chapter  2
84 Pages

Democracies, the First World War and the Peace of Versailles

Europe: democracies versus autocracies e widely held perception of a disconnection between political regimes and causes of the First World War is a remarkable fact. For a long time historians and political scientists explained the origins of the First World War on the basis of a mixture of rivaling nationalisms, imperialist expansion and military alliances in Europe that went out of control. is is in marked contrast with the Second World War, which has always been explained as an ideological war between free democracies and totalitarian Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. However, the more recent historical books on the First World War start to make the connection between the three authoritarian political regimes which started the First World War (Tsarist Russia, Imperial Germany and the AustroHungarian Empire) and their unstoppable process of armaments and military planning leading to a European-wide war of aggression. Some writers, such as Frederick Calhoun, explain the First World War as ‘… an ideological struggle between democracy and autocracy’. And the United States, when it entered the war, was not alone in the ideological struggle; the struggle itself went beyond national boundaries because it represented a battle of ideas and forms of government1. e monarchies of North-Western Europe2 had succeeded in becoming a constitutional and representative government at round 1850: Belgium was the rst country to get a liberal constitution in 1831 only one year aer its independence; Denmark by the constitution of 1849; Sweden by the reform of the Diet in 1851; Switzerland transformed itself into a federal state making a balance between the freedoms of the cantons and the central

government; France had a democratic-liberal reform by the July Monarchy (1830-1848); the Netherlands had adopted a constitutional reform and had introduced a parliamentary regime in 1848. But Tsarist Russia, Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire remained autocratic monarchies with a warrior-aristocratic ruling class of the past. ese three imperial empires resisted and oppressed any political movement towards individual freedoms, democracy and eective parliamentary control. Moreover, the three empires rivaled for European continental power politics. Austria had not supported the Russian military campaign during the Crimean War (1853-1856), whereupon Russia refused to support Austria against the French-supported Italian state of Piemont in 1859. Prussia began to challenge Austria for supremacy in the German confederation and Prussian Prince Otto von Bismarck provoked Austria in the ‘Seven Weeks’ War’ of 1866. Austria lost and was expelled from the confederation. But the three European continental empires’ eective domestic anti-democratic policy combined with aggressive external policy also became their downfall. e three empires would collapse at the end of the First World War and herald a new European constellation that was, however, not more democratic.