In the period of 1890–1914, which groups around the world challenged the status quo and the idea of progress, and why? What was cultural modernism, and how did it challenge traditional assumptions about art and science?

A number of developments worldwide challenged the narrative of progress during the period 1890–1914. Imperialism and militarism led to simmering conflicts between the nations of Europe. Radical working-class movements in many countries were perceived as a serious threat to order, as were nationalist uprisings in many of Europe's empires. Each of these developments contributed to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

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In retrospect, it is easy to see that the world from 1890 to 1914 was a period of profound anxieties, most of which turned out to be well-founded in light of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

First, this period witnessed the height of European imperialism. This placed most of the world's people under European and American control, and it also led to heightened tensions between the world's powers, who struggled to project their influence around the world. The United States gained an empire in 1898 after a brief war against Spain, which deployed a hopelessly outdated navy and a weak army against the rising power in the Philippines and the Caribbean. France and Great Britain nearly went to war over colonial squabbles in Sudan and Morocco. Though most conflicts over colonies were resolved peacefully under existing agreements, European nations, especially Great Britain and Germany, sought to develop a powerful military, particularly a navy, in response. The competition between nations also fed into a spirit of nationalism and militarism. In this atmosphere, the leaders of Europe's nations tended to surround themselves with militaristic advisers, men who argued that taking aggressive stances was the best way to achieve national interests.

Many of the industrialized nations in the West witnessed radical movements that emerged in response to the conditions that confronted the working classes. These movements were seen (and indeed perceived themselves) as existential threats to the status quo—one of the reasons progressive movements had such a strong appeal during the era was that they were seen as a middle way between unfettered capitalism and radical leftist movements. Several national leaders, including the presidents of the United States and France, the King of Italy, and the Empress of Austria, were assassinated by anarchists around the turn of the century. Massive strikes threatened to cripple the economies of Russia and Germany, among others, in the early 1900s, and even culminated in a revolution against Tsar Nicholas in 1905. The 1890s and early 1900s also witnessed nationalist turmoil, including terror attacks by Irish separatists in London, and a series of uprisings in the Balkans that included outright wars against the Ottoman Empire. It was, of course, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a Serbian nationalist that ushered in the crisis that led to World War I.

These movements, especially those featuring left-wing anarchism, communism, and socialism, were a political response to disillusionment with the status quo. This spirit was manifested in culture and intellectual life as well. Though many of the trends associated with "modernism" appeared in the wake of World War I, many also appeared in the years leading up to it. Intellectuals struggled to grapple with the social changes of the era, with writers like Franz Kafka in his most famous work, The Metamorphosis, commenting on the dehumanizing aspects of modern life.

Intellectuals increasingly stressed that many of the foundations of Western society, particularly Christianity and Enlightenment rationalism, were under assault. Sigmund Freud, for example, emphasized the irrational nature of man, and Friedrich Nietzsche famously remarked, in the wake of sweeping change, that man had "killed" God. Social Darwinists and scientific racists argued that the world was characterized by struggle, and that white Europeans were positioned as the masters of the world. These intellectual developments seemed to be borne out by the series of alarming events taking place in western society during this period.

In short, there were many reasons to fear that these developments would erupt into a massive war between the powers of Europe, as indeed they did in August of 1914. There were, in other words, many reasons why the phrase "Age of Anxiety," so often applied to the post-World War I era, is also appropriate for the pre-war period.

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