A study Guide by Swansea University Historians


There are different ways in which we might view European co-operation in the period 1890-1939. We could examine political, economic, or cultural co-operation in this period to see the different ways in which people in Europe were being brought together in diverse and long-lasting ways. It is difficult to examine this period without thinking about the World Wars. The period prior to 1914 is usually as the precursor to the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918) which, on the face of it, seems to be a failing of European co-operation. However, the Great War ultimately led to greater European co-operation both in wartime and afterwards, as nations sought to avoid future conflicts. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 tends to overshadow how we view European co-operation in the 1920s and 1930s; in general, the 1920s were a period of great co-operation while the 1930s saw much of this undone. While the outbreak of war in 1939 might suggest the failure of European co-operation in the short term, there were many long term successes.

European co-operation in the late nineteenth century

The late nineteenth century saw a revolution in transport and communications which made the world seem smaller. Railways and steamships meant that travel across Europe (by train) or the world (by ship) was within the reach of many in the middle classes and allowed them to imagine that they were part of a larger world. The telephone and telegraph allowed people to communicate across vast distances that were previously impossible. The Paris World’s Fair of 1900 – a huge exhibition where countries from around the world could display their national cultures in a series of pavilions – attracted 50 million tourists in the six months that it was open. The World’s Fair was typical of the period where people increasingly came together to do business, to explore one another’s cultures, and to compete. The period was also notable for the emergence of modern phenomena such as the Olympic Games (1896), the Nobel Prizes (1901), and many other international cultural and associations which gave people a much greater familiarity with Europe and the wider world. Internationalism of this sort had a global reach but was primarily concentrated in Europe among the ‘Great Powers’ of Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.

Outbreak of the First World War

While the late nineteenth century saw the world become increasingly interconnected, it was also an era of growing national rivalries. National rivalries emerged from the desire of states to demonstrate their strength both internally and externally. Most obviously, the quest for overseas colonies was a forum where national rivalry emerged; by the turn of the 20th century, European states controlled vast swathes of Africa and Asia. The scramble for colonies increasingly brought European states into conflict with one another, such as the British and French at Fashoda in 1898 and the French and Germans in Morocco in 1905 and 1911. States also had other reasons for warlike dispositions: France sought revenge for its defeat to Germany in 1870; the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire (Austria-Hungary) was threatened by the rise of national consciousness among many of its subject peoples; Germany, unified in 1871, wished to assert itself on the international stage. In the decade before 1914, there was a growing sense that war between Europe’s great powers was a growing possibility. This was exacerbated by the expansion of standing armies and arms races between a number of European powers, notably the naval race between Britain and Germany (1898-1912).

In this context, alliances between many European powers emerged. Austria-Hungary and Germany had been allied since 1879. Italy joined this alliance (forming the ‘Triple Alliance’) in 1882. In 1894, Russia allied with France and in 1904 France and Britain allied. In 1907, these two alliances were brought together to form the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Britain. Traditionally, many historians have seen the emergence of alliances as being a dangerous step on the road to war, diving Europe into two competing and ultimately antagonistic blocs. However, alliances were also examples of cooperation and can be seen as defensive measures which helped maintain peace in Europe in the decade before 1914, which was marked by a series of crises. The alliances meant that any conflict between two Great Powers would bring in the others, making it a general, rather than a limited war. Before 1914, no nation wished to risk this. When they did, they assumed that the war would be relatively short, and not the four and a half year conflict that ultimately ensued.

However, a general war broke out in 1914. The war emerged from Austria-Hungary’s desire to deal firmly with Serb nationalist terrorists who were responsible for the murder of the heir to their throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. In what was known as the ‘July Crisis’, Germany decided to back Austria-Hungary’s action and Russia let it be known that it would defend Serbia, a fellow Slav nation. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914 and slowly the alliances kicked in, with Russia mobilizing, Germany declaring war on Russia and France, and ultimately Britain entering the fray on 4 August 1914 following the German invasion of Belgium.

Conduct of the First World War

The outbreak of the First World War seemed to put an end to European co-operation. The war was the most destructive in history to that point; over 9 million combatants were killed in the fighting, with 750,000 British, 1.4 million French, and 2 million German soldiers losing their lives. While many people traditionally associate the fighting with the Western Front (a line cutting across Belgium and northern France, stretching from the Channel to Switzerland), this was a global conflict. The Great Powers mobilized many of their colonial subjects from Africa and Asia in the fighting, and the fronts themselves encompassed western and eastern Europe, the Balkans, the modern day Middle East, and much beyond. It brought in states beyond those initially involved in the alliances, such as the Ottoman Empire in 1914 and the United States in 1917.

The First World War was a ‘total war’, meaning that it required that states mobilise the entirety of their national resources in order to fight it. Rather than just being fought by armies in the field, the war encompassed entire states: they needed to mobilize their economies, industry, and political life and gear it towards war production, such as the production of munitions. They also needed to mobilize their populations, to ensure that they could continually field armies in the face of a very high attrition rate.

While the war owed its origins to the failings of co-operation, it also saw the emergence of a new type of co-operation. Between 1914 and 1916, the war was primarily a war of nations; individual nations, although allied together, tended to organise and conduct their war effort and battlefield offensives as individuals states. However, as the war dragged on and placed greater demands on states, they began to cooperate more. At the Chantilly conference of December 1915, the allies planned a series of connected offensives designed to cumulatively weaken Germany and knock it out of the war. This would take the form of a major offensive Anglo-French offensive at the Somme river in the summer of 1916 combined with Russian and Italian offensives elsewhere during the year. These plans had to be scaled back after the Germans launched a major offensive at Verdun in February 1916 which occupied much of the French armies, meaning that the Somme has become known as a British battle rather than an allied one. Military cooperation continued thereafter, with the final offensives that won the war for the allies in the summer of 1918 being an example of integrated actions by British, French, American and Australian troops on the Western Front. An armistice was signed with Germany on 11 November 1918, formally ending the hostilities.

Post-war cooperation

The world did not return to the pre-war situation following the end of hostilities. An unprecedented World War, which saw the collapse of four empires (the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires) saw the creation of a new international body to manage international relations and prevent another global war. The League of Nations was the brainchild of the American president Woodrow Wilson and he oversaw its development at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. It would be a forum where nations could cooperate, in full public view, to resolve disputes via negotiation and arbitration. The League of Nations had its headquarters at Geneva in neutral Switzerland and its peak had over sixty members, with most European nations being members. While the League’s main goal was to prevent conflict between nations, it also did much valuable work in its time to limit the human slave trade, trafficking in drugs, international prostitution rings, improve working conditions, and to generally encourage better relations between states.

In the immediate post-war years there were three glaring omissions from the League. The United States refused to join, following the opposition of Republicans in the Senate. Following the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, the Soviet Union too, did not join. Most pertinently, Germany was forbidden from joining as it was deemed to have been the aggressor in the war. Germany’s isolation in the early 1920s compounded the severe terms of the Treaty of Versailles (1919), in which Germany had to pay huge reparations for war damage, disarm, and cede much territory to newly-formed states in central and eastern Europe. The latter point meant that many German speakers found themselves in the new states of Czechoslovakia and Poland. It was not until the Locarno Treaties of 1925 which were signed between France, Britain and Germany, that Germany was allowed to join the League (in 1926). The period between 1925 and 1933 marked the golden years of the League of Nations and European co-operation. With Germany in the fold, the prospects of lasting peace in Europe looked good. In 1928, the Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed in Paris, which outlawed war as a means of settling disputes, which was signed by 62 countries by 1929.

The Rise of Isolationism

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to the onset of the Great Depression. This marked the point at which European states began to lose faith in cooperation; instead, they retreated into isolationism. This manifested itself through the imposition of protective tariffs, with states preferring to go their own way than to cooperate with one another. The economic situation was worsened by the international situation, which demonstrated the limits of international cooperation. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, a province of China. China appealed to the League of Nations to intervene but it was powerless to prevent the aggression by the Japanese. This fatally undermined faith in the League. In 1935, Mussolini’s Italy invaded Abyssinia and the League was again shown to be powerless to stop it.

By this time, the situation had changed markedly. In 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party came to power in Germany. Hitler had won popularity by (among other things) strongly rejecting the Treaty of Versailles and promising to undo it. He saw the League of Nations as part of the inheritance of the Treaty of Versailles and, in 1933, withdrew Germany from it. Following the controversies in Manchuria and Abyssinia respectively, both Japan (1933) and Italy (1937) also withdrew from the League. Cooperation was being shown to have its limits as tensions began to rise in Europe.

Outbreak of the Second World War

The retreat to isolationism in Europe took place as Hitler’s Germany was actively undoing the post-war settlement. Germany began openly re-arming in 1935, remilitarised the Rhineland in 1936, and unified with Austria in 1938. All of these acts were in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler then demanded to transfer the German-speaking lands of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland) to Germany, and the French and British prime ministers agreed to this at the Munich Conference of September 1938. The policy of appeasement pursued by Britain and France in this period reflected the belief that a resolution could be found for Germany’s demands without going to war. It also reflected the widespread belief that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been too harsh. In August 1939, the USSR and Germany concluded a non-aggression pact; following this, the USSR was expelled from the League of Nations. International cooperation was more-or-less dead by that point. Germany’s continued belligerence could not be resisted indefinitely and, with the Nazi invasion Poland in September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, formally starting the Second World War. However, many lessons were learned from the failed efforts at cooperation in the inter-war years, such as the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and the beginnings of European integration in the decade following the end of the Second World War.