Account for the rise and fall of the Great powers in the 20th Century

At the start of the 20th Century, the great powers were Germany, France, Britain, Austria-Hungary, Italy, the USA and Japan. This was to change dramatically over the course of the century as some powers increased in their importance and others were to disappear altogether. Germany had only recently been unified before the Great War in 1871 but was already a strong economic influence in the global market at the time. This had previously been Britain’s role as it controlled many trade routes across the world to its colonies and had enjoyed a monopoly on free trade with the colonies because it was the first country to industrialise.

With so many trade routes to protect, it also had built up the most powerful navy in the world. Both of these attributes were soon matched by the growing Germany, who had been able to improve industrial processes already present in Britain and therefore benefit from industrialising later. Germany did not share Britain’s free trade policies, which had only been successful for Britain as long as there had been no competition. Germany was therefore able to outcompete British trade by using cartels and a system of protectionism along with improved technologies.

The German navy was also expanded to rival Britain’s, which was seen as a threat by the British and lead to an arms race between the two nations. Because of Germany’s geographical situation in Europe, its expansion would threaten other powers. There was also a history of colonial rivalry between Britain and Germany, where Britain felt that Germany was trespassing on its colonial interests in Africa, which was proved by the German interference in the Boer War. Britain had claim to a vast empire, upon which it was said that the sun never set.

It had gained the use of many resources from these colonies and had used them to increase the market for British goods, guard precious trade routes and control the trade of their goods for its own gains. The empire was starting to cost Britain more to maintain and defend than it was providing. By the end of the century, this mighty colonial power would lose its great empire, much of its international influence and economic power. The other traditional power in Europe, France, had experienced internal political power struggles and its empire was, like that of Britain was also declining.

It was militarily weaker than Britain, and was soon unable to match Germany’s growing military strength. It had a small population in comparison with Britain and Germany and it was also industrially weaker. France’s army and Navy were suitably large in order to defend France’s large land borders and coastline but it had been proven by Germany that they lacked the organisation of the German and British military. By 1914, the USA was already the largest industrial economy in the world but was not yet totally economically dominant.

It had a comparatively small army in 1914 with those of the European powers but because of its ability to mobilise its already vast wealth and people, it soon caught up by when it entered the war in 1917. Its share of international trade was smaller than that of Britain in 1913 but its economic influence was greater. It was a Great Power but was not involved in the Great Power system because of the separation of powers between Congress and the President that made it difficult to maintain active alliances but also the general reluctance to abandon the successful policy of isolation.

Like Germany, Italy had only just been unified and its population was close in size to that of France in 1914. It was much less industrialised than other nations and its regional divisions meant that it was hard to recruit for a national army. It had a reasonably large army for the time but this was under funded and was unable to afford modern weapons or to mobilise quickly because of Italy’s bad rail infrastructure. Its navy was weak and only too aware that it would be quite unable to defend Italy’s large coastline.

Italy disliked Austria-Hungary and felt that Germany was becoming too antagonistic to ally with so it shifted to ally with Britain and France. Japan had been isolated from the rest of the world as its people were inward-looking and resistant to foreign influences and had an agriculturally based economy before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The county underwent vast modernisation in all sectors in order to avoid control and colonisation by the West as it had seen happen in China. Its most significant changes were to its army and navy, which it based on those of Prussia and Britain respectively.

After a brief conflict with Russia over incompatible interests in Korea and Manchuria which it won, it proved its status as a superpower to the West. Austria-Hungary was undoubtedly the weakest of the European powers due to its lower level of industrialisation. Its population however, was greater than those of France and Britain and had a large amount of people it could call up for military action. Its army had such a small budget that it had out of date or too few weapons and it could not afford to call up enough conscripts.

Its slow economic growth, internal divisions and complicated relations with its neighbours meant that it would need Germany’s support for a war with any of the other powers. The sheer size of the Russian empire, its large military expenditure and huge growing population allowed it to be included in the Great Powers, and certainly gave it a high reputation from some of the other Great Powers. It was the fourth industrial power but its industrialisation had been mainly carried out by foreigners and it had incurred a large international debt.

Its weak agricultural system often meant problems with the peasants, requiring the intervention of the army and proved the court’s disinterest in the welfare of the people. Because its military budget was greater than its education budget, the quality of its army could not match its quality, so what seemed like a large and powerful army lacked good management and was also difficult to transport through Russia’s vast territory. The Great Powers after World War One By the end of the Great War, the balance of power was shifting in Europe.

Germany had nearly single-handedly beaten the allies and the general feeling from the Allies was that Germany needed to be militarily and economically weakened so that it would not be able to start such a war again. It was clearly outlined in the Treaty of Versailles that Germany was entirely to blame for the War and should not only have to pay large reparations to the Allies for their costs during the war but also lost a lot of its territory like Alsace-Lorraine to France and the port of Danzig to Poland.

The map of Europe was changed entirely during 1919, due to the simultaneous collapse of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The Hapsburg empire had crumbled away, and in its place were several successor states that were politically and ethnically much more unstable, it would only be a matter of time before there were disputes within the new nation states. Germany had lost its colonial empire to Britain and its self-governing dominions and France.

Even though it had experienced major territorial losses, military restrictions and an unstable economy, it still had the potential to become a major power again. Its economy was very unstable due to reparations, hyper inflation and the effects of the Wall Street Crash. Under the Nazis, the economy remained unstable because of the added pressure of increased military expenditure as Germany began to spend more on weapons than France, Britain and the US combined. It gradually became stronger and stronger, which daunted the unprepared allies to giving in to its territorial conquests of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Italy was dissatisfied with the land it had gained from the Peace Treaties and was largely ignored during the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. It began to modernise under Mussolini and was trying to bring itself more into the world stage. There was a build up of the navy and air force but this was not matched in the army. Its economy was still backward because of its continued reliance of small scale agriculture. It re-armed so rapidly that its weaponry became quickly outdated and behind that of the other powers by World War Two.

Its monetary reserves were so low that it was unable to afford new weapons and Mussolini entered a war that his country was militarily and economically unable to fight. Russia had withdrawn into itself and had left the war early. This and its move to communism made it a pariah state as far as the other great powers were concerned and it was not invited along with the Big Four to draw up the Treaty of Versailles. Its economy had shrunk to lower than before the Great War and the attempted reforms to its agricultural system that many people starved.

Defence expenditure was still large to match the growing international tensions but many of the army leaders had been disposed of in labour camps, depriving it of capable leaders. The Red Army, although still large in numbers, no longer seemed to pose the threat that it used to. Japan had become economically stronger than Italy after the Great War and the expansion of its economy was occurring at a rate that was second only to the USSR. As its industries expanded, so too did its need for the raw materials which it lacked such as petroleum.

This meant great pressure on Japan to secure its own supply of raw materials in order to secure economic growth, so it looked to the weakened China and also Indochina, bringing it into conflict with the other powers. The world now seemed centred on Britain and France, with Japan and Italy quietly becoming fascist and Russia had become communist. The powers were having economic squabbles as most of the European allies were in debt to Britain or France, who were in turn in debt to America.

When the Americans wanted their money back, some nations such as France refused to pay until Germany had paid them war reparations, which Germany claimed it couldn’t pay. The US had benefited most from the War, having become the world’s financial creditor along with Japan. It was economically very strong in the 1920’s but by the 1930’s, the economy was crippled by the Wall Street Crash. The state of the economy mirrored its involvement in international affairs; still very influential in the 1920s but by the 1930s wanted nothing more to do with the international scene unless there was conflict with American economic interests.

They became convinced that through isolation, they would regain prosperity and refused to loan money to any belligerent nation or those who had not paid it back previously. The army was still quite small and even though the navy had expanded during the 1930s, it was still nothing close to its potential. During this time, America was said to be a “sleeping giant”. Britain and France were very focused on their empires and had been unable to recover their economies to pre-war levels. France’s weak economy meant that it could not spend enough on defence to counter the growing threat of Germany.

Social problems created internal political instability and the need to import raw materials to sustain its industries from the British Empire meant that it was becoming more and more reliant on Britain both economically and defensively. Britain’s economy was stronger than France’s but was nothing like it had been before the war. It was dissatisfied with the outcome of the Peace Treaties and preferred to turn a blind eye to Europe and concentrate on maintaining its precious colonies.

Like France, it too was cutting its defence budget in the early 1930s, which was when the dictatorships were busy increasing theirs. The armed forces made it clear that they would be overstretched to fight Japan, Germany and Italy at this time, so the government followed a policy of appeasement with the aggressive powers. The Great Powers after World War Two Germany had been totally defeated again, and this time the victorious allies had occupied it militarily and divided it into four zones and then two separate states. The German economy in 1946 was less than a third of what it had been in 1938.

The West German economy remained capitalist and eventually became Europe’s leading industrial power with the help of the US Marshall Plan and government subsidies. In comparison, the East, which was essentially a Soviet Satellite, was less industrially successful and there was a marked difference in the standards of living between the two Germanys. Japan’s economy was in much the same condition as Germany’s after the War, as was Italy’s, with a low standard of living and its GNP had decreased by 40% between 1938 and 1945. France’s economy was nearly as weak as Germany’s from the years of German looting.

With the US aid from the Marshall Plan, it was able to regain its status as a great power with a zone of occupation in Germany, membership of the newly founded UN security council and it still possessed the second largest empire in the world. Britain had managed to regain all of its possessions after the War but it began to shed its colonies as they became more troublesome and less economically profitable. It was now dependent on the US for defence as was proved in Suez in 1956, showing that without American approval and support, Britain could not act successfully in the Third World.

The new criteria for global influence after the War had changed from trade and general military strength to the possession of atomic weapons. The new Great Powers club became the USA, Britain, China, Russia and to a lesser extent, France. Other membership criteria were belonging to the UN Security Council and/or NATO. NATO was formed in response to the increasing influence of communism and to bring the capitalist Great Powers together to form one strong force, as separated, they were weak without America.

Japan’s economy had grown with the help of US aid directly after the war and from the US need for supplies and arms during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The economy was also aided by the traditional high standards of Japanese manufacturing and the cheap, highly skilled labour force which helped lower the prices of Japanese goods compared with European goods. It also had greater access to the Asian markets than Europe, making its products more successful there.

Japan’s global influence declined after the War as it again turned into itself and concentrated on its economic success. The European traditional Great Powers were becoming less and less important in terms of global influence after the loss of their empires and it became clear how their power had declined after the World Wars. Russia was still considered a super power, but its economy was ailing under communism and even after it was restored to capitalism, its economy suffered many pitfalls and is still considered backward compared to European economies.

When the colonies were given their independence, it created political and ethnic instability within many new nations, which became poor through many years of civil war or mismanagement by their new leaders, this became the Third world, to which the new Great Power, China belonged. The world was once again divided into two heavily armed camps after the Second World War, and countries were either with America against Russia or with Russia against America. This new war, the Cold War, was to last until the total collapse of the USSR and was to draw a boundary through Eastern Europe.

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