Part 1 – The powers at play before WW1.

I’m in no way a history buff but for my novel ‘In Picardy’s Fields’ I did some modest research into the background of this large-scale conflict and would like to share my findings with you. I only blog about things that I find interesting and getting some perspective on that elusive war helps me to see the bigger picture and that of the apocalyptic decades that followed after. I hope my clarifications are of some help to you.

Humanity and geopolitics have never been the same after the world was shaken up by the scale of its own capacity for destruction. Have we become more cautious? Do we realize how precious life really is? Have we learned from the wars? I’ll leave the answers to you. All I know is that the better we understand the bliss freedom from war is, the more we’ll appreciate it. Knowledge is power, after all.

 

Introduction

I don’t know about you but when I think back about the two world wars of the 20th century, I can kind of ‘get’ the Second World War: a dictator coming to power in the 1930s, repressing and stigmatising minorities and conquering the countries around him. Enough reason for the rest of the world to respond to and declare war on. But what about the first world war, the so-called Great War?

Do you know why it was fought? And why it escalated?

And what’s worse, do you think the millions of soldiers and civilians who senselessly died in the first world war knew why they were giving their lives and what for? I’m afraid the answer is NO.  Most had probably never even heard of the minor royal Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the rigmarole that this Archduke was entangled in. Yet it was his assassination that triggered this worldwide bloodshed. 

What did the European map look like before WW1?

Let’s have a look at the forces at work from roughly 1870-1914 that led to certain alliances and other countries being at loggerheads with each other.   

Let there be no mistake. WW1 was a world war because it eventually spread out to all the oceans of the globe but in essence it remained a European conflict not unlike this Continent has known for centuries. Only this time it spread like wildfire. Historians see 3 causes for this:

  1. The advance of military technology
  2. The cultural differences of the nationalities.
  3. The misconceptions of the various governments.

In 1914 the most powerful nation was undoubtedly the German Empire, created by the Kingdom of Prussia. It took up that powerful position after defeating the Austrian Empire and France in the second half of the 19th century. The conquered states reacted differently to their new position: the Austria-Hungary monarchy – with Austria aggressively suppressing its Hungarian counterpart – accepted the status of subordinate ally to Germany but France gritted its teeth in the wings.

On both sides of this tinderbox lay two superpowers not really eager to get involved in this Mid-European squabble: the semi-Asiatic Russian power with interest only in some south-eastern parts of Europe; and Great-Britain, that only wanted a stable Continent so it could expand and consolidate its world empire overseas. Spain, having lost most of its colonies to the United States was no longer a major player on the board but there was a new kid in town: Italy, unified under the House of Savoy, was very good at making itself an annoying nuisance.

In the course of the 19th century all these nations – some more successfully than others – had developed from agrarian societies ruled by the landed aristocracy and the Church to urbanized and industrialized states in which factory owners and increasingly the working classes came to power. This shift had destabilized century-old hierarchies and new balances were sought but had not yet been found.

In the next blog post I'll take a closer look at the chess-pieces on the board.