At the turn of the Twentieth century, the British Empire had long reign supreme as the world’s first super power. The Empire covered about 12.7 million square miles which is about 25 percent of the world’s land surface, and three times as large as the French or German Empire. Some 444 million people lived under British rule in an Empire that stretched from North America, Africa, India, and Australia.[1] Yet in the following century the British Empire would fall from her former glory, and this could hardly have happened without the subsequent world wars. British Imperialism attributed to the outbreak of world war not only because it had a quarter of the world under its control, but because imperial competition with other European powers created a need for war. Old imperial powers such as Great Britain and France were threatened by the rise of new powers around the world such as Germany, Russia, Japan, and the United States. These new powers imitated the imperialism of Britain and the balance of power in Europe increasingly relied on imperial possessions for weight.

Also read about: British and German Imperial Competition before World War I


By the outbreak of the Great War, new economic theories of Imperialism all indicated that the imperialist system would result in war between the European powers. However, imperialism was supported by more than profits as a culture of imperialism permeated through British life. Competition between Britain and Germany took on national significance to British and German populations while leaders such as Bismarck sought to use imperial competition to their own advantage on the world stage. While British imperialism is not the sole cause of World War I, it would be hard to imagine the origins of the war without the effect British imperialism had on world events in the late nineteenth century.

Prior the World War I, Britons everywhere in the empire shared in a culture of imperialism, in which the Empire was romanticized in books, advertisements, newspapers, and schools. Imperialism was indeed popular, even if it did not always prove to be profitable, as long as it proved to be exciting. Even though a mere 0.8 percent of the population actually served as imperial troops in the army or navy, people were somewhat obsessed with the adventure of imperialism in what amounted to psychological gratification. Authors such as G.A. Henty, capitalized on fictional accounts of military campaigns. Henty’s books were very popular with total sales of his novels numbering at 25 million by the 1950s.[11]

Advertisements for British products portrayed a romantic vision of the empire to potential customers. An advertisement for Colman’s Self-Rising Flour portrays the Britannia guarding the product with a shield in front of her.[12] Another Advertisement for Epps’s Cocoa Powder shows John Bull, sitting on top of the world sipping a cup of hot cocoa conveying the message that “if you drank Epps’s cocoa powder then maybe some of his good fortune and success would rub off on you.”[13]

Newspapers were able to sate the appetite of the masses for excited stories from the Empire. Media mogul Lord Northcliffe’s newspaper Dailey Mail sold more than a million copies in 1899. When one of his editors was asked what sells a newspaper he responded, “The first answer is ‘war’. War not only creates a supply of news but a demand for it. So deep rooted is the fascination in a war and all things appertaining to that…a paper has only to be able to put up on its placard ‘A Great Battle’ for its sales to go up.”[14] For most British citizens, war and imperialism were one in the same by the turn of the twentieth century, and both were especially popular.

Early theories on imperialism that set historiographical precedent in how we interpret the origins of the Great War are seen in two figures; John A. Hobson of Great Britain and Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. These two men presented a critique of capitalism and imperialism and the latter’s views were highly influenced by the formers. Hobson, a liberal economist, argued that low wages and an uneven distribution of wealth left European workers with low purchasing power which would lead to periodic economic depression. Capitalists and the owners of the means of production would therefore escape periodic depressions by seeking richer markets and higher investment returns overseas through imperial expansion.[2]

In his book, Imperialism: A Study (1902), Hobson speaks of an unsustainable and dangerous system whereby the British military is required to protect the business endeavors of private groups and subjects of the crown in any foreign land. Hobson says, “Any British subject choosing, for his own private pleasure or profit, to venture his person or his property in the territory of a foreign State can call upon this nation to protect or avenge him in case he or his property is injured either by the Government or by any inhabitant of this foreign State.”[3]

This a dangerous doctrine for Hobson because it places the entire military, political, and financial resources of Britain at the disposal of various types of private actors such as missionaries, explorers, and speculative traders. “All these men,” Hobson says are, “in no proper sense the accredited representatives of this country, but actuated by private personal motives, are at liberty to call upon the British nation to spend millions of money and thousands of lives to defend them against risks which the nation has not sanctioned.”[4] For Hobson the vanguard of Imperialist expansion were capitalists who profited from the imperialist system while the British military and populations paid the price and lived with the consequences.

In Imperialism: The Highest Form of Capitalism (1917), Vladimir Lenin takes Hobson’s views even further. He suggests that capitalism in the imperial system would inevitably turn into a system of monopolies between nation states as increased competition and new technology eroded profit rates. Lenin argues that as the last overseas territories were consumed by national monopolies, the great powers of the world would certainly go to war, such as the global conflict occurring during the time Lenin wrote the book.[5]

Lenin used the world imperialism to describe the use of state power to pursue economic objectives in foreign lands and to secure overseas capital through, monopoly organization behind tariff walls, territorial expansion, militarism, and war. He emphasized the threat of rising imperialist powers, such as Germany, Japan, and the United States, posed to the old empires of western European states such as Britain, France, and Spain.[6] Spain had already experienced a loss of its imperial possessions to the United States in 1898, Germany was an active participant in the scramble for territory in Africa, and Japan’s aggressive imperialism would be one of primary causes for conflict in the Pacific in World War II. “The question is,” Lenin says, “What means other than war could there be under capitalism to overcome the disparity between the development of productive forces and the accumulation of capital on the one side, and the division of colonies and spheres of influence for finance capital on the other?”[7]

Lenin and Hobson’s theories on imperialism have been criticized for their economic interpretation, specifically for the profitability of colonies. Lenin underestimated the extent of domestic investments in advanced countries from 1885 to 1914. Imperialist powers as well traded more with one another than with their colonies, as the territories acquired in the late nineteenth century rush for imperialism were hardly suitable for European settlement. However, as historian Robert Paxton says, “No interpretation of imperialism can fail to assign some role to economic aims.”[8]

Economic aims certainly attributed to the competition for empire among the great powers prior to World War I. Another contemporary theory of Imperialism can be found in American Joseph Schumpeter book Sociology of Imperialism (1919) which makes the argument that in the early twentieth century capitalist imperialism was made possible by existing monarchical and aristocratic rule in some European states. Schumpeter concluded that “some very important capitalist interests stood to benefit from the aggressive policies which plunged the world into war in 1914, but those interests could only prevail in countries whose social and economic institutions bore the impress of autocracy.”[9]

Early theories of imperialism all argued for its role in attributing to the outbreak war despite disagreements over the legitimacy of capitalism. Hobson viewed imperialism as a perversion of capitalism by a selfish minority of businessmen who exerted a disproportionate influence over both government and public opinion.[10] Lenin literally led the revolution against capitalism and saw imperialism as its highest stage. Schumpeter tied the outbreak of war to capital interests in autocratic countries. All three presented theories that suggest a relationship between imperial competition and the outbreak of World War I.


Sources Cited

  • [1] Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books. 2002), chapter 5.
  • [2] Robert O. Paxton, Europe in the 20th Century 5th ed, (Boston, MA: Cengage, 2011), 6.
  • [3] John AtkinsonHobson, Imperialism: A Study (Making History: Kindle Edition), Chapter 7.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Paxton, Europe in the 20th Century, 6.
  • [6] Norman Etherington, “Reconsidering Theories of Imperialism.” History and Theory, vol. 21, No. 1. (February 1982): 1-36. Accessed April 2, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2505147.
  • [7] Vladimir Ilyich, Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: Full Text of 1916 Edition (Illustrated) (www.WealthOfNation.com. Kindle Edition). Location 22232.
  • [8] Paxton, 20th Century Europe, 6.
  • [9] Etherington, Reconsidering Theories of Imperialism, 24.
  • [10] Michael Rapport, Nineteenth Century Europe. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 349.
  • [11] Ferguson, Empire, chapter 5.
  • [12] “Colman’s Self-Rising Flour”, The British Empire, https://www.britishempire.co.uk/media/advertising/colmansflourposter.htm
  • [13] “Epps’s Cocoa Powder”, The British Empire, https://www.britishempire.co.uk/media/advertising/eppsscocoapack.htm
  • [14] Quoted in Ferguson, Empire, Chapter 5.