Pre War Europe, 1900-1914

When looking at society you need to consider the main factors, which are often intertwined and impact one another. When it comes to looking at society from a certain time period, you want to look at different types of evidence and media from the time, such as newspaper articles, artwork and even national output. This will help you create a picture of what society was like, but don’t forget, there are many people in society not necessarily represented in the media – such as women, the working class and people of colour.

Politics & Society

Absolutism Vs Liberalism

The 19th century is generally considered the ‘bourgeois century’, which saw the old feudal order and Ancien Régime diminish. Most societies had an absolutist authority, often headed by a hereditary monarch, at varying degrees of enlightenment. Every state had a government structure often with the executive with their ministers or confidants; and in all states there was some form of elected chamber, though with varying degrees of power. The legislatures in Britain and France had considerable power, whereby governments were formed from majority votes, and elections were regular. Governments could also be brought down by votes of no confidence, regardless of monarchy or executive.

Britain, France and Italy were among the principal powers that might be considered liberal, but the franchise was limited to men. The House of Lords in Britain remained unelected and comprised of stately and reputable men who provided a service to the state. In France, there was universal male suffrage and both the Chamber of Deputies and the upper house, the Senate, were elected. However, the Senate was chosen by locally appointed representatives and was dominated by rural interests. In Italy, there was a Chamber of Deputies elected on a franchise largely dependent on literacy – in 1912, the suffrage act extended it to all literate men over the age of 21 years and all men who had completed military service. The political parties were similar across Europe, but by no means the same, and despite having the same name, were not identical.

Political Parties

The differing parties highlight the fractures in society, the different demands and tensions. There were labour parties and movements to get greater representation of the working class, while there were Conservative parties wanting to maintain the status quo. Moreover, there were nationalist parties, like the Irish Nationalists in Britain and the Czechs for example. There were religious confessional parties, such as the Catholic Centre Party in Germany and the Christian Social Party in Austria. Meanwhile, some parties had clear links with economic groupings, such as the Prussian Conservatives who were tied in with the agricultural interest of the Prussian Junkers (landowners).

Growth and Consolidation of Empire

Empires were prominent at the start of the century, such as the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire, as well as recently unified nations of Italy and Germany. These citizens did not all have the same rights or entitlements, such as enfranchisement, which would result in tension. In Germany in 1871, the king of Prussia was proclaimed German emperor (Kaiser) and enjoyed considerable independence and power, regardless of the imperial parliament (Reichstag), particularly when it came to military matters.

Increasing State Intervention

As states and empires expanded, as to did state bureaucracy and measures of control, which were not always welcome. Governing bodies were becoming more and more involved in the everyday lives of their populations, understanding how they operated and to ensure the best for the national economy and development. This led to many political theorists and ideas surrounding how far a government can govern its people, and what they should do for them. There was greater research in public health, welfare and education, and some states began to help the young, old and infirm.

However, not all changes were readily welcomed, such as factory health and safety measures or education for children as it was feared this would affect economic output, like wages. Various political parties argued the best way to govern citizens. As more people became enfranchised, including those from various backgrounds, more had to be done to accommodate such citizens. As the state apparatus increased, this also increased the number of state agents and likewise provided work – the development of the service and domestic sector.

How far did the ruling elites control society? Look into some core positions in society and try to work out who worked these roles. Who worked as police officers? As teachers? As Members of Parliament? Try to gauge how important education, and income


Agricultural or Industrial?

The economies at the beginning of the 20th century were not solely agrarian or ‘backwards’ as believed, but many economies had industrialised or were industrialising. Secondary and tertiary sectors also developed during this time and contributed to the growing number of middle class. At the start of the century, there were efforts to compete and ‘catch-up’ such as in Russia and Germany, which attempted to ‘leapfrog’ the developments of France and Britain. Britain was in many ways an exception in European economic development, where it had adopted cash-cropping (i.e. agricultural production for the market ) in the 18th century. In contrast, in many other places in Europe, there was a mix of peasant farmers producing for their own foodstuffs for subsistence, some hired labourers in larger farms, or like in Russia, where peasants were permanently assigned to plots of land.

Foreign Investment & the Gold Standard

Despite Britain losing its ‘workshop of the world’ status to Germany and the USA at the beginning of the century, it maintained a strong presence in global finances. Britain became renowned for its insurance and banking services, helped by its merchant navy, which no power could compete. Britain also adopted the Gold Standard in 1821, the principal monetary unit of a country is kept at the value of a fixed weight of gold. In the 1870s and mid-1890s the Gold Standard became the international system of trade, with the London money market at its centre.

Foreign loans and investments were employed, like in Russia, to develop some industries, as well as reducing taxes or tariffs to encourage the domestic market. British overseas investment was mainly in the Americas and was directed at infrastructure such as railways, ports and harbours, and other public utilities. Meanwhile, French and German investments were mainly in Europe, with French investments heavily invested in Russian Bonds, and Germanys investment in Italy’s more successful regions. Foreign investment was one way to support allies and develop a mutual benefit.

Migration and Skilled Workforces

As sectors changed, migration also happened and thousands of rural workers moved to urban centres, some temporarily. For example, peasants from southern Italy migrated to Argentina and the USA. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a majority of the British population were living in urban areas, and as few as one fifth were engaged in agriculture. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany was the only other major power with a higher percentage of its labour force working in industry rather than in agriculture. However, although Germany’s population was bigger than that of Britain, its cities were generally smaller. Land was primarily owned by a few, wealthy individuals and generally a large percentage of landowners held small plots of land.

Europe’s increasing population was growing more reliant on American imports, as it proved cheaper, and agricultural wages increased in Europe. This caused for migration to the towns and cities, and encouraged agricultural work to become seasonal. German farmers recruited labour, often female, from Russian Poland and Austrian Galicia; French farmers turned to Belgium, Italy and Spain. Sometimes these workers shifted from agriculture to industry according to the season, including soldiers in Austria helping with harvest. There were also links to some manufacturing aspects that were outsourced to cheaper agricultural centres as before, like cloth merchants who would deposit to peasants and return later for the completed item.

Protectionism and Intervention

The free market was not left to it’s own devices, and after numerous depressions, there arose a combination of pressure or interest groups, cartels or government support to mitigate depressions that affected the population. Cartels were especially notable in the chemical, coal and iron industries, and they were particularly successful in Germany. Cartels were not limited to any one nation, or protected one nations interests, and they also operated internationally such as in the rail industry.

Growing Population and Skillset

Despite there being a shift in the 18th and 19th centuries towards industrialisation, it was not constant growth, and there were numerous depressions such as in the 1870s and 1880s. The growth of the population could not be easily sustained by domestic markets, and this caused migration and challenges in the job market.

You would however be mistaken to think that the working class people who worked in the coal and car industry were unskilled. These workers were highly skilled, and this kept some migrant workers out of this ‘world’. Not all large, industrial outputs could have unskilled labour, and cars which were the item of luxury, were built by artisans and were challenged by the Henry Ford model of operation. France was Europe’s premier car and lorry maker in 1914, but it had no mechanised production line and each worker built, on average, only 1.6 cars a year!

National homogeneity & Nationalism

Nationalism was a growing phenomenon in the 19th and 20th century, which is where one identifies with their nations and supports them, sometimes at the detriment of other nations or interests. At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was diverse, there were three types of nations before the outbreak of war:

  1. Long-established and recognised national identity between people and state, like that in Britain and France
  2. Recently unified nations that had a similar national identity between people and state, like Italy and Germany
  3. Multi-National Empires which different and sometimes conflicting interests, like Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

That is not to say all these nations functioned without demands from citizens, or importantly, minorities. In the United Kingdom, the Irish Nationalist movement challenged the monarchy and demand Home Rule, while the Finns were subject to a fierce ‘Russification’ policy. There were also the Pan-German and Pan-Slav movements that united nationalities and spanned across borders. The Flottenverein (German Naval League) and British Navy League were examples of nationalist pressure groups to influence politics and parties. Much pre-war national identity was underpinned by religious affiliation, such as Russia’s orthodox religion, Polish Catholicism and Finnish Lutheranism. Religion could also cause division and suspicion, such as with the Jews, who were subject to discrimination and attacks, as shown in the Russian pogroms. Moreover, religion and nationalism was employed in political party ideology also.

Importantly, it was not people led movements that led to the unification of Italy or Germany, rather it was military intervention and successes. In order to get support however, leaders of nations had to create a common identity to unite citizens.

To look at the demographics of a nation, and how it has changed overtime, try to source a nations census data. Note, record keeping was not always the case, and that some figures may be altered to fit a narrative. Nevertheless, census data will enable you to make informed decisions about the composition of nations, such as the majority and minority ethnicities, the gender divide and more. War would have a large impact on the age and gender of citizens.


Religion played a prominent role in society before the war, though it was varied across the continent. In some states the Church supported the monarchy and regime, though in Poland and Ireland, it formed part of an ethnic group and national identity. The Church also played a prominent role in society, especially the Ancien Régime. The Church had many rooted interests in the monarchy, nobility and senior members of society, while it derived its revenue from the land. Religion would prove to be useful in the later 20th century when it came to movements and independence. Those in the religious orders were often relied upon for education, charity and welfare for citizens at the beginning of the century, but this diminished overtime as the government became greatly involved in citizens lives.

By the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century, although religion had a prominent role in society, its hold over the working class waned. In Spain and Italy, many urban workers ignored the Catholic Church as it was seen to uphold the status quo. In Russia, The Tsar believed their position was absolute and sanctioned by God, and that there was little intention to dilute power to citizens.


Although women were expected to stay private and work in the domestic sphere, many female working class and peasants worked and contributed to society. There were demands for women’s suffrage and greater representation, but it was making very slow progress. Before the First World War, only a handful of nations in the world had enfranchised women, such as New Zealand. The Suffragette Movement in Britain was picking up pace, but on the outbreak of the First World War, the demands for women’s suffrage declined to get behind the national effort – that is not to say all women supported war however.

Progress or Decline?

At the start of the century, many nations thought they were in competition with one another, but also superior to other nations. The concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘natural selection’ began to create quasi-scientific, pseudo-philosophical ideas. Although there was optimism with growth and progress, there was also anxiety on decline and degeneration, of society falling and failing.

Sexual scandals and revelations were one aspect of ‘degeneration’, and this was associated with homosexuality and female emancipation. Theorists believed that certain aspects of sexuality should be criminalised, like homosexuality, and others discouraged – like pregnancy before marriage and divorce. There were numerous debates on ‘nature Vs nurture’ in criminality, and whether people are born criminals or whether their circumstances makes them criminals – where it was often regarded criminals breed criminals. This belief justified some states and nations when they sterilised certain offenders.

Eugenics was another prominent theory, which is where governing authorities attempt to reproduce ‘desirable’ characteristics, and breed out ‘undesirable’ characteristics from the population. Although few adopted eugenic policies, many opted for social engineering and policies to improve livelihoods, like pensions and insurance schemes. This did not come without disagreement, such as in Britain which historically valued self-help and independence.

Other interesting developments were platforms for international agreements and peace talks, such as the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907, and Nobel Peace Prize conceived in 1901. Alongside greater partnerships on international criminals and terrorist organisations, there was growing international collaboration – which arguably is a sign of progress. Even if ministers or rulers did not agree or want peace or international commerce, these conferences and rewards promoted links between nations.

Think about what parts of society changed and what remained the same, continuity. The ability to evaluate society and measure what has changed and by how much is an important and high-level skill. Also look at society today and see how much is has changed or not at all, you’ll be fascinated by this activity. Lastly, see if you can find the foundations for the ‘modern’ state, and how governments became more or less interventionalist in their citizens lives.

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