The story of the twentieth century has sometimes been presented as a triumph of ‘the West’ initially alias Europe and later called the 'American Century'. The Second World War is often represented as the apogee of American power and virtue; the victory of the 'Greatest Generation'. In the last years of the century, the end of the Cold War led Francis Fukuyama famously to proclaim 'the end of history' and the victory of the Western (if not Anglo-American) model of liberal democratic capitalism. Yet this seems fundamentally to misread the trajectory of the past hundred years, which has seen something more like a reorientation of the world towards the East. But in 1900 the West really did rule from the Bosphorus to the Bering Straits, nearly all of what was then known as the Orient was under some form or another of Western imperial rule.
the Public Debt Administration in Istanbul - reflected both financial and military weakness. To pay for modern armaments and infrastructure that they could not make for themselves, the Chinese and the Turkish governments had borrowed substantial sums by floating loans in Europe; domestic intermediaries simply could not compete with the sums and the terms offered by the European banking houses, which were able to tap much wider and deeper pools of savings through the bond markets of London, Paris and Berlin. But the mortgaging or hypothecation of specific revenue streams like customs duties meant that these passed into foreign control in the event of a default. And defaults tended to happen in the wake of military setbacks like those suffered by Turkey in the 1870s and China in the 1890s; it turned out that simply buying Western hardware did not suffice to win wars.
It is therefore not surprising that by 1901 so many Westerners expected both these venerable empires to go the way of the Safavid and Mughal empires, which had disintegrated in the eighteenth century, with European economic influence as the fatal solvent. Yet this was not what happened. Instead, both in China and in Turkey, a new generation of political modernizers came to power, inspired by nationalism and intent on avoiding the fate that had befallen earlier Eastern empires. The challenge for the Young Turks who came to power in Istanbul in 1908 was the same as that which faced the Chinese republicans who overthrew the last Qing Emperor three years later: how to transform sprawling, enfeebled empires into strong nation states.
What enabled the West to rule the East was not so much scientific knowledge in its own right as its systematic application to both production and destruction. That was why, in I900, the West produced more than half the world's output, and the East barely a quarter. Western dominance was also due to the failure of the Asian empires to modernize their economic, legal and military systems, to say nothing of the relative stagnation of Oriental intellectual life. Democracy, liberty, equality and, indeed, race: all of these concepts originated in the West. So did nearly all of the significant scientific breakthroughs from Newton to Einstein. Historians influenced by Asian nationalism have very often made the mistake of assuming that the backwardness of Eastern societies in around 1900 was the consequence of imperial 'exploitation'. This is in large measure an illusion; rather, it was the decadence of Eastern empires that made European domination possible.
It is only when the extent of Western dominance in 1900 is appreciated that the true narrative arc of the twentieth century reveals itself. This was not 'the triumph of the West', but rather the crisis of the European empires, the ultimate result of which was the inexorable revival of Asian power and the descent of the West. Gradually, beginning in Japan, Asian societies modernized themselves or were modernized by European rule. As this happened, the gap between European and Asian incomes began to narrow. And with that narrowing, the relative decline of the West became unstoppable. This was nothing less than the reorientation of the world, redressing a balance between West and East that had been lost in the four centuries after 1500. No historian of the twentieth century can afford to overlook this huge - and ongoing - secular shift.
Thus no sooner had the Second World War ended, than a new wave of violence swept the Middle East and Asia, which historians refer to somewhat euphemistically as decolonization. Civil wars and partitions scarred India, Indo-China, China and Korea; in the last case, internecine war escalated into interstate war with the interventions of an American-led coalition and Communist China. Thereafter the two superpowers made war by proxy. The theatres of global conflict changed, from Central and Eastern Europe and ManchuriaKorea to Latin America, Indo-China and sub-Saharan Africa. And in some ways, it was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the last European empire in Asia could be said to have fallen. In that sense it seems justifiable to interpret the twentieth century not as the triumph but as the descent of the West, with the Second World War as the decisive turning point. For the death throes of the Occident's empire in the Orient were as bloody as anything that happened in Central and Eastern Europe, not least because of the extreme reactions against Western models of development that they inspired in countries such as Japan, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia. The collapse of the Soviet empire saw the revival of ethnic conflicts that had been dormant during the Cold War, not least in the Balkans - a resumption rather than the end of history. In the end, I have elected to locate the war of the world between two dates: I904, when the Japanese struck the first effective blow against European dominance of the Orient; and I953, when the end of the Korean War drew a line through the Korean peninsula, matching the Iron Curtain that had already been drawn through Central Europe. It was a descent, in the sense that the West could never again wield the power it had enjoyed in 1900. It was also a descent, however, in that much of what arose in the East to challenge that power was recognizably descended from Western ideas and institutions, albeit through a process of cultural miscegenation.
Somewhat similar processes were already at work in the Austrian and Russian empires, though this was much less obvious in 1901. Although similar to their Asian counterparts in their social foundations, both empires had modernized their revenue-gathering and war-making capabilities in the eighteenth century. Yet both were already struggling to cope with the technological and political challenges of industrialized warfare. The smaller Central European realm of the Habsburgs was primarily weakened by its ethnic diversity. There were at least eighteen nationalities dispersed across five distinct kingdoms, two grand duchies, one principality, six duchies and six other miscellaneous territorial units. German-speakers accounted for less than a quarter of the population. Because of its institutional decentralization, Austria-Hungary struggled to match the military expenditures of the other great powers. It was stable, but weak.
There were, to be sure, periodic debates about internal reform. The 'dualism' that since 1867 had divided most power between a pluralistic Austria and a Magyar-dominated Hungary produced endless anomalies, like the arcane distinction between kaiserlich-koniglich (imperial-royal) (k.k.) and kaiserlich und koniglich (k.u.k.).
Czechs in particular chafed at their second-class status in Bohemia, and were able to give more forthright political expression to their grievances after the introduction of universal male suffrage in I907. But schemes for some kind of Habsburg federalism never got off the ground. The alternative of Germanization was not an option for the fragile linguistic patchwork that was Austria; the most that could be achieved was to maintain German as the language of command for the army, though with results lampooned hilariously by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek in The Good Soldier Svejk. By contrast, the sustained Hungarian campaign to 'Magyarize' their kingdom's nonHungarians, who accounted for nearly half the population, merely inflamed nationalist sentiment. If the trend of the age had been towards multi-cultural ism, then Vienna would have been the envy of the world; from psychoanalysis to the Secession, its cultural scene at the turn of the century was a wonderful advertisement for the benefits of ethnic cross-fertilization. But if the trend of the age was towards the homogeneous nation state, the future prospects of the Dual Monarchy were bleak indeed. When the satirist Karl Kraus called AustriaHungary a 'laboratory of world destruction' (Versuchsstation des Weltuntergangs), he had in mind precisely the mounting tension between a multi-tiered polity-summed up by Kraus as an 'aristodemoplutobürokratischen Mischmasch' - and a multi-ethnic society. This was what Musil was getting at when he described Austria-Hungary as 'nothing but a particularly clear-cut case of the modern wo!ld': for 'in that country ... every human being's dislike of every other human being's attempts to get on ... [had] crystallized earlier'. Reverence for the aged Emperor Francis Joseph was not enough to hold this delicate edifice together. It might even end up blowing it apart.
If Austria-Hungary was stable but weak, Russia was strong but unstable. 'There's an invisible thread, like a spider's web, and it comes right out of his Imperial Majesty Alexander the Third's heart. And there's another which goes through all the ministers, through His Exellency the Governor and down through the ranks until it reaches me and even the lowest soldier,' the policeman Nikiforych explained to the young Maxim Gorky. 'Everything is linked and bound together by this thread ... with its invisible power.' As centralized as AustriaHungary was decentralized, Russia seemed equal to the task of maintaining military parity with the West European powers. Moreover, Russia exercised the option of 'Russification', aggressively imposing the Russian language on the other ethnic minorities in its vast imperium. This was an ambitious strategy given the numerical predominance of non-Russians, who accounted for around 56 per cent of the total population of the empire. It was Russia's economy that nevertheless seemed to pose the biggest challenge to the Tsar and his ministers. Despite the abolition of serfdom in the I860s, the country's agricultural system remained communal in its organization - closer, it might be said, to India than to Prussia. But the bid to build up a new class of thrifty peasant proprietors - sometimes known as kulaks, after their supposedly tight fists - achieved only limited success. From a narrowly economic perspective, the strategy of financing industrialization by boosting agricultural production and exports was a success.
Between 1870 and 1913 the Russian economy grew at an average annual rate of around 2.4 per cent, faster than the British, French and Italian and only a little behind the German (2.8 per cent). Between 1898 and 1913, pig iron production more than doubled, raw cotton consumption rose by 80 per cent and the railway network grew by more than 50 per cent. Militarily, too, state-led industrialization seemed to be working; Russia was more than matching the expenditures of the other European empires on their armies and navies. Small wonder the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg worried that 'Russia's growing claims and enormous power to advance in a few years, will simply be impossible to fend off'. Nevertheless, the prioritization of grain exports (to service Russia's rapidly growing external debt) and rapid population growth limited the material benefits felt by ordinary Russians, four-fifths of whom lived in the countryside. The hope that they would gain land as well as freedom aroused among peasants by the abolition of serfdom had been disappointed. Though living standards were almost certainly rising (if the revenues from excise duties are any guide), this was no cure for a pervasive sense of grievance, as any student of the French ancien regime could have explained. A disgruntled peasantry, a sclerotic aristocracy, a radicalized but impotent intelligentsia and a capital city with a large and volatile populace: these were precisely the combustible ingredients the historian Alexis de Tocqueville had identified in 1780s France. A Russian revolution of rising expectations was in the making - a revolution Nikiforych vainly warned Gorky to keep out of.
The West European overseas empires were altogether different in character. The products of three centuries of commerce, conquest and colonization, they were the beneficiaries of a remarkable global division of labor. At the heart of this 'imperialism' - the word became a term of abuse as early as the late 1850s - were a few great cities, which generally combined political, commercial and industrial functions. In their own right, these teeming metropolises were monuments to the material progress of mankind, even if the slums of their East Ends revealed how unequally the fruits of that progress were distributed. Outwards from London, Glasgow, Amsterdam and Hamburg there radiated the lines - shipping lines, railway lines, telegraph lines - that were the sinews of Western imperial power. Regular steamships connected the great commercial centers to every corner of the globe. They criss-crossed the oceans; they plied its great lakes; they chugged up and down its navigable rivers. At the ports where they loaded and unloaded their passengers and cargoes, there were railway stations, and from these emanated the second great network of the Victorian age: the iron rails, along which ran rhythmically, in accordance with scrupulously detailed timetables, a clunking cavalcade of steam trains. A third network, of copper and rubber rather than iron, enabled the rapid telegraphic communication of orders of all kinds: orders to be obeyed by imperial functionaries, orders to be filled by overseas merchants - even holy orders could use the telegraph to communicate with the thousands of missionaries earnestly disseminating West European creeds and ancillary beneficial knowledge to the heathen. These networks bound the world together as never before, seeming to 'annihilate distance' and thereby creating truly global markets for commodities, manufactures, labor and capital. In turn, it was these markets that peopled the prairies of the American Mid-West and the steppe of Siberia, grew rubber in Malaya and tea in Ceylon, bred sheep in Queensland and cattle in the pampas, dug diamonds from the pipes of Kimberley and gold from the rich seams of the Rand.
Globalization is sometimes discussed as if it were a spontaneous process brought about by private agents - firms and non-governmental organizations. Economic historians chart with fascination the giddy growth of cross-border flows of goods, people and capital. Trade, migration and international lending all reached levels in relation to global output not seen again until the I990s. A single monetary system - the gold standard - came to be adopted by nearly every major economy, encouraging later generations to look back on the pre-I9I4 decades as a literally 'golden' age. In economic terms it doubtless was. The world economy grew faster between I8lO and I9I3 than in any previous period. It is inconceivable, however, that such high levels of international economic integration would have come about in the absence of empires. We should bear in mind that, taken together, the possessions of all the European empires - the Austrian, Belgian, British, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian - covered more than half of the world's land surface and governed roughly the same proportion of its population. This was a political globalization unseen before or since. When these empires acted in concert, as they did in Africa from the I8l0s and in China from the I890s, they brooked no opposition.
Also by I901 there also had been a worldwide revulsion against 'miscegenation'. As early as I835 intermarriage was formally banned in British India. In the aftermath of the I857 Mutiny, attitudes towards interracial sex hardened as part of a general process of segregation, a phenomenon usually, though not quite justly, attributed to the increasing presence and influence of white women in India. Legal prohibitions could not prevent the emergence of a substantial mixed-race population in North America. Yet precisely this social reality appears to have heightened, if it did not actually create, anxieties about miscegenation, giving rise to a large body of more or less lurid literature on the subject. In The Races of Men, published in Philadelphia in 1850, Robert Knox emphatically repudiated the idea that any good could come of the 'amalgamation of races'; the 'mullato' was 'a monstrosity of nature'. Among the most influential opponents of miscegenation was the Swiss-American polygenist and Harvard professor Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz. In August I863 he was asked by Samuel Gridley Howe, the head of Lincoln's American Freedman's Inquiry Commission, whether 'the African race ... will be a persistent race in this country; or, will it be absorbed, diluted, & finally effaced by the white race'. The government, Agassiz replied, should 'put every possible obstacle to the crossing of the races, and the increase of the half-breeds'.
In spite of a rising anti-Semitism that started with the Russian progroms, I90I the Jewish diaspora was still in the early stages of what promised to be a profound transformation. Over 70 per cent of the world's 10.6 million Jews were Ashkenazim living in Central and Eastern Europe, of whom more than three million lived in Russian territory. As we shall see, these people had strong incentives to move westwards and, in their hundreds of thousands, they were doing precisely that, forming vibrant new Jewish communities in New York, in the East End of London, in Berlin, Budapest and Vienna. That did not signify the decline of the established Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, however. Demographically, if not in other ways, they continued to thrive. It would be more accurate to say that the Jews, like so much else at the start of the twentieth century, were being globalized. At the same time, similar processes were transforming another diaspora. In their millions - perhaps as many as five million in all- Germans had migrated across the Atlantic in the course of the nineteenth century, establishing large and proudly Germanic communities in the American Mid-West. Yet an earlier German diaspora was meanwhile struggling to come to terms with the experience of relative decline.
In 1901 there were more than thirteen million Germans living beyond the Reich's eastern frontier. Around nine million lived in Austria, but around four million lived further east, principally in Hungary, Romania and Russia. There were substantial German communities along the Baltic coast, in Poland, Galicia and Bukovina, as well as in Bohemia and Moravia. There were also Germans to be found in Slovakia, Hungary, Transylvania and Slovenia. Nor were these settlements confined to the Habsburg lands. There were Tyrolean Germans in the north of Italy. There were German populations in Russian territory, too, in Volhynia, in Bessarabia and Dobrudja, around the mouths of the rivers Prut and Dniester, and along the southern reaches of the Volga. It is not at all easy to rescue the history of these mostly vanished communities from the exaggerated claims made for them in the 1930S and 1940S by Nazi propagandists. Nevertheless, there is no question that many German settlements could trace their roots back centuries. It had been in the late tenth century, at the behest of King Stephan I, that German settlers has! first come to western Hungary. In the twelfth century this proce;s was repeated when the Siebenburger 'Saxons' were encouraged to settle in Transylvania, where they founded towns like Klausenberg, Hermannstadt and Bistritz. At around the same time German communities also sprang up in Slovakia, notably Pressburg (now Bratislava), Kaschau (Kosice) and Zips (Spisska), as well as in Slovenia, notably Laibach (now Ljubljana). Often these settlements had a strategic character; their intention was to create fortified settlements along the Eastern Marches of Christendom. This was most clearly the case along the Baltic coast. By 1405 the Teutonic Knights' realm extended from the River Elbe all the way up to Narva Bay. Thorn (Toruil), Marienburg (Malbork), Miimmelburg (Memel) and Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) were all founded by the Order. Yet the Germans also put down civilian as well as military roots in Eastern Europe. Numerous towns in Poland, such as Lublin and Lemberg (Lw6w), were established in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries on the basis of German legal models. Though often obliterated by the ravages of twentieth-century war (most completely in Konigsberg), the German architectural legacy is still visible today in Toruil - to say nothing of Prague, where the oldest of all German universities was founded by the Emperor Charles IV in 1348.
Despite the storms and stresses of the intervening centuries, the position of the Germans in Central and Eastern Europe had often remained privileged, if not dominant. Not only did German dynasties, German soldiers and German officials run two of the great empires of the region. They were also among the principal landowners of the Baltic. They were the officials and professors of Prague and Czernowitz. They farmed some of the best land in Transylvania and worked the mines of Resita and Anina. Yet the migrations that had produced these various communities had not been sustained on a sufficiently large scale to supplant entirely the indigenous peoples. The numbers of German migrants were in any case small, perhaps 2,000 people a year in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Already by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the German influence in Polish towns had been discernibly diluted. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first Sweden and then Russia checked German colonization of the eastern Baltic. The Habsburgs' efforts to resettle Germans ('Swabians') in the Banat, Bukovina and the Balkans during the eighteenth century could only partly compensate for these tendencies. The German colonists attracted to the banks of the Volga and the coast of the Black Sea by the Empress Catherine the Great were as effectively cut off from the culture of their fatherland as if they had crossed the Atlantic. In the second half of the nineteenth century, somewhat higher nonGerman birth rates further reduced the relative size of this German Diaspora. More importantly, large-scale migration of Slav peasants from the countryside into traditionally German towns created an acute sense of 'population pressure'. The inner city of Prague, for example, went from being 21 per cent German-speaking to just 8 per cent between 1880 and 1900 as a result of an influx of Czechs. More isolated German communities in places like Trautenau (Trutnov) in north-eastern Bohemia, or Iglau (Jihlava) in Moravia, began to think of themselves as inhabitants of 'language islands' (Sprachinseln). Such demographic and social shifts help to explain why the Germans outside Germany felt a sense of cultural and political vulnerability. It was German workers in Trautenau who, in 1904, founded the German Workers' Party. Their principal goal, declared its leader in 19 13, was 'the maintenance and increase of [German] living space' (Lebensraum) against the threat posed by Czech Halbmenschen ('half-humans'). This was in fact a response to the creation of a Czech National Socialist Party in 1898.
The easternmost territories of Germany were subject to similar demographic trends. Germans who lived in the Prussian provinces of East Prussia, West Prussia, Posen and Upper Silesia also felt a sense of unease at, for example, the way the non-German population of the Reich's periphery was seasonally if not permanently swollen by Polish migrant workers. (It was on this subject that the young Max Weber conducted his first sociological research.) The experience of Memel (East Prussia), Danzig (West Prussia), Bromberg (Posen) and Breslau (Lower Silesia) was not wholly different from that of German communities in the easternmost parts of Austria-Hungary. The crucial point is that many of the eastern regions inhabited by German minorities were also areas of relatively dense Jewish settlement. Ironically, in view of later events, the relationships between Germans and Jews in these borderlands were sometimes close to symbiotic. Both groups were more likely than Slavs to live in towns; they also spoke variations of the German language, since the Yiddish of the East European shtetl (literally, 'wee town', identical to the German Stadtl) was essentially a German dialect, no further removed from High German than the language of the Transylvanian Saxons, even if in Galicia Yiddish signs were often written in Hebrew characters. The so-called Mauscheldeutsch spoken by Jews in Bohemia and the other western Habsburg lands was closer still to German. In Breslau, Jews were the backbone of the German liberal intelligentsia; fewer than half were observant and many in fact converted to Christianity, ceasing to regard themselves as Jews. In Prague roughly half of all Jews were German speakers and considered themselves a part of the German community; indeed, they were in some sense the German community, since Germanspeaking Jews accounted for just under half of all the Germans in Prague. As one Prague Jew from a notable professional family put it, 'We would have thought crazy anyone who would have said to us that we were not German.' In Galicia, too, assimilation often meant Germanization, despite the fact that Germans accounted for only a tiny fraction (0.5 per cent) of the population. Though born in Vienna, the religious philosopher Martin Buber was raised by his grandparents in Galicia and studied first in Lemberg, then in Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin and Zurich - a Germanophone intellectual itinerary that led him ultimately to embrace Hassidic Orthodoxy and Zionism. The author Karl Emil Franzos, the son of a Sephardic Jew who had himself studied medicine in Erlangen, was raised in the Galician village of Czortk6w and studied in Czernowitz, which he eulogized as 'the courtyard of the German paradise' and where he was a member of the 'Teutonia' student fraternity. To a thoroughly Germanized Jew like Franzos, Galicia and Bukovina could seem like 'Half-Asia', the title of his most famous series of stories and sketches. Like so many others, his literary road led him westwards - to Vienna, Graz, Strasbourg and finally Berlin.
Historians have, on the whole, tended to portray the years before the outbreak of the First World War as a time of mounting tension and escalating crises.
War, they have claimed, did not burst onto the scene in the summer of I9I4; rather, it approached over a period of years, even decades. Some authors go back further in time. For example: the 1875 Franco-German 'War in Sight' crisis, the 1875-8 Eastern crisis, the 1885-8 Bulgarian crisis, the 1886-9 Boulanger crisis, the 1905-6 Moroccan crisis, the 1908 Bosnian crisis, the 191 I Agadir crisis and the 1912-13 Balkan crisis. The Left had predicted for decades that militarism and imperialism would eventually produce an almighty crisis; the Right had been almost as consistent in portraying war as a salutary consequence of Darwinian struggle. European societies, it is now widely agreed, were ready for war long before war came. Imperialism, nationalism, Social Darwinism, militarism - the libraries overflow with causes of the First World War. Some emphasize domestic political crises, others the instability of the international system; all are agreed that it had deep roots. The question, however, is how far the many narratives of escalating crisis have been constructed by historians not to capture the past as it actually was in 1914, but to create an explanation of the war's origins commensurate with the vast dimensions of what happened in the succeeding four years. One way of addressing this question is to look more closely at the attitudes of other contemporaries to the diplomatic crises so familiar to historians. Doing so reveals just how far history is distorted by the dubious benefit of hindsight. For the reality is that the First World War was a shock, not a long-anticipated crisis.
Thus why might the war of 1914-18 have been a surprise? One answer is that contemporaries had more confidence than was entirely justified in the post-Victorian pax Britannica; in the ability of the world's biggest empire to limit the global ramifications of a continental crisis. We now know, looking back, that the British Empire was in many ways overstretched. Some contemporaries suspected it, too. Yet the persistence of British naval dominance may have encouraged investors to underestimate the Empire's vulnerabilities. The pax Britannica looked very real to investors; that was why they were willing to lend to emerging markets under British rule at rates that were only a few basis points higher than those on consols. In any case, peace was more than just a function of British military or financial power. It was also based on the success of great-power diplomacy. Concepts like the balance of power and the concert of Europe were in large measure discredited by the war; indeed it became an article of faith among American internationalists that the war itself had been caused by a defective system of secret diplomacy. Yet the international institutions that failed in July 1914 had in fact done a reasonably good job of avoiding a major great-power war throughout the preceding century.
War was waged all over the world after July I9I4. All sides, beginning with the Germans, sought to resolve the strategic impasse in Europe by winning victories in extra-European theatres. The Kaiser himself had set the tone as early as July 30, when he called on 'our consuls in Turkey, in India, agents etc., [to] ... fire the whole Mohammedan world to fierce rebellion against this hated, lying, conscienceless nation of shop-keepers; for if we are to be bled to death, England shall at least lose India.' This was more than mere royal ranting. Three and a half months later, in the presence of Germany's new ally the Ottoman Sultan, the Sheikh-ul-Islam issued a fatwa that declared an Islamic holy war on Britain and her allies. Swiftly translated into Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tatar, it was addressed to both Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. Given that roughly I20 million of the world's 270 Muslims were under British, French or Russian rule, this was a potentially revolutionary call to jihad.