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“ISMS” Intellectual Trends

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Isms intellectual trends


Intellectual Trends

Isms intellectual trends

The war began in 1914 with the culmination of many processes; some were political, some economic and some were intellectual. While Europe had torn itself apart in the twenty six years between the start of the French Revolution and the final downfall of Napoleon, nothing approaching the scale or severity of that conflict had occurred since it ended in 1815.

Isms intellectual trends

The years of peace permitted quantum leaps in science, technology and philosophy, and the world of 1900 was immeasurably different from that of 1800. People thought in different ways, worked in new and different industries, worshipped differently – if they worshipped at all – and many of the inhabitants of Europe had a concept of themselves that was very different from that of their grandparents.

Isms intellectual trends

One outstanding feature of the “isms” was that they could be used to justify anything…

Isms intellectual trends

Could be used to justify both the struggle for freedom from an oppressor and to oppress others in turn.

Had the most lasting intellectual influence on C19th Europe.


Could be ‘all things to all people’. The pursuit of one group’s ‘national rights’ is often carried out to the prejudice of the rights of others.

Contemporary national movements e.g. Pan-Slav movement, were especially dangerous to the sprawling Hapsburg Empire.

Isms intellectual trends

The belief in an established and definable homeland. (e.g. Israel)

The belief in independent and sovereign government as a badge of freedom. (e.g. in modern times some ex colonies in Africa have preferred independence)

The belief in a common national language. Language can create, preserve and destroy identity. (e.g. Irish)


A belief in the superiority of a group culture over that of others. (e.g. Bach, Nietzsche, Wagner were held up as examples of German superiority)

A belief in the desirability of extending the benefits of superior culture to less fortunate nations. (e.g. as a rationale for empire building)

An awareness of a common history that sets the group apart from others. (e.g. Jewish consciousness as a ‘chosen people’)

Isms intellectual trends

The belief that the end justifies the means. (e.g. Palestine, Ireland)


Independence groups often throw off splinter groups who owe no allegiance to treaties which might have been made. (e.g. Real IRA)

Isms intellectual trends

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his idea of survival of the fittest in his ‘Origin Of Species’.

The absence of large scale conflict in Europe during the C19th encouraged advances in science, technology and philosophy.

Gave rise to the idea that some peoples were inherently superior to others and could be used to justify imperial expansion.

Social Darwinism

Superior technology gave Europeans a huge edge over non-industrialised peoples. European armies could defeat much larger native ones. This led to the belief that one European was equal to any number of natives.

Led to the belief that the struggle between nations was natural, and empires which could not adapt should rightly be swept away. (e.g. Hapsburg Empire)

Native races became the ‘White Man’s Burden’. The basis for this protection was paternalism and the belief that one race was superior to another.

Isms intellectual trends

The theory of evolution was in direct contradiction with Genesis. This weakened people’s religious beliefs.

The spirit of rationalism and scientific scepticism replaced religious faith with a demand for proof.

Social Darwinism

The Christian ethos of care and concern were weakened by the acceptance of the Social Darwinist notion that struggle and competition, and the defeat of the weak, was natural.

Social Darwinism shaped a world which was increasingly drawn towards violent solutions. Mankind was bringing the natural world under his control and it seemed there was nothing humans could not do.

Social Darwinism complemented the idea of capitalism, which was overtaking the European economy.

Isms intellectual trends

Colonial expansion was practical because it guaranteed employment for sailors, soldiers and administrators. However, it also had emotional appeal when monarchs dressed in uniform and children in youth groups saluted the flag like soldiers in training.

1815–1914 Europe’s pop. rose from 1/5 of the world’s total to 1/4 and ‘welfarism’ meant people’s lives had never been better.

Loomed largely as a factor in the pre-war dealings of the Powers. Military solutions were more and more thought of as a first resort rather than a reluctant last resort.


Social Darwinism justified the idea of conflict. Military machines needed to be kept in a state of readiness and efficiency. (e.g. France lost during Prussian War because her military was inefficient)

Total military efficiency took on a momentum of its own. (e.g. a soccer team is not content to just practise… at some point there must be a game)

Britain revelled in her superior navy. France dreamt of recovering her provinces. Japan prioritised modernisation. Russia focused on strategic railways.

Isms intellectual trends

Developed the concept of ‘total war’. All the state’s resources (railways, foundries, coalfields, harbours, crops) were at the General Staff’s disposal.

The General Staff institutionalised excellence. (e.g. the Annual War College annually chose 12 from 120)

LAND - Germany’s position in the centre of Europe dictated that she needed a formidable military machine. The General Staff was crucial.


Reorganised the army. Conscripts served 3 years, 4 years in the reserve, 5 years in the Home Guard. This meant Germany had reserves with 12 years experience. This worked against diplomatic solutions.

Monitored efficiency during Bismarck’s wars of unification and took action against deficiencies. (e.g. cavalry against Denmark, artillery against Austria, rifles against France)

France, Russia and Austria were prompted to improve their militaries. C20th saw rival groups of highly trained militaries with unprecedented manpower and resources.

Isms intellectual trends

Kaiser Wilhelm was tactless and arrogant. He did not understand his pursuit of a navy threatened Britain’s trade interests when there was no need to do so. His pursuit of a navy defied the spirit of the Age of Alliances.

SEA – Newly formed European countries after unification turned straight to expansion. Maritime expansion led to confrontation between Europe’s newest Power and one of her oldest.

Kaiser Wilhelm’s policy of shipbuilding was unacceptable to Britain who had ruled the waves since 1805 with her ‘two power standard’.


The Kaiser started building 41 battleships and 61 cruisers. There was a naval race, as Britain designed the new ‘Dreadnought’ battleship which made all other ships obsolete. Germany set about also building dreadnoughts.

The opening of the Kiel Canal threatened Britain into withdrawing her navy from around the world and entered into naval agreements with France and Japan. A showdown was looming.

The die was cast. (e.g. The British Liberal government in 1912 tried to divert spending from defence to welfare but were denied by the Foreign Office.

Isms intellectual trends

For the newly created European countries, the badge of nationhood was the acquisition of overseas possessions.

Imperialism was a paradox. Independence from foreign domination marked a culture as ‘worthy’ but it did not occur to expanding nations that those they colonised might also wish for self-determination.

The notion of ‘White Man’s Burden’ taught the duty of extending ‘civilisation’ to non-European cultures.


Surplus pop. meant Europe was the smallest but most densely populated continent. People were healthier and better cared for. Emigration would provide the mother country with raw materials and a tariff free market.

Economic reasons for imperialism. European countries were creating a surplus which could be turned into cash through trade.

Isms intellectual trends

Russia became involved in the Middle East, which threatened Britain’s control of the Suez Canal, her access to India.

French interest in Moroccan mineral deposits threatened Germany, who viewed that country as their foothold on the Med. coast.

Germany’s Berlin to Baghdad railway threatened Britain’s trading interests in the Persian Gulf.


Social Darwinism showed some nations should rule others, but there was a limited number of colonies for the taking and when they ran out the Powers started to look amongst themselves for who was the superior. It was time for a showdown.

Austria angered land-locked Serbia by dominating her external trade.

Britain built bridges, canals and railways across the world which led other Powers to question her motivations.

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