Wed
Oct 28 2009 3:37pm

The Steampunk Cold War, Part One: The Pax Europaea, or “Tommy’s got my bank account, Ivan’s got the bomb”

 

The Cold War of the mid- and late-20th century has been a profound influence upon our modern, 21st-century world. Though it experienced significant changes over the decades from 1945 to 1991, this period saw the world dominated by the competition between the Western democracies and the Soviet world. Even attempts by various nations to remove themselves from this dualistic view of the world still occurred within the context of Western-Soviet relations, and were forced to take this situation into account (one might say that the Cold War represented the zeitgeist of the second half of the 20th century). The problems of today—nationalist struggles, destabilized regions, terrorism, and state corruption among young nations—can largely be traced to the Cold War and its events.

However, the Cold War was not without precedent. The concept of two superpowers struggling against one another through indirect expansion and the acquisition of client states has existed ever since there have been superpowers to struggle. In particular, the concept of such a “peaceful conflict” is especially fitting in the context of the 19th century, which was marked by a continuation of Europe’s tradition of imperial expansion and mutual hostility, but was also marked by profoundly few general European wars. For all intents and purposes, the century from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the onset of the First World War (1914) was one of a general European peace. This is not to say that the European nations were peaceful by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, they were extremely aggressive toward the rest of the world and in general were engaged in extra-European conflicts for largely the entire century of peace. However, for the most part they were not at war with one another, certainly not to the degree found in earlier centuries, nor in the devastating manner of the First World War that would soon be upon them. In fact, Europe was at peace in much the same way that the Western powers and the Soviets were at “peace” during the Cold War, but were still engaged in wars and military actions in other parts of the world throughout the mid-late 20th century.

Conflicts that did occur in Europe during this period were generally brief and localized, involving only a couple of participant nations and only for a couple of years. Real damages in terms of loss of life, devastation of countries and destruction of matériel were light by comparison to the conflicts that enclosed the time of the European peace. The main participants in the Crimean War (1853-1856) were Russia, Britain and France; the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) was fought between France and a collection of German states that would, at the war’s conclusion, be united in the German Empire; and perhaps most telling of all, the Austro-Prussian War (1866) was fought essentially between the two rival powers of Austria and Prussia, with their allies, over hegemony in Germany (which Prussia was attempting to wrestle away from Austria). Bloody though they were, conflicts such as these paled in comparison to the Napoleonic and First World Wars, and had a profoundly smaller impact upon the lives of Europeans not engaged in fighting.

Part of the reason for this general peace was a form of deterrent. While the power of actual mutual assured destruction would have to wait until the invention of the atomic bomb, the massive industrialization of the 19th century did present politicians and military planners with a comparable problem. Wars had suddenly become fantastically expensive, owing to larger armies and navies that needed to be supplied and equipped, more complex modern machinery that was more expensive, and the greater volume of firepower that demanded incredibly large supplies of ammunition. Indeed, it was wrongly perceived that a lengthy, large-scale war (such as the First World War) would be impossible simply because it was too expensive. The 19th century’s mutual assured destruction was not physical, but economic.

In addition, there was simply more interaction between the various peoples of Europe than in earlier periods. Economically, the modern industrial economies were intimately linked through extensive trade. Socially, 19th century Europe was marked by an expansion of travel and tourism that included a much larger percentage of the population than in preceding centuries. Whereas previously travel from country to country in Europe was limited either to professional traders or to social and political elites, the rise of the modern middle class with its access to leisure time and expendable income meant that ordinary Europeans were now in a position to travel across the continent and to form contacts with people of other nationalities. This certainly did not make war impossible, but it changed the environment against which declarations of war were made.

Instead of internal struggle, the Europeans continued their policy of colonial expansion in other parts of the world. In particular, the powers of Britain, France and Russia expanded their empires across the world, increasing their holdings in Asia and Africa. They did not go to war with one another, but instead encouraged third parties and smaller states to either join one side or fight against the other.

In the end, war did break out. Like a 19th-century Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused a tension point that built and built until there was no going back. As with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Archduke’s assassination could have been resolved peacefully, but attempts to arrange this ultimately failed. Perhaps the threat of conventional war was not quite terrifying enough to equal the threat of nuclear annihilation. As Austria commenced localized hostilities with Serbia, Germany and Russia began to mobilize their troops, which forced each of them to continue their preparations for war lest the other catch them off-guard. Thankfully for us, the Cold War’s close scares never boiled out into open conflict in the manner of the First World War, but one wonders what the state of Europe might be today if the 19th century cold war had avoided going hot.


G. D. Falksen is a writer and student of history who has given lectures on the steampunk genre and subculture. He is very glad that the First World War did not see the use of nuclear weapons. Further details can be found on his website, www.gdfalksen.com

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
17 comments
DemetriosX
1. DemetriosX
Another contributing factor to the relative peace in Europe during this period was the familial relations of most of the crowned heads, particularly in the second half of the century, when they were all related to Victoria in one way or another. The destabilizing poles were France, with its various empires and republics on the one side and the Habsburgs on the other, not marrying so closely with the other northern powers. Even at the end of the pax, the Kaiser and the Tsar were good friends (Wilhelm had introduced Nicholas to Alexandra) who corresponded regularly (in English, no less).
DemetriosX
2. Tsuki-chan
You do realise that you're ignoring entire, enormous sections of the world by saying that today's problems can be mostly traced to the Cold War, right? The problems in many, many countries have nothing at all to do with the Cold War and more to do with things like colonialism and slavery. I would estimate that you're ignoring at least half - or more - of the world's population in this post.
DemetriosX
3. T-Boy
I have problems with your first paragraph, last sentence. I always thought colonialism was the root of all those problems, not the Cold War.

For almost all of the things you mentioned, you can extend a line back and say that colonialism brought these issues up, and we're still suffering those after-affects even to this day.
GD Falksen
4. gdfalksen
@DemetriosX: An excellent example of the whole interconnectedness of Europe during this period. Personally I'm fascinated by the telegrams sent between Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas in the days leading up to the First World War, when they tried to avert the crisis and used the language of family as much as political associates.

@Tsuki-chan and T-Boy: I understand your views and they certainly have validity. The entire expansion of European colonialism up through the early 20th century did have a profound effect on the structure of the world that came into being following the two World Wars (the whole breakdown of empires situation). However, you cannot escape the fact that events taking place in the post-Second World War period across the world did so within the context of the Cold War. You can discuss issues of colonialism/anti-colonialism (for example, Vietnam as a rejection of French empire), but they inevitably take place within this context; were it not for the Cold War, Vietnam would not have been or now be discussed in the context of a communist revolutionary force fighting against the West. You cannot escape the fact that the structure of the world that developed during the second half of the 20th century did so under the influence of struggles characterized (in a very broad sense) by the socio-political-economic environment of the Cold War. Personally, I don't see this as being a rejection of much of the world's population; I see this as an acceptance of the fact that the Cold War affected and was affected by more people than just the Americans and the Russians, which it is often incorrectly simplified to.
DemetriosX
5. Michael S. Miller
An interesting perspective, and I'm anxious to see where you take the "no WWI" theme, but I think you're looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The relative peace / limited warfare paradigm of 1815-1914 is not the exception to the rule. Rather, the French Revolution and the Napoleanic wars that followed were the exception to a period of several centuries of only limited warfare after the Peace of Westphalia.

Huge, continent-spanning contests are the exception, brought on by either revolutionary fervor spreading through all levels of society (The Thirty Years War, French Revolution) or industrial output increasing the reach of destructive power (both World Wars, the Cold War).
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
6. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
However, you cannot escape the fact that events taking place in the post-Second World War period across the world did so within the context of the Cold War. You can discuss issues of colonialism/anti-colonialism (for example, Vietnam as a rejection of French empire), but they inevitably take place within this context; were it not for the Cold War, Vietnam would not have been or now be discussed in the context of a communist revolutionary force fighting against the West.

I'm confused about your meaning with this statement. Are you implying that the influences of the Cold War pre-dates and trumps the impact of the colonialism which took place beforehand? Because I see, essentially, colonialism as a factor that contributed to the complexities of the Cold War, but not the other way around.

Also, to compare Vietnam's fight for independence within the context of the Cold War ignores several decades of its history that pre-dates American-Soviet involvement and flattens the political issues to fit within a convenient, Euro-centric worldview. Its series of civil wars was never entirely "Soviet-backed commies" versus "American backed nationalists", but a complex struggle of several different political and religious groups that fought during the power vacuum that emerged after Japanese occupation during WWII (and, for that matter, Japan's pursuit of Asian empire can be seen as an example of an event that caused many issues throughout the world but isn't directly related to the Cold War.)

And the empire-building that took place in the 19th century would be an unfair comparison to the Cold War, because there's no ideological competitive component: these nations weren't all fighting each other to spread one form of political government over another. They were, well, all empires fighting each other to see who'd be the biggest empire.
DemetriosX
7. Tsuki-chan
"However, you cannot escape the fact that events taking place in the post-Second World War period across the world did so within the context of the Cold War."

Events may have happened in the context of the Cold War, but that does not mean that most problems stem from the Cold War. There is a major difference between "happening in the context of" and "problems stemming from".
DemetriosX
8. T-Boy
However, you cannot escape the fact that events taking place in the post-Second World War period across the world did so within the context of the Cold War.

A significant part of the makeup of the South-East Asia comes from the the age of colonialism (the reason why Malaya is primarily British dominated and Indonesia was Dutch is due to the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, for example) and during World War II (the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere gave rise to nationalism and a move towards independence).

Not to say that there were no influences during the Cold War (the Malayan Emergency is one, and even then it wasn't Soviet-supported as much as perceived to have received backing from China -- and to say that China and Soviet Russia shared the same ideology is difficult, as there were particular differences on how Mao envisioned Communism should be).

But anyone who is familiar with Malaysian history and current affairs knows that the Cold War wasn't the only primary driver for today's events here, and would have to come up with pretty extraordinary evidence to back that theory.

For one, you've entirely glossed over the fact that the rise of militant political Islam here was not only driven by the anti-Soviet mujahideen as much as it was driven by the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, and the rise of militant Wahabbism and Salafism. That was affected by the Cold War, but was not necessarily started by it.
DemetriosX
9. Piechur
Cold War wasn't fought between two superpowers, but between two opposite ideologies. One of these ideologies was born in the 19th century and shook big part of Europe. Don't forget about Spring of Nations, Paris Commune and finally Russo-Japanese War which caused the 1905 Revolution and almost overthrew Czar Empire. It wasn't a peacefull time if you look at it from a non-British perspective.
Jaymee Goh
10. Jha
The problems of today—nationalist struggles, destabilized regions, terrorism, and state corruption among young nations—can largely be traced to the Cold War and its events.

Leaving aside just how problematic this statement is, seeing as it basically erases issues that stemmed from colonialism and imperialism as others have pointed out already, I'm curious: would you clarify the time period of the Cold War? Many of your examples seem to me more within the World Wars period than the Cold War. You explicitly state 1945-1991, but as others have pointed out, the problems in the above sentence would have had genesis in the periods pre-dating the 1945-1991 period.
DemetriosX
12. Lsimi
GD Falksen is absolutely correct in his view that the Cold War has colored and ultimately influenced to an enormous extend the process of de-colonization of Africa and Asia. Most of the anti-colonial movements of the 50's, 60's, and 70's had in socialist rethoric and ideology a common ground, and the Soviet and Chinese regimes put considerable effort in supporting, nurturing, and estimulating said movements. Cuba and South Africa sent thousands of soldiers to fight in the Angolan civil war for mainly ideological (and Cold War-driven) reasons, and both the Korea and Vietnan Wars were fought in a scenario of West X Soviet conflict (or anyone really things the USA would get mired in the Nan for any other reason than fight Soviet expansion?).

As he wrote, even groups and conflicts that emerged before the Cold War, or tried to avoid its considerations althogether, had to ultimately take its dynamics and elements into consideration. Consider the de-colonization process as separate from the Cold War is ignoring perhaps the most crucial element of it all.
DemetriosX
13. T-Boy
Consider the de-colonization process as separate from the Cold War is ignoring perhaps the most crucial element of it all.

No one's saying that. TI'm challenging GD's primary argument here:

The problems of today—nationalist struggles, destabilized regions, terrorism, and state corruption among young nations—can largely be traced to the Cold War and its events.

He's saying that today's problems stem from the Cold War. Not to me -- today's problems stem from sources older than that, and not necessarily separate from the Cold War itself. In short: that while today's problems are affected by the Cold War, they are not necessarily caused by it.
DemetriosX
14. rutherfordr
"...the century from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the onset of the First World War (1914) was one of a general European peace."

Excuse me?

What about the French revolutions in 1830 and 1848?

What about the Italian wars of independence in 1848, 1859, and 1866?

What about the Austro-Prussian war in 1866?

What about the Franco-Prussian War from 1870 to 1871?

Victorian fantasy is all well and good, but when you start talking about actual history, it would be a good idea to get your facts straight.
Rick Rutherford
15. rutherfordr
Never Mind... I am again reminded to read thoroughly before commenting. Mea Culpa...
GD Falksen
16. gdfalksen
@T-Boy: Actually, the disagreement voiced by you and others is completely unrelated to my central argument (which is that fundamental aspects of the Cold War had 19th century parallels). What you are challenging is my view of why the Cold War was important to present day society, which you are perfectly at liberty to do, but which is an ancillary point in the article.

If you or others wish to argue that the world structure created by colonialism was also a key factor in creating the post Cold War world, you won't find any disagreement from me. But you cannot remove the events of the Cold War from the equation. The Cold War influenced the way that the breakdown of empires occurred, and it caused nations not subjected to European colonization to undergo changes that we see today (the situation in Afghanistan is a perfect example). We would still have modern problems today without the Cold War (just as we would have problems without colonialism), but the structure would be different.

But, as I said before, a debate about the specific impact of the Cold War on the modern world (while interesting) misses the actual main argument of the article.
GD Falksen
17. gdfalksen
@rutherfordr: That's quite alright. As I said, localized conflicts did occur during the century of peace, but on a much smaller scale and with localized impact. Actually, it might be interesting to examine parallels between what might be called "wars of consolidation" in the 19th century and the repression of unrest at home during the Cold War.
Tony Zbaraschuk
18. tonyz
Actually, we're still dealing with the aftermath of WW I and the destruction of the empires.

World War II was, in essence, all about "How do we handle the collapse of the Hapsburg monarchy? Who or what runs Eastern Europe and all the nationalities running around there."

The Cold War was "Does Russia maintain its empire?"
(Aggravated by the nuclear question.)

And we are _still_ dealing with "What becomes of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire?"

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