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Chapter One: The Long FuseThe Summer of 1914 was the fairest in living memory. Grass had never been greener, nor skies bluer. Europe lay rich and ripening under the warming sun, and from the Ural Mountains to the wave-beaten west of Ireland the cows fattened, the newborn animals played in the rich fields, and lovers strolled in the country lanes. Cities, filled with the noise of horse-drawn wagons, street-cars, and increasing numbers of automobiles, appeared to be busy, happy places; couples thronged the sidewalk cafes, enjoying life in this best of all possible worlds. So beautiful was that summer that those who survived it invested it with a golden haze; it assumed a retrospective poignancy, as if before it, all had been beautiful, and after it, nothing ever was again. It became the summer that the world ended, and it was somehow fitting that it should therefore be the most glorious summer ever.
Such a vision was the trick of selective memory. The weather was indeed fine, but thinking men and women were aware that Europe lived on a powder keg, and had for years. A series of profound social changes had led to dangerous imbalances in politics, and these in turn led to one crisis after another. It was in that memorable summer that the states of Europe finally used up their maneuvering room, and the resulting explosion brought their complacent society tumbling down around them.
The most profound of all the changes arose from the population explosion which had begun in Europe in the late eighteenth century, ushered in by new developments in agriculture and more especially in medicine. This rapid growth derived less from the increase in the birth rate than from the decline in the death rate, so that more people reached maturity and were able to produce children. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the population of Europe was roughly 50 million; by 1820 it was about 100 million, and by 1870 it had reached the 200 -- million mark. By 1914 it had topped 300 million.
In terms of the classical theories of Thomas Maithus, the multipliers began to take effect about mid-century, and thinking people questioned seriously how long the trend could continue unchecked. The increase in numbers was necessarily coupled with an increase in the production of goods and services. The Industrial Revolution, first in Great Britain and then, after the Napoleonic wars, on the Continent, had made Europe the workshop of the world. Even with huge numbers of working people in essentially nonproductive jobs such as domestic service, the increase in European production was greater than the increase in its population. This had all sorts of ramifications and side effects -- for example, it started Karl Marx thinking about a materialistic heaven on earth, and why it was denied to most people. But broadly speaking, these developments meant increased amenities for larger numbers or alternatively increased frustration for those who believed they were one way or another kept from receiving their fair share. In spite of progressive social legislation, too many people still led lives of drudgery in mines, factories, or sweatshops.
As they usually do in human affairs, the frustrations loomed larger than the satisfactions, and it was these, in part, that gave rise to an increasing number of new doctrines which gained currency in the later part of the century. Socialists and Communists vied with each other in the stridency of their demands, Anarchists made a party out of their belief that there should be no parties, and Nihilists made a creed out of believing in nothing. The tolerant eighteenth and early nineteenth-century attitudes of a benign and disinterested liberalism were discarded, the rationalism of Locke and Descartes gave way to the dark uncertainties of Nietzsche and Freud.
The greatest of all the new "isms" was nationalism. Among the upper classes, and particularly among the royalty and nobility of Europe, those vestigial remnants of the past, cosmopolitan attitudes were still preserved. But for the middle and lower classes, increasingly dominant in the age of expanding mass education and ever-wider franchises, the country was all. The days of the eighteenth century, when a person's loyalty lay to class or locality, had been trampled underfoot by the armies of the French Revolution, and their grave scattered with flowers by the Romanticists.
"This is my own, my native land!" was the cry of millions; all good stemmed from The Nation, and schoolmasters who would never be required to do it quoted admiringly to boys who would the old Latin tag, "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." The Nation became personified in the political cartoons of the day: John Bull of England, Marianne for France, the Kaiser or the Tsar themselves for Germany and Russia. Italy, Spain, and the Balkan States were usually drawn half-size. The pressure to belong was so strong that vigorous campaigns were launched against minorities; the Poles in the Russian Empire, always rebellious subjects of the Tsar, were made to conform to Russian ideas; there was widespread anti-Semitism in central Europe. The English thought themselves above this sort of thing but still taught only English in Welsh schools.
These nations had all become intensely egocentric-so intense was nationalism that the states or powers were inevitably spoken of as if they were individual persons -- because a sense of national self-satisfaction was achieved only at the expense of another nation. A nation got territory by taking it away from someone else, which is one explanation for the solidification of the state system, or the rush to parcel out the non-European world, the imperialism that was so notable a feature of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A nation grew by asserting its right to do so. Darwin had said the fittest survived, and the Social Darwinists completed the circle. The best way to demonstrate fitness to survive was to dominate one's fellows; the European powers joined in a game of "beggar my neighbor," the result of which was simply to prove they were fit to play the game in the first place.A Short History of World War I. Copyright © by James Stokesbury. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from A Short History of World War I by James L. Stokesbury
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