The British Empire

Talk on ‘How important was Empire in bringing about World War One?’

The world in 1900 looked very different from the world just a quarter of century earlier. There were new countries - Germany and the Italy that were looking to establish themselves economically and politically. There was the USA recovered from the Civil War and making huge economic progress. All the great powers believed in Empire and the benefits they believed it gave to their own people and the natives of colonies they ruled.

In 1890 an American Alfred Mayer Mahan had written a book espousing the benefits of Imperialism which had an enormous impact. It argued that the dominant powers over the previous centuries had all been maritime powers that had dominated world trade. Empires provided raw materials, trade and prestige and this led to a scramble for colonies in the late c19th. The Kaiser had read this book and like many other leaders wanted as powerful an empire as he could have. The struggle to protect and enhance empires was to cause much tension between countries and was a major cause of WW1 but monarchs trying to hold on to the old order, the role of honour and Social Darwinism all had their part to play.

Honour was still important for political leaders. Honour defined a gentleman.  It was a factor in Britain's declaration of war. Honour was what made the landed gentry different they believed from everyone else.   The Hungarian Prime Minister Tizsa, had duels with political opponents and often went to fencing clubs in Budapest to improve his skills. In France in the army you could be dismissed if you refused a duel. Here Clemenceau who signed the Versailles Treaty for France had had twelve duels in his life.

The most read philosopher in Britain at the end of the c19th was Spencer. He coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest' and advocated a form of Social Darwinism which must have made war acceptable to many. In 1899 Kipling published 'White Man's Burden' which appears shocking today but was in fact a justification of empire and he believed it was the duty of the civilised countries to develop the less civilised. The Empire, honour, Social Darwinism and the Old Order all played a part in bringing about World War.

Alfred Thayer Mahon

William II, Kaiser of Germany