The Rise of Nationalism and Militarism in the Belle Époque

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Jules Chéret [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

While history looks back at the period in European history between 1890 and 1914 as the ‘beautiful era’, those living in it across Europe most likely wouldn’t have seen it that way. Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, allowing us to see with full clarity the horrors that both WWI and WWII would bring to the European continent.  The Belle Époque, however, was a time of peace between European nations, but was marked with internal political and social turmoil as the second Industrial Revolution began to spread across the continent.  The rise of national fervor and its related militarism can easily be observed in the writings of the time.

In Friedrich Von Bernhardi’s “Germany and the Next War”, the general bemoans the misguided policy of perpetual peace, declaring war as a “biological necessity of the first importance as a regulative element in the life of mankind which cannot be dispensed with, since without it an unhealthy development will follow, which excludes every advancement of the race, and therefore all real civilization”.[1]  Von Bernhardi claims that peace is the presence of nations and leaders by which they can promote and enforce their own political aims, to the detriment of those opposed to them.[2]  This ‘perpetual peace’ has caused stagnation throughout society, and has allowed the weak and tiered to prevail over those who are stronger.[3]  War, Von Bernhardi claims, is vital because without it, weaker nations would smother stronger ones, preventing growth and causing great difficulty for the advancement of the societies in and around it.[4]  Because, however, there is no power that resides over states that can impartially decide debates and disagreements, it becomes vital for the State to protect the rights of its citizens, and that includes protection by force against foreign elements – not just to defend against external pressure, but to go on the offensive and attack as well, otherwise the way of life within the State becomes perilous and can easily topple.[5]

Russia shared in its own version of nationalistic (and therefore militaristic) ideals. Russia, a huge territory with a massive population lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of industrialization, but they had no shortage of national pride or sentiments, seeing themselves as leaders of the East by inheritance and right if not by technological advantage.[6]  While the rest of Europe scrambled in a colonial land-grab across Africa and much of Asia, Russia’s plan was to quietly grown her strength, unnoticed in preparation for a conflict that they were sure was soon coming.[7]  By the European encroachment, Prince Ukhtomskii believed that China and Asia in general would see Russia more favorably, with a deep history of its own in preparation of the coming conflict.[8]  Russia saw itself as superior to the other European powers in that it did not have to leave its own borders to find resources and wealth and work for its citizens – that everything the people needed could be found within Russia’s massive borders itself, and saw the Russian autocratic system as superior to the politics and pandering of other nations.[9]  This view, however, is not without its own irony as the Russian revolution was just around the corner, poised to topple Russia’s last Czar and plunge the country into socialism which would shape the interaction between Eastern and Western Europe for generations to come.

 

Sources:

[1] General Friedrich Von Bernhardi, Germany and the Next War (Stuttgart und Berlin: J.G. Cotta, 1912).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Prince Ukhtomskii, “Russia’s Imperial Destiny, 1891,” Internet History Sourcebook, Fordham University, November 1998, accessed October 17, 2016.  http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1891ukhtomskii.asp

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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