britain and France had democratic forms of government. This means that they each had a parliament consisting of representatives elected by the people; these parliaments had an important say in running the country.
Some systems were not as democratic as they seemed: Germany had an elected lower house of parliament (Reichstag), but real power lay with the Chancellor (a sort of prime minister) and the Kaiser (emperor).
Italy was a monarchy with an elected parliament, but the franchise (right to vote) was limited to wealthy people.
Japan had an elected lower house, but here too the franchise was restricted, and the emperor and the privy council held most of the power.
The governments in Russia and Austria-Hungary were very different from the democracy of the West. The Tsar (emperor) of Russia and the Emperor of Austria (who was also King of Hungary) were autocratic or absolute rulers. This means that although parliaments existed, they could only advise the rulers; if they felt like it, the rulers could ignore the parliaments and do exactly as they wished.
(c) Imperial expansion after 1880
The European powers had taken part in a great burst of imperialist expansion in the years after 1880. Imperialism is the building up of an empire by seizing territory overseas.
Most of Africa was taken over by the European states in what became known as the ‘the Scramble for Africa’; the idea behind it was mainly to get control of new markets and new sources of raw materials.
There was also intervention in the crumbling Chinese Empire; the European powers, the USA and Japan all, at different times, forced the helpless Chinese to grant trading concessions. Exasperation with the incompetence of their government caused the Chinese to overthrow the ancient Manchu dynasty and set up a republic (1911).
(d) Europe had divided itself into two alliance systems
The Triple Alliance:
The Triple Entente:
In addition, Japan and Britain had signed an alliance in 1902. Friction between the two main groups (sometimes called ‘the armed camps’) had brought Europe to the verge of war several times since 1900.
(e) Causes of friction
There were many causes of friction which threatened to upset the peace of Europe:
- There was naval rivalry between Britain and Germany.
- The French resented the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871).
- The Germans accused Britain, Russia and France of trying to ‘encircle’ them; the
Germans were also disappointed with the results of their expansionist policies (known as Weltpolitik – literally ‘world policy’). Although they had taken possession of some islands in the Pacific and some territory in Africa, their empire was small in comparison with those of the other European powers, and not very rewarding economically.
- The Russians were suspicious of Austrian ambitions in the Balkans and worried about the growing military and economic strength of Germany.
- Serbian nationalism was probably the most dangerous cause of friction. Since 1882 the Serbian government of King Milan had been pro-Austrian, and his son Alexander, who came of age in 1893, followed the same policy. However, the Serbian nationalists bitterly resented the fact that by the Treaty of Berlin signed in 1878, the Austrians had been allowed to occupy Bosnia, an area which the Serbs thought should be part of a Greater Serbia. The nationalists saw Alexander as a traitor; in 1903 he was murdered by a group of army officers, who put Peter Karageorgevic on the throne. The change of regime caused a dramatic switch in Serbian policy: the Serbs now became pro-Russian and made no secret of their ambition to unite all Serbs and Croats into a large South Slav kingdom (Yugoslavia). Many of these Serbs and Croats lived inside the borders of the Habsburg Empire; if they were to break away from Austria-Hungary to become part of a Greater Serbia, it would threaten to break up the entire ramshackle Habsburg Empire, which contained people of many different nationalities. There were Germans, Hungarians, Magyars, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Poles, Romanians, Ruthenians and Slovenes, as well as Serbs and Croats. If the Serbs and Croats left the fold, many of the others would demand their independence as well, and the Hapsburg Empire would break up. Consequently some Austrians were keen for what they called a ‘preventive war’ to destroy Serbia before she became strong enough to provoke the break-up of their empire. The Austrians also resented Russian support for Serbia.
Arising from all these resentments and tensions came a series of events which culminated in the outbreak of war in late July 1914.