Modern World History

The world at the beginning of the 20th Century

A glance at a map of the world in 1914 reveals one thing: the dominance of Europe. Partly by accident and partly through rivalry, the European nations have colonised almost all of Africa; the British occupy India, the French much of Indo-China. The Dutch have what is now Indonesia and the British Malaysia. Russia has spread eastwards to encompass almost the whole of Asia. Spain and Portugal have lost their South American empires but left their mark in terms of language and religion throughout the continent. Only the USA defies the trend but in real terms this too is a European power, its population made up almost entirely of immigrants from the 'Old World'. Japan, whilst not rejecting its samurai past, is arming itself with European technology in preparation for its emergence on the world stage. China on the other hand has resolutely tried to isolate itself from the influence of the 'Western barbarians'. As a result the old imperial regime has been repeatedly humiliated, preserving only a precarious unity in the face of constant foreign interference.

Who, at the start of the long hot summer of 1914, could have guessed that millions were about to die in the first of two great wars to decide who should rule Europe? And that the result would be the disappearance of all the European empires within two generations? True there were always some Victorian statesmen who gave the British Empire a limited lifespan. These men saw responsible independence for the colonies as the fulfilment of the imperial mission. They could point to the progress made in this direction by the so-called 'white' dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Australia; South Africa, after the complication of the Boer War, would soon join them. Other European powers were less successful in developing their colonies' political systems but most recognised that some form of self-government would have to be the end result, if only because of the cost of maintaining large numbers of troops overseas. In 1914 however the prestige attached to a global role mattered more than economic considerations. Germany's insistence on a 'place in the sun' (Bismarck) beside the 'empire on which the sun never set' was just one more example of the way relations between nations assumed an almost personal character in the era before the First World War.