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10-08-2015, 16:39


World War I shattered the image of a liberal, rational society in early-twentieth-century Europe. The incredible destruction and the deaths of millions of people undermined the whole idea of progress. New propaganda techniques had manipulated entire populations into sustaining their involvement in a meaningless slaughter. Who was responsible for the carnage? To the victorious Allied leaders, it was their defeated former adversaries, on whom they imposed harsh terms at the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of the war. In later years, however, some historians placed the blame on Russia for its decision to order full military mobilization in response to events taking place in the Balkans. More recently, the historian Niall Ferguson has pointed an accusing finger at the British government for its failure to send clear signals as to its own intentions and to what he regards as its overestimation of the consequences of a German victory on the European continent. Perhaps, however, the real culprit was the system itself. In the first half of the nineteenth century, liberals had maintained that the organization of European states along national lines would lead to a peaceful Europe based on a sense of international fraternity. They had been very wrong. The system of nation-states that emerged in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century led not to cooperation but to competition. Governments that exercised restraint to avoid war wound up being publicly humiliated; those that went to the brink of war to maintain their national interests were often praised for having preserved national honor. As the British historian John Keegan has noted, for European statesmen in the early twentieth century, “the fear of not meeting a challenge was greater than the fear of war.” In either case, by 1914, the major European states had come to believe that their allies were important and that their security depended on supporting those allies, even when they took foolish risks. The growth of nationalism in the nineteenth century had yet another serious consequence. Not all ethnic groups had achieved the goal of nationhood. Slavic minorities in the Balkans and the polyglot Austro- Hungarian Empire, for example, still dreamed of creating their own national states. So did the Irish in the British Empire and the Poles in the Russian Empire, not to speak of the subject peoples living in colonial areas elsewhere around the globe. To a close observer of the global scene, the future must have looked ominous. A mounting sense of insecurity led to increased military expenditures. European military machines had doubled in size between 1890 and 1914. With its 1.3 million men, the Russian army had grown to be the largest, but the French and Germans were not far behind with 900,000 each. The British, Italian, and Austrian armies numbered between 250,000 and 500,000 soldiers. To make matters worse, the very industrial and technological innovations that brought the prospect of increased material prosperity for millions also led to the manufacture of new weapons of mass destruction such as long-range artillery, the tank, poison gas, and the airplane that would make war a more terrible prospect for those involved, whether military or civilian. If war did come, it would be highly destructive. Victorious world leaders gathering at Versailles hoped to forge a peace settlement that would say good-bye to all that. But as it turned out, the turmoil wrought by World War I seemed to open the door to even greater insecurity. Revolutions in Russia and the Middle East dismembered old empires and created new states that gave rise to unexpected problems. Expectations that Europe and the world would return to normalcy were soon dashed by the failure to achieve a lasting peace, economic collapse, and the rise of authoritarian governments that not only restricted individual freedoms but sought even greater control over the lives of their subjects, manipulating and guiding their people to achieve the goals of their totalitarian regimes. Finally, World War I brought an end to the age of European hegemony over world affairs. By virtually demolishing their own civilization on the battlegrounds of Europe in World War I, Europeans inadvertently encouraged the subject peoples of their vast colonial empires to initiate movements for national independence. In the next chapter, we examine some of those movements.