Europe in the late nineteenth century experienced a remarkable boom of industrial, technological, and educational advancement as well as significant electoral progress. These transformations primarily came about as a result of the Second Industrial Revolution and the important social changes which occurred in its wake. The three decades proceeding the turn of the twentieth century, however, planted the seeds for a wave of cultural malaise, social tensions, and movement away from traditional liberal ideals. These downsides primarily occurred due to the sudden and abrupt manner of the changes.
The economic progress which began in the late nineteenth century was primarily associated with the still young capitalist model, wherein all members of society competed for economic benefits in a free and open market. This model, however, had serious detrimental effects on some of the most vulnerable classes of society. This age of capitalism led to the creation of large chain-stores which put independent small business owners, almost exclusively confined within the lower-middle class, out of work. These individuals, who had owned their own businesses often for generations, were now forced to become wage labors for the very corporations which put them out of business.
Technological innovations also created a victim class, this time in the present society. Improved mechanization of agriculture and transportation of foodstuffs drastically cut down on the price of agricultural goods. While this greatly benefited society as a whole, it punished the poor peasants who could no longer sell their crops for enough money to sustain themselves. They were forced either to become workers for the newly emergent large corporate farms or head into the growing cities to seek employment in the industrial sector.
These two trends created an exceptionally unhappy lower class in European society. Their livelihoods had been snatched away from them, destroying their way of life while the rest of society seemingly benefited profusely. These downtrodden citizens rejected the popular liberal ideology of individual rights and liberties for the simple reason that they had more pressing matters to concern themselves with; namely, where their next meal would come from. Liberal thought, it seemed, was best suited for the well-off in society who did not have to worry about such things. The lower class rejected liberalism and sought to find economic security.
One aspect of the late nineteenth century wave of change which did benefit this lower class was the extension of suffrage rights to nearly all men. With the right to vote, the political voice of the downtrodden could now be heard. These people who suffered at the hands of the Second Industrial Revolution sought to return to the past when, while their lives were not perfect, they were better off than in the present. This notion, conservatism, soon attached itself to another growing ideology: nationalism.
Nationalism promised to grant the lower classes a new community since their ancestral ones (small towns, villages) were destroyed by the Second Industrial Revolution. A largely imaginary notion, a nation consisted of all the people who shared common identity markers and traditions. Nationalism and its growing base proved to be a significant threat to liberalism and its ideals. Whereas liberalism appealed primarily to upper-class, well educated individuals, nationalism took advantage of growing literacy rates to diffuse information to the general populace, who began to distrust liberalism.
The extension of suffrage to nearly all men by the turn of the century created a new concept in electoral politics: mass politics. Whereas once those seeking office only had to appeal to a narrow population of well-educated citizens, they now had to appeal to the masses. One of the main ways politicians did this was to tap into the nationalistic fervor sweeping the continent. As they took advantage of nationalism, the rhetoric relating to foreign bodies began to grow toxic. Nationalism offered not only a sense of community, but also a dense of superiority over other nations. This inevitably began to incorporate new pseudo-scientific concepts such as Social Darwinism, which, once attached to nationalism, preached that nations are in a constant conflict with each other and only the strongest could survive. As this theory planted deep roots in the psyche of citizens, politicians began to take advantage of it by blaming domestic problems on “outsiders,” who were almost always Jews, although occasionally Catholics were blamed in some Protestant countries.
While the second wave of the Industrial Revolution undoubtedly benefited the vast majority of European society, it also founded social and cultural tensions which would build during the early twentieth century before exploding across the continent in a series of conflicts which would forever change the face of Europe on the international stage.