Chapter 20. Politics of the Extreme and World War I, 1870-1918


Summary: In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the great powers of Europe divided themselves into two armed camps and fought what came to be known as World War I, a war of attrition that transformed Europe forever.

Key Ideas

• At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, the dissatisfaction of many with the pace and nature of liberal reform generated a politics of the extreme at both ends of the political spectrum.

• The great powers of Europe were dragged into World War I by a combination of the discontent of nationalist groups within Austria-Hungary, the creation of an alliance system that limited diplomatic options, and the aspirations and military plans of Germany.

• Both sides expected a short and glorious war; the reality was nearly five years of a war of attrition which exhausted the resources of the economies of Europe and nearly wiped out an entire generation of men.

• In 1917, the strain of the war effort led to the collapse of the oppressive but fragile Romanov dynasty in Russia; it was replaced by a government run by Marxist revolutionaries known as the Bolsheviks.

• The victors of World War I imposed a peace settlement that forced Germany to accept full guilt for the war and to pay unprecedented and open-ended war reparations.

Key Terms

National Trade Unions Congress

International Working Men's Association

Fabian Society

United Socialist Party

Social Democrats

International Congress of the Rights of Women

National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies

Women's Social and Political Union



The Dreyfuss Affair


World Zionist Organization

nationalities problem

Triple Alliance

Triple Entente

Schlieffen Plan

First Battle of Marne

Battle of Tannenberg

Race for the Sea

First Battle of Ypres

Battle of Verdun

Battle of Somme


Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Treaty of Versailles

Peace of Paris


By the beginning of the twentieth century more people were participating in politics than ever before, but the majority of them were not satisfied with the reforms produced by liberals. For many, the pace of reform was too slow and the nature of reform too limited. For others, the reforms were unsettling and threatened valued traditions. As a result, an antiliberal sentiment formed that led to political activism of a more extreme nature on both the left and the right.

Politics of the Extreme

Labor Unions: in Great Britain then Spread to Other Countries

Europe’s working-class population fell into the category that believed that liberal reform was too slow and too limited and turned instead to labor unions and socialist parties. In Great Britain, working men formed the National Trade Unions Congress, an organization that joined all the labor unions of the country together for political action, and supported the newly formed Labour Party, a political party that ran working-class candidates in British elections. The working classes of other European countries followed Britain’s lead, forming unions and supporting socialist parties.

Socialist Parties: in Britain, France, and Germany

As Europe’s labor movement turned political, it turned to socialists like Karl Marx for leadership. In 1864, Marx helped union organizers found the International Working Mens Association, often referred to as the First International. The loose coalition of unions and political parties fell apart in the 1870s, but was replaced by the Second International in 1889.

While Marx and his communist associates argued for the inevitability of a violent revolution, the character and strength of socialist organizations varied from country to country. In Britain, the socialist organization known as the Fabian Society counseled against revolution but argued that the cause of the working classes could be furthered through political solutions. Their ultimate goal was a society in which the parts of the economy that were crucial to people’s survival and comfort, such as heat and water, should be owned by the state and regulated by experts employed by the government. In France, socialist parties banded together to join the United Socialist Party under the leadership of Jean Jaurès. The fortunes of the United Socialist Party in elections improved steadily in the first years of the twentieth century and by 1914 they were a major power in French politics.

In Germany the Social Democrats, led by August Bebel, were the most successful socialist party in Europe. The Social Democrats espoused the “revisionist socialism” of Eduard Bernstein, who urged socialist parties to cooperate with bourgeois liberals in order to earn immediate gains for the working class. By 1914, the Social Democrats were the largest political party in Germany.

Women's Suffrage Movements and Feminism

Always left out of liberal reforms and sometimes excluded from labor unions, women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries formed political movements of their own. Feminist groups campaigning for women’s rights united in 1878 to convene in Paris for the International Congress of the Rights of Women.

In Britain, the movement focused mostly on the issue of women’s suffrage, or voting rights. The movement went through three distinct phases:

• A pioneering phase from 1866 to 1870, when suffrage agitation focused on the Reform Act of 1867 and won a number of successes at the level of local government through petitioning and pamphleteering

• a period of relative dormancy from 1870 to 1905

• a period of militancy from 1905 to 1914, when the National Union of Womens Suffrage Societies headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett campaigned vigorously for women’s voting rights, and the Womens Social and Political Union led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia campaigned, often violently, for a broader notion of women’s rights

On the Continent, feminists such as Louise Michel in France and Clara Zetkin in Germany folded their movements into the broader cause of worker’s rights and politically supported socialist parties.

Anarchist Activity

People under the more oppressive regimes, where even liberal reform was resisted, turned to anarchism. Theoreticians like Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin urged the elimination of any form of state authority that oppressed human freedom, and ordinary people enacted the doctrine, first through the method of the “general strike” (massive work stoppages designed to bring the economy to a halt) and later and more often through assassination attempts on the lives of government officials. Successful assassinations in the first years of the twentieth century included King Umberto I of Italy and President William McKinley of the United States.

Ultranationalists and Antisemites

The international quality of the socialist movement was in direct opposition to the ideology of nationalism that had dominated the second half of the nineteenth century. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, a harder, more extreme version of nationalism came into being. Ultranationalists argued that political theories and parties that put class solidarity ahead of loyalty to a nation threatened the very fabric of civilization, and they vowed to fight them to the death.

Nineteenth-century nationalism had always had a racial component, and ultranationalism quickly merged with the age-old European suspicion of Jews, known as antisemitism. The most notorious example of ultranationalist/antisemitic political power was the Dreyfuss Affair. In 1894, a group of bigoted French Army officers falsely accused Alfred Dreyfuss, a young Jewish captain, of treason. Dreyfuss was convicted and sent to Devil’s Island prison. The evidence was clearly fabricated, and liberals and socialists quickly came to Dreyfuss’s defense. His numerous trials (he was eventually exonerated) divided the nation, illustrating how strong ultranationalist and antisemitic feelings were in the French establishment.


In the face of antisemitism, a movement for the creation of an independent state for Jews, known as Zionism, came into being. In 1896, Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State, a pamphlet that urged an international movement to make Palestine the Jewish homeland. A year later, the World Zionist Organization was formed, and by 1914 nearly 85,000 Jews, primarily from eastern Europe, had emigrated to Palestine.

Causes of World War I

The causes of World War I are still debated by historians, but all explanations include the following to varying degrees:

• The nationalities problem—10 distinct linguistic and ethnic groups lived within the borders of Austria-Hungary, and all were agitating for either greater autonomy or independence.

• The rise of Germany and the Alliance System—after unification in 1871, Bismarck sought security in the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy); Britain, France, and Russia countered with the Triple Entente. The alliance system was supposed to make war between the major powers too costly; instead its assurance of military reprisal limited diplomatic options.

• The Anglo-German rivalry—the unification of Germany and its rise as an industrial and military power generated a heated rivalry with Great Britain.

• The assassination of the Austrian Archduke—the assassination, on 28 June 1914, of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a young Bosnian patriot brought the nationalities problem to a crisis stage.

• German military planning—Germany was convinced that war with the Triple Entente countries was inevitable. Accordingly, it devised a strategy, known as the Schlieffen Plan, for a two-front war that called for a military thrust westward towards Paris at the first sign of Russian mobilization in the east. The hope was to knock the French out of the war before the Russians could effectively mobilize.

Basic Chronology, 1914-1915

• On 23 July 1914, Austria, at Germany’s urging, moved to crack down on Serbian nationalism.

• On 28 July 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia began military mobilization as a show of support for Serbia; that mobilization triggered the Schlieffen Plan.

• On 4 August 1914 the German Army invaded Belgium heading for Paris. In the first 16 months of combat, France suffered roughly half of all its war casualties. Two-thirds of a million men were killed.

• Belgian resistance gave time for British troops to join the battle in late August, but they joined a retreat.

• Russian troops mobilized faster than expected and invaded Eastern Prussia. On 26 August 1914, German Commander Helmuth von Moltke transferred troops from the Western Front to the Eastern. The victory by the Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg led to the liberation of East Prussia and began a slow steady German advance eastward, but the timetable of the Schlieffen Plan was altered and the Germans were doomed to fight a two- front war.

• On 6 September 1914, French troops met the Germans at the First Battle of Marne.

• October and November 1914 saw a series of local engagements aimed at outflanking the enemy, sometimes known as the Race for the Sea which extended the front line west until it reached the English Channel.

• The British determination to hold onto the entire French Coast stretched the front north through Flanders. In the First Battle of Ypres in October and November of 1914, the German advance was halted for good, leading to a stalemate and the beginning of trench warfare.

Total War

When war was declared in 1914 it was met with a joyous enthusiasm all across Europe. Explanations for this reaction include:

• a fascination with militarism that pervaded European culture

• feelings of fraternity or brotherhood that a war effort brought out in people who lived in an increasingly fragmented and divided society

• a sense of Romantic adventurism that cast war as an alternative to the mundane, working life of industrial Europe

Additionally, there were several shared expectations among Europeans as they went to war:

• Recent experience, such as the Franco-Prussian war of1871, suggested that the war would be brief; most expected it to last about six weeks.

• Each side was confident of victory.

• Each side expected a war of movement, full of cavalry charges and individual heroism.

The reality was a war of nearly five years of trench warfare and the conversion of entire economies to the war effort. As both sides literally dug in, soldiers fought from a network of trenches up to 30 feet deep and often flooded with water and infested with rats and lice. Military commanders, who commanded from rear-guard positions, continued to launch offensive attacks, ordering soldiers “over the top” to the mercy of the machine guns that lined enemy trenches.

Total war also meant changes on the home front, some of which would have lasting consequences:

• Governments took direct control of industries vital to the war effort.

• Labor unions worked with businesses and government to relax regulations on working hours and conditions.

• Class lines were blurred as people from all walks of life worked side by side to aid the war effort.

• Women were drawn into the industrial work force in greater numbers and gained access to jobs that had traditionally been reserved for men.

Basic Chronology, 1916: "The Year of Bloodletting"

In 1916 a war of attrition was fought in trenches in France and Flanders, as each side tried to exhaust the resources of the other.

• In February 1916, French troops led by Marshall Petain repulsed a German offensive at the Battle of Verdun; 700,000 men were killed.

• From July to November 1916, the British attempted an offensive that has come to be known as the Battle of the Somme; by its end, 400,000 British, 200,000 French, and 500,000 Germans soldiers lay dead.

• On 6 April 1917, America declared war on Germany. Several factors triggered the American entry, including the sinking of American vessels by German U-boats and the Zimmerman Note (a diplomatic correspondence of dubious origin, purporting to reveal a deal between Germany and Mexico).

Russian Revolution and Withdrawal

In March of 1917, food shortages and disgust with the huge loss of life exploded into a revolution that forced the tsar’s abdication. The new government, dominated by a coalition of liberal reformers and moderate socialists (sometimes referred to as Mensheviks), opted to continue the war effort.

In November of 1917, a second revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power. A party of revolutionary Marxists, led by Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, who went by the name of Lenin, the Bolsheviks saw the war as a battle between two segments of the bourgeoisie fighting over the power to exploit the proletariat. Accordingly, the Bolsheviks decided to abandon the war and consolidate its revolutionary gains within Russia. They signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March of 1918, surrendering Poland, the Ukraine, Finland, and the Baltic provinces to Germany.

Shortly after the signing of the Treaty, Russia was engulfed by civil war. Anticommunist groups, generally called the Whites in contrast to the communist Reds, were led by members of the old tsarist elite intent upon defending their privileges. Both sides received support from foreign governments and for more than three years, from December 1917 to November 1920, the Bolshevik regime was engaged in a life-and-death struggle which they ultimately won.

Germany's Disintegration and the Peace Settlement

Germany launched one last great offensive in March of 1918 through the Somme towards Paris. The “Allies,” as the French, British, and American coalition came to be known, responded by uniting their troops under a single commander, the French General Ferdinand Foch, for the first time. French troops were reinforced by fresh British conscripts and 600,000 American troops. By July 1918, the tide had turned in the Allies’ favor for good. German forces retreated slowly along the whole Western Front. In early September, the German high command informed their government that peace had to be made at once. On 9 November 1918, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, abdicated and two days later representatives of a new German government agreed to terms that amounted to unconditional surrender.

Peace negotiations began in Paris in January of 1919 and were conducted by the victors; Germany was forced to accept the terms dictated to it. The French delegation was led by Georges Clemenceau, whose desired to make sure that Germany could never threaten France again. The U.S. delegation was led by President Woodrow Wilson, who approached the peace talks with bold plans for helping to build a new Europe that could embrace the notions of individual rights and liberty that he believed characterized the United States. Britain was represented by David Lloyd George, who tried to mediate between the vindictive Clemenceau and the idealistic Wilson.

The result was a series of five treaties that have collectively come to be known as the Treaty of Versailles. The overall settlement, sometimes referred to as the Peace of Paris, contained much that was unprecedented and much that sowed the seeds of further conflict. Among the more significant aspects of the settlement were the following:

• The Germans were forced to pay $5 billion annually in reparations until 1921, with no guarantee as to the total amount (the final amount was set at $33 billion in 1921).

• New independent nations were set up in eastern Europe as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia were created out of the old Austria-Hungary, while Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were created out of the western part of the old Russian Empire.

• Germany, in what came to be known as “the war guilt clause,” was forced to accept full blame for the war.

• Germany was stripped of all her overseas colonies.

• Alsace and Lorraine, taken by Germany during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, were returned to France.

• The Allies were given the right to occupy German territories on the west bank of the Rhine River for 15 years.

• Germany’s armed forces were limited to 100,000 soldiers and saddled with armament limitations.

• Rapid Review

At the turn of the twentieth century, political gains were made by parties on the extreme left and right of the political spectrum, as the gradual reform of liberalism lost its appeal. The great powers of Europe constructed an alliance system that divided them into two armed camps. From August of 1914 to November of 1918 the two camps fought a total war of attrition. In the process, the oppressive police state of the Romanovs fell in to Marxist revolutionaries in November of 1917. The peace settlement that followed the war attempted to weaken and punish Germany.

• Chapter Review Questions

1. The first international socialist organization was

(A) the National Trade Unions Congress

(B) the Fabian Society

(C) the International Working Men’s Association

(D) the United Socialists Party

(E) the World Zionist Organization

2. The organization that campaigned in Britain for women’s rights was

(A) the Fabian Society

(B) Feminism

(C) the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies

(D) Zionism

(E) the Women’s Social and Political Union

3. The “nationalities problem” refers to

(A) the limited diplomatic options created by the alliance system

(B) the frustration of socialists with nationalist feelings in the working class

(C) antisemitism

(D) the agitation of linguistic and ethnic minorities within Austria-Hungary for greater autonomy and independence

(E) Serbia

4. Which of the following was a cause of World War I?

(A) the Anglo-German rivalry

(B) the Alliance System

(C) the rise of a unified Germany as an industrial and military power in Europe

(D) German military planning

(E) all of the above

5. The significance of Moltke’s decision to engage the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg was

(A) the breaking of the Triple Entente

(B) the abandonment of the Schleiffen Plan

(C) the breaking of the Triple Alliance

(D) that the Russian victory boosted national morale

(E) that it brought Russia into the war

6. Which of the following was NOT stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles?

(A) the surrendering of Poland, the Ukraine, Finland, and the Baltic provinces to Germany

(B) the stripping of Germany of all her overseas colonies

(C) the return of Alsace and Lorraine to France

(D) huge and open-ended reparations paid by Germany

(E) the limiting of German armed forces to 100,000 soldiers

7. The most significant effect of the November 1917 Russian revolution on World War I was

(A) the decision of the new government to renew the war effort

(B) the decision of the new government to join the Triple Entente

(C) the decision of the new government to remove Russia from the war

(D) the decision of the new government to join the Triple Alliance

(E) none of the above

8. The German retreat across the Western Front that signaled that the tide had turned in favor of the allies occurred in

(A) February of 1916

(B) November of 1916

(C) April of 1917

(D) July of 1918

(E) January of 1919

• Answers and Explanations

1. C. The International Working Men’s Association (or First International), organized by Karl Marx, was the first international socialist organization. Choice A is incorrect because the National Trade Unions Congress was an organization that banded together labor unions, not socialists, in Britain. Choice B is incorrect because the Fabian Society was a socialist organization in Britain, but it was not the first. Choice D is incorrect because the United Socialist Party was an organization that banded together French socialist parties, but it was not the first either. Choice E is incorrect because the World Zionist Organization was an international movement to create an independent state for Jews; it had nothing to do with socialism.

2. E. The Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, campaigned, often violently, for women’s rights in Britain. Choice A is incorrect because the Fabian Society was a socialist (not a feminist) organization in Britain. Choice B is incorrect because feminism is a term to describe the ideology that believes in equal rights for women; it is not the name of an organization. Choice C is incorrect because the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, concentrated its campaign on voting rights for women in Britain, whereas the agenda of the Women’s Social and Political Union was broader. Choice D is incorrect because Zionism is a term that denotes the movement for an independent Jewish state, and it has nothing to do with feminism or women’s suffrage.

3. D. The nationalities problem refers to the large number of linguistic and ethnic minorities in Austria-Hungary agitating for either greater autonomy or independence. Choice A is incorrect because the nationalities problem is not related to the creation of the Alliance System. Choice C is incorrect because the ethnic minorities agitating in Austria-Hungary were, for the most part, not Jews. Choice E is incorrect because the Serbs were only one of the groups referred to by the term “nationalities problem.”

4. E. All of the above are correct. The rise of a unified Germany as an industrial and military power in Europe (choice C) upset the balance of power in Europe and created a rivalry with Britain (choice A), formerly unchallenged in industrial and military strength. The Alliance System (choice B) drastically limited diplomatic options because it guaranteed a military response, and (choice D) German military planning, particularly the Schlieffen Plan, committed Germany to a military offensive at the first sign of Russian troop mobilization.

5. B. The decision by the German high command to divert troops from the Western Front and engage the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg abandoned the logic of the Schlieffen Plan, which was to defeat France before Russia could fully mobilize for war, doomed Germany to a two- front war. Choices A and C are incorrect because no alliances were broken by the decision by the Germans to engage the Russians at Tannenberg: Germany was in the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy, while Russia was in the Triple Entente with Britain and France. Choice D is incorrect because the Germans, not the Russians, won the Battle of Tannenberg. Choice E is incorrect because Russia was already at war with Germany prior to the Battle of Tannenberg.

6. A. Poland, the Ukraine, Finland, and the Baltic provinces were surrendered to Germany by Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Letovsk, not the Treaty of Versailles. All the other choices were stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles.

7. C. After the revolution of November 1917, the Russian government was controlled by the Bolsheviks, a Marxist, communist party who saw the war as a battle between two segments of the bourgeoisie. Accordingly, they removed Russia from the war. Choice A is incorrect because the government did not renew the war effort. Choice B is incorrect because Russia had joined the Triple Entente prior to the war. Choice D is incorrect because, while the new government signed a separate peace with Germany, they did not join the Triple Alliance. Choice E is incorrect because choice C is correct.

8. D. German forces began retreating across the whole Western Front following the failure of their final offensive at Somme in July of1918. Choice A is incorrect because February of 1916 is when French troops led by Marshall Petain repulsed a German offensive at the Battle of Verdun; choice B is incorrect because November of 1916 marks the conclusion of the Battle of the Somme, an unsuccessful Allied attack. Choice C is incorrect because April 1917 marks the American entrance into the war but not the retreat of the German Army. Choice E is incorrect because January of 1919 is when the Paris peace negotiations commenced.

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