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Origins of WWI: Long-Term Developments
The Modern State, Nationalism, ImperialismModern State
The emergence of the modern state—an entity with extraordinary power, including an unprecedented capacity for violence—was one of the principle preconditions for the outbreak of WWI and for the type of war that subsequently unfolded. But what defines the modern state in relation to the pre-modern state? What was new about states, and especially European states, in the decades leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914?
The key factors differentiating the modern state from something that came before it—though it is important to realize that this development happened in fits and starts and at different times in different places—were the following: 1) absolute monopoly over the use of force within its borders, and the enormous and expanding gap between state military power and all non-state challengers; 2) the development and strengthening of state institutions, infrastructure, and bureaucracy; 3) the ability of the state to collect heretofore unimaginable amounts of money through taxation; 4) the symbolism of the state as representative of a “people” or a “nation”—and the expansion of the notion of a “citizenry” into mass politics.
The transformation from private power to public, state-owned and managed power was a long one. It was a process that involved many factors: technological, economic, social, demographic, and political. We could trace this process all the way back to the 14th century and the transition from feudal power, based on the military might of knights, to the shift back to the power of bowmen and infantry. Perhaps a better place to start is the Napoleonic era, which saw the first modern occurrence of mass conscription and a true “gunpowder” war. Fighting such a gunpowder war was only something a state could do, a state with the ability to harness massive amounts of fighting men, manpower, energy, and capital. States that achieved this ability survived and prospered (England, France, Germany, United States, Japan). States that didn’t weakened or were destroyed (Mughal Empire, Safavid Empire). Some states were caught between life and death, like the fading Ottoman Empire, which ultimately did not survive the aftermath of WWI, or the Qing Empire, which was propped up by European rivalries and eventually succumbed to revolution and chaos in 1911-1912.
If the early modern era can be defined in part by conflicts within states or confederations (English Civil War, French wars of religion, German wars in 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch Revolt, etc.) and the age of revolution by political crisis and reform, the 19th century—especially after 1848—was one of political and military consolidation. We see no great revolt in Russia, for example, after the suppression of the Pugachev uprising (1775). England turned its attention to expanding and consolidating its empire. France did the same. Prussia was able to bring together most of the Germanic territories outside of the Austrian Empire through military conquest in the 1860s. Italy unified at the same time. The United States fought a devastating Civil War, ending the last challenge to the sovereignty of the union and paving the way for expansion and consolidation. By the late 1800s, no major western state faced a true internal threat to its power. Changes in, or challenges to, power might come, but they would come from the shifting political dynamics of the state and not through military means. It is important to note that this power of the state over the means of violence would be profoundly interrupted in the aftermath of WWI. On the other hand, it might be more accurate to say that in the aftermath of WWI many states simply lost control over their own power—like a car whose driver has fallen asleep at the wheel.Just as a state’s ability to project force transformed throughout the 19th century, so too did its role in society—from public infrastructure to private lives. The state participated actively in developing national railroad systems, in opening up and/or dominating foreign markets, in providing services, in managing everyday life through laws and bureaucracy, in educating its people, in offering some modicum of protection to the poor, the sick, and the hungry. By 1900, a “progressive” spirit in Western European countries and the U.S. imagined that the state could intervene deeply into the social fabric to better the lives of its citizenry.
Military expansion, infrastructural development, and public services like compulsory education, the development of national parks, the enforcement of safety standards, and preliminary social welfare programs put tremendous financial pressures on the modern state. The state responded by modernizing tax regimes, utilizing taxes on trade (tariffs), exploiting colonial possessions, and generally trying to stimulate economic growth through infrastructural investment and monetary policy (like the creation of central banks).
As a result of the above trends in military power, internal development, and financial flexibility, the state—and especially the “nation-state”—became one of, if not the—cornerstones of the identity of the modern citizen. The state became a “myth” or an idea as much as it was an actual entity. People were no longer simply loyal to a state or its rulers. People became active participants in the machinery of the state through political participation, warfare, or simply through identification. Modern educational systems and the massive expansion of journalism contributed to turning the state into the foundation of one’s identity. As such, it would mean something to the soldiers who marched off to fight for England, France, or Germany. They were, at the same time, fighting for a conception of themselves.
Nationalism worked in two fundamental ways to shape the longer-term context leading up to WWI. First, it created, as discussed above (and in chapter 2), the primary pathway for individuals to identify with their state. An individual belonged to a “people,” a “people” acting in its own interests became a “nation,” a nation achieved fruition through statehood—the creation of the nation-state, a state ethno-linguistically and cultural-historically defined. Nation-states proved to be dynamic, powerful (if unstable) entities in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. They depended on mass participation in the political process, mass education, mass employment in the national economy, a certain civic code or civic religiosity, definitions of inclusion and exclusion, minority versus majority, etc. But such a conception of the nation-state was at odds with many of the historical realities in the late 19th century. However much there was that was real about nations, there was just as much that was mythical, or simply a screen for the perpetuation of older forms of elite power. Nationalism, thus, eventually came into conflict both with itself (how could one be both an Austrian and a Czech nationalist, a Serbian and an Austrian nationalist?) and with other forms of identification, like class-based identification. While nationalism was a unifying idea for the most part, it also created strong and bitter social divisions—both internal divisions within states and hostilities between them. Nationalism was at the heart of incredible fear of social revolution (remember that socialism and communism were internationalist movements-- "Workers of the world unite!") and at the same time was the basis for thinking about power rivalry between states. Both of these factors—internal social stress, and great power rivalry—would contribute to the origins or WWI.Imperialism
Imperialism set the stage for the First World War in a number of ways—many of which we investigated in the first two chapters. I will quickly summarize them here. 1) Imperialism contributed to an external, aggressive form of nationalism, which sought to assert a nation’s power over another area of the world. Decades of such aggressive actions normalized this behavior of the state. 2) Imperialism brought the European powers into frequent and direct confrontation with each other. These confrontations strained relationships, provoked rivalries, spurred military development, and created the general context for alliance-making. 3) Imperialism glorified military conflict without presenting an accurate sense of risk. For the most part, conflicts between 1820 and 1914 (with the exception of Crimean War and the U.S. Civil War and other less bloody conflicts) pitted European powers against woefully outmatched non-European combatants. Such conflicts resulted in grotesquely uneven results. European nations would lose tens or maybe hundreds of men while killing thousands or tens of thousands. Machine guns faced off against spears. 4) Imperialism created a culture of militarization. Groups like the Boy Scouts developed and linked national pride and self-cultivation together with an imperial agenda. Finally, 5) imperialism contributed to an economic understanding of the world that emphasized limited resources and limited markets, which was then translated into conceptions of autarky. It is no mistake that the quest for autarky underpinned the imperial agenda of the Nazis as they prepared for and then executed war planning two decades after the end of WWI.