Though the era just before World War I, with its gas lighting and its horse-drawn carriages, seems very far off and quaint, it is similar in many ways—often unsettlingly so—to ours, as a look below the surface reveals. The decades leading up to 1914 were, like our own time, a period of dramatic shifts and upheavals, which those who experienced them thought of as unprecedented in speed and scale. The use of electricity to light streets and homes had become widespread; Einstein was developing his general theory of relativity; radical new ideas like psychoanalysis were finding a following; and the roots of the predatory ideologies of fascism and Soviet communism were taking hold.
July 1915: The battleship Missouri steams through the Panama Canal, one of three U.S. warships traversing the canal together that month.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
ca. 2010: The Korean-built Corte Real container ship, one of the largest in the fleet of CMA CGM, a French-based maritime shipping company.
Globalization—which we tend to think of as a modern phenomenon, created by the spread of international businesses and investment, the growth of the Internet, and the widespread migration of peoples—was also characteristic of that era. Made possible by many of the changes that were taking place at the time, it meant that even remote parts of the world were being linked by new means of transport, from railways to steamships, and by new means of communication, including the telephone, telegraph, and wireless. Then, as now, there was a huge expansion in global trade and investment. And then as now waves of immigrants were finding their way to foreign lands—Indians to the Caribbean and Africa, Japanese and Chinese to North America, and millions of Europeans to the New World and the Antipodes.
Taken together, all these changes were widely seen, particularly in Europe and America, as clear evidence of humanity’s progress, suggesting to many that Europeans, at least, were becoming too interconnected and too civilized to resort to war as a means of settling disputes. The growth of international law, the Hague disarmament conferences of 1899 and 1907, and the increasing use of arbitration between nations (of the 300 arbitrations between 1794 and 1914 more than half occurred after 1890) lulled Europeans into the comforting belief that they had moved beyond savagery.
July 2005: Supporters of British National Party chairman Nick Griffin wave placards outside Leeds Crown court where Griffin faced race-hate charges.
AFP Photo/Steve Parkin/Getty Images
The fact that there had been an extraordinary period of general peace since 1815, when the Napoleonic wars ended, further reinforced this illusion, as did the idea that the interdependence of the countries of the world was so great that they could never afford to go to war again. This was the argument made by Norman Angell, a small, frail, and intense Englishman who had knocked around the world as everything from a pig farmer to a cowboy in the American West before he found his calling as a popular journalist. National economies were bound so tightly together, he maintained in his book,
The Great Illusion, that war, far from profiting anyone, would ruin everyone. Moreover, in a view widely shared by bankers and economists at the time, a large-scale war could not last very long because there would be no way of paying for it (though we now know that societies have, when they choose, huge resources they can tap for destructive purposes). A sensational best-seller after it was published in Britain in 1909 and in the United States the following year, its title—meant to make the point that it was an illusion to believe there was anything to be gained by taking up arms—took on a cruel and unintended irony only a few short years later.
For many in the upper classes prior to WWI, the world was changing too fast. Hear author Margaret MacMillan on how today's ruling classes are reacting to contemporary events.
Ralph Norman Angell (1872-1967): British lecturer, journalist, author, politician. Wikimedia CommonsWhat Angell and others failed to see was the downside of interdependence. In Europe a hundred years ago the landowning classes saw their prosperity undermined by cheap agricultural imports from abroad and their dominance over much of society undercut by a rising middle class and a new urban plutocracy. As a result, many of the old upper classes flocked to conservative, even reactionary, political movements. In the cities, artisans and small shopkeepers whose services were no longer needed were also drawn to radical right-wing movements. Anti-Semitism flourished as Jews were made the scapegoat for the march of capitalism and the modern world.
The world is witnessing unsettling parallels today. Across Europe and North America, radical right-wing movements like the British National Party and the Tea Party provide outlets for the frustration and fears that many feel as the world changes around them and the jobs and security they had counted on disappear. Certain immigrants—such as Muslims—come to stand in as the enemy in some communities.
Globalization can also have the paradoxical effect of fostering intense localism and nativism, frightening people into taking refuge in the comfort of small, like-minded groups. One of the unexpected results of the Internet, for example, is how it can narrow horizons so that users seek out only those whose views echo their own and avoid websites that might challenge their assumptions.
Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley in October 1901.
John Walker Lindh, aka the "American Taliban," convicted in 2002 of charges related to aiding the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Globalization also makes possible the widespread transmission of radical ideologies and the bringing together of fanatics who will stop at nothing in their quest for the perfect society. In the period before World War I, anarchists and revolutionary socialists across Europe and North America read the same works and had the same aim: to overthrow the existing social order. The young Serbs who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo were inspired by Nietzsche and Bakunin, just as their Russian and French counterparts were. Terrorists from Calcutta to Buffalo imitated each other as they hurled bombs onto the floors of stock exchanges, blew up railway lines, and stabbed and shot those they saw as oppressors, whether the Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary or U.S. President William McKinley. Today new technologies and social media platforms provide new rallying points for fanatics, enabling them to spread their messages even more rapidly and to even wider audiences around the globe. Often they claim divine inspiration. All of the world’s major religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have produced their share of terrorists prepared to commit murder and mayhem in their name. Thus we see the young offspring of Muslim parents from Pakistan and Bangladesh, even those born or raised in the United Kingdom and North America, going off to make common cause with Syrian rebels, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or one of the branches of al Qaeda in North Africa or Yemen, despite sharing almost nothing—culturally or ethnically—with those whose cause they have taken up.
It is tempting—and sobering—to compare today's relationship between China and the U.S. with that between Germany and England a century ago. Now, as then, the march of globalization has lulled us into a false sense of safety.
May 1915: After the German navy's sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania, in which 1,195 lost their lives, enraged Londoners attack a German immigrant's tobacco shop.
Mary Evans Picture Library
October 2013: "Get Out," say members of a far-right group as they demonstrate in Lyon, France, next to a camp of illegal migrants, most from Albania.
At the national level, globalization can heighten rivalries and fears between countries one might otherwise expect to be friends. One hundred years ago, on the eve of World War I, Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, and Germany, the world’s greatest land power, were each other’s largest trading partners. British children played with toys, including lead soldiers, made in Germany, and Covent Garden resounded with the voices of German singers performing German operas. Moreover, the two nations shared a religion—the majority in both was Protestant—and family ties, right up to their respective monarchs. But all that did not translate into friendship. Quite the contrary. With Germany cutting into Britain’s traditional markets and vying with it for colonies and power, the British felt threatened. As early as 1896, a best-selling British pamphlet, Made in Germany, painted an ominous picture: “A gigantic commercial State is arising to menace our prosperity, and contend with us for the trade of the world.”
ca. 1906: Workers in the paint shop at the Daimler Motors Corporation near Stuttgart work on the chassis of a Mercedes-Simplex.
June 2013: Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Chairman Li Shufu at a Volvo assembly line in Chengdu, Sichuan province. The Chinese company bought the Swedish automaker in 2010.
Many Germans held reciprocal views. Germany, they said, was due its place in the sun—and an empire on which the sun would never set—but Britain and the British navy were standing in its way. When Kaiser Wilhelm and his naval secretary Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz decided to build a deep-water navy to challenge British naval supremacy, the unease in Britain about Germany’s growing commercial and military power turned into something close to panic.
Erskine Childers’ 1903 best-seller, The Riddle of the Sands, described a German invasion plot, stirring British fears about their lack of military preparedness. Rumours spread, fanned by the new mass circulation newspapers, of German guns buried under London in preparation for war, and 50,000 waiters in British restaurants who were really German soldiers. For its part, the German government seriously feared a pre-emptive attack on its fleet by the British navy, and the German public had its own share of invasion scares. On several occasions before 1914 parents in coastal towns kept their children home from school in anticipation of an imminent landing by British marines.
Before 1915: Imperial German Navy submarine U-14, sunk in the North Sea in 1915.
Cooler heads on both sides hoped to wind down the increasingly expensive naval race, but in each country, public opinion, then a new and incalculable factor in the making of policy, pushed in the direction of hostility rather than friendship. Even the blood ties between the German and the British royal families, which might have been expected to ameliorate these mutual antipathies, did quite the opposite. Kaiser Wilhelm, that strange and erratic ruler, hated his uncle King Edward VII, “the arch-intriguer and mischief-maker in Europe,” who, in turn, dismissed his nephew as a bully and a show-off.
It is tempting—and sobering—to compare today’s relationship between China and the U.S. with that between Germany and England a century ago. Now, as then, the march of globalization has lulled us into a false sense of safety. Countries that have McDonald’s, we are told, will never fight each other. Or as President George W. Bush put it when he issued his National Security Strategy in 2002, the spread of democracy and free trade across the world is the surest guarantee of international stability and peace.
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Yet the extraordinary growth in trade and investment between China and the U.S. since the 1980s has not served to allay mutual suspicions. Far from it. As China’s investment in the U.S. increases, especially in sensitive sectors such as electronics and biotechnology, so does public apprehension that the Chinese are acquiring information that will put them in a position to threaten American security. For their part, the Chinese complain that the U.S. treats them as a second-rate power and, while objecting to the continuing American support for Taiwan, they seem dedicated to backing North Korea, no matter how great the provocations of that maverick state. At a time when the two countries are competing for markets, resources, and influence from the Caribbean to Central Asia, China has become increasingly ready to translate its economic strength into military power. Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the U.S. as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region. The Wall Street Journal has published authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China—just in case.
Will popular feeling, fanned and inflamed by the mass media in the same way that it was in the early years of the 20th century, make these hostilities even more difficult to control? Today the speed of communications puts greater than ever pressure on governments to respond to crises, and to do so quickly, often before they have time to formulate a measured response.