World War I: The Turning Point of European Ascendancy
World War I killed more than ten million young men and wounded another twenty million; it also destroyed Europe’s world dominance. This destruction seemed incomprehensible to most living in Europe in the 1920s, but would soon be eclipsed by the horrors of World War II.
The war began in 1914. On June 28th of that year, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like many Serb nationalists, Princip hoped to annex the Serbian-speaking areas of the Empire to Serbia. The Austrians suspected Serbian government involvement in the assassination and determined to destroy Serbia. But the conflict could not be confined to southeastern Europe. An immensely complicated system of alliances had developed in the past generation—alliances that quickly involved all the major powers of the continent in a seemingly localized affair. The Germans, who believed that Austria-Hungary was their only dependable friend on the continent, encouraged the Austrians to proceed in a war against Serbia and offered support. The Russians, in turn, as the traditional protectors of Slav interests in the Balkans, intervened to protect Serbia and committed themselves against both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russia’s principal ally was France, and France was loosely allied to Britain. Although Britain initially hesitated to defend France, its recent naval rivalry with Germany encouraged its involvement in the war. These alliances set the conditions for war.
In 1914, Europe found itself at once united and divided. International forces that had unified the continent such as the International Office of Public Health were growing stronger. But many nations saw themselves as being locked in a Darwinian struggle of the fittest for survival against each other. In these conditions, national leaders believed that failure to support their foreign allies was tantamount to extinction. The European continent was also highly militarized. By 1914, all the European powers, except Britain, had imposed universal conscription. New systems of compulsory public education had educated generations of Europeans in the spirit of nationalism and military glory. When war broke out in the summer of 1914, most eagerly supported it. Cheering crowds greeted soldiers marching off to the front. Having grown up in a world of increasing diplomatic tensions, many thought that war was inevitable and expected their troops to be home by Christmas.
In a short time, fighting spread to nearly every part of the world—from Europe to Africa to the Pacific. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria), and Allied forces (Russia, France, Britain) began to support Arab nationalist movements. The war was fought not only on land but also at sea and in the air. Although boundaries fluctuated throughout the war, it was characterized by a deadlock in the trenches, particularly along the Western Front in France and Belgium. In 1914, the German army advanced to within 20 miles of Paris, but by the end of the year, the Western Front had stagnated into the stalemate of trench warfare. In 1915 and 1916, both sides launched enormous attacks aimed at breaking the deadlock but with no real success.
The Allied Powers brought Italy into the war on their side, but the Italian attack on Austria also degenerated into stalemate. The British attacked Ottoman forces at Gallipoli, but that ended in disaster. Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and invaded Serbia. Still nothing broke the stalemate.
In spite of the futile bloodshed, hardly anyone was ready to make peace by 1917. The Germans expected to retain Belgium, parts of France, and a huge area of Russia. The French wanted to recover Alsace-Lorraine, seized by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Italy wanted control of Italian-speaking areas of Austria, and the British wanted to curb Germany’s naval and commercial power.
A turning point came in 1917, when Russia dropped out of the war and the United States entered on the side of the Entente Powers. The Central Powers’ treaty with Russia, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, brought Germany enormous gains in territory and agricultural resources at Russia’s expense. Moreover, vast numbers of German troops were now free to fight in the west. The resulting German offensive in the spring of 1918 came very close to capturing Paris, as the conflict once again became a war of movement. By the summer, vast numbers of American troops had entered the fighting, helping the Allies to halt the Germans and counterattack.
A number of motivations determined American entry into World War I. More idealistic commentators (and the American government at the time) cite a U.S. feeling of kinship with the Western democracies of France and Britain. Cynics note that American banks had made huge loans to France and Britain, which would be lost should the Germans win. Perhaps the most important direct cause of American entry into the war was German renewal of unconditional submarine warfare (the torpedoing of merchant vessels without warning) in Atlantic waters in January 1917. American ships and merchandise were destroyed and American civilians killed.
The German high command had expected that submarine warfare would bring America into the war, but it underestimated the United States’ power. By August, as German armies on the Western Front reeled backward, General Ludendorff told the kaiser that Germany could no longer win the war. In the fall, German sailors mutinied, setting the whole country alight. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed as its subject peoples declared their independence. The war ended in November 1918—four years after it began.
World War I transformed the home fronts as well as the battlefields. Although most European countries, Germany in particular, had enacted a few measures of social legislation before 1914, most politicians, businessmen, and economists believed that government should interfere in the economy as little as possible. Once the war was under way, however, most countries instituted systems of “war socialism” in which governments created vast bureaucracies to direct their economies.
The war was enormously expensive. New taxes were imposed everywhere, and countries accumulated enormous debts. By 1918, the interest payments on the French debt were greater than the entire prewar budget. Governments also responded by printing more money, leading to inflation throughout Europe.
The war also transformed the lives of women, as it brought them into the workplace. The usual corps of factory workers was now on the battlefield; thus, the participation of women was the key to the economic survival of many countries. In the United States, many African-Americans migrated from the South to take industrial jobs in northern cities.
The war generated cynicism. Most people lost whatever faith they might have had in the notion of progress. Literary and artistic works like All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as the avant-garde works of the Dadaists, testified to a general loss of idealism.
The diplomats who assembled in Paris in 1919 to make the final peace faced a difficult task. In response to the tremendous casualties and wartime destruction, politicians hoped to ensure that war would not happen again. The American President Woodrow Wilson had already outlined his Fourteen Points, which called for an end to the alliances that had dragged all the major powers into the war and the creation of a League of Nations that would prevent future conflicts. Wilson also proposed that the peacemakers follow the principle of national self-determination, a suggestion that threatened European nations’ hold on their colonies. But European delegates, especially French Prime Minister Clemenceau, saw Wilson’s proposals as excessively idealistic and impractical.
The biggest problem for peacemakers was to decide the fate of Germany. The French, who had suffered more than the other major powers, wanted to weaken Germany so that it could never again become a threat. The British and Americans wanted more moderate terms, especially since they feared that a bankrupt German economy would drag down the rest of the world. In the end, Germany was forced to assume responsibility for the war, to give up some territory, to disband nearly all of its military forces, and to assume a crippling burden of reparations. The Treaty of Versailles was harsh enough to leave Germans embittered, but it did not break Germany’s great potential economic and military strength. Many historians see it as a poor compromise peace that laid the groundwork for World War II.
In the colonial world, many believed that the time had come for independence. Millions of colonial soldiers from the British and French empires had fought for their imperial rulers and therefore believed that they deserved the respect given to citizens of the metropole. In the end, however, the French and British kept their own empires intact, and former German and Ottoman possessions were handed over to new masters. Wilson’s principle of national self-determination was flouted. Of the major powers, only Bolshevik Russia appeared to have any sympathy for the protests of the colonial world.
Another legacy of the war was the creation of altogether new countries. The peace treaties produced at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 outlined new countries from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. In addition, Poland, Hungary, and Austria now became independent. These new states were weak and vulnerable to potential German or Russian aggression in the decades to come.
THE THEMES IN CHAPTER 3
Global interrelatedness. The interlocking alliances and rivalries that led to World War I combined with nationalist tensions to threaten the international equilibrium. Eventually, the European conflict spread to other parts of the world, as the United States and other overseas powers entered into the war.
Identity and difference. The ethnic differences that created the initial spark that set off World War I lead to the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires as multi-ethnic states. The end of the war saw the creation of newly independent nations in Europe from the fall of the old empires and rising calls for independence in the overseas empires.
Rise of the mass society. Entire economies and populations had to adapt to the war on the home front. Central state power expanded dramatically in the form of an all-reaching economic bureaucracy to ensure wartime supply.
Technology versus nature. The war brought forth new weapons of mass destruction, the adaptation of modern communication and transportation technology to warfare, and the application of modern medicine and public health to treat the victims of modern warfare. The entire landscape of Western Europe and Western Russia was devastated by the war.