France, Europe and the Two World Wars

France, Europe and the Two World Wars

France, Europe and the Two World Wars

France, Europe and the Two World Wars

Excerpt

That ours is a troubled age few would deny, and the twentieth century is sometimes compared to such a period as the sixteenth -- another great transitional passage. Almost fifty years after the breakdown of 1914, the contending forces unleashed, though not created, by the First World War are still struggling to achieve an elusive stability, making all the sharper the contrast with the far more settled conditions of the preceding century. But there are no real breaks in history, and our present uncertainties are but the fruit of earlier seed, of which the nineteenth century saw the gradual ripening.

That century, if stable, was certainly not static. The most important single aspect of it was the conjunction of economic and political developments, French and Industrial Revolutions -- the combined effect of which was in turn the opening up of possibilities unprecedented for the great masses of mankind. Democracy, the rising of mass man, may thus be regarded as the peculiar nineteenth-century contribution to the unfolding of the course of history.

However, this phenomenon was largely confined to Europe and to some lands of European settlement. At the same time, the power that resided in Europe had the effect of making that small Eurasian peninsula virtual mistress of the earth outside the Western hemisphere. This great expansion of Europe, domestic and external, was the work of distinct units, increasingly national states, that carried it out under conditions of strenuous competition among themselves. It is a law of life that any existing organism seeks first of all to maintain its identity, and the sovereign state had come to be the fundamental unit within which society organized its existence. The anarchy that sovereignty implies was only mitigated by the tacit acceptance by all of the right of all to exist; the balance of power was the principle that made an ordered anarchy prevail among the powers. The very real consciousness of common heritage was insufficient to overcome the centrifugal one of separate identity.

As a token of their high level of civilization, the powers thought they had learned to accommodate their differences in peaceful fashion, a belief fostered by the occurrence of nearly half a century of peace among the great. They were mistaken, and the explosion of 1914 may be regarded as the result of too much power confined within too small a space. Power is often viewed as evil and corrupting, but the attempt to deny or ignore its existence usually has the effect of achieving results opposite to those intended by well-meaning ignorers of reality. Power, as Napoleon said, is never contemptible.

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