Political Systems, International Situation, and European Alliances 1870-1914

1.1 Political systems

Two different political systems coexisted between 1870 and 1914:

  • Parliamentary systems prevailed in Western Europe. Many countries adopted the universal vote for men while suffragette movements began to arise claiming the vote for women, although this was only achieved in Finland (1906) and Norway (1913). Outside Europe, the United States adopted universal male suffrage and Japan introduced a parliamentary system.
  • Autocratic systems persisted in Central and Eastern Europe.

1.2 The International situation

In Europe, the United Kingdom continued to be the strongest commercial and financial power in the world during the so-called ‘Victorian Era’ (1837-1901). Then, it lost its industrial primacy in favour of Germany and the United States. After unification, Germany became the second most important economic power in the world under the reign of William II (1888-1914) and France remained amongst the great powers of the world. The Mediterranean countries and the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires experienced lesser growth. Outside Europe two new powers grew stronger.

1.3 European alliance systems

European international relations during this period went through two stages:

  • Bismarckian Alliance Systems (1871-1890). These were a set of alliances, based on secret diplomacy, promoted by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
  • Peace Through Strength (1891-1914), Peace was maintained during these years but, anticipating war, the European countries rearmed and formed two alliance blocs: the Triple Alliance, formed by Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the Triple Entente, consisting of France, Russia and Great Britain.

2.1 The new sources of energy

The use of new energy sources such as oil and electricity, as well as new engines which would move the machines, began at the end of the 19th century.

3.1 New means of transport and communication

Means of transport experienced great progress. Electricity was applied to railways (Siemens, 1879), trams and the underground. The internal combustion engine enabled the birth of the car (Benz, 1886; Diesel, 1893), improved navigation and the beginning of aviation (the Wright Brothers, 1903). Infrastructures also improved thanks to the completion of the Panama Canal (1914), which cheapened transport between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

3.2 Agricultural activities and trade

Agriculture increased its yields through the use chemical fertilisers and fodder. The use of machines driven by electric and combustion engines greatly facilitated the work. New techniques, such as pasteurisation, canning and freezing, enabled food to be preserved. Progress in transportation resulted in cheaper product distribution and allowed each area to specialise in most suitable products for sale on a world market.

3.3 The birth of Finance Capitalism

The increasing size of companies and the large sums of money needed for financing brought about a new period in Capitalism called ‘Finance Capitalism’.

4.1 Population and urban growth

Between 1870 and 1914, the European population accelerated its growth and rose from 300 to 440 million people. As a result, emigration abroad and the urban population increased. Emigration abroad was favoured improved and less expensive means of transport.

4.2 Social developments

The development of the labour movement The labour movement gained affiliates when the states recognised freedom of assembly and association and legalised workers’ associations.

5.1 Imperialism and its causes

From 1870, European colonial expansion turned to Africa, Asia and the Pacific and entered a new phase known as Imperialism, unlike the previous form of Colonialism, whose main objective was to dominate the economic resources of the colonies, Imperialism compelled the military, political and economic control of the European minority over the dominated territories.

5.2 The forms of colonial rule

The major imperialist powers were Great Britain and France. They were soon joined by other European countries like Germany, Belgium. Italy, Spain and Russia and by non-European countries like the United States and Japan.

6.1 The formation of the colonial empires

The ‘Scramble for Africa’ European presence in Africa had been limited to certain coastal points until 1870 From then on, the major powers set out to explore the continent and create continuous empires To prevent possible clashes, they met at the Berlin Conference in 1884, where they established the rules for the occupation of the continent: the possession of a coastal strip gave the right to occupy the interior provided that effective control of the territory was demonstrated. Free Navigation on the Niger and the Congo Rivers, and free trade in Central Africa were also recognised. The years following the conference saw an accelerated occupation of Africa.

6.2 The consequences of Imperialism

They were different for the metropoles and for the dominated nations. Colonialism was generally positive for the metropoles. It meant political power, wealth (raw materials and new markets for their manufactured goods), greater social peace and the knowledge of other civilisations. But it also intensified international, political and economic confrontations that would lead to World War I.

7.1 Contenders

The First World War broke out in Europe in 1914 It was a conflict that covered a large territorial extension and was known by its contemporaries as the Great War. The contenders were grouped into two camps.

7.2 The causes of the conflict

The root causes These lie in tensions existing in Europe before 1914. The political conflicts between the major powers were due to various reasons. Some of these were territorial: France claimed Alsace-Lorraine from Germany and Italy and Austria-Hungary disputed the territories of Istria and Trento. Others were nationalistic, as in the case of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Empires confronted in the so-called Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Still other reasons came from the colonial clashes between imperialist powers for the control of certain territories.

8.1 The development of the conflict(1914-1918)

Characteristics of the war The characteristics of the war were different from those of previous conflicts and this is the reason it came to be known as the Great territorial extension, as sixteen nations took part in the conflict, War or World War. The most notable characteristics were its vast some of these having extensive colonial empires, and the use of new offensive weapons (machine guns, flame throwers, toxic gases, mines, submarines), and new defence systems, like trenches, and new forms of combat such as psychological warfare. The war also triggered economic and social transformations: the economy of the contending countries became focused on the production of war material Society suffered hardships such as food rationing and bombings, women joined the workforce to replace the men who were fighting at the front.

8.2 The Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations

At the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920), the defeated countries signed treaties and had to reduce their armies, pay war reparations and make territorial concessions which shaped the new map of Europe. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost Alsace-Lorraine and all its colonies and was blamed for the war, this humiliation left the nation eager for revenge. The League of Nations, based in Geneva, was created in 1919 as an international organisation for promoting peace.

8.3 The consequences of the War

The outcome of the War was devastating. 9 million people were killed, and a large number were injured or disabled. It caused serious material losses in croplands, industries, transport and buildings. It sharpened the contrasts between the working classes, the impoverished middle classes and a minority which became enriched by war-based businesses. It favoured the work of women outside the home. It promoted pacifist and anti-militarist ideology, while at the same time increasing the desire for revenge by the defeated countries, especially Germany. After the War, the Central Powers and the dynasties which ruled them disappeared, most countries adopted universal male suffrage and many granted the vote to women in consideration for their work during the war. On the International level, European ed world supremacy was replaced by the United States.The territorial conflicts between countries were a constant source of tension. The nationalistic conflicts in multinational empires like the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, confronted the different nationalities with imperial power and with each other, as reflected by the situation in the Balkans after the Balkan wars.


The Berlin Conference Wishing to regulate the conditions most favourable to the development of advantages of free navigation on the two chief rivers of Africa flowing into the trade and civilization in certain regions of Africa, and to assure to all nations the Atlantic Ocean, being desirous to obviate disputes which might in future arise from new acts of Occupation on the coast of Africa, and concerned, at the same time, as to the means of furthering the moral and material well-being of the native populations;have resolved Article 34. Any power which henceforth takes possession of a tract of land on the coasts of the African continent shall accompany the respective act with a notification thereof, addressed to the other Signatory Powers in order to enable them, if need be to make good any claims of their own.Article 35. The Signatory Powers recognise the obligation to insure the establishment of authority in the regions occupied by them on the coasts of the African continent sufficient to protect existing rights.

The territorial conflicts between countries were a constant source of tension. The nationalistic conflicts in multinational empires like the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, confronted the different nationalities with imperial power and with each other, as reflected by the situation in the Balkans after the Balkan wars