The extent of the violence in World War II, and the horrendous genocide of a group of people at the hands of a slighted nation of impoverished people justify describing it as a “breaking point of civilization.” Yet this kind of brutality was not new to the world, as we’ve seen in genocidal acts on smaller scales, but in similar proportions (Native American treatment in the Americas for example). The problem with these claims is that we are indeed still here and still seen as maintaining a certain level of “humanity.” Yet that itself is arguable, considering the violence that we continue to see on a global scale as a result of inequality and scarcity. These factors don’t link back so directly to WWII, but can still be seen as being a subsequent set of events.
World War I essentially expanded the fractured political landscape of Europe, and created a new set of suspicious, tense nation-states. The world was re-shuffled in that some dominant powers (mainly Germany) became inflated, poor nations, while those who had suffered damage from the war found themselves in a much better place after the punishment of the wrongdoers. The war marks the beginning of a sinister trend. Germany had cast the first stone and created a sense of distrust in the European powers that did not so much exist in the age of industrialization. The impoverished German people were all too ready to be brought into another war to get their country and their pride back, and the other powers in Europe were simply standing on their heels and hoping it wouldn’t happen.
The nature of imperial cruelty primarily began to take the form of subjugation through labor and exploitation of natural resources. The industrial revolution caused modern, imperial nations to re-examine their view of nature. It was no longer something to be battled, but something that needed to be controlled and used for the advancement of these nations. Modern Capitalists now were not only controlling the people of the areas they were expanding into, but now the spoils of the land were essential to this process (typically by using the people of the now-controlled land and paying them little to no compensation). Constant technological advancement becomes the important factor in this story; as things get easier to externalize for producers and manufacturers, they have a greater reason to want expansion into the land of peoples which could be subjugated and used.
To me, the idea of progress goes beyond technology and industry. True progress is achieved when progressive ways of thinking have been adopted by enough people in a society for those ways of thinking to be implemented. Progressive thinking involves reanalyzing old ways of thinking, and looking at them through the lens of a newer society; this typically involves providing more rights to social groups as they arise, and being willing to change infrastructures and laws in order to be responsive to the needs of the society, and provide equality and prosperity.
I take the role of an Irish-American immigrant factory worker, toiling away 14 hour days for a meager wage in order to feed my family. To be honest, I might be working so hard that I don’t even take the time to imagine what progress looks like. Yet if I do imagine progress in my day in time, it could carry great meaning. Instead of being crammed into small tenements with my family and struggling to pay bills despite the long hours I’m working, I might imagine that I be paid more or have to pay less rent. I would imagine that my children, who may be working in the factories as well, would be in school rather than working to help the family. To me in this role, as someone near the bottom of the hierarchy of society, I would see a better life, or anything that would bring me closer to it, as progress.
I think that we can view the late 18th century revolutions as a growing trend in societies to step back and reanalyze the ways in which they live their lives, similar to the enlightenment but on a larger scale. More specifically, people began to rethink how their lives are affected or controlled by others (the governments). As societies came to become more successful and life became more comfortable and free for more people, those who were denied those comforts and freedoms became frustrated. Inequity is at the heart of every revolution, because it leads to fear in the hearts of the dominant and anger in the hearts of the oppressed. When fear is established, distrust and further oppression are likely to ensue, leading to action and violence on either end. In the Americas, and similarly in Haiti, the revolution came about as a result of a disconnection with the homeland creating a separate identity, but not being identified as equals by that homeland. Being held to higher standards by that homeland but not receiving all of the same benefits of that identity caused these societies to revolt.