The European Environment

 

Europe in the late nineteenth century was going through one of the most difficult phases of its history. The gravest problem was the long and excruciating economic recession which had hit the European countries after 1873. The return to isolationist protectionism, which had been abandoned in 1860 with the Anglo-French Cobden-Chevalier commercial treaty, was the policy which had been adopted by most of the countries of Europe to counter the transmission of the crisis from country to country.

 

It was not only that, however. There was an altogether different environment. German national­ism had developed from the course followed by the nation-state; this had had its starting-point in 1837 with the Zollverein, and its culminating act was, of course, the founding of a united Germany in 1871 by the Iron Chancellor Bismarck. Germany was now in the forefront of European affairs, capable of negotiating and upholding not only its own interests, but also those of its allies. The so- called Weltpolitik, the world-wide policy, was the weapon which Wilhelm II flourished before the countries in competition with Germany. The old entrenchment of the petty German states was a thing of the past. The strengthening of Germany had, in essence, brought about a reshuffle in the bloc of the strong states of Europe. There were, of course, other important develop­ments. Alongside liberal Britain with its model parliamentarianism, democratic France, Germany with its impressive economic progress, and socially and economically backward tsarist Russia, a new power laid claim to its own role in world affairs: the United States of America. The indus­trial North, victorious in the Civil War, had not only brought about the abolition of slavery in all the states, but a take-off of the economy of the federated country: vast cities, millions of immigrants, the dream of success for all without exception, which meant enrichment and social advancement.

In these conditions, competition between the Great Powers became distinctly more acute, and competition expressed itself chiefly through the tendency to promote capital in foreign markets. The laying of railway networks and the credit banks were the privileged fields for the exportation of capital; they were, in other words, the agents of the expansion of the capital of the industrial coun­tries. Conflict between the developed countries was inevitable. It is to be encountered in the demand for privileged treaties for investments in third countries and in pressure for lending. Loans and the export of investment capital to countries which were thirsting for development and industrialisation, like Greece, were among the priorities of the Western European states in the last decade of the nine­teenth century.

These developments were to reduce, for the first time in history, the strategic importance of the Balkan region and of the Eastern Mediterranean more generally. The Eastern Question, the most acute diplomatic issue of the nineteenth century, had taken a back seat, as least as regards the ambi­tions of Britain and its European competitors, particularly Germany. The Balkans continued to be an area of enormous diplomatic interest for the two most absolutist states among the Great Powers, despotic Russia and die Habsburg Empire. The new map of international competition included not only Europe and the American continent, but also Africa and Asia. The world had passed into the phase of neo-colonialism. The Black Continent was virtually fragmented among the European pow­ers. The countries of Asia, in name and ostensibly, were termed independent. Tiny islands in the Pacific and Atlantic were prey to the strong of Europe. Whether by means of a military pres­ence, or by the installation of an administration, or by a government of local appointees, the foreigners had suzerainty over most regions of the world.

Nationalism was the natural outcome of the conflict between the capitalist coun­tries. The defence and protection of the nation-state against foreign influences was the fundamental option of leaders and their governments. The millions of poor immigrants who flowed, like ants, into the bourgeois states in the hope of upward social mobility, contributed involuntarily to the creation of the ide­ological infrastructure of nationalism. Moreover, national movements of every form and hue had joined in the game. Even the smallest groups of the population who possessed a common characteristic, for example, language or shared descent, dubbed themselves a ‘nation’ and sought for themselves state independence, ready to fight for their ‘sacred cause’.

This was the heyday of emergent nationalism, which was to pre­dominate until 1914 and lead to the tragedy of the First World War.

Nationalism was an ideological movement with considerable influence both intellectual in circles and among the masses of society. The national­ist movements included in their ranks every social group, and this was some­thing truly unprecedented. From a distinguished German thinker such as Max Weber to the last ordinary citizen, the nationalist movements involved millions of people, who were possessed with feelings of xenophobia and of the need to defend their racial purity. But above all they involved the middle strata of society, who proved amenable to recruitment to and the development of nationalism. Journalists, men of letters, medium-rank and senior civil servants entered the service of the promotion and propagation of nationalist ideas. They were assisted, in any event, by two factors: their professional standing, which had to do with the written language and bureaucratic mechanisms, and the frequency of their visits to various provinces and countries abroad.

To sum up, then: the rise of nationalism constituted an important change in the societies of Europe. The protracted ‘spring’ of liberalism, which lasted for almost a century, the battles for democracy of 1848, which spread like an epidemic among all the peoples of the Old Continent. the altruism and collaboration of the Carbonari, socialist solidarity itself, as Marx and Engels were inspired by it - these seemed like pictures from a distant past. It was clear that the world had reached a dangerous crossroads.

 
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