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The Age of Imperialism

From the mid-point of the 19th century until World War I began in 1914, a distinct international situation developed that permitted Europe (and to a lesser extent, the United States) to dominate world affairs.  The ‘Western world’ expanded its influence across the globe through the use of advanced technology, slave labor, and control of an abundance of natural resources.

Among the Western European powers and the United States, common trends developed which enabled these nations to dictate world affairs and increase their international standing.

One of the most significant changes of the 19th century was a rapid industrialization of society.  Machines began to do the work that had traditionally been done by hand, allowing for increased production and efficiency.

Consider this:  In what ways would industrialization harm a society?  Can you identify recent examples of industrialization in modern America that have been helpful/hurtful?  
Nationalism represented another commonality among nations in the 19th century.  This concept is an extreme sense of pride in one’s country.  Nations in the 19th century believed in their own superiority when compared to others, and sought to prove as much in terms of military might, technological development, and expansion of borders.

What possible problems could result from nationalism?

Finally, European nations became engrossed in the imperialization to fuel their quest for superiority.  The notion of imperalization stems from nations who attempted to claim an empire through the exploitation and colonization of weaker, technologically backward nations.  

Colonial possessions in Africa

Several reasons exist for the exploitation of weaker nations:

  • Industrializing nations needed access to raw materials, which were easier to take rather than purchase
  • Europeans used the indigenous peoples of Africa and Asia as slave labor
  • Europeans also used these nations as marketplaces for finished goods 
  • Europeans sought to spread the Christian faith for the salvation of souls
  • Europeans also believed they had a duty to ‘civilize’ the nations they considered ‘backwards.’  They attempted to educate the natives of lands they colonized and attempted to provide them more modern technology and infrastructure (thought most of this was done when beneficial and expedient to the stronger nation).

Consider this:  How is the exploitation of the 19th century similar or different than the exploitation of the 21st century?  Can nations justify colonizing another land?


We want to consider each of the major world players in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Each had a distinct role to play in world affairs leading up to World War I, and Germany was no exception.  

In 1850, Germany did not exist as a unified nation.  Instead, the central area of Europe existed as fragmented kingdoms since the fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.  Though these fragmented kingdoms shared many cultural features, they were politically divided and the other powers of Europe (particularly France) sought to keep these German kingdoms from uniting.

One of the kingdoms of the era, Prussia, sought to unify these German kingdoms together under the leadership of King Wilhelm I and his Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.  Though Wilhelm I ruled as a monarch, Bismarck’s position and leadership helped to create the modern German nation.  

Bismarck distinguished himself and advanced his causes through what later became known as ‘realpolitik‘, which emphasizes practical decision making rather than acting out of moral, ethical, or legal reasons.  On a simpler level, a person engaging in realpolitik would steal food if they were starving because it’s the practical thing to do.  They would not care about morality or laws because their survival is more important.  

Otto von Bismarck

To achieve the goal of uniting the German kingdoms into one nation, Bismarck provoked a series of wars so that Prussia could claim land and territory through war.  He was aware that France would never willingly go along with the idea of German unification, so he prodded them into a war.  

After the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Wilhelm I declared himself the ‘Kaiser’ of the newly unified nation of Germany.   This victory over France not only cleared the way for German unification but provided the new Germany with the key territories of Alsace and Lorraine.  For France, the war was a bitter defeat they would not forget.

Under the leadership of Wilhelm I and Bismarck, Germany became one of the more dominant powers in the world.  Bismarck shunned the notion of imperialism, believing that Germany would be better served by focusing on becoming a dominant power on the European continent.   

After the death of Wilhelm I, his grandson, Wilhelm II, became kaiser, which distinctly altered the nation’s policies.  Wilhelm II was only 29 when he took charge of Germany and sought to distinguish himself from leaders of the past.  To achieve this end, Wilhelm II wanted to alter the policies of Bismarck and his grandfather.  Before embarking on a mission of change, Wilhelm II forced Bismarck into retirement, due to fear that he would be an obstacle to the kaiser’s plans. 

In 1897, Wilhelm II announced that Germany would reverse its position on empire building and seek a “place in the sun.”  The kaiser wanted to challenge Great Britain for European dominance and began to aggressively build its military, particularly the navy.  Germany seized ports in China and organized a relationship with the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.  These moves alarmed France and Great Britain, who had previously dominanted the colonization of these regions.

Consider this:  How did Germany’s change in world policy affect the relationship between France and Great Britain?

France positioned itself to be a great power in the 19th century but experienced numerous problems which prevented them from achieving a preeminent place in the world.  The nation experienced a degree of political corruption after it abolished the monarchy and established a republican form of government.  

The political situation for France was threatened by the growth of Germany.  France had become embittered by its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which frustrated the nation because of territorial loss and international prestige (a significant factor in an era where nationalism was so prominent).  

Despite a concern about German power on the European continent, France devoted themselves to colonization in Africa and Indochina (modern day Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam).  By 1914, the French Empire was second only to that of Great Britain.  

Consider this:  Why would it be a poor choice for France to colonize considering their problems in Europe?

Though France experienced a fair amount of political turmoil, the latter part of the 19th century brought about considerable positive change in the arts and sciences.  From 1871-1914 was termed “La Belle Époque,” or the Beautiful Period, because of the tremendous positive contributions to society and culture.

 During this time, the likes of Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur advanced their respective fields in science.   French inventors tinkered with concepts such as flight, motion picture design, communications, electric lighting, and internal imaging.  

Artists of the era embraced a movement known as Impressionism, which emphasized art in small, thin, somewhat blurred brush strokes to create an ‘impression,’ rather than a precise lifelike picture or painting.  Some of the more well-known artists of the time include Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas.

Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol”

These advances culminated at the World’s Fair being held in 1889 in the city of Paris, where Gustav Eiffel unveiled the architectural masterpiece of the Eiffel Tower.

While France and Germany competed for dominance on the European continent, modern Italy was attempting (unsuccessfully) to keep pace.  Like Germany, Italy was a set of fragmented states which shared common culture, but were politically divided.  Under the leadership of King Victor Emmanuel II and Prime Minister Count Camillo Cavour, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia provoked a series of wars to unify the Italian Peninsula.  By 1861, Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy and Cavour was kept as the prime minister.

Though Italy had been created as a unified nation, it experienced several problems that Germany had successfully avoided.  The wars that forced unification caused increbile damage and sparked smaller conflicts within the nation, even after Italy had been formed.  The result was a nation that needed time to rebuild and become more unified other than through political means.  

The moves towards consolidation and unification by Germany and Italy alarmed other European powers, including the moderate powers of Austria and Hungary.  To compete with other European nations, these nations merged in 1867 to form Austria-Hungary, a very unique type of nation.  

Austria-Hungary operated under a ‘dual-kingdom,’ where Austria and Hungary were able to create distinct laws that differed from one another.  They shared a common currency, a combined military, and tax revenues were split between the two states.  Aside from these main commonalities, Austria and Hungary remained fairly independent.

If these two nations wanted to retain so much autonomy, then why did they merge?  Austria and Hungary both had experienced significant decline in power and prestige among European nations.  By the 1860s, Austria had lost wars to Germany and Italy and Hungary had been relegated to a second rate power.  The two nations had little choice but to combine if they hoped to remain relevant.  

The Austro-Hungary Empire existed as a fairly unique nation, as it was considered one of the most diverse in the world.  People living within the empire came from multiple racial backgrounds, religious practices, and spoke a variety of languages.  The cities of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest were home to many great artists, composers, and scientists.   

Consider this:  How might the vast diversity of Austria-Hungary be a problem for the nation?

The combined power of the two nations also permitted a fair amount of economic growth, through industrialization and food production on farms.  Though not as powerful as the like of Germany or Great Britain, Austria-Hungary still maintained a presence in Europe.

Austria-Hungary’s ruler, Emperor Franz Josef I, controlled foreign policies of the empire and served as a unifying force for all people.  Franz Josef spoke multiple languages and respected the diversity in the empire, though himself was distinctly German and had hoped that Austria could have been the nation to unify German people together (and not Prussia).  Additionally, people within the empire were sympathetic to the old emperor, who suffered numerous personal losses of family and friends under his rule.  (Franz Josef also survived an assassination attempt prior to unification of Austria and Hungary.)

By 1914, Austria-Hungary succeeded in developing a modern nation, but lagged behind the other powers.  Inner turmoil eroded the nation and problems leading to World War I would end the nation’s ambitions to become a great empire again.

Though several nations in Europe successfully underwent industrialization, they all were attempting to keep pace with Great Britain, who enjoyed a status as the most powerful nation in the world.  From the mid-19th century through World War I, the British Empire experienced success to the point where many historians believe this to be the ‘Golden Era’ of Great Britain.  Part of the reason for such a high degree of success came from the stable leadership of Queen Victoria, who reigned as monarch from 1837 until her death in 1901.  

Under the queen’s reign, industrial production exploded, creating a middle class of citizens capable of earning a living wage in factories without a high level of education.  Population levels increased and this time period was largely without any major wars.  Infrastructure changes, such as viable water and sewer systems and electric lighting, were implemented, increasing the quality of life.  Moreover, a wave of morality ended practices such as child labor and held disdain for such vices as prostitution.

The advances in technology permitted Great Britain to develop a military that exceeded the abilities of other nations, particularly with respect to naval warfare.  British policies needed a strong naval presence due to the fact they held more colonies than any other nation in the world.  The British navy was tasked with protection of trade routes, resource transportation, and movement of military personnel to these colonies.  The British upped the naval arms race between themselves and Germany when they introduced a revolutionary type of warship — the HMS Dreadnought.  This new type of battleship combined large, heavy guns with new steam turbine engines to create a powerful and speedy ship that was soon copied by all other nations. 

Great Britain held numerous colonies, but were mostly concentrated in Africa.  However, its one possession of note outside of Africa was India, often referred to as the Jewel in the Crown of the Empire.  This particular colony was of particular value because of the sheer volume of resources held there.  Great Britain’s lack of land meant their colonial possessions were needed to maintain a steady supply of resources and food.    

Typically, the British dictated its policy to colonies through ‘indirect rule,’ where the British would install local leaders to rule for them, protecting those leaders as long as they carried out the orders from the crown.  By 1913, the British Empire ruled over 23% of the world’s population and controlled approximately 24% of land area on the planet. 

Today, Great Britain’s legacy is still felt despite colonies having gained their independence decades ago.  Many of these former colonies use British traditions in their legal, cultural, and political customs, along with the adoption of the English language.  Their impact also also brought about problems in the relationships they currently hold with African and Asian nations, whom they exploited for decades. 


While European nations led the world in terms of technological and political power, Asian nations lagged behind and no nation seemed more backward than Japan.  By the mid-19th century, while other nations were in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, Japan was operating in a feudalistic society that had been in place for centuries.  Japan had an emperor, who was considered to be half-man and half-god, but most of the real power rested with an official known as the shogun.  This particular official was responsible for maintaining control of territorial lords known as ‘daimyo.’  These warlords used samurai warriors to maintain law and order in their various regions.  

Traditionally, Japan isolated itself from outside influence, but this practice was forcefully ended when American warships arrived in Japan in 1853.  Commodore Matthew Perry intimidated the Japanese into unfair trade deals under the threat of war.  The Japanese became painfully aware that they lacked the ability to defend themselves from Western nations.  As such, Japan opted to modernize their nation to become as powerful as Western nations.

To effectively modernize, power was placed into a central government led by the emperor.  This change started an era of modernization for Japan known as the Meiji Restoration (named for the emperor Meiji).  Having a powerful emperor was significant because it was a strong symbol of unity for a nation that was accustomed to being led by regional daimyo.  

The emperor Meiji drastically altered everything about Japanese culture to ‘Westernize’ his nation.  Western clothing was adopted, samurai were phased out, the calendar system changed, and holidays were adjusted to adapt with the rest of the modern world.  Also, Japan sent out observers to Europe and the United States to learn how to create a modern military, banking system, and government structure.  

By 1900, Japan had a European style government, had started an ambitious military, created a modern market-based economy, and dramatically increased foreign trade.  The small island nation had radically transformed from an agrarian based society to a modern nation in only half a century.  

Though Japan had radically leaped forward in all phases of development, their growth seemed limited by serious geographic problems.  Japan is comprised of four main islands with little land area.  Matters are worsened by the fact that the land lacks important natural resources and is covered mostly by mountains, which left very little farmable land.  To continue to develop, Japan would need to expand its borders through colonization.

The natural move for Japan for expansion was westward onto mainland Asia.  China and Korea seemed ideal targets for colonization, but Japan’s efforts came into conflict with Russia, who also wished to colonize those areas.  The two nations inevitably fought over colonial possessions in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).  Japan’s navy surprisingly wiped out a Russian fleet and forced a quick surrender.  The resulting Japanese victory shocked the world, as it was the first time an Asian nation defeated a European power.  The victory also demonstrated to colonies that it was possible to effectively resist imperial powers.  

By 1914, Japan cemented itself as the most serious power in Asia and rivaled the United States for control of the Pacific region.  However, European nations and the United States still regarded the Japanese as racially inferior and not on the same playing field.  This sentiment did not go unnoticed by the Japanese.

Japan effectively avoided colonization by becoming like the colonial powers.  The same was not true for neighboring China, which broke down under pressure from outside influences and inner turmoil.  Until 1912, China lived under the rule of family dynasties for thousands of years.  During the latter part of the 19th century, the Empress Cixi attempted to reform and modernize, but the nation had already been infiltrated by Western nations, who exploited the resources of China.  

Problems for Cixi and China worsened in 1899, when angry Chinese acted violently against Westerners.  The Boxer Rebellion, as it was known, was perpetrated by a group known as the Sons of the Harmonious Fist, martial arts warriors who believed they were invulnerable to the weapons of foreigners.  When Westerners were attacked, their nations formed a combined army to stop the revolt.  

China lacked the ability to effectively stop Western nations from carving out ‘spheres of influence,’ which amounted to what Americans called the Open Door Policy.  This represented an agreement that all colonial powers would have access to China, and no one nation would demand it as a territorial possession.

In 1911, a revolution ended the dynasty control of China and an attempt at a democratic government was started by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, a popular figure who sought to modernize his people but rid them of the imperial powers who exploited them.  After Sun’s death in 1916, the attempts at government reform failed and though China technically had a government, the nation was ruled by regional warlords until World War II.

Consider this:  How do the histories of China and Japan compare with respect to dealing with Western nations?

North America

Outside of Europe and Asia, the United States of America made serious strides in forging an empire of their own.  While Europe was in the midst of a wave of nationalism and unification in the mid-19th century, the United States struggled through their Civil War and Reconstruction period. 

The United States took a slower pace to create an ’empire,’ for seemingly two main reasons.  First, the nation was still attempting to recover from the Civil War and generate a renewed sense of unity.  Second, the United States had yet to fulfill the ‘manifest destiny‘ concept that had been articulated decades prior.  Before America could expand further, they needed to organize and populate already existing territories.  

In the latter part of the 19th century, the United States entered into a period known as The Gilded Age, where rapid industrialization occurred, permitting factories and large corporations to profit enormously.  However, the large scale mechanization of the nation came with a cost.  Serious social problems existed beneath the veneer of a successful nation.  The large scale profits accumulated by big businesses were not shared with factory workers.  

Historians debate the contributions of wealthy business owners who were often given the moniker of ‘robber barons.’  Though criticized for the unsafe working conditions of their factories, forms of compensation, and anti-labor activities, the large corporations helped to exponentially boost economic output of the United States from 1850-1900.  Agricultural, coal, oil, and railroad industries benefitted tremendously and certain business owners became household names.

John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were two of these individuals whom the public both revered and despised.  Rockefeller’s Standard Oil controlled virtually all oil refineries in the United States and Carnegie Steel cemented Pittsburgh’s status as the ‘Steel City.’  Though wildly successful, these businesses were not without controversy.  

Standard Oil was the subject of a series of articles written by Ida Tarbell, a journalist who sought to expose the working conditions of refineries controlled by Rockefeller.  Carnegie Steel received numerous criticisms over its handling of the Homestead Strike in 1892, where approximately a dozen individuals lost their lives to violence associated with the work stoppage.  

Despite these incidents, both Rockefeller and Carnegie gave away millions of dollars to charities and other various organizations to improve society.  Carnegie was the benefactor for many public libraries, schools, and scientific research projects.  He sold his steel company for an astounding $480 million and spent the last decade of his life devoted to philanthropy.  

Near the end of the 19th century, the United States had sufficiently organized its existing territory and searched for ways to utilize the enormous financial resources they had gathered.  They sought to colonize and exploit, just as European nations were doing.

The first major opportunity for expansion came at the expense of an aging European power.  The United States was fairly skeptical of Spain’s control of Cuba (which lies a scant 90 miles off the coast of Florida).  The Spanish brutually occupied Cuba and America not only opposed this on humanitarian grounds, but regarded European presence in the Western Hemisphere as an affront to American interests in the region.  

On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine docked in Havana, Cuba and mysteriously exploded, killing 260 American sailors.  Most Americans presumed the incident was perpetrated by the Spanish and demanded war.  (Later, it was discovered that the cause of the explosion on the Maine was accidental.)  When Spain proclaimed its innocence and refused to relinquish control of Cuba, the United States declared war.  

The Spanish-American War did not last long.  The American naval forces quickly destroyed a Spanish fleet sent to protect its Caribbean possessions and a garrison in the Philippine Islands, while Cuba and Puerto Rico were freed by ground forces.  The war officially ended in December of 1898, forcing Spain to give the United States control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and granting Cuba its independence.  

While fighting the Spanish, the United States also seized the island of Hawai’i, forcing its inhabits into a slowing expanding empire.  The islands of Hawai’i provided the mainland United States with sugarcane and other exotic fruits, while proving to be a valuable asset in terms of military strategy.  The location of the islands in the mid-Pacific Ocean made for an ideal spot for an American naval base.  The annexation of Hawai’i also denied access to Japan, who wished to strengthen their position in the Pacific region.

From 1900-1914, the United States continued to expand its presence, but not in the political sense.  America did not overly colonize in Central and South America, but they did use financial and economic means to control nations in these regions.  American presidents during these years, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, engaged in ‘Dollar Diplomacy’ when dealing with Latin America.  

Dollar Diplomacy consisted of American investment and loans to Latin American nations, which, according to its advocates, would benefit the United States and its neighbors to the south.  The lesser developed nations in Latin America would receive economic assistance to help modernize and the United States would benefit financially in the long run with  repayment of loans and open trade.  The reality of dollar diplomacy was an exploitive relationship where the United States used an indirect form of colonization to undermine Latin American nations and achieve its own goals of acquiring natural resources and exerting authority.

Theodore Roosevelt sought to eliminate European influence in the Western Hemisphere through a statement known as the Roosevelt Corollarly to the Monroe Doctrine.  This was a statement in his speech that noted:

Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.

In essence, Roosevelt declared that if any nation must intervene in cases of wrongdoing in the Western Hemisphere would be handled the by the United States.  European nations should consider this side of the globe closed for colonization.  This principle coincided with Roosevelt’s foreign policy motto of “Spreak softly and carry a big stick.”  The notion of using ‘international police power’ occurred quite often, as the United States frequently meddled in the affairs of Latin American nations.  

The Nation without a Home

One other nation that merits attention is the nation who persisted despite having no homeland.  The Jewish people from ancient Israel played a critical part in the history of the 20th century world and their unique situation still places them at the forefront of international affairs even today.  

The Jews once ruled ancient Israel in the Middle East.  That rule ended through a series of occupations, culminating in Roman control of the area.  In 70 AD, a Jewish revolt was violently put down by Roman legions, which nearly wiped out the Jewish population.  Roman governmental authorities ultimately sought the expulsion of all Jewish remnants, which spread to the Arabian Peninsula and eventually, to Europe.  

For centuries, Jews settled in various parts of Europe, yet faced persecution and contempt in many places.  Many unfair stereotypes and accusations have been levied against the Jews, which propagated an intense hatred.  The rise of Christianity produced the notion that Jews were ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus Christ.  Also, an inexplicably large amount of ‘scientific’ literature of the 19th century attempted to place Jews at the bottom of a racial hierarchy.  

Jews responded to increased persecution with the advent of the Zionist Movement, which called for Jews to return to their ancient homeland to reclaim what they believed God promised to them.  Theodore Herzl founded the Zionist Movement in the 1890s, and he hoped this would inspire the Jews to create a modern state with worldwide recognition.  Herzl also encouraged Jews to migrate to their traditional homeland, then known as Palestine (part of the greater Ottoman Empire).

The sudden influx of Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the early 20th century caused friction with the Arabs who had lived in the region for generations.  These Palestinian-Arabs felt threatened by waves of immigrants who truly believed the land was their own.  This set the stage for a conflict that has yet to be resolved.

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