The first decade and a half of the twentieth century was an era of contradiction. It also remains one of the least satisfactorily understood periods of modern history. On the one hand, the old problems of feudalism were (for the most part) long gone, countries cooperated in global markets in a manner never before seen, and modernity brought about slow processes of reform that are familiar to us today. Women’s rights, for example, was quickly becoming an important issue in society and politics throughout much of Europe and the rest of the world. The great powers of the world – to which we should probably (albeit reluctantly) add the United States – were growing industrial powers, and this in turn drove, and was driven by, the rise in capitalist consumerism. Class distinctions, which had been so prevalent in the nineteenth century, were slowly beginning to break down in the more developed nations. In Britain, for instance, the aristocracy and gentry still existed, but they were slowly but surely being overtaken by industrialists and the professional middle-classes as the important units of society. For the first time, largely as a result of industrialisation and mass manufacturing, people not of noble birth could make fortunes through manufacturing and selling. One could (in some cases, at least) make one’s own social position on the back of hard work and shrewd business, as opposed to the genetic lottery of heredity.

On the other hand, Europe was unwittingly approaching two great moments of rupture. Those moments can be defined as one of diplomacy, and one of social politics. The first would become of vital importance in 1914, when Europe’s confused and dangerous system of secret alliances, as well as under-the-table dealings by petty diplomats, would shatter the peace that had largely governed the continent (with some exceptions) since 1815.

Armoedige buurt in Parijs, rond 1900 / Poor ne...

A poor neighbourhood of Paris in 1900. Compared to the fanfare of the World’s Fair, poverty and exploitation was still in evidence at the turn of the century. (Photo credit: Nationaal Archief)

The second would be largely born from the first; the disastrous collapse of diplomacy in 1914 would throw into sharp relief the inherent contradictions and weaknesses of the sociopolitical structures of most of the great powers.

Whatever was to come, it would soon be clear that 1900-1914 were the years of missed opportunities, in which leaders unaware of their own weaknesses continued to perpetuate those weaknesses. We should not consider the war of 1914 as the inevitable outcome of the years preceding it, since no historical event is, in and of itself, inevitable. But the seeds of the outbreak of war were sown in these years.

In this series:

National overviews

July Crisis


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