The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

Towards Catastrophe

In the last episode of Blackadder, Ben Elton makes fun of attempts to explain the origins of the First World War. As in all good comedy there is more than a grain of truth in his mockery: the war did happen because there were forces at work in 1914 which the politicians could not resist.

As we have seen the Industrial Revolution transformed society in many ways - social, political domestic - but one of the aspects we have not so far covered was its effects on the technology of war. In 1815 the Battle of Waterloo had been won by sheer numbers; a hundred years later many British generals still thought that battles would be fought in this way. The machine gun, the tank, and the aeroplane would soon show just how out of date they were!

Changes in technology don't in themselves itself cause war (sometimes they even prevent it) but they do increase the fear of war. Germany's decision to build a great fleet at the end of the 19th century to rival Britain's drove Britain into alliance with France and Russia, even though Britain and Germany had no real reason for enmity. Why did Germany do this? The answer lies in German history. For hundreds of years Germany had been a collection of independent kingdoms and principalities, presided over (until 1805) by a Holy Roman Emperor whose title went back as far as the 9th Century. Only in 1870 had it been unified under the leadership of Prussia. The new state needed to convince its citizens that it had a historic reality and the best way to do this was to build up its armed forces. Who could not feel proud to be a German when he watched the ships of the High Seas Fleet sailing past in review?

The rulers of the new Germany had another motive too. Industrialization, which had begun in Britain, was spreading all over Europe. In every major city and economy a new working class was coming into existence whose poverty often contrasted markedly with the wealth of those who owned the factories where they worked. Thinkers like Karl Marx saw the genesis of a new kind of conflict in this situation - a conflict of class against class which the workers would win. Not that the owners and their defenders would give in peacefully. To create a more just society there would have to be a violent revolution. However, the monarchs of Europe knew all about revolution: they had seen it in 1789 and they knew what it led to. They and their conservative class allies looked around for something ordinary people might care about, even more than justice.

Under threat of foreign invasion in 1792 the revolutionary regime in France needed something to replace the army's traditional loyalty to the king. It found it in the idea of the nation - the super-tribe to which all Frenchmen belonged and which it was their patriotic duty to defend. Following a year of turbulence in 1848, when several monarchs came near to losing their thrones, European governments began to play the nationalist card with increasing frequency. Before long every country, however small, had to have its flag, its anthem, its history.

There were two great dangers in all this flag-waving. Firstly it would be extremely hard for a government to stay in power if it betrayed the national honour. Secondly and more importantly few of the countries of Europe that aspired to be nations were in fact homogenous in terms of religion, language or culture. Typically they had come into existence through dynastic wars or marriages and were often conglomerates of great diversity. The worst example of this was Austria-Hungary, united only in the person of the emperor Franz-Joseph. In Hungary he ruled as king, in Austria as archduke and so on. One serious defeat and the whole ramshackle edifice might come crashing down. So we can see why Blackadder was right: sooner or later the over-armed countries of Europe with their super-inflated egos would be faced with an issue they couldn't back away from. It that sense it really was 'too much trouble not to have a war.'