By the end of the nineteenth century, faith in reason, progress, and science was being subverted by a new modernity about the physical universe, the human mind, and in the arts. The anxieties about old certainties were seemingly confirmed by the Great War, which began in 1914.
The Newtonian mechanistic universe was challenged by the discovery of radiation and the randomness of subatomic particles. Max Planck said that energy is radiated in packets, or quanta. Albert Einstein claimed that time and space were relative to the observer, and that matter was a form of energy (E = mc2.). Friedrich Nietzsche lauded the instinctive irrational and blamed Christianity for its “slave morality”; Supermen would transcend mass democracy and equality. Henri Bergson said that reality was a “life force” and Georges Sorel favored violence and the general strike. Sigmund Freud argued that human behavior was governed by the unconscious, that childhood memories were repressed, and that the mind was a battleground between the pleasure-seeking id, the reason of the ego, and the conscience of the superego.
Social Darwinists, arguing that society was also a survival of the fittest, justified laissez-faire government, but it was also used by nationalists and racists as a justification for war and inequality. Science challenged religion, but fundamentalists put their faith in the literal Bible and Pope Pius IX condemned liberalism and socialism. But others favored social reform based upon religious principles and Pope Leo XIII criticized both Marxism and capitalism.
In literature, Naturalism exhibited a mechanistic attitude toward human freedom. Symbolists denied objective reality; it was only symbols in the mind. Art Impressionism stressed the changing effects of light in the paintings of Claude Monet. In Post-impressionism, Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh emphasized light but also structure in portraying subjective reality (photography mirrored objective reality). Pablo Picasso’s Cubism reconstructed subjects according to geometric forms and Vasily Kandinsky’s Abstract Expressionism abandoned representational images. In music, mood was stressed in the works of Claude Debussy, and the musical dissonances of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot at its Paris debut.
Many women demanded equal rights, including political equality; British suffragettes broke windows and went on hunger strikes to gain attention. Anti-Semitism revived. In France, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned on trumped-up, and there were anti-Semitic political parties in Germany and Austria. In Russia, pogroms led many Jews to emigrate. Theodor Herzl claimed that Jews should have their own state in Palestine. British Liberals enacted social welfare legislation. Germany’s Social Democratic Party was opposed by the emperor and right-wing parties. In Russia, socialists turned to revolution; after the 1905 Revolution, Nicholas II accepted a weak Duma. By 1900, the United States was the world’s leading industrial nation.
National rivalry, Social Darwinism, religious and humanitarian concerns, and economic demands of raw materials and overseas markets contributed to the New Imperialism. By 1914, Africa had been colonized. Britain occupied Australia and New Zealand and took over India from the East India Company. France colonized Indochina and Russia expanded to the Pacific. China was unable to resist Western pressures, and Japan was forced to open its borders, but modernized by borrowing from the West. An imperial United States emerged after 1898.
After the unification of Germany, Bismarck formed the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary. Russia turned to France, and Britain, fearing Germany’s ambitions, joined them in the Triple Entente. Austrian annexations in the Balkans were resented by Serbia. With Germany backing Austria and Russia supporting Serbia, a spark could set off a conflagration.