Western Civilization prior to World War I

A Demonstration in Germany following World War I

The dominant mood in Western Civilization prior to 1914 was one of pride in its heritage, and confidence in its future progress. Advances in science and technology, as well as art and culture, the rising standard of living for all classes, the spread of democratic institutions, and a position of power and influence in the world all contributed to a sense of optimism. Furthermore, Europe had avoided a general war since the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. And the great powers had not waged war on one another since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

Over the past 2000 years, Western Civilization had risen to become an advanced industrial civilization spreading democracy and individual freedoms, as well as sharing a vast amount of technology and culture over the entire globe. It was consistently leading the world away from despotism and towards a culture that highly valued the individual. Per capita GDP broke away on a dramatic rise starting around 1820 as a result of the industrial revolution. Advances in transportation and communication were spreading people and ideas across the entire planet. It had broken out of Europe and settled other continents. Western Civilization had become the preeminent core of human progress.

The past was not without its mistakes, but there was a sense that the general trend of history was one of continual positive change.

Reflecting on the world he knew before the outbreak of World War I, historian Arnold Toynbee recalled what his generation had expected of the future:

"We expected that life throughout the World would become more rational, more humane, and more democratic and that, slowly, but surely, political democracy would produce greater social justice. We had also expected that the progress of science and technology would make mankind richer, and that this increasing wealth would gradually spread from a minority to a majority. We had expected that all this would happen peacefully. In fact we thought that mankind's course was set for an earthly paradise, and that our approach towards this goal was predestined for us by historical necessity. "
~ , Surviving the Future, 1971

A Great Confidence Eroded

"War is one of the conditions of progress, the sting that prevents a country from going to sleep."

~ (1876)

"War is the storm that purifies the air and destroys the trees, leaving the sturdy oak standing."

~ (1901)

The Great War of 1914-1918 was called great on account of its size as opposed to having any notable merit. It would later be renamed World War I in deference to its sequel that broke out in 1939. The European wars of the 18th century were also world wars, being fought in India and North America and on the seas for control of new territories or trade routes. But these, not being wars of peoples, did not threaten civilization or close an era as was the case with World War I.

New technology afforded the ability to do damage on a scale previously unseen in warfare. Miles of railroad tracks delivered ammunition to the front lines where it was stockpiled in preparation for major offenses. A total of approximately 1.5 billion artillery shells were fired over the course of the war. The French Revolution had changed how armies were raised. Governments had previously been afraid of arming their population out of fear of rebellion. The method of conscripting men from the entire population instead of using mercenaries to fight wars meant that huge numbers of men were now available to use as soldiers.

The major powers went off the gold standard within weeks of the outbreak of war. Monetary inflation was used as a means of financing. Had the major powers remained on the gold standard, the war might have been over in a few months. Because governments could issue new currency endlessly, the financial constraints of waging war were greatly reduced.

During the major battles of World War I, more people died in one hour of combat than had died in the previous 100 years of all of Europe's wars, foreign and domestic. War had become, in a sense, mass production assembly line killing on an industrial scale.

Church bells waiting to be melted down for the war effort during World War I. Church bells waiting to be melted down for the war effort.

At the same time that Europe was destroying its future, it was also tearing down its past. Towards the later years of the war, church bells and organ pipes were used as a source of metal for ammunition. In some cases these had been a central part of life for the people of a town for hundreds of years, and the locals mourned them as casualties along with the human loss.

The leadership in Europe had thought of war in an honorable, noble, and romantic sense. They saw war as virtuous self sacrifice for the betterment of their homelands. Only after seeing the youth of their countries die for nothing more than a few yards of mud did they begin to lose confidence in their own leadership. This lack of confidence within the upper classes of society contributed to the tone of Western Civilization after the war, and diminished what had previously been a strong sense of pride in previous achievements and optimism for the future.

This lack of confidence still lingers to this day, 100 years later. None of the participants of the war were free from guilt, as they all had avenues to pursue peace, but refrained from doing so in favor of pursuing their own aggressive aims. The Europe before 1914 had never been more confident in itself, or less aware of any challenge to its role as leader of the civilized world.

Sir Edward Grey came closest to understanding the looming destruction at the onset of the war when he said, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." When, 30 years later, the lamps of political wisdom, intellectual and artistic progress, economic growth, and moral stability were rekindled, they shined less brightly than they had before in the ancient centers of European civilization.

Cemetery in Verdun, France Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Verdun, France

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.
Hebrews 10::5-36

Originally published
Updated November 2018
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

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  Western Civilization - Ideas, Politics, and Society

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Western Civilization prior to World War I

  • Levi
    Thanks for an astute summary. I am currently reading Barbara Tuchman's book on this period "The Proud Tower". What an amazing era. Such hubris. Such arrogance. Unfortunately, as always those taking the risks and making idiot decisions did not pay the bill. In fact they became more wealthy out of the war. What do you thing the next period in world history will bring? At least today there is no irrational optimism about the future as at the end of the nineteenth century. Maybe that is a start?
  • Wake
    The end of any era in history severely challenges a culture's values. If you were to question national pride or absolute duty to your country prior to WWI you would likely have been executed. This shows just how entrenched cultural values can be. That being said, any prediction of what the next era in our history will be would be offensive to just about anyone who read it. I will guess that a civil war in England will be the event at which historians in the future will determine as the marker for the end of the Modern Era. I tend to wish there was more irrational optimism about the future in our time. WWI was a tremendous event matched only by the 30 years war or the Plague in its destructiveness. Maybe quite a bit of our cultural energy was destroyed as a result of the Great War. Thank you for the book recommendation, I'll definitely give it a look.
  • RT
    Very interesting and insightful. Perhaps an article on the Lost Generation would be a good companion piece. I believe WW2 broke out in 1939, not 1940 (unless one counts the Asian-Pacific theater in which hostilities began in 1937).
  • Wake
    Thanks for the suggestion! I will add that to my list of future articles. The great thing about writing these is that in doing the research you find so many ideas for new articles. Fixed the date too, thank you RT.
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