Imperial Strategy

By the turn of the twentieth century, European empires such as France, Britain, and Russia controlled (and exploited) large territories all across the world. With the growth of these capitalist industrialist powers, their imperial strategies and colonial politics shaped the world order. The rapid development of science and technology opened up not only new economic, communication, and transport possibilities but also informed processes of arms races and influenced the geopolitical conflict between the European powers. At the end of the war, the world order had changed dramatically. In the course of the war, empires broke down and new nation-states emerged. Anti-colonial and national movements gained ground on a global scale.

The First World War, or the Great War, started out as a European conflict but soon gained global dimensions. At the outbreak of war, colonial regions in Africa and Asia served as an important supply for material and manpower. Around four million Africans and Asians fought in the European armies and became cannon fodder at various theatres of war. But the war also directly affected the social and political lives of those in the colonies, which sometimes even turned into battlefields, as in the case of German East Africa.

One major part of the imperial strategies employed by belligerent European powers was propaganda. It was targeted at their own populations and the citizens of occupied territories, as well as towards colonies, dominions, and even to neutral countries. Propaganda had short-term as well as long-term goals. Short-term aims were focused on weakening the military strength of the enemy - with calls to desert, revolt, or boycott. From a long-term perspective, propaganda was also meant pave the way for the development of future political and economic positions on an international stage after the war - through collaboration and by establishing networks.

Germany's 'programme for revolution' (Aufwiegelung) shows how these aims were put into practice. This programme was an ambitious attempt to instigate popular insurrection and imperial unrest on a global scale, from Ireland in the West of Europe to India in South Asia. Developed in 1914 and managed by the German Foreign Office (Das Auswärtige Amt), together with the Political Section of the Reserved General Staff (Sektion Politik des Stellvertretenden Generalstabes), this programme aimed to weaken the British, French, and Russian empires by stirring up revolution and dissent. Based on political and economic analyses, as well as on the creation of strategic networks and alliances with intellectuals and political activists from colonial regions, Germany developed an imperial vision of the New (German) Orient or 'Mitteleuropa', with Germany playing a central role.

Unlike Germany, other European powers like Britain, Russia, and France at the beginning of the 20th century ruled over large territories in many parts of the world. Their imperial strategies were aimed at stabilising and expanding already existing spheres of influence, and maintaining and expanding their economic power. With its geostrategic position and natural resources, the Middle East became a particularly contested region after the Ottoman Empire entered the war in November 1914 as an ally of Germany and the Sultan declared jihad against France, Russia, and Great Britain. In response to Germany's 'programme for revolution', Britain and France developed their own strategies of counter-propaganda for the Muslim world. This included the publication of journals such as Jang-i-Ahbar.

The First World War also led to an increase in anti-imperialist and anti-colonial efforts and movements. A common anti-colonial consciousness had begun to emerge long before 1914, with structures of support and exchange among political activists from countries like Ireland, Egypt, and India. These networks gained strength and organisational structure throughout the war. Colonial subjects, fighting in the battlefields of France or Mesopotamia or East Africa, gained in confidence and became more politicised and aware of their rights. An Indian prisoner of war in the Halfmoon camp in Wünsdorf was recorded as saying, 'When the war began, we heard of several kings'. Anti-imperialist and anti-colonial political networks often operated in neutral countries like Switzerland or Sweden. The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 strongly influenced and accelerated these movements in the colonies.

The First World War was first and foremost a war between translocal empires and not a European war between nation-states. From the end of the war until 1923, the Tzarist Russian, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman Empires collapsed. European world powers began to wane and the influence of the United States grew. New nation-states were founded and political landscapes changed; this was visible to the greatest extent in the Middle East where the war left a number of unsolved issues that continue to shape conflicts in the region today.

Heike Liebau