World War I: A History in Documents

By Frans Coetzee; Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Into the Abyss

In June 1914 most Europeans could not recall the last time, some 60 years earlier, that the Continent had been embroiled in a major war involving more than two of the great powers. There had been periodic crises, of course, which seemed to erupt more frequently and menacingly after the turn of the century, but there was no reason for most people to suspect that Europe was teetering on the brink of a conflict more destructive than they had ever imagined.

How, then, did this momentous struggle burst so quickly upon the scene? What factors shaped the perceptions of decision-makers and made them more receptive, in a crisis, to the idea of waging war (or more pessimistic about their inability to prevent one)? A prominent theme in the cultural climate, for example, was the idea that struggle was inevitable. The notion of struggle featured prominently in Charles Darwin’s influential work on evolution and the natural selection of species. According to those analysts who applied Darwin’s theories to the human world (people known as “social Darwinists”), relations between individuals, and between nations, were always competitive, as the strong tested themselves against the weak in a perpetual conflict to survive and prosper.

That incessant struggle for competitive advantage took several forms. The most visible was the imperial rivalry between the European powers in which they sought to dominate and exploit the “less developed” parts of the world in Africa, Asia, and South America. That rivalry intensified from the 1880s onwards, when economic difficulties in Europe made colonies seem even more desirable as potential markets and sources of raw materials. Statesmen had political as well as economic incentives to support imperial expansion. Cultivating pride in one’s own nation’s colonial empire offered the prospect of blunting domestic criticism. Potentially discontented citizens might be distracted by the splendor of possessions overseas from protesting the squalor at home. Imperialism both aggravated existing tensions

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