This article is an edited transcript of Causes of the First World War with Margaret MacMillan on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 17 December 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Imperialism led to a lot of conflicts in the decades leading up to the First World War, not least the Fashoda Crisis between Britain and France in 1898, and the threat of war between Russia and Britain that simmered throughout the late 19thcentury. The great irony was that Britain ended up on the side of the same two nations in the First World War.
Imperialism had caused tremors throughout Europe, but most imperial rivalry, with the exception of the coming conflict over the demise of the Ottoman Empire, had been settled. Africa had been carved up and longstanding differences had been settled.
The rise of nationalism
However, strong nationalistic feelings, no doubt fuelled by imperialism, began to creep into Europe in the years leading up to the First World War.
This emergent nationalism can be linked to the application of Darwinian ideas to human society. Social Darwinism argued that the human race could be divided up into species and that, in their natural state, species tend to have natural predators and struggle for survival. These ideas began to be applied to societies, with dangerous consequences.
Such thinking encouraged the notion that the French were the hereditary enemies of the Germans, and that the Germans were the hereditary enemies of the French and the Russians. These are dangerous ideas because they can lead to a sense that conflict is inevitable. The “struggle for survival” acquires a moral connotation. If you don’t struggle for survival as a people, you don’t deserve to survive.
The dangers of nationalism
In terms of human history, nationalism is a very recent creation. For instance, before the beginning of the 19th century, very few people thought of themselves as French, instead considering themselves as Breton, Basque or Alsatian. Many didn’t even speak French.
Nationalism is a created sense and, more often than not, it’s created by communicators and historians, and by poets and painters. In many ways, national mythologies are like cults of great heroes.
Notably, the decades preceding the First World War saw a great surge in commemorative activities across Europe, typically paying tribute to great national victories in the Napoleonic Wars.
In Germany, the Battle of Leipzig was commemorated with the erection of huge statues and monuments, the British commemorated the Battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar while the French commemorated Austerlitz. Arguably, such commemorations stoked the fires of nationalism ahead of the Great War.