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Empires before World War I

Austria-Hungary. Ottoman empire. British, German, French and Russian empires.  For extra coverage of World War 1 outside the scope of the AP course, click here. Created by Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

A lot of people, including myself, have found the study of World War I to be a little bit confusing sometimes. And I think the reason is is the world was very different leading up to World War I than it is today. And to some degree, the modern world we live in was shaped to a large degree by Word War I and then later World War II. And just to get a sense of what our modern world looks like, and especially what modern Europe looks like, this is a map of modern Europe. But the interesting thing about this map is instead of being the traditional map that you normally see where you just see the country boundaries, the state boundaries, this has the state boundaries right here. And these little gray lines, these show where France ends and, say, Switzerland or Germany or Italy begins. But overlain on top of that we see where the languages are spoken. So this is actually much more focused on, where do people speak French. Where do people speak German? And the thing that you will notice is, for the most part, throughout most of Europe, today's boundaries, the modern boundaries closely, closely match up to where languages are spoken. There are a few areas where there is more of a disconnect with Catalan and Spanish. And actually, that is leading to some issues. But for the most part, in modern Europe, the country boundaries and the linguistic boundaries or the national boundaries kind of match up. If we rewind to the world of entering into World War I, things were very different. Some of the boundaries we recognize. We recognize the United Kingdom. Well, Ireland has since been carved out. But we recognize it as not being that different than it is today. Spain is not that different. France is not that different. Italy is not that different. Germany is a good bit different. In fact, if you take Germany, the German Empire entering into World War I, or the early 1900s, around 1914, between them and the Russian Empire, they essentially were swallowing up a bunch of linguistic groups right over here that now have their own independent states. The other thing that you might notice is this huge state called Austria-Hungary, or often called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And people say, well, there's-- I'm familiar with some of these nations that have the word Austria and Hungary in them, but I'm not-- what is this Austro-Hungarian Empire? And what's interesting about it is it really was an empire. It was really trying to cobble together all of these folks that spoke all different-- all the different types of ethnicities. This is kind of a zoom-in of the Austro-Hungarian Empire leading into World War I. And the Austro-Hungarian Empire is probably the most important thing to understand if we're trying to get a sense of how World War I started, because leading up to World War I, in 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. And that's another confusing thing for many of us, that that's actually one country. It's called Bosnia and Herzegovina, or I guess for the Austro-Hungarians that was now one region that they annexed. And what's interesting about that is if you look at the linguistic map, you see that this whole region right over here speaks a very similar-- essentially, they're dialects of Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian. They're all very linguistically and ethnically connected, so this whole region right over here is linguistically and ethnically connected. And what we'll see is, is that this desire to connect people with similar ethnic or linguistic roots-- linguistic backgrounds is what led to a lot of what happened in World War-- or at least was the spark that fueled, that people sometimes say, the powder keg of World War I. The other thing that was a very different or the other country or nation or empire that we are not used to today is the Ottoman Empire. So if we go today, we see the country of Turkey, which is on the Anatolian Peninsula. So this is Turkey right over here. This is modern-day Turkey. But entering into World War I in 1914, Turkey was essentially part of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. So this right over here is what the Ottoman Empire looked like. This right over here is roughly modern-day Turkey. But the Ottoman Empire consisted of modern-day Turkey and much of the modern Middle East. So much of-- especially, much of the Arab-- especially the Arab world around Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, much of what where modern-day Israel is, some of Saudi Arabia. And this was really the dying state of the Ottoman Empire. At its peak, it controlled much of the Muslim world. It controlled Northern Africa as well as all the stuff you see here and even a little bit of Persia and actually a good bit of the Balkans, southeast Europe, and even Greece at the peak of its Ottoman Empire. And now I'm talking about going hundreds and hundreds of years back into the past. So when we enter into World War II, we don't have a world where people are, where states are defined by linguistic boundaries or by ethnic boundaries. To a large degree, we had these empires that had existed as we exited out of the 1800s. And these empires were not just in Europe, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire or not just in the Middle East, like the Ottoman Empire. Right over here is an empire map at around that point in time. And you see, probably the most dominant feature here is the British Empire. That's in this pink color. So British, that's the United Kingdom. Great Britain would just be this right over here. You throw in Ireland. You get the United Kingdom. Great Britain was in control of the Indian, the entire Indian subcontinent. It was essentially although nominally Egypt was somewhat independent, Great Britain had a huge amount of influence here. Obviously places like Canada and Australia and New Zealand were under control of or a part of the British Empire. What a lot of people don't realize is a significant amount of Africa as well. A significant amount of Africa was also under British control. And what we have running up into World War I is kind of a race for empire, an arms race between the major powers of Europe. In particular, you have Great Britain, or the United Kingdom, that obviously had a vast empire. The sun never sets on the British Empire. And it wasn't ever setting on this empire that we just saw here. And the German Empire was also starting to flex its muscle and starting to militarize. And the more that the German saw that the British were militarizing, the more that the British-- the more that the Germans would want to militarize and vice versa, and you just had this arms race. And they were all trying to build their empires. So the Germans, they were present in Africa. You have the French who were present in much of Africa. And you have to remember all of this in context. Some of this empire building was, frankly, just about ego and just about spreading someone's influence, spreading their power. A lot of it was based on ethnic beliefs about civilization. I guess these were rationalization to take control of other people's resources. And a lot of it was we were in a world where access to resources-- in particular, access to raw materials and especially oil-- could, to some degree, define whether a power was a power at all. And so with that, I think we have a pretty good basis for the state of affairs as we enter into World War I.