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“Europe’s Scramble for Asia”: The Two Eastern Questions and the Shaping of the World in the 20th Century

Introduction

China Question cartoonOn July 1st 1997, the British government handed over its former colony of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, symbolizing what historian Niall Ferguson identified as the dominant trend of the 20th century: the protracted and painful geopolitical decline of the West (except the U.S.A.) and the bumpy but continuous re-ascendency of the East, fuelled by a period of upheaval he identifies as the˜Fifty Years War of the World” that started with the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and ended with the Korean War (1950-1953), of which the Second World War was the bloodiest climax.*[1]

Why did this happen? A clue is that this “War of the World” started and ended in Asia. The European empires’ “Scramble for Asia” in the 19th century created a highly interdependent “feedback loop” between Europe and Asia that was made combustible by the birth of the “Two Eastern Questions”,* specifically the Near-Eastern Question of the declining Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Far-Eastern Question of declining Qing Dynasty China. In turn Asia’s rapid decline in the face of European imperial expansion played a indirect but crucial role in the origins of the First World War and thus in the long run the demise of both the European empires and their domination of the globe in the 20th century.

The Three Factors of Combustibility

There were three factors that made the Two Eastern Questions and thus the Scramble for Asia so destabilizing and explosive.

First, European imperialism and globalization fuelled social fragmentation, for military defeat undermined Qing and Ottoman credibility while European capitalist penetration caused economic upheaval.

Long before the European imperial powers self-destructed in the 20th century, these two Asian empires were already slipping into painful decline. The Ottoman Empire was already facing protracted decline with its defeat at the Gates of Vienna in 1683 by forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and Polish-Lithuanian King John Sobieski III, followed by expulsion out of southern Ukraine, the Crimea and the northwestern Caucuses by Catherine the Great’s Russia in the late 18th century. However, it was from the 19th century onwards that it was threatened the most. Napoleon invaded Ottoman-controlled Egypt during the French Revolutionary War and in turn the European “Great Powers” backed a rebellion in Greece little after the Napoleonic Wars. Yet it was defeat by Russia in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)Russo-Turkish War 1877-1878 that triggered the Ottoman Empire’s ultimate phase of disintegration in the Balkans. Meanwhile, the imperial assault on Qing Dynasty China began with the First Opium War, when in March 1839 the Qing official Lin Zexu seized and destroyed the British East India Company’s chests of opium and arrested its merchants. This ended ultimately with Qing defeat just three years later. China was to be wracked with still more wars throughout the rest of the century, against powers such as Britain, France and Japan, which undermined Qing credibility*. Most humiliating was the Eight-Nation Alliance’s* crushing of the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century.[2]

First Opium WarEuropean capitalist globalization’s destabilizing effects on the Ottoman and Qing economies accompanied this via penetration of their markets. The Qing were increasingly forced by the Western powers to hand over economically valuable “Treaty Ports”, which destabilized China’s economy by flooding the local markets with foreign goods, devastating local rural economies while also amplifying the Qing’s growing trade deficit and fiscal crisis. Meanwhile, the declining Ottoman Empire entered economic crisis and became heavily indebted to European economic loans. By the early 20th century Istanbul was forced to pay taxes to the “European Council of Public Debt”. European investment and liberal trade caused the decline of Ottoman state revenues with the end of tariffs and the reduction of raw materials for domestic consumption.[3]

This in turn dangerously fuelled the strains on social cohesion, which came in the form of ethnic-religious conflict and in turn helped trigger uprisings. In China, economic hardship saw a rise in both ethnic hostility against the Manchu minority elite by the Han majority. The Han accused the Manchu of aiding European imperialism and capitalism, which fuelled the popularity of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864)* that ended up killing 20 million people. Economic hardship also fuelled religious hostility and violence towards Chinese Christian converts during the Boxer Rebellion. Meanwhile, the Ottomans faced the combination of both uprisings among subjected Christian ethnicities and in turn bloody ethnic conflict between Christians and Muslims, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria in the 1870s. In the Ottoman Empire there was also increasing hostility towards the relatively more prosperous and sometimes rebellious Christian Armenian minority.[4]

Secondly, the spread of European ideologies through networks of communication and information in Asia planted the seeds for an intelligentsia and revolutionary mass-political movements that overthrew the old centralized autocratic multi-ethnic empires and tried to forge ethnically homogenous democratic nation-states.

Chinese nationalism’s seeds were sewn in the cosmopolitan “Treaty Ports” and other Western controlled hubs of globalization, where the growth of the Chinese middle-class gave birth to an intelligentsia influenced by Western ideologies,* aided in turn by Western-inspired newspapers exposing Qing imperial corruption. In the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks, formed in 1902 and influenced by the Western concept of the nation-state, aimed at reviving the empire’s brief experimentation with parliamentarianism in the 1870s.

In both decaying empires, these revolutionaries would topple their autocratic dynasties. The Young Turk Revolution of July 1908, in response to a possible Ottoman handing over of Macedonia to European police forces, forced Sultan Abdul Hamid II to renounce autocracy and create a constitutional monarchy. Later, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by the Wuchang Uprising in 1911 and saw the birth of the Republic of China. This rapidly unraveled into warlordism as General Yuan Shikai tried to sideline nationalist republican Sun Yat-sen for the presidency and make himself a dictator. Whereas in the Ottoman and Qing empires reform from within the system failed, by contrast it occurred successfully in Japan with the Mejii Restoration of the late 19th century, which accelerated industrialization, created a strong Prussian-style autocratic monarchy with a parliament that had limited powers, and modernized the army. Indeed, some Chinese nationalists studied in Japan and were exposed to Western concepts there as well.[5]

The nationalists, although Western inspired, were all driven by a common goal: to modernize their states and challenge the Western powers. The Young Turks wanted to halt the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and North Africa. The Chinese nationalists aimed at reversing the tide of European and Japanese assault on China while Japan’s leaders in turn aspired to forge an empire to compete with the Western powers and become the dominant power in Asia.

Thirdly, the race to carve up the Ottoman and Qing empires amplified the globalization of European imperial rivalries, feeding those tensions back into Europe. The terms used by 19th century statesmen to describe these geopolitically explosive hot button issues were the “Eastern Question”, which covered the Ottoman Empire’s rapid decline in the Balkans, and the “China Question”, namely the rapid withering of the Qing Empire. Yet in reality these were “Two Eastern Questions”, a Near-Eastern Question (Ottoman) and a Far-Eastern Question (Chinese).

A key player in fuelling the rivalries over the Near-Eastern and Far-Eastern questions was Russia. There were simmering tensions between Russia and Austria-Hungary and its ally, the German Reich, over the Balkans as the Ottoman Empire unraveled. Russia aimed at annexing the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) for it controlled the Bosporus Straits, which were vital to Russia’s agricultural and industrial economy as they controlled access to the Eastern Mediterranean’s trade routes. GREAT GAME CartoonThroughout the late 19th century the Russians nearly came to blows with the British in what came to be known as the “Great Game”: Russian control of Istanbul would threaten British controlled Egypt and her expansion into Central Asia and Persia threatened British controlled India. Simultaneously, Germany’s growing economic penetration into the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1898 with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul and the construction of the Berlin-Bagdad Railway, increased tensions with both Britain and Russia. Concurrently in the Far East both the European and Japanese empires vied with one another to carve up the crumbling Qing Chinese empire. The same year the Kaiser visited Istanbul, Germany’s seizure of Kiaochow triggered acceleration in the race to carve up China. Yet again, Tsarist Russia was just as important. St. Petersburg pursued an increasingly aggressive foreign policy of imperial expansion in Manchuria, brewing tensions with Japan. [6]

The rivalries to carve up the Ottoman and Qing empires could prove incredibly dangerous in a highly globalized world for they turned the volatile multi-ethnic zones of the Balkan Peninsula and Manchuria-Korea into (to use Niall Ferguson’s analogy) “geopolitical earthquake zones, where the declining and rising empires acted as “geopolitical tectonic plates”, grinding uneasily with one another and periodically producing geopolitical earthquakes (territorial disputes and wars). The process of Ottoman unraveling had turned the Balkans into the most dangerous fault line, in which it became the “fateful historical border between West and East, the Occident and the Orient.[7] In a highly interdependent globalized world these “earthquakes” could have potential international butterfly effects, triggering imperial shifts in geopolitical tectonic zones on the other side of the world.

World War Squared

The globalization of imperial rivalries had additional dangers, as these could potentially allow crises produced by the Two Eastern Questions to spark a world war. Of course, this outcome was not inevitable. Throughout the 19th century, the European dominated international order managed to adapt and resolve these disputes through diplomacy, thus preventing all-out war between all the empires. The German Reich’s first imperial chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had cleverly arranged at the Congress of Berlin of 1878 for the creation of Austro-Hungarian and Russian spheres of influence over the Western and Eastern Balkans respectively, stabilizing the Near-Eastern Question, including de facto Austrian control of Bosnia-Herzegovina.[8]

However, a series of contingent geopolitical crises produced by the Two Eastern Questions in the early 20th century helped make a more favourable environment for world war to happen.

Russo-Japanese WarIt started first with the Far-Eastern Question when Russia was both defeated in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905 over Chinese Manchuria, and rocked by an attempted revolution following humiliating defeat. Held in check by Japan in the Far East and by Britain in Central Asia as well as fearing further democratization or revolution, the autocratic Tsarist regime reinvigorated Russia’s aggressive foreign policy in the Balkans to acquire Constantinople, strengthening its alliance with Serbia and increasing tensions with Austria-Hungary and Germany. Fearful of isolation on the world stage Russia also joined Britain and France to form the Triple Entente two years later. Russia had now re-entered the Near-Eastern Question.[9]

In 1908, in response to the Young Turk Revolution, Austria-Hungary officially annexed formerly Ottoman Bosnia-Herzegovina, angering Pan-Yugoslavist Serbia and its ally Russia, as Vienna failed to keep its promise to recognize St. Petersburg’s claim on Constantinople. That same year also saw an oil rush along the Persian-Ottoman border, amplifying tensions between the European empires, particularly Germany and Britain, to penetrate the declining Ottoman Empire and carve it into spheres of influence, like vultures fighting over a carcass. Finally, in response to the Italian attack on Ottoman-controlled Tripoli in 1911, during the next year Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece attacked the Ottoman Empire, driving it out of most of the Balkans. Balkan Wars territorial changesIn 1913, the Balkan states now including Romania, fought amongst themselves over the territorial spoils, partaking in horrific ethnic cleansing. This further strained relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia.* Meanwhile, as Sean McMeekin points out, Germany’s decision to send some forty naval officers led by Liman von Sanders in November 1913 to the Ottoman Empire (ostensibly to modernize and command the Bosphorus’ defenses) and the Ottoman Empire’s decision to place placing an order for five dreadnaught warships (three of which came from Britain) in response to tensions with Greece over the treatment of the Anatolian Greek minority* caused serious problems for Russia. With the new Ottoman warships, making the Russian navy obsolete, an invasion of Constantinople was nearly impossible. From Russiaâ’s point of view, the clock was ticking.[10]

Yet despite these ominous international developments, many in financial and diplomatic circles believed that global economic interdependency and previous successes at diplomatically resolving geopolitical crises somehow ensured that world war was a very low probability. Archduke_Franz_with_his_wife before assassinationHowever, all of that changed on June 28th, 1914, when the Bosnian-Serb “Black Hand” terrorist, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire (and the very man who restrained the anti-Serbian warmongers in Vienna) in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.* This single event acted as a butterfly effect for it triggered the diplomatic fiasco known as the July Crisis, resulting in Vienna declaring war on Serbia. By August the crisis had spiraled out of control as the First World War erupted. What started out as regicide had turned into 20th century Europe’s global version of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Yet in reality the conflict was as much about Asian geopolitics as it was Balkan quarrels. While worried about Germany crushing France and dominating Europe, the British, particularly Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, feared Russian threats to renew the “Great Game” in Central Asia if they did not honour their alliance. And Russia could not afford to see Vienna crush Serbia, its major Balkan proxy that prevented other states from taking Constantinople. Ultimately, the Great War was also, as McMeekin argues, a “Third War of Ottoman Succession” and thus the most explosive byproduct of the Near-Eastern Question.*

Canadian_tank_and_soldiers_Vimy_1917The First World War of 1914 to 1918 was absolutely crucial in the history of Europe’s Scramble for Asia for it globalized the effects of the Two Eastern Questions. What had once been the problems more overtly afflicting the Ottoman and Qing empires now fully manifested themselves in Europe. In turn the war’s long-term fallout in Europe fed back into Asia’s continuing instability. What followed in the next three decades after the First World War was extreme economic volatility combined with political and geopolitical upheaval.

With the outbreak of world war in August 1914, the “First Age of Globalization” imploded. International trade, migration and finance collapsed. In its place was a ravaged world. Not only did industrial warfare spread across Europe like wildfire, from the Balkan Peninsula and Russia in Eastern Europe to the trench infested Western Front in Belgium and Northern France to the Alps in Northern Italy, but it also spread to Africa and, of course, Asia. In the Middle East the Ottomans fought the Russians in the Caucuses and the British first in Gallipoli and then in the Arab speaking fertile crescent. Simultaneously, in the Far East Japan attacked German controlled Tsingtao in China’s Shandong Peninsula and seized its Micronesian island colonies in the Pacific.

Four and a half years of world war accelerated the implosion of autocratic dynastic empires in the Middle East, Far-East Asia and Europe, and caused the explosion of ethnic conflict.

Armenian GenocideUnder wartime pressure, ethnic violence accelerated as the Ottoman Empire began to unravel and later tipped into collapse. In 1915 the Young Turks hostility towards the Armenian minority, seen as a pro-Russian fifth column, culminated in the genocide of around 1.8 million Armenians. At the same time the British backed Arabs Revolt broke out in the Hejaz. By the end of the war, the exhausted Ottomans signed the Armistice of Mudros with the victorious British. The following Treaty of Sevres (hashed out at various peace conferences from Paris to San Remo and signed in 1920) divided up much of the Middle East into “mandates”: Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan (British controlled) as well as Syria and Lebanon (French controlled). The Entente-backed Greek invasion of Turkey (1919-1922) indirectly caused both the overthrow of the Sultan and the ascendency of the “Hero of Gallipoli”, Mustafa Kemal (aka Attaturk), whose nationalist regime then ethnically cleansed the Anatolian Greek minority. Meanwhile, the decision by the victorious Allies at the post-war Paris Peace Conference to give Japan China’s Shandong province triggered the “May Fourth” protests across China by nationalists and university students, undermining the credibility of the already fragile Chinese republic.[11]

Of course, imperial dissolution and the accompanying ethnic conflict were now also felt in Europe. After experiencing the fatal combination of social upheaval, economic volatility in the form of spiraling inflation, political unrest, rampant food shortages and ultimately military defeat, between 1917 and 1918 the autocratic dynastic empires of Romanov Russia, Habsburg Austria-Hungary and Hohenzollern Germany were suddenly shaken when their monarchies were overthrown by revolutions and violently tipped into collapse. Out of their rubble emerged new unstable nation-states, including Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, that had sizable and vulnerable ethnic minorities, especially Germans and Jews, and whose controversial borders were officially settled at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-1920. As Ferguson argues, while under the old multi-national empires different ethnic groups could live within reasonable harmony (even with cases of intermarriages), with imperial collapse and the birth of new, far-less tolerant nation-states often led to the rapid breakdown multi-ethnic communities into sectarian violence. What followed were a series of regional and civil wars (the bloodiest of which, the Russian Civil War, lasted until the early 1920s) as well as long lasting simmering ethnic conflict.[12] In essence, the Near-Eastern Question’s explosive fallout resulted in the emergence of a “Central and Eastern European Question”, which would trigger another, far-bloodier world war.

The First World War’s fallout also witnessed a crisis of rapid democratization in large sections of Europe and Asia, most dangerously in the form of the unstable transition from authoritarian autocratic monarchy to young unstable true mass-democracies. This democratic wave proved short lived. Rapid mass-democratization destabilized the new nation-states as the nationalist parties of the ethnic majority in parliaments could use democratic legislation to enact laws persecuting ethnic minorities, thus exacerbating social fragmentation.[13] Rapid democratization also amplified this by exacerbating class-conflict and emerging political infighting between the far-right wing nationalist Fascists and the far-left wing socialist Communists. Because of this the fledging democracies proved fragile during economic volatility and political upheaval, tipping into collapse by the 1930s. Out of this emerged authoritarian dictatorships, most brutal of which were the totalitarian one-party states.

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In 1917, the communist Soviet Union emerged after Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks overthrew revolutionary Russia’s democratic “Provisional Government” during the October Revolution and secured their regime through victory in the Russian Civil War. The spread of communism and the middle-class’ fear of it saw a series of young democracies replaced by reactionary right wing, anti-communist dictatorships. These included military despotisms, such as Admiral Horthy’s in Hungary (which emerged in 1920 after crushing Bela Kun’s communists in Budapest in 1919), and in Poland under Marshall Joseph Pilsudki (the hero of the Polish-Soviet War who crushed the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1921).
They also included new Fascist dictatorships, appearing first in Italy in 1922 with Benito Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister by King Victor Immanuel III. His movement was created in the wake of the volatile sudden expansion of the heavily restricted voting franchise to universal suffrage along with fear of communist agitation. Most dangerous of all was the totalitarian anti-Semitic, anti-Slavic, Pan-German “Third Reich” in Germany ruled by Adolf Hitler’s fascist Nazi Party (1933), which emerged out of the fragile Weimar Republic (Germany’s first true democracy) during the Great Depression. However, right-wing dictatorships also spread to the Middle East and Far East Asia as well. Mustafa Kemal quickly turned the Turkish Republic into a one party state in all but name, while China, whose republic had already fragmented, was now plagued with another civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek’s right-wing nationalist Guomindong and Mao Zedong’s communists in 1927. Lastly, Japan’s first true mass-democracy proved short lived in the face of the Great Depression and gave way to a militaristic dictatorship.Hitler-Mussolini-1937.09-a

The new totalitarian dictatorships in turn aimed at redrawing the global geopolitical map. In order to solve their domestic socio-economic crises, redeem their perceived and real humiliation at the Paris Peace Conference, and to make their states economically autarkic, Hitler’s Nazi German Reich, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and Hirohito’s Imperial Japan pushed the international post-war order to breaking point through aggressive foreign policies. Nazi Germany and Japan pursued brutal campaigns of territorial acquisition in order to acquire “living-space” (lebensraum in German) and thus forge colonial empires based upon racial purification and hierarchical segregation through murderous ethnic cleansing and enslavement of other “racially inferior” ethnic groups.

This of course culminated with the return of global conflict, which as in 1914, was indirectly rooted in the feedback loop between Europe and Asia. Rooted in the smoldering Far-Eastern and Central and Eastern European questions, events resulting from the interactions of empires at one end of Eurasia could trigger massive ripple effects in the other. Japan’s imperial ambitions were aimed at conquering Asia, with the hope of creating a “Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. This manifested in the form of two territorial aims. In 1931 Japan conquered Manchuria, bringing it into conflict with Mongolia and the U.S.S.R. As Timothy Snyder points out, this had the effect of fuelling Soviet fears of an encircling alliance between Germany, Poland and Japan, thus helping fuel Stalin’s deportation of the Soviet Union’s Polish minority during collectivization. Six years later, Japan launched an invasion against disintegrating China.

Nazi Germany invades PolandMeanwhile, despite appeasement by Britain and France, Hitler’s Germany continued to break the Treaty of Versailles, pursuing the ambition of creating a “Greater German Reich” in Central and Eastern Europe: annexing German-speaking Austria as well carving up and annexing part of Czechoslovakia even after the British and French forced Czechoslovakia to give Hitler the German-speaking Sudetenland. Convinced that the British and French were weak, Hitler turned his sights on Poland, signing a non-aggression pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union in August 1939 to carve up the country. This had two major consequences. First, as Stalin hoped, it temporarily broke the German-Japanese anti-Soviet alliance, forcing Japan to stop aiming at northern East Asia and focus entirely southwards towards China and the Pacific. Secondly, it allowed for the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September of that same year, ultimately triggering the Second World War. During the next two years, Nazi Germany quickly conquered Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Yugoslavia and Greece. The conflict truly became global when Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941 and later when Japan attacked the United States of America’s naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii on December 7th, 1941. In many ways Hitler’s war in Eastern Europe was an echo of the older Near-Eastern Question while in turn the Far-Eastern Question, through Japan, was crucial in accelerating America’s ascendency as a global superpower.[14]

Holocaust Auschwitz-Birkeneau trainsIn their wars of conquest, the German and Japanese empires mirrored each other. They both committed campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Japanâ’s forces committed horrific atrocities against the Chinese population, including the infamous “Rape of Nanking” in 1938*, in which 260,000 inhabitants were murdered while between 8,000 and 20,000 women were raped. The Japanese murdered around 6 million Chinese during the war. Meanwhile, in both Poland and the Soviet Union, the Nazis carried out mind-boggling brutality against the Jewish, Sinti-Roma and Slavic communities, turning that territory into what Snyder calls the “Bloodlands”. Hitler believed that the Jews had “stabbed the German army in the back” at the end of the First World War by “fomenting” revolution and had “polluted Aryan Germanic blood” through intermarriage and sex, i.e. producing children of mixed descent. The Nazis murdered 12 million people in the Holocaust, 6 million of whom were Jews, the majority from Central and Eastern Europe.* They also murdered 27 million Soviet citizens, including 13 million civilians and 3.5 million Soviet POWs. Both Germany and Japan saw their campaigns as a “clash of civilizations”, between “East and West”. In their conquest of Eastern Europe, the Nazis saw Jews, Sinti-Roma, Slavs and communists as “Asiatic barbarians” who had to be annihilated in order to save “Aryan” European civilization. The Japanese in turn believed that they were ridding Asia of “Western decadence.”[15]

In the end, by 1945 the totalitarian empires of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy were comprehensively defeated. In revenge for Nazi atrocities against Slavs, the Soviet, Polish and Czech forces carried out the brutal expulsion of around 13 million ethnic Germans who had been long established minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, which in turn resulted in around 2 million deaths. According to the Red Cross, in total Germany lost around 7,375,800 people. The Second World War as a whole would see the deaths of around 75 million people, a vast chunk of which was heavily concentrated in Central and Eastern Europe and Far-East Asia. Thus, that second global conflict was the most explosive legacy of the Two Eastern Questions.

The Cold War and the 21st Century

Cold_war_europe_military_alliances_map_enAt first it seemed that the Second World War brought to an end the legacy of the Scramble for the Asia and its Two Eastern Questions. In reality, this was an illusion. In what came to be known as the Cold War, the new nuclear armed rival pseudo-empires, the United States and the Soviet Union, vied with each other to dominate the globe through the creation of satellite states and proxy wars as the Western European colonial empires exhausted by the two world wars- crumbled, which involved parts of Asia.

Although polarized between pro-U.S. capitalist Western Europe and the pro-Soviet communist satellite states of Eastern Europe (centered on West and East Germany) Europe had finally become relatively peaceful. By contrast Asia was still seething with violence. With the end of British rule in 1947, India descended into ethno-religious violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as it was partitioned into the new states of India and Pakistan, which would later become nuclear rivals. Yet just as important was what was happening at the opposite ends of Asia for the Two Eastern Questions re-emerged in new form, namely the still simmering yet evolving Far-Eastern Question and a new “Middle Eastern Question”. While the international order, as a complex adaptive system, adapted to the periodic crises produced by the new Two Eastern Questions, given the context of the interconnected Cold War alliance system and the emergence of nuclear weapons, these crises could have near-fatal global consequences.
In the wake of the Japanese Empire’s collapse, Far-East Asia continued to erupt with violence. China’s civil war between Chaing Kai-Shek’s nationalists and Mao Zedong’s communists resumed, resulting in Mao’s victory and the formation of the communist “People’s Republic of China” as well as nationalist Taiwan under the defeated Chaing Kai-Shek’s leadership in 1949. Meanwhile, Korea, like Germany, was carved into Western backed capitalist South Korea and Soviet backed communist North Korea. KOREAN WARFrom 1950 to 1953 war raged between South Korea, backed by the United States and the West, and North Korea, with support logistically from Moscow and militarily from Beijing. The end result was an uneasy “peace”. The unpopular Vietnam War followed this in the 1960s between the communist North and the exhausted United States, in support of the South Vietnamese regime.

Equally important to ongoing Far-Eastern Question was what one would call a “Middle Eastern Question”. One year after the Second World War ended, the Soviet Union nearly came to blows with the United States and the British Empire over Iran. The Soviet Union both delayed its military withdrawal in North Iran (established in the Second World War for logistical purposes) and backed ethnic Azerbaijani separatists in order to gain access to oil. It was only averted when the Soviets agreed to withdraw.[16]

The Middle East was further wracked by the emergence of the state of Israel in 1948, and the reaction of Arab nationalists, who attached the fledgling state in a series of Israeli-Arab wars. This could threaten global peace. When the Israeli-British-French alliance attacked Pan-Arab Gamal Nasser’s Egypt in October 1956, in response to the seizure of the Suez Canal, it nearly triggered world war with the Soviet Union. The United States forced the alliance to back down and threatened to stop paying Britain’s wartime debt if it kept up the pretense of colonialism. The declining and severely indebted British Empire quickly tipped into full-blown dissolution within just three decades.[17]

The Middle East would also see the birth of Radical Islamism, a potent Islamic fundamentalist ideology, inspired by Sayyid Qutb, which gained momentum as secular Arab nationalism met defeat after defeat against Israel. And although the Ottoman Empire had long since collapsed, great power rivalry over Turkey once again strained international relations. In response to Soviet ambitions to control the Bosphorus, the United States placed Jupiter nuclear missiles in Turkey in 1961 to hold Moscow in check. This in part motivated Khrushchev to place Soviet nuclear ballistic missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba in October 1962, triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis that nearly tipped the global order into nuclear world war.[18]

Paradoxically, the new Two Eastern Questions were also crucial in helping bring the Cold War to an end.

In order extract the United States out of Vietnam with out seeming to have been defeated, U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, travelled to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 to begin peaceful relations: taking advantage of simmering border disputes between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Yet it was 1979 when the beginning of the end for the Cold War truly began, because of three events produced by the new Two Eastern Questions.

Iranian_RevolutionFirst, the Shah’s autocratic monarchy was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution (empowering the Islamist totalitarian regime of the Ayatolla Khomeini and fuelling the emergence of many Islamist groups throughout the Middle East). Determined to force out the political influence of the United States and the West in the region, the appearance of the Khomeini’s regime also motivated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s U.S. backed invasion of Iran to prevent Shiite Islamism sweeping away the power of the Iraq’s Sunni Baath Party dictatorship. With Iraq supported by the United States, the ensuing Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 resulted in brutal atrocities through chemical warfare.

Secondly, civil war in Afghanistan soon dragged in Moscow militarily, precipitating both the Soviet Union’s imperial overstretch that soon combined with a simmering fiscal crisis and humiliating defeat at the hands of the U.S. backed Islamist Mujahedeen forces (which included among its ranks the future Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin-Laden).

The third and final event which helped lead to the Cold War’s end was Deng Xiaoping becoming leader of the People’s Republic of China. His regime initiated pro-capitalist economic reforms and opened former treaty ports to foreign investors, but under Chinese control, starting the economic ascendency of China.

Increasingly outpaced in armaments by the United States and defeated in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union declined further. The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to initiate both economic and political reforms. Yet this unintentionally triggered resurgent ethnic nationalisms and revealed the incompetency of communism. In 1989 the Soviet Union’s empire in Eastern Europe tipped into collapse, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.

Invasion of KuwaitHowever, although the Cold War may have ended, the Two Eastern Questions were far from over. The same year the Soviet Union collapsed, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, triggering the First Iraq War (or “Gulf War”) against U.S. led coalition forces, and revealing how the Middle Eastern Question lived on.

Meanwhile in the 1990s there was one last echo of the older Near-Eastern Question when Yugoslavia, previously ethnically integrated through intermarriages and assimilation under Marshal Tito, tipped into civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks and Kosovars after a series of political and economic crises.

9:11 Terrorist AttackOn September 11th, 2001, the West was woken up to the still simmering Middle Eastern Question, when Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, hijacked four planes and attacked the United States. Two destroyed the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers in New York City, one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Around 3000 civilians died.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were crucial in starting a new chapter for the Two Eastern Questions. First, in response to the threat of Islamist terrorism, the United States’ Bush administration initiated the new foreign policy of invading and occupying first Afghanistan and then later in 2003 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; further destabilizing the Middle East.

Saddam statue topplingThe Second Iraq War became increasingly unpopular as the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime triggered both the explosion of sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites as well as the bogging down of the U.S. army amid an Islamist insurgency. Secondly, the 9/11 attacks were the catalyst for disastrous economic policies, for in response to the sudden financial shock the U.S. Federal Reserve greatly lowered interest rates. Combined with the reckless lending of mortgages to risky low-income households that were bundled into either mortgage-backed securities or collateralized debt obligations that were sold all over the world, as well as the Federal Reserve’s overleveraging of investment banks and China buying U.S. bonds to pay off American debt, this unintentionally fuelled an unstable housing market bubble that went bust in 2007; tipping the global economy into the chaos of global recession with the collapse of Lehman Brothers (2008-2012).

Out of this has emerged two major geopolitical developments. First, because the United States became even more indebted to China, the relations between the two unofficial imperial superpowers have become strained. This threatens peace in Asia for there are still tensions between North and South Korea while concurrently there are simmering disputes between China and Japan over control of the South China Sea, particularly the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands. And, of course, China seems poised to become a potential geopolitical superpower that could challenge the waning American empire.

Secondly, the ripple effects of global recession, in the form of rising food prices and growing socio-economic inequality also amplified domestic tensions within the Middle East and North Africa. This reached a tipping point when the impoverished Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, resentful of corrupt government maltreatment, lit himself on fire, triggering the revolutionary “Arab Spring” (December 2010-January 2011) that toppled the autocratic regimes of the region and plunged some countries, such as Bashar al-Assad”s Syria, into civil war. This has of course heightened ethnic-religious violence, such as the genocidal campaigns against Shiite Muslims and Christians by the Sunni Islamist group ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Add the fact that Iran and North Korea are close to developing nuclear missiles and one can see that the 21rst century’s Two Eastern Questions are becoming dangerously unstable.

Conclusion

Ultimately, it is impossible to predict how this will end, for the historical process is in constant flux and does not lead in a linear fashion towards inevitable outcomes. However, as I have tried to demonstrate in this blog, history can sometimes illuminate the hidden complex historical patterns beneath the seeming anarchy. The history of the Scramble for Asia is of vital importance, for if one wants to understand how and why the course of 20th century history moved in the way that it did, then one must understand the role of Asia as much as that of Europe. Indeed, through Europe’s “Scramble for Asia” during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Europe and Asia developed a highly symbiotic, interdependent feedback loop. Europe prospered economically partly by dominating Asia. Yet this would backfire, for the race to carve up Asia ended up creating the Two Eastern Questions, specifically the decline of the Qing and Ottoman empires. This in turn fed European imperial rivalries over Asia back into Europe and thus indirectly led to the First World War in the summer of 1914 and, as a result, indirectly helped influenced the rest of the course of the 20th century. Indeed, the Two Eastern Questions evolved into new forms that helped shape the entire 20th century and, ultimately, continue to shape our own time.

By Sean Ennis

Sean is a guest contributor to The History Factor blog.

Currently, his three main areas of interest are the origins of the First World War, the origins of 20th Century totalitarianism and the nature of historical causation; drawing immense influence from the science of Mathematical Chaos Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems.

Taking a Specialist Degree in History at the University of Toronto, Sean focused primarily on Imperial Germany, Hitler’s Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the two World Wars.

Footnotes:

* Niall Ferguson argues that in order understand why the “Fifty Years’ War of the World” (the World Wars were the bloodiest volumes) happened between the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and the Korean War of 1950-1953 and why the decline of the West and the re-ascendency of the East happened, the question of timing and location must be taken into account: Why was it that certain places, such as Central and Eastern Europe or Far-East Asia, particularly Manchuria and Korea, and certain times, such as the first of the half of the 20th century, were more violent than others? Ferguson’s answer is that there were three interdependent factors that made certain regions at certain times more violent: Economic Volatility, Ethnic Disintegration and Empires in Decline. To understand this more, I highly recommend reading Niall Ferguson’s “The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West”, which has to be one of my all-time favourite history books on the World Wars and the 20th century.

[1] Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), lxix-lxxi

* I soon realized when reading historian Sean McMeekin’s “The Russian Origins of the First World War”, that we had both independently come up with the term “Two Eastern Questions”. While we both include the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans was one Eastern Question, we differ on the other Eastern Question: McMeekin refers to the Russian ambition to shatter the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire and in particular to absorb as well as ethnically cleanse Austro-Hungarian controlled Galicia of Germans, Hungarians and Jews and settle it with Slavic

Russians, Ukrainians and Poles whereas I refer to the painful protracted decline of Qing Dynasty China.

* Qing Dynasty China fought against Britain in the Second Opium War (1856-1860), over Vietnam with France (1884-1885) and, ironically, against a fellow Asian power,

Japan (1894-1895), losing Taiwan in the process.

* The Eight-Nation Alliance included Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the United States, Russia, Italy and Austria-Hungary.

[2] Robert Bickers, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (London: Allan Lane Publishing, 2011), 346; Davies, 870; Michael Dillon, China: A Modern History (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 110-111, 113; Spence, 160, 180-181

[3] Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923 (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 367; Ahmad Fuad Fanani, The Ottoman Empire: Its Rise, Decline and Collapse, 101, http://www.academia.edu/4983151/The_Ottoman_Empire_Its_Rise_Decline_and_Collapse; Bickers, 327; Ferguson, The War of the World, 10; Spence, 162

* The Taiping Rebellion was led by the zealous Christian convert, Hong Xiuquan.

[4] Davies, 870; Ferguson, The War of the World, 176; Finkel, 355; Charles Jelavich, Barbara Jelavich, The Establishment of the Balkan Nation States (U.S.A.: University of Washinton Press, 1977), 139; Spence, 171-180

* The future nationalist revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen, trained as a doctor in British Hong Kong.

[5] Marie-Calire Bergere, Sun Yat-sen (Columbia: Stanford University Press, 1994), 60; Dillon, 118-119; David Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 69; Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 77; Mary Backus Rankin, Early Chinese Revolutionaries: Radical Intellectuals in Shanghai and Chekiang, 1902-1911 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), 13; Juan Wang, (Officialdom Unmasked: Shanghai Tabloid Press, 1897-1911), in Late Imperial China Volume 28 (2007), 81, 84-118

[6] Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 144-145; Ferguson, The Pity of War, 39-42, 143; Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Toronto: Allan Lane, 2013), 404-405; Johnathan S. McMurray, Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Construction of the Berlin-Bagdad Railway (United States: Praeger Publishers, 2001), 30

[7] Ferguson, The War of the World, 74

[8] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 78-79, 121

[9] Ferguson, The War of the World, 51-57, 74

* In many ways, Russia almost triggered a general European (and thus, potentially global) war on November 22nd, 1912 during the First Balkan War. Russia nearly mobilized against Austria-Hungary over its demand that Serbia halt its aggressive conquest in Albania and respect that state’s independence. Vienna in particular feared Serbia’s aim of acquiring a port on the Adriatic. For further reading, see Sean McMeekin’s “The Russian Origins of the First World War”, 24-25

* The Greek-speaking minority of Western Anatolia (Turkey) were in conflict with Balkan Muslim refugees, who had fled brutal ethnic cleansing in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913).

[10] Clark, 121-141, 251-258; MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace, 422-426, 439-456, 460-463, 527; Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 6-7, 23-40, 110

* Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by Gavrilo Princip on June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was not some unimportant pretext. In reality, it was the most important factor in the outbreak of the First World War, for while he was alive, the Archduke was the one man who held in check the warmongers in Vienna, such as the Foreign Minister Count von Leopold Berchtold and the Chief of the General Staff of the Habsburg military Conrad von Hötzendorf, who had been calling for war against the increasingly aggressive anti-Habsburg, Pan-Yugoslav nationalist Serbia. Ferdinand vetoed them because he knew that an Austro-Serbian war would trigger a Great Power war between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, one that he feared the fragile multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire would not survive. His death allowed the warmongers to use his death as a pretext to declare war on Serbia.

* As McMeekin has argued there were “Four Wars of Ottoman Succession”: The First Balkan War (October 8th, 1912-May 30th, 1913), the Second Balkan War (June 29th-August 10th, 1913), the First World War (1914-1918), and the Greco-Turkish War (May 1919-October 1922). As he points out, the last conflict, between Greece and Turkey over the status of the Anatolian Greek minority (i.e. national self-determination), was actually the “Third Balkan War” that most international statesmen, journalists and financiers believed would happen in 1914. The last thing they were expecting was a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia over the control of predominantly South Slavic multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, let alone one that was triggered by regicide in the form of an assassination. Indeed, the Balkan Peninsula was increasingly expected to be explosive but not so explosive as to trigger a global conflict. As Margaret MacMillan has argued, because every geopolitical crisis between the Great Powers had been diplomatically resolved actually had the effect of lulling people into a false sense of security, what she calls the “deafening drumbeat of crises”. And as Christopher Clark and Niall Ferguson have both pointed out, most people believed that the probability of a world war happening was decreasing not increasing. Yet 1914 was different. Not only did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand finally get rid of the last obstacle for the warmongers in Vienna to push for a declaration of war against Serbia, at the same time Austria-Hungary’s war against Serbia threatened Russia’s most important ally in the Balkans and thus its ability to prevent Austria-Hungary (and by extension the far deadlier German Reich) and reckless Bulgaria from seizing Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Bosphorous Straits, which Russia wanted to seize as it had access to the Aegean and Mediterranean trade routes, vital to its economy. And this was partly why Bosnia and the Balkans in general became that fatal “geopolitical fault line”. If anything the First World War delayed the outbreak of the Greco-Turkish War.

[11] Ferguson, The War of the World, 174-184; Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (New York: Random House Publishing, 2003), 326-343

[12] Ferguson, The War of the World, 158-174, 184-186

[13] Ferguson, The War of the World, 226-227

[14] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 30-32, 37-38, 68-70, 104-107, 116-117

* The Rape of Nanking happened between December 1937-February 1938

* The Holocaust as a campaign of mass-murder was a dynamical complex adaptive process that evolved in response to changing contingent events (which acted a “perturbation”), first through mobile SS shooting squads called “Einsatzgruppen” in Soviet controlled territory, murdering 1.3 million Jews from the Soviet Union and Soviet-controlled Eastern Poland. In the long run, it was done increasingly through both mobile gas vans and then ultimately the death camps in Poland, such as Auschwitz-Birkeneau, Treblinka, Sobibor and Chelmno, via gas chambers.

[15] Ferguson, The War of the World, 439-465, 475-480; Laurence Rees, War of the Century: When Hitler fought Stalin (New York: The New Press, 1999), 77; Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands, 119-154, 184, 187-223, 320-327

[16] William R. Keylor, A World of Nations: The International Order Since 1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 15-17

[17] Ferguson, Empire, 299-301

[18] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 11, 28, 75-78

Out of the ashes: the rise of the 20th century’s two phoenixes of death

FreikorpsJuly 28th marks the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. The world was changed forever following that fateful year when, in the words of Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, “the lamps [went] out all over Europe.” Ten million people died in four years of fighting. Millions more lost limbs, were blinded by gas or suffered such severe nervous breakdowns (shell shock) from their experience that their lives were forever ruined. The damage was such, both in numbers killed and those both physically and mentally maimed, that the term “the lost generation” was coined. However, the horrors of the First World War pale in comparison to the horrors wrought by the forces it created: two phoenixes of death, rising from the ashes of destruction on the battlefields and starving war weary cities of Russia and Central & Eastern Europe.

When Lenin seized power in St. Petersburg in the “October Revolution” of 1917 (the Tsar having abdicated in February, bringing century’s of autocratic royal rule to an end), he unleashed the first phoenix of death onto the world as a dominant political and social force: communism. Civil war quickly engulfed Russia – claiming more Russian lives than the First World War – and cities across Central and Eastern Europe were soon ablaze with indigenous revolutions inspired by Lenin’s Bolshevik example. While the guns may have fallen silent on the battlefields of France and Belgium following the armistice in November 1918, Europe was not at peace. The losses and social uproar of the war witnessing the collapse of three major European Empires (The German Reich, Tsarist Russia and the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire) gave these communist movements the perfect platform to unleash their own “Red Terror”. In Lenin’s case his platform had been created by a desperate German military; determined to knock Russia out of the war they transported him back into the country from exile in Switzerland to ferment the exact revolution he procured.

As the Allied leaders attempted to forge a new Europe at the international Peace Conference in Paris a communist firestorm threatened to engulf the war torn continent. US president Woodrow Wilson commented at the time: “we are running a race with Bolshevism, and the world is on fire.” [1]

This firestorm was eventually doused in late 1920, restricting communism to the former Tsarist Empire – now rebranded the USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) – until the Second World War. The newly formed polish army of Marshal Pilsudski rallied at the gates of Warsaw to stop Lenin’s Red Army in the miracle on the Vistula, and a revamped Romanian army overthrew the Hungarian communist dictatorship of Bela Kun. However, in Germany (including the Baltic states previously part of the German Empire) the communist revolutions were brutally crushed not by a national army, but by groups of estranged ex-veteran’s: popularly known as the Freikorps. Desperate to maintain the bond of military camaraderie (developed from four years of warfare) and confused as to how their country had lost the war while their cities remained unoccupied, they were determined to defend their country and way of life from this new brand of atheistic, anti-monarchic anarchy. These veterans formed the backbone for the 20th Century’s second phoenix of death: fascism. 2013 marked the 80th Anniversary of the rise to power of the most dangerous and destructive of them all: Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party.

Despite democracy reigning supreme immediately after the First World War (with slogans such as “self-determination” and the “war to end all wars” being frequently thrown around) it was not to last. Within two decades countries across Central, Southern and Eastern Europe were embracing fascist leaders and ideologies, and a rebuilt Russian Empire (renamed the Soviet Union) was setting its sights on subjugating those to its west. These two ism’s would drag the world into another world war (claiming anything between five and eight times the number of those killed between 1914 and 1918[2]) and murder millions more in the name of “social progress” and “racial hygiene”.

The problems of the interwar period are frequently cited as causing the rise to power of Hitler and other fascist or fascistic leaders. As historian Mark Mazower wrote in his work Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, “like it or not, both fascism and communism involved real efforts to tackle the problems of mass politics, of industrialisation and social order; liberal democracy did not always have the answer.” However, these “problems” were all products of the First World War. The victorious powers of Britain and France, the champions of liberal democracy, were shadows of their former selves; their vastly expanded empires masking their true loses in the conflict. If it wasn’t for the war France would not have demanded, and received, such humiliating satisfaction from the defeated Germans (a key cornerstone of Hitler’s rise to power), and Britain would not have lost its confidence in confronting continental threats (until it was almost too late in 1939). Indeed a large part of fascist support came from the spectre of impending Soviet Armageddon in Central and Eastern Europe (driven by the memories of 1917-1920) and rampant anti-Semitism. The later was fuelled in Germany by an imagined “stab in the back” by “Jewish profiteers”, causing their loss in the war, and in Hungary and Romania by Jewish domination of the financial industry. Not to mention their general “foreignness” in these newly forged ethnically “self-determined” nation states; “Self-determination” being a key principle of the post-war International Peace Conference as advocated by Woodrow Wilson.

In this anniversary year we should think not only about the causes of this conflict (and those who sacrificed everything in it) but also about its long-term effects. The legacy of the First World War was the Second World War and the legacy of Second World War was the Cold War. As Mark Twain once commented: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The legacy and wounds of these three rhymes are still visible and felt today across the world. Let us hope we have learnt something of that in the last one hundred years and this particular rhyme has become a thing of the past.

By James

 

[1] Plural of “Bolsheviks”: the name of Lenin’s particular communist movement

[2]While the Second World War was officially started when Hitler invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, it is easy to forget this was in collusion with the Soviet Union, who subsequently invaded on the 17th. The two forces were allies, both willfully subjugating and terrorizing their new subjects in Eastern Europe, until Hitler’s fateful invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Global Wildfire, 1914: Rethinking the Origins of the First World War

One hundred years ago today, on June 28th 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb terrorist Gavrillo Princip. The Archduke had been officially touring Bosnia-Herzegovina, the latest addition to the Habsburg Empire, when the Serbian nationalist (part of the terrorist movement the “Black Hand”) shot him. This single act of terrorism triggered the July Crisis, culminating in war between Serbia and Austria, and eventually causing the two hostile alliance systems, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and later the Ottoman Empire) and the Entente (Russia, France, and the British Empire) go to war by early August. The First World War had started.

How could Princip’s two shots have caused the world war that ended almost a century of relative European peace between 1815 and 1914, and with it, the “first age of globalization”? Assassinations were common in the early 1900s, between the years “1900 and 1913 no fewer than forty heads of state, politicians and diplomats were murdered, including four kings, six prime ministers and three presidents.”[1]* Thus the task of unlocking the puzzle of the outbreak of World War I is much harder.

Traditionally, historians have asserted that the war had long-term causes: arms races, imperial rivalries, and alliance systems etc. Europe is usually portrayed as a powder keg, waiting for a spark to set it off. However, this fails to explain why the global conflict happened in 1914 and not in the 1890s. A more appropriate analogy would be that of a forest fire: there is certainly the need for combustible material, in which a spark ignites the fire. However, the fire is not inevitable, nor is its magnitude. It is only under certain conditions that the initial spark erupts into a blazing inferno.

Throughout the 19th century, the European imperial global order behaved as a complex adaptive system, continually adapting to domestic pressures and diplomatic crises, preventing world war. Between 1903 and 1914 a “geopolitical heat wave” created a more favourable environment for a global conflict. These conditions were created by a series of “cluster years”: 1903, 1904-1905, 1907-1909, and 1911-1913. Marked by a series of interrelated events (at the heart of which were the two Eastern Questions of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and the Qing Dynasty (China)) these years witnessed widespread political instability (resulting from autocratic monarchies moving towards democracy), the unraveling of social cohesion, and the globalization of imperial rivalries. All factors which undermined the peace, and set Europe on a path to world war.

Preconditions

Between 1815 and 1914 European statesmen had managed to prevent all out war between the empires. After the defeat of Napoleonic France, the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) created a system aimed at preserving monarchies and social hierarchies in Europe. While the continent was hit by revolutions, most notably the 1848 Revolution and regional wars between 1848 and 1878,* the number of great power conflicts within Europe rapidly declined after 1878.

So why did the peace unravel in 1914? Instead of seeing this geopolitical system as destined to fall, we should view it as a dynamic, complex adaptive system, which was continually adapting to growing stresses and events. It had done this through constant diplomatic congresses and flexible alliances. However, a number of significant factors in in the 19th Century helped create both the combustible material for the 20th Century heat wave, along with the roots of the heat wave itself.

The first factor was the tension between parliaments and monarchies. Some states, such as Great Britain, had increasingly seen the power of their monarchies fade while parliamentary power increased. This precipitated an expansion of the voting franchises and in turn thus avoided socialist revolution. France oscillated between autocratic monarchies, revolutionary republics, and military dictators between 1789 and 1871, until finally establishing a fully functional republican democracy. Other monarchies, such as Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, resisted reform and kept much of their autocratic powers. Their parliaments, although exercising voting suffrages, elections and debates, did not hold onto any real power. To borrow Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s term, they were sham constitutions. In the German Reich, while the Reichstag (Imperial Parliament) had power to approve or veto the national budget of the army and navy, the levers of power really belonged to the Kaiser, the armed forces, and the Reich Chancellor and Ministers; who he appointed and who were responsible only to him.[2] A similar system existed in the Austrian-half of the Habsburg Empire.Russia’s parliament, the Duma, did not come into being until 1906 after the regime was forced to make concessions after the attempted 1905 Revolution. Even then, the Tsar periodically ignored it.

There was also constant stress to social cohesion. Sometimes it was ethnic conflict, as in Austro-Hungary, between predominantly German-speaking and Hungarian-speaking elites and Slavic communities. Another form was religious, as shown between Catholics or Protestants in Germany; especially during 1871 and 1878 when Bismarck’s “Kulturekamph” caused unrest among Catholic subjects.[3] Finally, there was socio-economic unrest, fuelled and amplified by industrial capitalism’s booms and busts, and socio-economic inequality. These combined to increase the popularity of socialist parties. In essence, these unstable empires were comprised of rigid, ramshackle autocratic regimes uneasily graphed onto dynamic, volatile societies.

One solution to combat the stresses of social cohesion was the concept of the nation-state; designed to create a sense of united national purpose across social and religious spheres. Italy and Germany were forged in this manner during the 1860s and early 1870s. It of course had a violent side, as seen with the Balkan nationalists in the Second Balkan War of 1913.[4] Another alternative was to expand the empires further, to rally the divided populations under their governments in order to gloss over social tensions, and to acquire colonies to settle “unruly” subjects, as well as gain natural resources and access markets in order to fuel their economies. In some states, such as Germany, the imperial governments came under pressure from both pro-colonial and nationalist movements, such as the Army League, the Navy League, the Colonial Society and the Pan-German League.

Imperial expansion created an ever globalized world, interdependent economically, geopolitically and socially, like a great many spiders, acting both independently yet interdependently, weaving a highly complex nebulous web. This saw not just the spread of capital, goods and labour, forging the “First Age of Globalization,”[5] but along with it the spread of telecommunication networks, such as the telegraph network or the spread the mass-press. Indeed Europe, as the heart of the global world order, became “densely interconnected, criss-crossed by railway lines and telegraph wires,” where economies seemed to be ever more interlocked with one another.[6]

But this also brought hidden dangers. Greater interdependency made individual economies vulnerable to economic shocks emanating from the other side of the globe, which could amplify social and political unrest, as seen in the rise of both socialists and right-wing populists. Just as dangerous it carried with it imperial rivalries over colonies and prestige giving birth to entangled alliance systems and carrying with it the possibility of global war between the empires. At first statesmen such as the German Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck developed a complex diplomatic web of constantly shifting alliances to prevent this. Bismarck brilliantly had Germany pursue flexible alliances with various Great Powers, always choosing the stronger majority coalition of powers against the smaller, weaker coalition. In a broader sense, Concert of Europe had evolved into (to borrow Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s term) an “anti-fragile” complex adaptive system, in that it used crises as opportunities to evolve and prevent world war from happening. However, after Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890, this system broke down. Increasingly alliances hardened into highly rigid, interdependent blocks, such as the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 to counter Germany and Austria-Hungary (later followed by the Triple Entente of 1907). This saw in turn saw the amplification of reckless aggressive foreign policies to reinforce the social order and regimes. For Imperial Germany, there was “Weltpolitik,” announced by the then-Reich Foreign Secretary, Bernard von Bulow, in a Reichstag debate in 1897.[7] This was followed by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s naval programme to make Germany a naval power and to rally the people against the Social Democrats.[8]

Ultimately, the globalization of imperial rivalries created geopolitical hot zones. To borrow Niall Ferguson’s analogy, empires behaved like tectonic plates, uneasily grinding against each other. And because of the world’s interconnectedness, when one of these imperial fault-line regions had geopolitical earthquakes, it could have rippling butterfly effects, in turn causing shifts among imperial tectonic plates on the other side of the globe. In essence, geopolitical interdependency created a global feedback loop, in which every crisis’ ripple effects could be amplified across the globe. The place where empires experienced tension most was in fact a part of Europe itself. This place was the Balkans and in particular Bosnia, a highly multi-ethnic zone, where the imperial tectonic plates were “shifting underneath [Bosnia’s], Turkey’s was giving way; Austria’s was pushing forward; so, too, was Russia’s.”[9]

Fuelling all this was the rapid break-up of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, a process which 19th century statesmen called the “Eastern Question”. Yet in many ways this was just one of two Eastern Questions: the Near-Eastern Question, which dealt with the Ottomans and the Balkans, and the Far-Eastern Question, that of the disintegration of the Qing Dynasty in China. Both were heavily assaulted by the European empires throughout the 19th century. And both were being heavily penetrated by Europe’s capitalist economies. The Ottomans were forced to pay taxes to the “European Council of the Public Debt”. [10] Meanwhile China was being carved into spheres of economic influence, called “Treaty Ports”. In turn the competition between the European powers to carve up these decaying empires accelerated tensions between them.

However, the First World War was not the inevitable outcome of these preconditions. Wars, along with financial crises and socio-political instability, are like earthquakes or forest fires, in that they follow a “Power Law Distribution”: Small ones are more frequent and large ones are less frequent. This means that while we may know their necessary preconditions and where they are more likely to occur, they are very hard to predict in terms of timing and magnitude. In order to understand how a war in the Balkans became a world war, one has to understand the role of historical contingency between 1903 and 1914.

Cluster Years

The transitional years between 1897 and 1903-1904 were crucial in generating the geopolitical heat wave, which preceded the First World War. This was because of the following trends begun in this period. Not surprisingly Germany, which had forced France and Russia together in 1894, started much of them. In 1896 Wilhelm II sent a congratulatory telegram to Boer Prime Minister Kruger after the defeat of the British “Jameson Raid”, angering Britain. Later in 1897 Germany’s leadership began the aggressive policy of “Weltpolitik”, followed in turn by Tirpitz’s naval programme, triggering a naval arms race with Britain. In the next year, Germany triggered a scramble for China by seizing Kiaochow, which accelerated China’s disintegration.* The following year Germany further amplified tensions with Russia and Britain, when Wilhelm II visited Istanbul, declaring Germany’s friendship with Islam.

However, this was not a sign of an inevitable showdown. In this period, the British still saw the Russians and the French as equally dangerous threats. They had competed with Russia over Central Asia, had nearly gone to war with France over Fashoda in Africa in 1898. However, historical contingency between 1903 and 1914 changed this.

First there was 1903-1905. The year 1903 was marked by a gruesome regicide of the pro-Habsburg Serbian king, Alexandar Obrenović and his wife by Serbian nationalist officers, including Dragutin Dimitrijevic, head of Serbian Intelligence and the Black Hand.[11] While ending Alexandar’s authoritarian rule and returning power to parliament, it also empowered the extreme Serbian nationalist parties as well as the conspirators. Thus Serbia’s foreign policy increasingly became expansionist and anti-Habsburg. This resulted in further tensions between Austria and Russia, now allied with Belgrade.*[12] This was followed first by the Entente Cordiale of April 1904 between France and Britain, which began to merge with London’s old rival, Russia. This was then strengthened by the Russo-Japanese War of February of the same year, itself a byproduct of the Far-Eastern Question. The defeat of Russia, resulted both in the attempted Revolution of 1905 and in turn, after crushing the revolution and motivated by the threat of further democratization, the Tsarist regime embarked on an aggressive foreign policy towards Germany and Austria, which included railroad construction to ship not just goods, but troops and armaments as well. Out of this emerged the Triple Entente.[13] At the same time, in March 1905, Wilhelm II visited French controlled Morocco, challenging the status-quo, further straining relations with Britain and France.[14]

The second cluster years were 1907 to 1909. Four crucial events happened in this period. In 1907, one of the most powerful proponents against aggressive foreign policy in Germany, Prince Philipp von Eulenburg was ousted from power after being accused of homosexuality.[15] Meanwhile the influence of Reich Chancellor Bulow, dropped drastically after accidentally mishandled the publishing of the Telegraph Affair, which included embarrassing remarks made by the Kaiser, angering the British and German press alike. He was soon dismissed.[16] This saw the influence of the pro-war leadership of the armed forces rise. At the same time, Britain, France and Russia officially formed the Triple Entente, causing further anxiety for Germany. Then in 1908, there was the Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire, which in turn forced the Sultan to create a parliament. In response, the Habsburg Empire officially annexed Bosnia (Then part of the Ottoman Empire. Vienna had occupied it since 1878 when Turkey was defeated by Russia), severely straining relations between Vienna and Moscow.* This was further amplified by the 1908 Oil Rush along the Persian-Ottoman border, which accelerated tensions between the European empires, who wanted to carve up the Ottoman Empire.

The most important years, however, were 1911-1913. First, there was the Second Moroccan Crisis, triggered by Germany sending a gunboat to Agadir, resulting in the Reich’s further diplomatic isolation. Then on September 29th, 1911, Italy attacked the Ottomans at Tripoli (modern day Libya), which sent signal to the various Balkan states that the Ottoman Empire was weak. This resulted in two Balkan Wars (1912-1913), in which Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Greece fought the Ottoman Empire and then fought each other.[17] This worried the Germans, as it strengthened Serbia, threatening Austria-Hungary and in turn construction of the Berlin-Bagdad Railway; Germany’s access to Middle Eastern oil. 1912 was also important because it was the year that the German Social Democrats won a majority in the Reichstag election. This caused immense anxiety among Germany’s imperial and military elite, as they feared further democratization or worse, socialist revolution. Finally, in 1913 French President Raymond Poincare passed the extension of military service to counter the German armed forces expansion.[18] All of these events pushed Germany’s military leadership, who felt threatened by Russia and France’s armaments buildup and the supposed “encirclement” of the Reich, to call for preventative war against Russia and France.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the First World War was not inevitable but was caused by historical contingency. It was these crucial events and factors between 1903 and 1914, which created the geopolitical heat wave. In so doing they turned the issues of the 19th Century – unstable autocratic monarchies resisting democratic reform, social upheaval and globalization of imperial tensions into highly combustible material, fueling the forest fire which erupted from the spark at Sarajevo on that fateful day 100 years ago.

Although there were a growing number of individuals warning of a possible global conflict, the vast majority of statesmen and financiers still believed that because the European empires had avoided war in the past, the chances of a world war was highly unlikely. Global economic interdependency in their opinion made war between the empires suicidal and thus unlikely. This view, however, was proven disastrously wrong in 1914. Global interdependency, under the right conditions, could make the global geopolitical system (which at other times proved to be adaptive) highly fragile and thus vulnerable to this type of low probability, high impact shock.* This allowed Franz Ferdinand’s assassination to act as the mega butterfly effect, tipping the global complex adaptive system from deceptive stability into the chaos of world war.

In our world full of superpower rivalries, globalization, and unstable regions such as the Middle East, no matter how remote the possibility of a third world war is, now is the best time to rethink the origins of the First World War.

By Sean Ennis

Sean is a guest contributor to The History Factor blog.

Currently, his three main areas of interest are the origins of the First World War, the origins of 20th Century totalitarianism and the nature of historical causation; drawing immense influence from the science of Mathematical Chaos Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems.

Taking a Specialist Degree in History at the University of Toronto, Sean focused primarily on Imperial Germany, Hitler’s Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the two World Wars.

Footnotes

[1] Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 73

* In the Balkans alone “there were eight successful assassinations, the victims of which included two kings, one queen, two prime ministers and the commander in chief of the Turkish Army”(Ibid)

*These included the Crimean War (1854-1856), the Italian Wars of Unification, the German Wars of Re-Unification (1864-1871) and of course the Russo-Turkish War of 1878.

[2] Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Kim Traynor (Translator), The German Empire: 1871-1918 (Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Great Britain: Berg Publishers, 1985), pp.52-55

[3]Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the French Revolution to the Great War (Great Britain: Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 322-332

[4] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper Collins, 2012, 44

[5] Ferguson, 4-6, 16

[6] Charles Emmerson, 1913: In Search of the World before the Great War (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), 3

[7] Clark, 150-152

[8] Wehler, 164-167

[9] Ferguson, 74

[10] Ferguson, 10

[11] Clark, 38-46

* At root was the long cherished goal of acquiring the Bosporus straits was part of a dream held by Russian imperialists of dominating the Black Sea and gaining access to the trade routes of the Mediterranean. And now, because of the shift in power in Belgrade, Austria increasingly turned to Bulgaria, while Russia turned to Serbia in order to keep a foothold in the Balkans.

[12] Clark, 3-64

[13] Ferguson, 51-71; Clark, 121-141

[14] Clark, 153-157

[15] John C.G. Rohl, The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 53

[16] Gordon A. Craig, Germany: 1866-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 282-286

[17] Clark, 42

[18] Emmerson, 57

*This is what the statistician, and hedge fund manager, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has called a “Black Swan” event. I am deeply influenced, in terms of causation in the historical process, by mathematical chaos theory and thus the butterfly effect, in which because of the constant shifting initial conditions in a highly complex, interdependent adaptive system (Be it the weather, the Amazonian rainforest, empires, nation states, the internet, the global economy or the global geopolitical system.), a tiny, seemingly insignificant input can have unpredictably, disproportionate consequences. In other words, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was the butterfly flapping its wings, which caused the massive hurricane that was the First World War.