Nations of Europe and the Great War - Charles Morris

Europe at the Close of the Eighteenth Century

End of Medievalism and Beginning of Modernism


When, after a weary climb, we find ourselves on the summit of a lofty mountain, and look back from that commanding altitude over the ground we have traversed, what is it that we behold? The minor details of the scenery, many of which seemed large and important to us as we passed, are now lost to view, and we see only the great and imposing features of the landscape, the high elevations, the town-studded valleys, the deep and winding streams, the broad forests. It is the same when, from the Sununu of an age, we gaze backward over the plain of time. The myriad of petty happenings are lost to sight, and we see only the striking events, the critical epochs, the mighty crises through which the world has passed. These are the things that make true history, not the daily doings in the king's palace or the peasant's hut. What we should seek to observe and store up in our memories are the turning points in human events, the great thoughts which have ripened into noble deeds, the hands of might which have pushed the world forward in its career; not the trifling occurrences which signify nothing, the passing actions which have borne no fruit in human affairs. It is with such turning points, such critical periods in modern history, that we are here dealing; not to picture the passing bubbles on the stream of time, but to point out the great ships which have sailed up that stream laden with a noble freight. This is history in its deepest and best aspect, and we have set our camera to photograph only the men who have made and the events which constitute history in the phase here outlined.

The Age of Feudalism

The Medieval Age was the age of feudalism, that remarkable system of government based on military organization which held western Europe captive for centuries. The state was an army, the nobility its captains and generals, the king its commander-in-chief, the people its rank and file. As for the horde of laborers, they were hardly considered at all. They were the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the armed and fighting class, a base, down-trodden, enslaved multitude, destitute of rights and privileges, their only mission in the world to provide food for and pay taxes to their masters.

France, the country in which the feudal system had its birth, was the country in which it had the longest lease of life. There it came down to the verge of the nineteenth century with little relief from its terrible exactions. We see before us in that country the spectacle of a people steeped in misery, crushed by tyranny, robbed of all political rights, and without a voice to make their sufferings known; and of an aristocracy lapped in luxury, proud, vain, insolent, lavish with the people's money, ruthless with the people's blood, and blind to the specter of retribution which was rising higher year by year before their eyes.

Issues of the French Revolution

This era of injustice and oppression reached its climax in the closing years of the eighteenth century, and went down at length in that hideous nightmare of blood and terror known as the French Revolution. Frightful as this was, it was unavoidable. The pride and privilege of the aristocracy had the people by the throat, and only the sword or the guillotine could loosen their hold.

It was the need of money for the spendthrift throne that precipitated the Revolution. For years the indignation of the people had been growing and spreading; for years the authors of the nation had been adding fuel to the flame. The voices of Voltaire, Rousseau and a dozen others had been heard in advocacy of the rights of man, and the people were growing daily more restive under their load. But still the lavish waste of money wrung from the hunger and sweat of the people went on, until the king and his advisers found their coffers empty and were without hope of filling them without a direct appeal to the nation at large.

It was in 1788 that the fatal step was taken. Louis XVI, King of France, called a session of the States-General, the Parliament of the kingdom, which had not met for more than a hundred years. This body was composed of three classes, the representatives of the nobility, of the church, and of the people. In all earlier instances they had been docile to the mandate of the throne, and the monarch, blind to the signs of the times, had no thought but that this assembly would vote him the money he asked for, fix by law a system of taxation for his future supply, and dissolve at his command.

He was ignorant of the temper of the common people. They had gained a voice at last, and were sure to take the opportunity to speak their mind. Their representatives, known as the Third Estate, were made up of bold, earnest, indignant men, who asked for bread and were not to be put off with a crust. They were twice as numerous as the representatives of the nobles and the clergy, and thus held control of the situation. They were ready to support the throne, but refused to vote a penny until the crying evils of the state were reformed. They broke loose from the other two Estates, established in 1789 a separate parliament under the name of the National Assembly, and began that career of revolution which did not cease until it had brought monarchy to an end in France and set all Europe aflame.

The Revolution grew, month by month and day by day. New and more radical laws were passed; moss-grown abuses were swept away in an hour's sitting; the king, who sought to escape, was seized and held as a hostage; and war was boldly declared against Austria and Prussia, which showed a disposition to interfere. In November, 1792, the French army gained a brilliant victory at Jemmapes, in Belgium, which eventually led to the conquest of that kingdom by France. It was the first important event in the career of victory which in the coming years was to make France glorious in the annals of war.

The hostility of the surrounding nations added to the revolutionary fury in France. Armies were marching to the rescue of the king, and the unfortunate monarch was seized, reviled and insulted by the mob, and incarcerated in the prison called the Temple. The queen, Marie Antoinette, daughter of the Emperor of Austria, was likewise haled from the palace to the prison. In the following year, 1793, king and queen alike were taken to the guillotine and their royal heads fell into the fatal basket. The Revolution was consummated, the monarchy was at an end, France had fallen into the hands of the people, and from them it descended into the hands of a ruthless and blood-thirsty mob.

Meanwhile a foreign war was being waged. England had formed a coalition with most of the nations of Europe, and France was threatened by land with the troops of Holland, Prussia, Austria, Spain and Portugal, and by sea with the fleet of Great Britain. The incompetency of her assailants saved her from destruction. Her generals who lost battles were sent to prison or to the guillotine, the whole country rose as one man in defense, and a number of brilliant victories drove her enemies from her borders and gave the armies of France a position beyond the Rhine.

How Napoleon Won Fame

These wars soon brought a great man to the front, Napoleon Bonaparte, a son of Corsica, whose career as a man of recognized ability began in 1794, when, under the orders of the National Convention—the successor of the National Assembly—he quelled the mob in the streets of Paris with loaded cannon and put a final end to the Terror which had so long prevailed. Placed at the head of the French army in Italy, Napoleon quickly astonished the world by a series of the most brilliant victories, defeating the Austrians and the Sardinians wherever he met them, seizing Venice, the city of the lagoon, and forcing almost all Italy to submit to his arms. A republic was established here and a new one in Switzerland, while Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine were held by France.

His wars here at an end, Napoleon's ambition led him to Egypt, inspired by great designs which he failed to realize. In his absence anarchy arose in France. The five Directors, then at the head of the government, had lost all authority, and Napoleon, who had unexpectedly returned, did not hesitate to overthrow them and the Assembly which supported them. A new government, with three Consuls at its head, was formed, Napoleon, as First Consul, holding almost royal power. Thus France stood in 1800, at the end of the eighteenth century.

Conditions in France and Germany

In the remainder of Europe there was nothing to compare with the momentous convulsion which had taken place in France. England had gone through its two revolutions more than a century before, and its people were the freest of any in Europe. Recently it had lost its colonies in America, but it still held in that continent the broad domain of Canada, and was building for itself a new empire in India, while founding colonies in twenty other lands. In commerce and manufactures it entered the nineteenth century as the greatest nation on the earth. The hammer and the loom resounded from end to end of the island, mighty centers of industry arose where cattle had grazed a century before, coal and iron were being torn in great quantities from the depths of the earth, and there seemed everywhere an endless bustle and whirr. The ships of England haunted all seas and visited the most remote ports, laden with the products of her workshops and bringing back raw material for her factories and looms. Wealth accumulated, London became the money market of the world, the riches and prosperity of the island kingdom were growing to be a parable among the nations of the earth.

On the continent of Europe, Prussia, destined in time to become great, had recently emerged from its medieval feebleness, mainly under the powerful hand of Frederick the Great, whose reign extended until 1786, and whose ambition, daring, and military genius made him a fitting predecessor of Napoleon the Great, who so soon succeeded him in the annals of war. Unscrupulous in his aims, this warrior king had torn Silesia from Austria, added to his kingdom a portion of unfortunate Poland, annexed the principality of East Friesland, and lifted Prussia into a leading position among the European states.

Germany, now—with the exception of Austria—a compact empire, was then a series of disconnected states, variously known as kingdoms, principalities, margravates, electorates, and by other titles, the whole forming the so-called Holy Empire, though it was "neither holy nor an empire." It had drifted down in this fashion from the Middle Ages, and the work of consolidation had but just begun, in the conquests of Frederick the Great. A host of petty potentates ruled the land, whose states, aside from Prussia and Austria, were too weak to have a voice in the councils of Europe. Joseph II, the titular emperor of Germany, made an earnest and vigorous effort to combine its elements into a powerful unit; but he signally failed, and died in 1790, a disappointed and embittered man.

Austria and Italy

Austria, then far the most powerful of the German states, was from 1740 to 1780 under the reign of a woman, Maria Theresa, who struggled in vain against her ambitious neighbor, Frederick the Great, his kingdom being extended ruthlessly at the expense of her imperial dominions. Austria remained a great country, however, including Bohemia and Hungary among its domains. It was lord of Lombardy and Venice in Italy, and was destined to play an important but unfortunate part in the coming Napoleonic wars.

The peninsula of Italy, the central seat of the great Roman Empire, was, at the opening of the nineteenth century, as sadly broken up as Germany, a dozen weak states taking the place of the one strong one that the good of the people demanded. The independent cities of the medieval period no longer held sway, and we hear no more of wars between Florence, Genoa, Milan, Pisa and Rome; but the country was still made up of minor states—Lombardy, Venice and Sardinia in the north, Naples in the south, Rome in the center, and various smaller kingdoms and dukedoms between. The peninsula was 'a prey to turmoil and dissension. Germany and France had made it their fighting ground for centuries, Spain had filled the south with her armies, and the country had been miserably torn and rent by these frequent wars and those between state and state, and was in a condition to welcome the coming of Napoleon, whose strong hand for the time promised the blessing of peace and union.

Spain and Poland

Spain, not many centuries before the greatest nation in Europe, and, as such, the greatest nation on the globe, had miserably declined in power and place at the opening of the nineteenth century. Under the emperor Charles I it had been united with Germany, while its colonies embraced two thirds of the great continent of America. Under Philip II it continued powerful in Europe, but with his death its decay set in. Intolerance checked its growth in civilization, the gold brought from America was swept away by more enterprising states, its strength was sapped by a succession of feeble monarchs, and from first place it fell into a low rank among the nations of Europe. It still held its vast colonial area, but this proved a source of weakness rather than of strength, and the people of the colonies, exasperated by injustice and oppression, were ready for the general revolt which was soon to take place. Spain presented the aspect of a great nation ruined by its innate vices, impoverished by official venality and the decline of industry, and fallen into the dry rot of advancing decay.

Of the nations of Europe which had once played a prominent part, one was on the point of being swept from the map. The name of Poland, which formerly stood for a great power, now stands only for a great crime. The misrule of the kings, the turbulence of the nobility, and the enslavement of the people had brought that state into such a condition of decay that it lay like a rotten log amid the Powers of Europe.

The ambitious nations surrounding—Russia, Austria and Prussia—took advantage of its weakness, and in 1772 each of them seized the portion of Poland that bordered on its own territories. In the remainder of the kingdom the influence of Russia grew so great that the Russian ambassador at Warsaw became the real ruler in Poland. A struggle against Russia began in 1792, Kosciusko, a brave soldier who had fought under Washington hl America, being at the head of the patriots. But the weakness of the king tied the hands of the soldiers, the Polish patriots left their native land in despair, and in the following year Prussia and Russia made a further division of the state, Russia seizing a broad territory, 96,000 miles in area, with more than 3,000,000 inhabitants. Prussia received 22,500 square miles, with a population of 1,100,000.

In 1794 a new outbreak began. The patriots returned and a desperate struggle took place. But Poland was doomed. Suvaroff, the greatest of the Russian generals, swept the land with fire and sword. Kosciusko fell wounded, crying, "Poland's end has come," and Warsaw was taken and desolated by its assailants. The patriot was right; the end had come. What remained of Poland was divided up between Austria, Prussia and Russia, and only a name remained.

Russia and Turkey

There are two others of the Powers of Europe of which we must speak, Russia and Turkey. Until the seventeenth century Russia had been a domain of barbarians, weak and disunited, and for a long period the vassal of the savage Mongol conquerors of Asia. Under Peter the Great (16891725) it rose into power and prominence, took its place among civilized states, and began that career of conquest and expansion which is still going on. At the end of the eighteenth century it was under the rule of Catharine II, often miscalled Catharine the Great, who died in 1796, just as Napoleon was beginning his career. Her greatness lay in the ability of her generals, who defeated Turkey and conquered the Crimea, and who added the greater part of Poland to her empire. Her strength of mind and decision of character were not shared by her successor, Paul I, and Russia entered the nineteenth century under the weakest sovereign of the Romanoff line.

Turkey, once the terror of Europe, sending its armies into the heart of Austria, was now confined within the boundaries it had long before won, and had begun its long struggle for existence with its powerful neighbor, Russia. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was still a powerful state, with a wide domain in Europe, and continued to defy the Christians who coveted its territory and sought its overthrow. But the canker-worm of a weak and barbarous government was at its heart, while its cruel treatment of its Christian subjects exasperated the strong Powers of Europe and invited their armed interference.

As regards the world outside of Europe and America, no part of it had yet entered the circle of modern civilization. Africa was an almost unknown continent; Asia was little better known; and the islands of the Eastern seas were still in process of discovery. Japan, which was approaching its period of manumission from barbarism, was still closed to the world, and China lay like a huge and helpless bulk, fast in the fetters of conservatism and blind self-sufficiency.