From the 17th century to the mid-19th century, Europeans had come to regard their continent as the only great power and the center of the universe. The rest of the world was either ignored or exploited. The world economy, international politics, even cultural and social issues revolved around a handful of countries; the “great powers” that believed that they controlled the destiny of the world. As crazy as it may sound, they did just that. However, in defense of Western imperialism and the force of nationalism, some countries began to not only strengthen, but go on the offensive and join the ranks of the great powers. Mounting tensions in Europe led to the Great War as Russia and China erupted in revolution. The Ottoman Empire became modern Turkey, and the Arab lands were taken over by France and Britain. While the capitalistic nations fell into depression, the Soviet Union industrialized. World War II led to the destruction of many cities and people. Most of all, it weakened Europe’s overseas empires. The new shift in power is lead to what historians now call the Second Industrial Revolution.
While the first Industrial Revolution gave rise to textiles, railroads, iron, and coal, the second Industrial Revolution introduced steel, electricity, chemicals, and petroleum. These new technologies revolutionized everyday life and transformed the world economy. By 1890, Germany and the U.S. surpassed Britain as the world’s leading industrial powers. Shipbuilding developments included the use of iron (and then steel) for hulls, propellers, and more efficient engines. Shipping lines also used the growing system of submarine telegraph cables in order to coordinate the movements of their ships around the globe. Steel is an especially hard and elastic form of iron that could be made only in small quantities by skilled blacksmiths before the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century brought large-scale manufacture of chemicals and the invention of synthetic dyes and other new organic chemicals. Nineteenth century advances in explosives (including Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite) had significant effects on both civil engineering and on the development of more powerful and more accurate firearms. The complexity of industrial chemistry made it one of the first fields in which science and technology interacted on a daily basis. In the 1870s inventors devised efficient generators that turned mechanical energy into electricity that could be used to power arc lamps, incandescent lamps, streetcars, subways, and electric motors for industry. Electricity helped to alleviate the urban pollution caused by horse-drawn vehicles.
Between 1850 and 1914 Europe saw very rapid population growth, while emigration from Europe spurred population growth in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina. As a result, the proportion of people of European ancestry in the world’s population rose from one-fifth to one-third. Reasons for the increase in European population include a drop in the death rate, improved crop yields, the provision of grain from newly opened agricultural land in North America, and the provision of a more abundant year-round diet as a result of canning and refrigeration. In the latter half of the nineteenth century European, North American, and Japanese cities grew tremendously both in terms of population and of size. Technologies that changed the quality of urban life for the rich (and later for the working class as well) included mass transportation networks, sewage and water supply systems, gas and electric lighting, police and fire departments, sanitation and garbage removal, building and health inspection, schools, parks, and other amenities. New neighborhoods and cities were built (and older areas often rebuilt) on a rectangular grid pattern with broad boulevards and modern apartment buildings. While urban environments improved in many ways, air quality worsened. Coal used as fuel polluted the air, while the waste of the thousands of horses that pulled carts and carriages lay stinking in the streets until horses were replaced by streetcars and automobiles in the early twentieth century. The term “Victorian Age” refers not only to the reign of Queen Victoria (r.1837–1901), but also to the rules of behavior and the ideology surrounding the family and relations between men and women. Men and women were thought to belong in “separate spheres,” the men in the workplace, the women in the home. Before electrical appliances, a middle-class home demanded lots of work; the advent of modern technology in the nineteenth century eliminated some tasks and made others easier. The most important duty of middle-class women was to raise their children. Women were excluded from jobs that required higher education; teaching was a permissible career, but women teachers were expected to resign when they got married. Some middle-class women were not satisfied with home life and became involved in volunteer work or in the women’s suffrage movement. Working-class women led lives of toil and pain. Many became domestic servants, facing long hours, hard physical labor, and sexual abuse from their masters or their masters’ sons. Many more young women worked in factories, where they were relegated to poorly paid work in the textiles and clothing trades. Married women were expected to stay home, raise children, do housework, and contribute to the family income.
Socialism began as an intellectual movement. The best-known socialist was Karl Marx (1818–1883) who, along with Friedrich Engles (1820–1895) wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867). Marx saw history as a long series of clashes between social classes. Marx's theories provided an intellectual framework for general dissatisfaction with unregulated industrial capitalism. Labor unions were organizations formed by industrial workers to defend their interests in negotiations with employers. During the nineteenth century workers were brought into electoral politics as the right to vote was extended to all adult males in Europe and North America. Instead of seeking the violent overthrow of the bourgeois class, socialists used their voting power in order to force concessions from the government and even to win elections; the classic case of socialist electoral politics is the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Working-class women had little time for politics and were not welcome in the male dominated trade unions or in the radical political parties. By the mid-nineteenth century, popular sentiment favored Italian unification. Unification was opposed by Pope Pius IX and Austria. Count Cavour, the prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia, used the rivalry between France and Austria to gain the help of France in pushing the Austrians out of northern Italy. In the south, Giuseppe Garibaldi led a revolutionary army in 1860 that defeated the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. A new Kingdom of Italy, headed by Victor Emmanuel (the former king of Piedmont-Sardinia) was formed in 1860. In time, Venetia (1866) and the Papal States (1870) were added to Italy. Until the 1860s the German-speaking people were divided among Prussia, the western half of the Austrian Empire, and numerous smaller states. Prussia took the lead in the movement for German unity because it had a strong industrial base in the Rhineland and an army that was equipped with the latest military, transportation, and communications technology. During the reign of Wilhelm I (r. 1861–1888) the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck achieved the unification of Germany through a combination of diplomacy and the Franco-Prussian War. Victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War completed the unification of Germany, but it also resulted in German control over the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and thus in the long-term enmity between France and Germany.
After the Franco-Prussian War all politicians tried to manipulate public opinion in order to bolster their governments by using the press and public education in order to foster nationalistic loyalties. In many countries the dominant group used nationalism to justify the imposition of its language, religion, or customs on minority populations. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) and others took up Charles Darwin’s ideas of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” and applied them to human societies in such a way as to justify European conquest of foreign nations and the social and gender hierarchies of Western society. International relations revolved around a united Germany, which, under Bismarck’s leadership, isolated France and forged a loose coalition with Austria-Hungary and Russia. At home, Bismarck used mass politics and social legislation to gain popular support and to develop a strong sense of national unity and pride amongst the German people. Wilhelm II (r. 1888–1918) dismissed Bismarck and initiated a German foreign policy that placed emphasis on the acquisition of colonies. France was now a second-rate power in Europe, its population and army being smaller than those of Germany, and its rate of industrial growth lower than that of the Germans. In Britain, a stable government and a narrowing in the disparity of wealth were accompanied by a number of problems. Particularly notable were Irish resentment of English rule, an economy that was lagging behind those of the United States and Germany, and an enormous empire that was very expensive to administer and to defend. For most of the nineteenth century Britain pursued a policy of “splendid isolation” toward Europe; preoccupation with India led the British to exaggerate the Russian threat to the Ottoman Empire and to the Central Asian approaches to India while they ignored the rise of Germany. The forces of nationalism weakened Russia and Austria-Hungary. Austria had alienated its Slavic-speaking minorities by renaming itself the “Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ethnic diversity also contributed to instability in Russia. In 1861 Tsar Alexander II emancipated the peasants from serfdom, but did so in such a way that it only turned them into communal farmers with few skills and little capital. Russian industrialization was carried out by the state, and thus the middle-class remained small and weak while the land-owning aristocracy dominated the court and administration. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and the Revolution of 1905 demonstrated Russia’s weakness and caused Tsar Nicholas to introduce a constitution and a parliament (the Duma), but he soon reverted to the traditional despotism of his forefathers.
In the late nineteenth century China resisted Western influence and became weaker; Japan transformed itself into a major industrial and military power. The difference can be explained partly by the difference between Chinese and Japanese elites and their attitudes toward foreign cultures. In China a “self-strengthening movement” tried to bring about reforms, but the Empress Dowager Cixi and other officials opposed railways or other technologies that would carry foreign influences into the interior. In the early nineteenth century, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate and local lords had significant autonomy. In 1853, the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan with a fleet of steam-powered warships and demanded that the Japanese open their ports to trade and American ships. Dissatisfaction with the shogunate's capitulation to American and European demands led to a civil war and the overthrow of the shogunate in 1868. The new rulers of Japan were known as the Meiji oligarchs. The Meiji oligarchs were willing to change their institutions and their society in order to help transform their country into a world-class industrial and military power. The Japanese government encouraged industrialization, funding industrial development with tax revenue extracted from the rural sector and then selling state-owned enterprises to private entrepreneurs. Industrialization was accompanied by the development of an authoritarian constitutional monarchy and a foreign policy that defined Japan’s “sphere of influence” to include Korea, Manchuria, and part of China. Japan defeated China in a war that began in 1894, thus precipitating an abortive Chinese reform effort (the Hundred Days Reform) in 1898 and setting the stage for Japanese competition with Russia for influence in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Japanese power was further demonstrated when Japan defeated Russia in 1905 and annexed Korea in 1910.