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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Expansion & Explosion: 1871-1918

In 1889 the Eiffel Tower rose nearly one thousand feet into the Parisian sky; in 1912 the ocean liner Titanic, nearly nine hundred feet in length, set out on its maiden voyage to America. Both structures were the wonders of their age, proof of European technological success and expressions of the unusual power that the late nineteenth-century European world had amassed.

Belief in ever-increasing material progress as a condition of modem life was widespread in Europe, and this belief had as its corollary the assertion that material progress was in itself a moral benefit. Already in mid-century, a little troupe of idealists, known after their leader Count Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon as the Saint-Simonians, entertained the glorious ideal that good things would come from great works--the world would be made one and harmonious if bound together by iron rails or connected by waterways.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal, was of this persuasion, as were several of the most important French railway engineers. Across the Atlantic, the poet of the new age was Walt Whitman, who captured the exalted Spirit in the following lines from "Passage to India":

Lo, soul, seest thou not God's purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann'd, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross'd, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.
This spirit of industrial expansion, evidenced throughout most of the century, was both modified and greatly enlarged in the last three decades, when political expansion in the form of overseas imperialism was evident from tropical Africa to the frigid Arctic.

Yet late nineteenth-century expansion, whatever its form, did not move along the poetic lines expressed by Whitman. There was little visible harmony, no welding together of interests or purposes. Europe had become economically and politically competitive, with national rivalry taken as the norm. The long years of relative peace had encouraged many people to assume that in this self-styled "century of progress," a major war was not possible. It also led a few people to a different conclusion: that peace was enervating, productive only of complacency. When the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke stated in 1880 that "everlasting peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful one," he expressed more than his own opinion.

War came in 1914, and with a ferocity and interminable length that few had dared anticipate. And with the war, nineteenth-century Europe would be shattered. "Good-Bye to All That" was the title of one of the most popular personal accounts of the war experience.

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