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The idea of the twentieth century is a Western, Christian concept. For most of the world's people 1 January 1900 was not the start of a new century. For many 1 January was not even the start of a new year in their calendars. In China the calendar was still based on the emperor's reign, as it had been for at least two millennia. In the Muslim world the calendar started in the early seventh century of the Christian era. For Jews 1900 was the year 5661, in Thailand 2443 and according to one of the Hindu religious calendars it was the year 5002. Nine out of ten people in the world lived in the countryside as peasants. They had their own rituals and calendars which were often only vaguely based on the official version. Even the western world was not agreed about the calendar. Although purists might argue that the new century did not begin until 1 January 1901, there were differences over what calendar to use. Russia and Greece still kept to the Julian calendar, which was twelve days behind the commonly used Gregorian version and which led to many misunderstandings. The Russian shooting team, for example, arrived too late to take part in the 1908 Olympics in London because they forgot to allow for the different calendar. Russia finally abandoned the Julian calendar during the 1917 Revolution, Greece did so in 1923.
However, the idea of the twentieth century as a significant historical period is justified by the importance of the states of western Europe and North America, not just in 1900, but throughout the century. By 1900 a process that had begun in theearly sixteenth century with the expansion of Europe into other regions of the world was almost complete. Until the late eighteenth century there was little difference in the relative wealth of the different parts of the world; indeed, only a few centuries earlier China had been by far the wealthiest and most powerful state in the world. As late as 1800 about two-thirds of the world's industrial output was produced outside Europe and North America. However, the expansion of Europe and rapidly growing industrialization in western Europe and North America in the nineteenth century had produced a massively unequal world by the early twentieth century. It was a world in which a handful of states dominated a global economy, from which they obtained nearly all the benefits and in which they had gradually restructured the remaining economies and societies so that these were in dependent, subordinate positions. The dominant states also directly controlled a large part of the world as their colonies. For them the nineteenth century had been a period of immense technological, economic and social progress.
The best way to analyse the structure of the world in 1900, and throughout the twentieth century, is to divide it into three very unequal parts — the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery. In 1900, just four major states — the United States, Britain, Germany and France — dominated the core. Between them they had only one-eighth of the world's population, but they produced more than three-quarters of world's industrial output, provided the same proportion of its trade and even more of its foreign investment. They had changed greatly in the nineteenth century. From rural, agricultural societies dominated, in Europe, by a landed elite, they had been transformed into industrial, mainly urban societies with a large working class and a developed infrastructure in which over 90 per cent of the population was literate and enjoyed a standard of living far in advance of the rest of the world. The United States was the most industrialized country in the world, with Britain close behind. The core states controlled over 400 million people (about a quarter of the world's population) directly in their colonies and hundreds of millions more indirectly, through their `informal empires' of economic influence. Within the core there were also a number of smaller, less powerful, but still wealthy states, such as Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
The semi-periphery was made up of three types of state. The first was in south and eastern Europe — Russia, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria-Hungary and the Balkan states. They were still largely agricultural, less wealthy and developed than the core states though often important militarily. Some, like Russia and Italy, appeared to be developing into economies and societies more like the core states, while others, such as Spain, appeared to be in decline. The second type of semi-peripheral state was found outside Europe — the European settlement colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Latin America, such as Argentina and Uruguay. These were relatively prosperous societies with economies built on the export of primary products, in particular food, to the core states. They had varying degrees of political independence. The third type consisted of just one state — Japan. It was the only state to have escaped European political control and to have embarked on a process of industrialization. That process had not gone far by 1900 (industrial output per head was one-fifteenth of the level in the United States) but, although still overwhelmingly a rural nation, Japan was already an important regional power capable of challenging the core powers in east Asia.
The overwhelming majority of the world (comprising nearly two-thirds of the world's people) constituted the periphery. Most of Asia and Africa had been divided up by the core states as colonies. Two major states were outside the control of the core — China and the Ottoman empire — but they were in what appeared to be terminal decline and it seemed unlikely that they could survive much longer as independent entities as core pressure on them mounted. Whatever its exact political status, all the periphery was overwhelmingly rural and nearly all its population were illiterate peasants condemned to short lives of grinding poverty. (Industrial output per head in India, one of the more developed peripheral economies, was at 1 per cent of the level in the United States.) Most of the peasants were largely self-sufficient and had little, if any, contact with the wider economy or core values, although colonial authorities everywhere were trying to force them into a money economy. Where they had succeeded peripheral economies were often dominated by a single crop — over 80 per cent of Egypt's exports was raw cotton — and this was the basis for the small modern sector of the economy. A few traders (often foreigners — Lebanese in West Africa, Indians in East and South Africa) and a small urban elite were linked to the culture of the core states (hence the huge opera house built deep in the Amazon jungle at Manaus, the centre of the rubber trade). Such `development' as there was in the periphery was linked almost entirely to the needs of the core and was therefore highly unbalanced and localized. In Africa and Latin America the interior was linked to the coast in a few places by railways, but there were few, if any, cross-country links. In Brazil the railways in the northeast were a different gauge from those in the south (the coffee-growing area), and although there was a labour surplus in the north it was easier for the coffee producers to attract immigrant labour from Europe. In Colombia it was cheaper to bring goods to Medellin from London than from the capital Bogotá which, although it was only 200 miles away, was cut off by two mountain ranges.
During 1900 Paris was a major focus of attention in the core states — the Universal Exposition opened on 15 April and attracted 48 million visitors. Three weeks earlier one event seemed to symbolize the industrial power of the core states and the emerging new technology of electricity. Two 275-foot-high chimneys, garlanded in flowers, let out the first smoke from 92 boilers, which drove turbines producing 40,000 horse-power of electricity to power the Exposition: the machines, a train, a `moving staircase', and a great wheel with 80 cabins. Another major technological achievement took place a few hundred miles to the east. Internal combustion engines had only just begun to power cars (there were only 8,000 vehicles in the whole of the United States), but on 2 July the first Zeppelin airship took off from the German side of Lake Constance for a twenty-minute flight, during which it climbed to nearly a thousand feet. It was clear that aircraft would be flying soon as the power-to-weight ratio of petrol engines steadily increased.
Although the core states were the most advanced in the world industrially, they still had major social problems. At least a third of their populations lived in poverty, often on the margins of subsistence, in poor housing and social conditions. In Britain, the most industrialized country in the world, the census defined `overcrowded' as a household of at least 2 adults and 4 children living in 2 rooms without their own water supply and sanitation. Even by this restrictive definition 8 per cent of the population were officially designated as being overcrowded and in the areas of the greatest deprivation the figure was far higher: in London the average was 16 per cent, in Glasgow it was 55 per cent and in Dundee it was 63 per cent. On 24 August a Dr Thomas Colvin was called to a family living in one room of a tenement block in Glasgow. One person was already dead and three others were seriously ill with what he thought was enteric fever. The next day the local Belvedere Hospital discovered that they were actually suffering from bubonic plague. Public health measures were able to contain the outbreak, but not before there were 27 cases, half of whom died. At the same time the British army was trying to find recruits for the war against the Boers in South Africa. In Manchester 11,000 men volunteered — all but 1,000 of them were rejected as medically unfit.
For the political, social and intellectual elites in the core states, these social conditions were only one of a series of problems they felt their states and societies had to face. The set of assumptions and opinions they brought to these problems and the solutions they suggested tell us much about the vital trends that were to influence much of the twentieth century. From the eighteenth-century Enlightenment they inherited the idea of progress. In 1793 the Marquis de Condorcet published his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. It was a statement of his belief in the unlimited scope for human progress:
The perfectibility of man is truly indefinite; and that the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us ... this progress ... will never be reversed as long as the earth occupies its present place in the system of the universe.
Had Condorcet known that he was to die the next year in jail during the period of terror in the French Revolution he might have taken a less sanguine view of human nature and history. The great eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon took a similar view. Although he thought that history was `little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind', towards the end of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he set out his belief in future progress:
The experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes and diminish our apprehensions: we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances towards perfection; but it may safely be assumed that no people, unless the force of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism.
These ideas remained common throughout the nineteenth century. In 1875 Larousse's entry for `Progress' stated:
Humanity is perfectible and it moves incessantly from less good to better, from ignorance to science, from barbarism to civilization ... The idea that humanity becomes day by day better and happier is particularly dear to our century. Faith in the law of progress is the true faith of our century.
In 1883 the British historian J. R. Seeley wrote in The Expansion of England, `No one can long study history without being haunted by the idea of development, of progress.' That most nineteenth-century belief — Marxism — was based on the idea of progress, with the inevitable march of human society from feudalism to capitalism and finally to the material abundance and social harmony of Communism. The idea of progress seemed to be enshrined in the growing scientific, technical and industrial advance of western Europe and the United States. The century saw the development of steam power, the production of iron and steel, the construction of railways, steamships and new forms of communication. By the end of the century newer technologies, in particular electricity, seemed to point the way to even greater progress. Such progress seemed to legitimate the right of Europeans and Americans to rule the rest of the world.
However, it was the beliefs developed in western Europe in the later half of the nineteenth century, such as Marxism and racism, together with those based on long-standing prejudices, such as anti-Semitism, which produced some of the greatest barbarisms of the twentieth century. By the early part of the century it was possible to detect a much darker set of beliefs among the elite of the core states, which existed alongside their belief in progress and their own superiority. It was made up of a number of elements — social Darwinism, eugenics, racism and the fear of degeneration. Social Darwinism marked the final scientific acceptance of Charles Darwin's ideas, published in The Origin of Species in 1859 but transformed, mainly by Herbert Spencer and, in Germany, by the zoologist Ernst Haeckel, into a theory about how human societies function. Human life was seen as a struggle for existence in which only the fittest survived — this applied not just to individuals but also to the competition between states. In many ways this doctrine provided a pseudo-scientific justification for the reassertion of power by the old ruling class (the fittest, since they had risen to the top of society), for elitism rather than democracy, and for failing to intervene to save the weakest in society since this could only damage the overall health of the organism. One of the best statements of these beliefs came from Karl Pearson, later a professor at the University of London, in National Life from the Standpoint of Science published in 1901:
the scientific view of the nation is that of the organised whole, kept up to a pitch of internal efficiency by insuring that its numbers are substantially recruited from the better stocks, and kept to a high pitch of external efficiency by contest, chiefly by way of war with inferior races, and with equal races by the struggle for trade routes and for the sources of raw material and of food supply.
Such views were widespread. For example, William Beveridge, then an academic and prominent social reformer but later one of the architects of the British welfare state, told his brother-in-law, the socialist R. H. Tawney: `The well-to-do represent on the whole a higher level of character and ability than the working class because in the course of time the better stocks have come to the top.' At a conference at the London School of Economics in 1906 he declared that those working in industry should retain all their civic rights, but:
Those who through general defects are unable to fill such a `whole' place ... must become the acknowledged dependants of the state ... with the complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights — including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood. To those moreover, if any, who may be born personally efficient, but in excess of the number for whom the country cart provide, a clear choice will be offered: loss of independence by entering a public institution, emigration or immediate starvation.
At the time these ideas seemed `modern' and `progressive' and they spread widely, not just in the core states but across the world. In China such ideas were introduced by Yan Fu, who had spent two years in Britain and who translated Spencer into Chinese. One of the best examples of social Darwinism's influence on politics came in a speech delivered in Germany at Kulmbach some years into the century:
The idea of struggle is as old as life itself for life is only preserved because other living things perish through struggle ... In this struggle the stronger, the more able, win, while the less able, the weak, lose. Struggle is the father of all things ... It is not by the principles of humanity that man lives or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but solely by means of the most brutal struggle.
The speaker was Adolf Hitler.
If life both within and between societies was a matter of continuous struggle with only the fittest surviving, then this immediately raised the question of what should be done to ensure success in this competition. A policy was required because many in the elite believed that they were facing a crisis of degeneration. To some extent this attitude was a response to the social changes produced in the core states in the nineteenth century — urbanization, the growth of the working class, poverty, poor economic and social conditions, rising criminality. The French writer Charles Fere, in Degeneration and Criminality published in 1888, wrote: `The impotent, the mad, criminals or decadents of every form, must be considered as the waste-matter of adaptation, the invalids of civilization ... general utility cannot accommodate the survival of the unproductive.' A decade later the American writer Eugene Talbot published Degeneracy: Its Signs, Causes and Results. It contained passages on types of degeneracy such as ethical, intellectual, sensory, nutritive and spinal, together with degeneracy in the negro, giantism, feet degeneracy and juvenile obesity. In addition there were pictures of juvenile criminals who, according to Talbot, were `puny, sickly, scrofulous, often deformed with peculiar, unnaturally developed heads, sluggish, stupid, liable to fits, mean in figure and defective in vital energy.'
One of the favoured solutions to this problem was found in the `science' of eugenics, a term coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin. He defined it as the science of improving the human stock by giving `the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable'. He wondered: `Could not the undesirables be got rid of and desirables multiplied?'
In the United States the leading eugenicist was Charles B. Davenport, whose work was largely funded by the Carnegie Foundation. In 1911 he published Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, which argued that, though there were some clearly hereditable defects such as Huntingdon's chorea and haemophilia, other social and mental problems such as insanity, epilepsy, alcoholism, pauperism, criminality and feeble-mindedness also had to be included. This view had also been put forward by the British Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded a few years earlier. Like Galton, Davenport identified `good human stock' with the white middle class and argued that the genetically and socially defective should be stopped from breeding by being sexually segregated or castrated. Starting in Connecticut in 1896, over twenty US states passed laws to prohibit marriage and extra-marital relations to the eugenically unfit. In 1899 Indiana began forcibly sterilizing criminals in prison, a practice which had spread to sixteen states and involved over 36,000 people by 1941. Similar laws were passed by Sweden, Denmark, Finland and some Swiss cantons. It was not until the Nazi accession to power in 1933 that Germany had a similar law, although it was then enforced Rigorously — by 1937 225,000 people had been forcibly sterilized. In Canada the practice continued until 1972.
Belief in such ideas was widespread. In Britain leading members of the Labour movement such as H. G. Wells and Sidney and Beatrice Webb were supporters. In Germany Alfred Grotjahn, the Socialist Party appointee as Professor of Social Hygiene at the University of Berlin in 1920, argued for isolation and sterilization to produce a `respectable' working class by stopping the breeding of the insane, the `workshy' and alcoholics, among others. When he entered politics Winston Churchill stated: `The improvement of the British breed is my political aim in life.' As a cabinet minister he wrote to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to argue for government action:
The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate ... I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.
Privately Churchill argued strongly for the forcible sterilization of 100,000 people whom he described as `mental degenerates'. Such ideas remained highly influential. In 1937 an opinion poll in the United States showed that two-thirds of the population favoured forcible sterilization of habitual criminals and mental defectives.
For some people it was not enough to stop `degenerates' from breeding, sterner measures were required if the efficiency of the nation was to improve. In Germany Ernst Haeckel, a great admirer of the Spartan practice of exposing children at birth to sort out the fit from the sickly, argued in The Riddle of Life, published in 1904:
What profit does humanity derive from the thousands of cripples who are born each year, from the deaf and dumb, from cretins, from those with incurable hereditary defects? How much of this loss and suffering could be obviated, if one finally decided to liberate the totally incurable from their indescribable suffering with a dose of morphia?
One of the ways in which many of the elite in the core states believed their countries could be tested, in a social Darwinist sense, was against other states in war. It was the ultimate proof of which states were rising and which falling, which were winning the battle of `efficiency'. Although the World Peace Congress met in Paris in early September 1900, as one of the many meetings linked to the Universal Exposition, it represented only a small minority of people. Increased militarism was evident everywhere in the core societies in the last years of the nineteenth century, from rifle clubs, the growth of the militia and cadet forces, to gymnastics, the scouting movement and the general acceptance of military values. War was widely seen as an acceptable, even desirable, way of settling disputes and by many intellectuals as a source of spiritual salvation and regeneration. In 1899, writing on the ethics of war in the Nineteenth Century journal, the Reverend H. I. D. Ryder argued that war evoked `the best qualities of human nature, giving the spirit predominance over the flesh' for both military and civilians. Just over a decade later the German Youth League called war: `the noblest and holiest expression of human activity', which was `beautiful' because `its august sublimity elevates the human heart beyond the earthly and the common'. Peace was seen as decadent, corrupt and materialistic. William Graham Sumner at Yale University argued that peace was `selfishness' and war proved that men `have a deeper horror of falsehood than of bloodshed'. Just after the outbreak of the First World War, a British Professor of History, J. A. Cramb, argued in Origins and Destiny of Imperial Britain that universal peace was a `nightmare' and `a world sunk in bovine content'.
The realities of modern war were, however, being demonstrated in 1900 in South Africa. On 10 January Field-Marshal Roberts and General Kitchener disembarked at Cape Town to take charge of the defeated and demoralized troops who had lost the opening engagements in a war the British had provoked with the Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State. They quickly succeeded in defeating the small Boer armies and on 5 June British troops entered Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal. The British believed that the war was over. Within days the Boers had begun waging guerrilla warfare and on 16 June the British issued a proclamation. It warned that civilian hostages would be made to travel on trains to prevent Boer attacks, that collective responsibility would be imposed in local areas to recoup the cost of the damage done by the Boer guerrillas and that houses and farms would be destroyed in the areas affected. Farm burning became standard policy where British communications and trains were attacked. By September, as the attacks continued, all farms within a ten-mile radius of an incident (this involved an area of nearly 350 square miles) were cleared of all stock and supplies. The next month villages, as well as farms, were burnt. At the same time the British stopped Boers who surrendered from returning to their homes and instead forced their families to join them, and many of the families of those still fighting, in what were called `concentration camps' — the first use of what was to become a common twentieth-century expression. Major drives were started to round up civilians and within a few months over 110,000 Boers were in the camps. Disaster struck because the British arrangements for providing food, sanitation and medical care were either poor or nonexistent. In total over 28,000 Boers died in the camps, 26,500 of whom were women and children (at its peak the death toll for children was 10 per cent every month). African farms were also burnt and the men rounded up into gangs for forced labour. The women and children were expected to survive on half the rations given to the Boers. Altogether just over 100,000 Africans were sent to the concentration camps and about one in five of them died. The methods adopted by the British were not effective — it was another two years before the Boers finally agreed to make peace. These actions were roundly condemned not just abroad but in Britain too. The leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, described them as the `methods of barbarism'.
The separate treatment given by the British to the Africans (they also refused to allow African and Indian troops to take part in what they saw as a `white man's war') reflected widespread racist beliefs in European and American society in the early twentieth century. These beliefs were deeply embedded, had been apparent for centuries, were accepted almost without question and were to reach a peak in the first half of the century. Nearly all the white members of the core societies saw themselves as being at the summit of humanity, with other people in a clear racial hierarchy of ability which placed blacks at the bottom. For example the 1903 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica contained the following entry under `Negro': `weight of brain, as indicating cranial capacity, 35 ounces (highest gorilla 20, average European 45) ... thick epidermis ... emitting a peculiar rancid odour, compared ... to that of a buck goat'. The entry went on to explain that in negroes the brain stopped growing at an early age:
To this premature ossification of the skull ... many pathologists have attributed the inherent mental inferiority of the blacks ... the development of the Negro and white proceeds on different lines. It is more correct to say of the Negro that he is nonmoral than immoral. All the social institutions are at the same low level ... Slavery continues everywhere to prevail ... where not checked by European governments [sic] ... No full-blood Negro has ever been distinguished as a man of science, a poet or an artist, and the fundamental equality claimed for him by ignorant philanthropists is belied by the whole history of the race throughout the historic period.
In 1900 The Living Races of Mankind was published in Britain in eighteen fortnightly parts. It told its readers that the muscular development of the black races was `good' and that in work which `depends only on muscle they excel the average European; but in anything requiring judgement they are easily beaten. The nervous system is not very sensitive, and the appreciation of pain is dull. Operations can be conducted without anaesthetic.' School textbooks reinforced the same message. The British The World and Its Peoples of 1907 described the African as `an overgrown child, vain, self-indulgent and fond of idleness'. Four years later the author and poet Rudyard Kipling published A School History of England, in which he told pupils that the African slaves taken to the West Indies were
lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement, or work except under compulsion ... In such a climate a few bananas will sustain the life of a negro quite sufficiently; why should he work to get more than this? He is quite happy and quite useless, and spends any extra wages which he may earn upon finery.
The deep-rooted racist thinking found among Europeans and Americans was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, heightened by empire. The conquest and control of large parts of the globe were taken as vindicating white superiority. Jules Harmand, one of the main advocates of French imperialism, said:
there is a hierarchy of races and civilizations and we belong to the superior race and civilization ... The basic legitimation of conquest over native peoples is the conviction of our superiority, not merely our mechanical, economic and military superiority, but our moral superiority.
The former ruler of Egypt, Lord Cromer, wrote on the question of `Subject Races' in the Edinburgh Review in 1908. He argued that `free institutions' in any colony had to be kept in check because logic was something `the existence of which the Oriental is disposed altogether to ignore'. The colonial peoples therefore needed to understand their limitations and `endeavour to find, in the contentment of the subject race, a more worthy and, it may be hoped, a stronger bond of union between the rulers and the ruled'. In dealing with `Indians, or Egyptians, or Shilluks or Zulus', it was necessary to take into account what was in their own best interests, but this was, of course, determined `by the light of Western knowledge and experience' and what `we conscientiously think is best for the subject race'. Such policies would inculcate `the respect always accorded to superior talents and unselfish conduct'.
In the United States the sudden conquest of an empire at the end of the nineteenth century produced similar sentiments. In 1898 the Nation spoke of the 8 million `people of the colored races' now under American control as `a varied assortment of inferior races which, of course, could not be allowed to vote'. The Atlantic Monthly drew the implications for the United States itself: `If the stronger and cleverer race is free to impose its will upon "new-caught, sullen peoples" on the other side of the globe, why not in South Carolina and Mississippi?' Racism in the United States needed no encouragement, given its past history. Indeed discrimination and segregation were on the increase at the turn of the century, based on the official acceptance of the `separate but equal' doctrine and removal from blacks of the right to vote. Widespread and deeply held views about white superiority were reinforced by numerous academic works. Professor Paul B. Barringer of the University of Virginia wrote in 1900, `The negro race is essentially a race of peasant farmers and laborers ... As a source of cheap labor for a warm climate he is beyond competition; everywhere else he is a foreordained failure.' Other books published at the time give a clear picture of prevailing views: Charles Carroll, The Negro a Beast (1900); William P. Calhoun, The Caucasian and the Negro in the United States (1902); William B. Smith, The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn (1905) and Robert W. Shufelt, The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization (1907).
Such racist thinking was widespread and unquestioned, affecting not just Africans and Asians but also gradations within other groups. It was, for example, accepted almost without demur that nationalities such as the Irish or Italians constituted separate races with separate characteristics. At the top of this tree were the Anglo-Saxon or Aryan races, who were responsible for all of European civilization from the ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century. As Winston Churchill put it: `Why be apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority. We are superior.' European struggles were also seen in racial terms. The German Emperor Wilhelm II thought a future European war would be `the last battle between Teutons and Slavs'. He felt that a diplomatic solution was impossible because: `it is not a question of high politics, but one of race ... for what is at issue is whether the Germanic race is to be or not to be in Europe'. In 1915 the French doctor, Edgar Berillon, made the widely believed `discovery' that Germans had intestines nine feet longer than all other humans and were therefore prone to excessive defecation and body odour. As a result he was able to unmask German spies and Germans posing as Frenchmen from Alsace.
The idea that race determined character, behaviour, even political institutions, was widespread. In 1903 the Argentine writer Carlos Octavio Bunge published Our America, an attack on political life and institutions in Latin America. He argued: `the republic is a severely European institution belonging only to the purest of European races'. A republic could therefore work in North America because the people `possessed a certain republican individualism in their ideas, in their customs, in their institutions and in their blood dating back to Caesar and Hamilcar, even to prehistoric times'. Such institutions, he argued, could not work in Latin America because of the racial mixing of whites, blacks and Indians, which produced `resignation, sadness, laziness and decadence'. This produced a society of `collective sloth' and a preference for rule by the caudillo or strongman because `the rabble' were `too apathetic to think and act for themselves'.
These attitudes were one element behind the widespread anti-Semitism in European society. In the early twentieth century this was found less in Germany, where the prosperous Jewish community was quite strongly assimilated, than in France and eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Russia. However, it seems remarkable that, in a throwback to the medieval world, on 14 November 1900 a Czech jury could find a Jew, Leopold Hilsner, guilty not just of the murder but of the ritual murder of two Christian children (Agnes Hruza and Marie Klima). The Zionist movement had developed in the 1890s, partly in response to this anti-Semitism — the fourth Zionist Congress was held in London on 13 August 1900. The movement, however, was still relatively weak — only half the money necessary to set up the Colonial Trust to finance Jewish settlement in Palestine had been subscribed by the time of the fourth Congress. However, the attempt to build a Jewish state in Palestine also partly rested on the acceptance of European racial concepts. One of the leaders of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann, told Arthur Balfour (one of its strongest British supporters) of `the treacherous nature of the Arabs'. He questioned whether there was `an Arab people in Palestine' and argued that an Arab state there could not come about because `the fellah is at least four centuries behind the times and the effendi is dishonest, uneducated, greedy, and as unpatriotic as he is inefficient'.
Although in 1900 Western Europe and the United States dominated the globe economically and politically, there were the first signs of a growing revolt against such domination, which was to be one of the major themes of the twentieth century. On 10 January 1900 the Young Turks' manifesto was published in Cairo. It called for Turkey's revitalization and an end to ineffective Ottoman rule, to set the country on a path of `modernization' that would lead to a reassertion of nationhood — a policy they started to implement before the decade was over. Later in 1900 the first Pan-African Congress was held in London but it was a low-key affair which attracted almost no attention. It was perhaps symbolic of Africa's condition that, although there were delegates from the Caribbean, the United States and Britain, there were none from the continent itself.
Even more significant, though, were the events that took place in China in 1900. On the penultimate day of 1899 a British missionary was murdered near Tsinan. As retribution the British consul in Shanghai ordered that three Chinese should be beheaded, one strangled, one sentenced to life imprisonment, one to ten years in jail, one banished and that three village elders in the area should be flogged. The fact that a British diplomat was in a position to take such action says much about China's decline during the nineteenth century. The Chinese, ruled since the mid-seventeenth century by the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty, saw themselves not as part of Asia or the Far East but as the `Middle Kingdom', the embodiment of civilization in opposition to the foreign barbarians. However, in the nineteenth century a conjunction of crises brought the Chinese state to the brink of dissolution. A near doubling of the population between 1770 and 1840, linked to very slow increase in the amount of cultivated land, produced major social strains. The government was increasingly marred by corruption and inefficiency and the growth of secret societies led to numerous revolts against the Manchu. Until 1840 the Chinese were just able to maintain the `closed door' against western influence, but then following the `Opium' and other wars they were forced to make fundamental concessions. Trade was opened up through the `Treaty Ports', all foreigners were removed from Chinese jurisdiction, concession areas in the ports were taken over by foreigners and external control of the Chinese Customs Service was established. By 1860, with three major rebellions — the Taiping in the south, the Nian in the north and the Muslim in the west — China seemed on the edge of disintegration. However, there was a limited revival and a series of conservative reforms was implemented, though not on the scale of the contemporaneous Meiji restoration in Japan.
By the 1890s no fundamental changes had occurred and Chinese defeat in the 1894-5 war with Japan precipitated what seemed to be the final crisis. Although the European powers forced Japan to give back Liaodong, they exploited the situation for their own benefit and the last five years of the century saw a greater expansion of western power in China than the previous fifty. In return for loans to fund the war indemnity to Japan (which took up a third of Chinese government revenue), British and French influence was vastly expanded and concessions were made to Germany, Japan and Russia, which had previously held none.
Following the murder of two German missionaries in 1897 the Chinese were forced to concede a German naval base at Qingdao on a ninety-nine year lease with full German sovereignty; a fifty-kilometre zone around the base, subject to German occupation, nominally still under Chinese sovereignty but where they could take no action without German consent; the building of three railway lines in the area and the ceding of all mining rights for fifteen kilometres on either side of these lines. A year later the Russians, who had already obtained the concession for the Trans-Manchurian railway, took Port Arthur (Lüshun) as a naval base, the French established their primacy in Yunan, Guangdong and Guangxi and the British leased the `New Territories' on the mainland opposite Hong Kong and obtained the port of Weihaiwei to block any move south from Port Arthur by the Russians. In 1899 the Americans sent the `Open Door' diplomatic note to the other major powers arguing for equal western access to China. This was not a defence of China, since it admitted the validity of all the existing concessions. It was merely an attempt to secure American interests in a situation where they had few concessions themselves. By the end of the nineteenth century it seemed possible that China might be partitioned between the western powers and Japan. However, no state had the power to conquer China and all were wary of the others. For the moment they could obtain most of what they wanted from the existing system and were content to manipulate the decaying Chinese government.
The most important reaction to this combination of internal decay and external control, particularly in terms of twentieth-century history, came from within China. It took the form of a nationalist revival and a widespread movement against western influence, in particular the Christian missions and the Chinese who had converted to Christianity. Drawing on support from the peasants, who were alienated from an agricultural system in crisis, and the long tradition of Chinese secret societies, a new movement, the `Boxers', emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Their exact origins are unclear but they may have been linked to the Yihequain (The Righteous and Harmonious Fists), who had been banned in 1808. The movement took different forms in different parts of the country — it was known as the `Big Sword Society' in the south-west, for example — but developed strongly in areas such as Qingdao, which was controlled by the Germans. Recruits were attracted through public exhibitions of `boxing', in reality a series of invulnerability rituals which involved spirit possession, followed by secret initiation into the society and adherence to its strict rules. There were separate organizations for women recruits. From 1898 the Boxers obtained increasing, though surreptitious, support from the government — they became the Yihetuan (The Righteous and Harmonious Militia).
Punitive measures taken by the British in Shanghai in early 1900 caused the Boxer movement to grow rapidly: by March the Boxers controlled the whole of the Tientsin region and were beginning to infiltrate the capital. They received increasingly open support from the government in their attempts to remove foreign influence from China. The position of the Boxers as both anti-western and pro-Manchu was shown in their songs:
We are only afraid of being like India, unable to defend our land;
We are only afraid of being like Annam, of having no hope of reviving,
We Chinese have no part in this China of ours ...
When at last all the Foreign Devils
Are expelled to the very last man,
The Great Qing, united, together
Will bring peace to our land.
By mid-June the Boxers controlled Peking and a member of the Japanese legation was shot. In Tientsin western troops from the legations, trying to rescue Chinese Christians, killed over forty Boxers and seized the Chinese forts in the city. In Peking the government asked all the foreign embassies to leave. On 20 June the German minister was murdered, the Europeans withdrew into the legation area, fighting started and the Chinese declared war. About 470 foreigners and 3,000 Chinese Christians were besieged for fifty-five days, although the fighting was hardly intense — the Chinese only fired 4,000 shells in the entire period and more of the besiegers than the besieged died. Across China about 200 missionaries and over 30,000 Chinese Christians were killed.
All the European states and Japan regarded this as a clear challenge by inferiors to their position in China and, sinking their differences, agreed on a joint response. Germany took a strong lead with the Emperor Wilhelm II declaring:
Peking should be razed to the ground. Show no mercy! Take no prisoners! A thousand years ago [sic], the Huns of King Attila made a name for themselves which is still considered formidable in history and legend. Thus may you impose the name of Germany in China for a thousand years, in such a way that no Chinese will ever dare to look askance at a German again.
On 4 August a hurriedly assembled, 20,000 strong, `western' force (over half were Japanese troops) set out from Tientsin and, after two minor skirmishes, eleven days later arrived in Peking to lift the siege. Despite the lack of resistance the passage of the western troops was marked by wholesale rape and slaughter of the population, and the destruction of villages. Peking itself was sacked, looted and thousands more Chinese killed. The Russians committed similar atrocities as they took advantage of the situation to move their troops through Manchuria.
The western powers exacted their revenge through the protocol the Chinese government was forced to sign in January 1901. They secured a massive indemnity by taking control of all revenues from the Chinese customs and the salt tax. Examinations to the Chinese civil service were stopped for five years to ensure no Boxers were recruited; the Chinese were prohibited from importing arms for two years; the legation area in Peking was expanded and no Chinese was allowed to live there; foreign troops were to guard the legation area and all Chinese forts in Peking were to be destroyed.
Although the Chinese were defeated and forced to accept humiliating terms, their reaction was simply to increase pressure for radical national reform as a basis for reasserting Chinese rights and status. The beginnings of a similar nationalist reaction against western dominance could be seen elsewhere in Asia. In 1896 the Philippines had revolted against Spanish control and, although the outcome was the imposition of American rule by 1900, they engaged in a long guerrilla war against their new rulers. Elsewhere nationalist leaders were emerging — in India Tilak and Gokhale of the Indian National Congress, in Indonesia Tjoakraminoto and Sudironusodo, and in Burma U Ba Pe. These were the seeds of the more general revolt against the west later in the century.
For the elites in the core states in 1900 these external pressures were still small clouds on the horizon of what seemed likely to be a continuing expansion of their influence and control. Powers like Germany and the United States were still confident about their rise to world power. This attitude was made clear in Germany in 1900 when Admiral Tirpitz submitted a new naval law to the Reichstag which was designed to challenge the predominance of British naval power and in the United States by a sixfold expansion of the navy. Only the British as a relatively weak status quo power were, at least in private, less confident about their ability to sustain their position in the face of such challenges. Joseph Chamberlain, a convinced imperialist, told the conference of colonial prime ministers, `The weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of its fate.' However, many in the elites thought the main challenge at the beginning of the twentieth century came less from abroad than from various forces at home.
None of the core states were full democracies. None allowed women to vote and most still restricted the number of males who could vote — for example only 60 per cent could do so in Britain. In the United States vigorous and successful efforts were being made to end voting by blacks, especially in the southern states. The social and economic changes brought about by industrialization and urbanization seemed to challenge elite, in particular landed elite, control. State machineries were still limited in their activities, confined mainly to defence and foreign affairs with only exceptional interventions in the economic field (mainly tariffs) and very small welfare programmes (primarily in Germany). Even the repressive powers of the state were still limited. States elsewhere in the world were even more limited in their functions and in some places such as Latin America had little impact on their societies.
To the elites of the core states a growing working class and socialist movement seemed a major threat. Imperialism and war abroad and the pursuit of `national efficiency' at home were ways of trying to divert the energies of the masses into less threatening areas. In 1906 Wilhelm II wrote to his Chancellor, von Büllow: `Shoot down, behead and eliminate the Socialists first, if need be, by a blood-bath, then war abroad. But not before, and not a tempo [at the same time].' On 23 September 1900 the fifth Congress of the Socialist Second International met in the Salle Wagram in Paris. Of the 1,300 delegates 1,000 came from France, with the next largest delegation being from Britain, with 95 members. Only 6 delegates came from the Americas and the only Japanese representative was unable to afford the boat fare. The socialist movement was still in the early stages of its development, still divided between those who believed that no compromise with capitalist society and its institutions was possible and those who believed that a united working class might be able to gain power through the electoral system once universal suffrage was achieved. However, even in a very moderate Labour movement such as that in Britain only the first tentative steps in the latter direction were being taken. In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee (the forerunner of the Labour Party) was set up as the first step in securing separately organized Labour MPs. Until then they had been a small group within the Liberal Party. Few people would have noticed the first publication in Leipzig on Christmas Eve 1900 of Iskra, an obscure Russian emigré newspaper under the control of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (known to his fellow revolutionaries as Lenin). In July he had left Siberian exile and began the newspaper as part of his campaign to form a more hard-line group within the Social Democrats.
Many did not possess the socialist and Marxist belief that progress was inevitable and foresaw growing barbarism. Two men, both of whom believed that the twentieth century did not begin until 1901, mused in their diaries about the future as the new century dawned. In central Europe, Simon Dubnow, a Jewish opponent of Zionism, wrote:
We are entering the twentieth century. What does it have in store for humanity, and for Jewry in particular? To judge by the last few decades, it seems as if humanity might be entering a new Dark Age with horrifying wars and national struggles. But the mind refuses to believe it.
Dubnow went on to become a major contributor to the Jewish Encyclopaedia and also wrote a ten-volume History of the Jews. He was battered to death by a drunken Lithuanian Nazi in Vilnius in 1941.
In Britain the writer, commentator, man about town and friend of the famous, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, wrote in his diary just before Christmas 1900:
All the nations of Europe are making the same hell on earth in China, massacring and pillaging and raping in the captured cities as outrageously as in the Middle Ages. The Emperor of Germany gives the word for slaughter and the Pope looks on and approves. In South Africa our troops are burning farms under Kitchener's command and the Queen and the two Houses of Parliament and the bench of bishops thank God publicly and vote money for the work. The Americans are spending fifty millions a year on slaughtering Filipinos; the King of the Belgians has invested his whole fortune on the Congo, where he is brutalising the negroes to fill his pockets. The French and the Italians for the moment are playing a less prominent part in the slaughter, but their inactivity grieves them. The whole white race is revelling openly in violence as though it had never pretended to be Christian. God's equal curses on them all! So ends the famous nineteenth century into which we were so proud to have been born.
|Pt. 1||The Twentieth Century|
|Pt. 2||Economic and Social History|
|Pt. 3||International History|
|Pt. 4||Domestic History|
|Pt. 5||Retrospect and Prospect|
|Appendix: Chronology of the Twentieth Century||547|
|Suggestions for Further Reading||556|