Anglo-Saxon Population History and World Power

The German Empire would not be proclaimed until next January, but it was forged in Bismarck’s splendid war against France in 1870. That was also the last year in which Germany would be more populous than the United States. Germany was born in relative demographic decline as a result of the settlement of the American West. In 1870, Greater Britain (Britain, Canada, and Australia—we don’t have data for New Zealand and South Africa)’s population was 37.0m, France’s population was 38.4m, America’s 40.2m, and Germany’s 40.8m. 1870 is really the crossover point of the population scissors. The populations of all four were roughly around 40m in 1870. Over the next forty years, while France’s grew by a mere 7 percent, Greater Britain’s grew by 53 percent, Germany’s by 58 percent. But both were dwarfed by America’s 131 percent. By 1910, France, Greater Britain, Germany, and the US weighed in at 41.2m, 56.5m, 64.6m, and 92.8m respectively.

The stagnation of the French population, the fact that Greater Britain expanded demographically nearly as much as Germany, and German demographic decline relative to the United States, all came to weigh heavily on the world question at the turn of the century. This was especially so because all four great powers were roughly at the technological frontier by the turn of the century. Although the United States had clear leadership, the secondary industrial revolution occurred in all four poles (and beyond). Germany in particular was a major center of innovation in the mechanical arts, leading in many sectors, eg industrial chemistry, heavy industry, and catching up in many where the Americans had led, eg automobiles.

Population in millions
Greater Britain United States Germany France
1870 37.0 40.2 40.8 38.4
1880 41.2 50.5 45.1 39.0
1890 45.5 63.3 49.2 40.0
1900 50.4 76.4 56.0 40.6
1910 56.5 92.8 64.6 41.2


Life expectancy is a good measure of everyday living standards. The next figure shows that by this measure, improvement in German living standards accelerated around 1890. But there was no relative improvement in Germany’s position because the Atlantic powers themselves hit the toe of the hockey-stick at the same time. The Anglo-Saxons opened up a gap with France as well. No one was as rich as them or lived as long.


The evidence from stature is even more daunting from the perspective of an aspiring world power. Americans still towered over Germans. Greater Britain and Germany remain close throughout, although with a British edge. France, which was closer to the Anglo-Saxons in life expectancy, lagged behind even though it too participated in the onset of the hockey stick.


Note that we have defined the average stature of Greater Britain as the population weighted average of British, Canadian, and Australian means. If you unpack Greater Britain, it turns out that Canadians and especially Australians enjoyed a definite settler premium. See next figure. American supremacy in stature is therefore not surprising. Britons would finally become taller than Americans for the first time in 1930. But that is a story for another day. Instead of unpacking Greater Britain, the challenge is to expand it to encompass not just New Zealand and White British subjects in southern Africa, but Greater Britain in a thick sense: as the predominance of the British diaspora in the offshore world. Proximately what was required was to monopolize prime temperate land in Anglo-Saxon hands; in order to do that, what was required was the take-off of self-reproducing settler colonies; preferably junior geopolitical allies of Belich’s Anglo oldlands (see the schematic map) that could thus anchor the world position of the two Anglo-Saxon great powers.


Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 3.24.26 AM
From Belich, Replenishing the Earth.

I still haven’t finished reading Belich’s Replenishing the Earth: the Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939, so I will hold my judgement of the first three-fourths of the book. I will say that his description of the wildcat banking and asset price bubbles of the Anglo-Saxon frontier is excellent. I also agree with him that explosive colonization was a bubble by construction. One went all in when one went to settle a fledgling colony. Things worked themselves out once enough talent showed up. Speculators abounded. Increasingly massive boom-bust cycles whipsawed the frontier. Boom towns expanded at prodigious rates; driven by investment booms, unregulated bank lending, furious speculation, and attendant asset price bubbles amid extraordinarily elevated rates of settler arrivals. At the heart of Settlerism itself was a Ponzi scheme; the Anglo-Saxon folie a famille in two senses. As the Anglo-Saxon madness of course. But also the self-accelerating aspect of settler success itself. The booms were in a fundamental sense self-igniting. They solved the problem of coordination through faith. Not just faith in God. But faith in the colony. The frontier attracted the believer like a magnet.

In the American West, there were three major medium term cycles that peaked in 1837, 1857, and 1873. (The last of the great booms peaked in 1893 and 1907.) After each of these busts, Belich argues, the West was re-colonized, reoriented to point towards to metropole; peripheralized via a vertical division of labor—Cincinnati would no longer produce books and periodicals (88,000 books were published in the town in the three months of 1831, Belich reports) but pork and grain; New York would supply the books and periodicals. Fair trade or not, this was the construction process of the Weltwirtschaft.

The topology of the world had been transformed by Anglo-Saxon settlement. Britain’s decline relative to Germany has been overestimated. If we consider the product of life expectancy and population as the measure of war potential instead of GDP which is a product of per capita GDP and population, Britain kept pace with Germany all the way. (We know the picture that emerges from income: Britain’s per capita GDP was 25 percent larger than Germany’s in 1900).


France was guaranteed to be a member of any balancing coalition against Germany. The real question was Anglo-German relations. Given the Anglo-Saxon stranglehold on the maritime world-economy, their naval mastery, and their settlement of all available prime temperate land, there was no solution to the problem of wrestling world control away from Anglo-Saxon hands. Fisher’s ‘five keys that lock up the world’ were Anglo-Saxon property by the time the German Empire was proclaimed. So the German bid to be one of the four world policeman was thwarted by the difficulty of dethroning Great Britain, the Franco-Russian alliance and the problem of two-front war, and above all, the settlement of the American West and the rise of the United States.

Population history is crucial to the Franco-German story, the Anglo-German balance, the rise of the United States to global mastery, and the cul-de-sac of German navalism. But was there no viable path for Germany to become a world power? The missed opportunity of 1905 points in the right direction. Above all, Germany needed to achieve military hegemony on the continent. Russia was out of business and France lay exposed. Navalism came to bite not only in 1914 but also in 1905 when the Kaiser decided to wait for a more favorable naval balance.

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