“If this war breaks out, then its duration and its end will be unforeseeable. Woe to him who sets Europe alight” – Helmuth von Moltke (1890)
Part I of this volume on the modern period in the Cambridge History of War opens with the massive conflicts that erupted in the United States, China, and Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century, including the American Civil War, the Taiping Rebellion in China, the Indian Rebellion, and the wars of German unification. They did not form part of a single world war, nor even of a generalized global crisis. They shared some common origins, including population growth, the spread of new ideologies such as nationalism, and a deepening agricultural crisis, and suggest that to speak of a long nineteenth century is myopic. They did form a rupture, which speeded up four key processes, namely industrialization, the disintegration of traditional empires outside Europe, nationalism, and the rise of the bureaucratic nation-state in Europe and Japan that enabled the total war of World War I.
During this period, newly confident European elites believed that they were forging a path toward “Civilization,” which would be marked by more inclusive polities, rapid technological and scientific change, a public realm in which people argued rationally and behaved respectfully, and efficient bureaucracies that worked for the common good. The march toward progress promised the end of corruption, unfair privilege, disease, poverty, disorder, and superstition, as well as the barbarous warfare of the past. In reality, the institutions, societies, and cultures that were created in pursuit of this illusion provided the mechanisms, loyalties, and institutions that made total war possible, even if they were not designed for this purpose.