To understand the 20th Century, it is important to look briefly at a few key developments in its lead up. This prelude will only delve superficially into some European, American and East Asian events.
1848 and The Communist Manifesto
The revolutions of 1848 were a seminal event for Europe, as unrest spread to nearly every major European city. The uprisings related to the disruptions caused by mass industrialization and dissatisfaction with a tone-deaf elite.
In this context, the philosophers Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels published a pamphlet called The Communist Manifesto in an attempt to define what the disparate uprisings were gunning for: better economic representation within societies that have historically enriched landowners and factory bosses over the actual working classes that were the producer class. Marxist thought did not advocate for bloody revolution, but rather saw history as inevitably leading to a recalibration of wealth division in an undefined future time. Marx fleshed out his philosophy in great detail two decades later in Capital, and his work had a profound effect on the revolutions of the following century.
The Scramble for Africa
European technological leaps did not only lead to mass industrialization, but to developments in medicine that allowed its conquest of mass swaths of the world. The presence of malaria in the African interior forced European colonizers to stay in the coastal ports of the continent due to a lack of immunity to the disease, and to rely on the local populace on the ground for trade. The adoption of Quinine as an anti-malaria drug in the 1830s allowed for European expeditions into the interior of the continent without risk of death. Almost the whole continent was parsed out within a few decades by European powers.
German Unification and French Humiliation
In the 1860s, during the Wars of German Unification, Prussia set the founding blocks for forming a German national state. Notably, at the end of the third conflict, the Franco-Prussian War, Germany was declared as unified state in Paris. The German victory over France was in large part due to war by timetable. The Prussian military used railways to their utmost capacity in order to outrun and flank French forces, and then laid siege to Paris. The city’s population rebelled against the government and formed The Parisian Commune along Marxist ideals. The remnant of the French military petitioned the German forces to enter Paris to put down the insurrection, half of the city was burned to the ground, the French forces left the city, the siege resumed, and France surrendered Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. This was a catastrophic humiliation for the French that would be a defining cause for France’s enmity towards Germany for the next 45 years.
A New Balance
The new German state was headed by Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, a highly charismatic leader who redesigned the balance of power in Europe to guarantee German security. The alliance system he fostered with Austria-Hungary and Russia isolated France, and he guaranteed British interests in Europe. This system would unravel in the 1890s, when the new German Emperor Wilhelm II sacked Bismarck and let the alliance with Russia lapse. The French quickly stepped into the breach and won over the Russians to their side in 1892. A decade later, France and Great Britain entered into an alliance that undid centuries of mutual hatred and put behind a long bloody history of warfare. Wilhelm II’s diplomatic incompetence and sabre-rattling rhetoric helped create the Triple Entente between France, Russia and Great Britain. Wilhelm II did manage to preserve the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Italy joined the bloc, which came to be known as the Triple Alliance. The arms race of the early 20th Century, coupled with frequent Balkan unrest, created the perfect storm for the outbreak of the First World War.
The United States
The United States stayed on the sidelines during European conflicts and expansion around the world. It focussed its energies on the American continents. The Monroe Doctrine of the 1830s dictated that the United States had the right to intervene in Latin American countries to guarantee its interests. The U.S. government was also aggressively expanding westwards, with settlers founding towns and villages ahead of State formation.
The Western U.S. was founded on warfare against Mexico in the 1840s that saw the latter’s abdication of the territories of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona. Western expansion was in full swing even during the Civil War, and by the 1890s, the West was conquered in its totality. It was a conquest based on the subjugation and elimination of Aboriginal people. The Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890 South Dakota was the last major battle between American and Aboriginal forces.
The Spanish-American War
As the conquest of the West ended, American expansionism did not. In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain and a swift victory made the U.S. the proprietor of new colonies, namely Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. Despite American rhetoric to the contrary, it had become an empire not unlike those of Europe.
West Brutalizes East
In 1839, China declared war on Great Britain over illegal British opium smuggling from India. Up to this point, European powers were confined to select ports on the Chinese coast. China’s defeat in 1842, however, opened the country to further exploitation by Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and even the United States.
In 1853, the Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his fleet to Tokyo harbour and demanded that Japan enter into trade with the United States. Japan did not have a navy, and acceded to his demands. France, Russia, Great Britain and Holland subsequently sent fleets to force Japanese trade.
A powerful Japan
The Japanese understood that this was only the beginning of foreign interest in the country, and began an era of quick modernization based on the European model. They bought technology, built modern rail infrastructure, got rid of the Samurai system, and built a navy. In 1894, Japan and China went to war over Korea. The Japanese, with a modernized army, won easily over the Chinese and Japanese expansionism on the East Asian mainland began.
Japanese ascendance in East Asia was startling: in 1906, they defeated the entirety of the Russian navy over a land dispute. This shocked Europe: a non-white people managed to best a white European Empire.
A Struggling China
China learned a lot from observing the Japanese rise to prominence. After the failed anti-colonialist Boxer Rebellion of 1898 and Japan’s victory over Russia, Chinese statesmen claimed that China needed to follow the Japanese model of modernization to achieve power over their own country. Traditional Chinese customs and economics began to be regarded as grossly inadequate to competing with European technological supremacy. The death of the staunchly conservative Dowager Queen in 1908 paved the way for the foundation of the Chinese Republic in 1911. It was a united, secular and pro-European Republic, but one that brought Chinese thinking into the modern era. European-style education was valued, and Marxism came in vogue in University circles.
Next Post: The Great Cataclysm
Montréal, July 8, 2018