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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts


Europe's Imperial Age
On the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, a grand parade brought onto the streets of London the panoply of empire. Soldiers and residents from all parts of the far-flung British Empire moved in colorful array, a living tableau depicting the grandeur of empire. It was a glorious moment--for the British, of course--and the last of such magnitude before the apparent solidity of the imperial foundation was found truly defective. Across the Channel, a few years before, the French celebrated the anniversary of their great revolution in 1889 with an international exhibition, at which products and peoples from the French overseas empire were displayed for Parisians to admire. Far away from all this, and a few years later, Kaiser Wilhelm II appeared in 1898 in the Holy Land. He assumed the role of a latterday Teutonic knight, his handsome military uniform encircled in a magnificent white cape, and his head crowned with an eagle-guarded helmet.

These separate acts, amusing and pretentious when seen in retrospect, can be understood as nationally satisfying when set in their own times and among the people for whom they were performed. Beyond or behind the pageantry of empire was the reality of Europe's political domination of the world.

It was a flimsy, ill-conceived domination, however. The working principle upon which the operation of empire was maintained was this: the colonies should cost the colonizing country little or nothing. Empire "on the cheap" was the English phrase to describe the condition. And so, very little of striking innovation or permanence was introduced. The chief purpose was to guarantee an administrative system capable of providing peaceful conditions in which trade could flourish and revenues be sufficiently collected so that the administration would be self-supporting. (There was something rather circular about it. )

The effects on the indigenous populations were generally disruptive. Older cultural systems were jarred by the European presence with its different set of values and purposes. Perhaps the most revolutionary of European changes was that of the global market economic system. Not only did this system tend to destroy the sustenance economies that still existed in many parts of the world by substituting cash crops for local food crops, but also it introduced the monied wage that tended to break down the older family and communally centered societies in which work was divided on the basis of need, not organized around income. Moreover, the requirements of the new market economy were not parallel with those of local needs. Cash crops frequently meant the creation of monocultures: agriculture based on a single crop or a dominant crop, such as peanuts in Senegal, tea in Ceylon, cocoa in the Gold Coast. Through such a system many of the basic food needs of the colony were often not locally produced. For instance, the importation of rice from Indochina into West Africa became a common practice of the later French colonial empire.

If, then, colonial empires had a jarring effect on local cultures, what were their effects on Europe proper? First, it must be stressed that empire was not an exceptionally popular business; it was more often than not greeted simply with national acceptance, except on those grand occasions of state, like Victoria's jubilees, or those dramatic moments as when the English General Charles Gordon was killed by the dervishes, religious militants, at Khartoum in the Sudan in 1885. For the most part, imperialism was viewed as an understandable part of a modern nation's activities, further proof of the state's energies or "vocation." In the cabinet meetings, where state policies were generally formulated, empire was secondary to continental considerations. Or, put otherwise, it was an extension, not a totally different realm, of foreign policy. The many colonial entanglements between France and Great Britain toward the end of the century were measured in terms of the national rivalry that had long existed between these two nations. That no major international conflict broke out between European nations over a colonial matter is partial proof of the secondary nature of imperialism to European politics, as it also is partial proof that the "concert system" still had some life in it: negotiation was preferred to military engagement.

Yet in another sense, imperialism both expressed and gave further rise to the inflated thinking and bombastic rhetoric of the late nineteenth century. It was scarcely a modest age, and it was becoming less and less a rational one, if newspaper headlines and public oratory were to be believed. There was a lot of diplomatic swagger and sword rattling, but in no country more than Germany. Well before the World War broke out, German talk of Weltpolitik, of establishing a world role and a world politics by which England could be challenged, was common. And some of the French were obviously anxious to test their manhood in the colonies, far away from a stolid and stultifying middleclassdom that they deprecated. Morocco was soon described as a "school of energy," where, through pursuit of an active, outdoor life, the youth of the day would be prepared for the arduous national tasks of the morrow.

What we today recognize as a spirit of machismo complicated the continental political situation by enhancing popular receptivity to an aggressive mood. It was already there for some time, frozen in the British term "jingoism."

We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do,
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.

These lines date back to the 1870s and represent a popular English reaction to possible war with Russia over the fate of Constantinople. But they have come to explain the chauvinistic nationalism that ran throughout Europe at the end of the century. And so, in the popular thought of then contemporary Europe, imperialism was expressive of an expansionist mood, of a sense of pride over national effort and also of a fear of competing neighbors that conditioned all too many Europeans to the possibility, indeed the excitement, of possible war, while they still pursued their peaceful ways, generally confident in their collective national purposes.

In its formative and reformative phases, the European state system rapidly extended outward to include overseas empire. With the rise of the dynastic or monarchical state of Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the first European empires were founded; they coincided rather neatly with the reign of the "new monarchs" like Queen Elizabeth I or King Louis XIV. Then, two centuries later, with the reformation of that state system and the successful establishment of a collection of nation-states, now including Germany and Italy, another wave of major expansion took place. More than coincidence seems to have existed between these two sets of occurrences.

The close correlation between national power and economic development has been frequently commented upon. The mercantilism of the earlier period has been revisited in the later period with the term "neo-mercantilism," used to describe the protectionist tariffs of the late nineteenth century and the search for new and "safe" colonial markets and sources of raw materials. In both historical situations, major technological breakthroughs help explain the success of empire: in the first instance, new sailing techniques and instruments, the perfection of the ship-located cannon, capable of firing a broadside against other ships and coastal defenses; in the second instance, the steam engine and the machine gun were the generators of imperial power.

However, in the late nineteenth century, the mood of imperialism was part of a larger mood of expansiveness, of increasingly generated power in the factory, in the laboratory, on the battlefield. Power was real in a reading of a nation's steel index. And power was symbolically and historically displayed in the national flags that were solemnly raised and lowered in all the parts of the world where Europe was present.

For those who believed in and practiced it, imperialism can now be seen as a preface to the dramatic summer of 1914 when young men, bent upon heroic action and dedicated to the pursuit of national glory, rushed from both sides to the western front.

NEXT:  Chapter Seven: Discontent and Tension

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