2 – The Impact of the First World War
BSSB.BE boell.de 12.08.2016
The First World War was a calamity for Germany and Europe. The Second World War was an even bigger calamity for Germany and Europe. But without both World Wars there would be no European Union (EU) today. The EU has provided the essential infrastructure to deal with ‘the German Question’ – the role of the largest and most powerful state in Europe. When Europeans commemorate the Great War of 1914-18 this summer they should be reflecting not only on the diplomatic blunders and the enormous waste of lives but also the beginning of a new approach to international relations epitomised by the EU.
The Changes resulting from the First World War
The human cost of the First World War was horrendous. More than 16 million people, both military and civilian, died in the war. An entire generation of young men was wiped away. In 1919, the year after the war was over in France, there were 15 women for every man between the ages of 18 and 30.
- The First World War changed the nature of warfare. Technology became an essential element in the art of war with airplanes, submarines, tanks all playing important new roles. Mass production techniques developed during the war for the building of armaments revolutionised other industries in the post-war years.
- The first chemical weapons were also used when the Germans used poisonous gas at Ypres in 1915. A century later the international community was seeking to prohibit President Assad of Syria from using chemical weapons against his own people.
- The Great War also led to mass armies based on conscription, a novel concept for Britain, although not on the continent. It is ironic that the principle of universal military service was introduced in Britain without the adoption of universal adult male suffrage. The war also saw the first propaganda films, some designed to help enlist US support for the Allies.
- The Charlie Chaplin film Shoulder Arms offers a vivid illustration of the horrors of life at the front. Propaganda films would later be perfected under the Nazis.
Modern surgery was born in the First World War, where civil and military hospitals acted as theatres of experimental medical intervention. Millions of veterans survived the war but were left maimed, mutilated and disfigured.
- These were the so-called ‘broken faces’ whose plight was often eased by the development of skin grafts. Blood banks were developed after the discovery in 1914 that blood could be prevented from clotting. The First World War also led doctors to start to study the emotional as opposed to the physical stress of war. Shell shock and traumatic shock were identified as common symptoms.
The horrors of the Great War also gave an impulse to Christian socialism with the rally cry of ‘never again’. It also forced women into jobs that had previously been a male preserve. Many of the women whom the war effort had forced out of domestic service and into factories found themselves unwilling to relinquish their new independence. The War thus gave a boost to demands for women’s emancipation.
The War also sparked a peace movement that had disarmament as its main aim. It flourished briefly in the inter-war years, was reborn during the Vietnam War and found many adherents in Europe e.g. the campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND). Although less formally organised than during the 1980s, the anti-war movement in Europe showed its strength in the mass demonstrations against the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The war also had major consequences for the European socialist and labour movement. Although well organised in many countries, including Britain, France and Germany, the socialist movement failed to stop the war in 1914.
Initially skilled workers in the armaments industry were not only exempted from military service but also enjoyed higher wages and better food in return for the banning of strike action. But as the war continued living and working conditions for factory workers gradually declined. Socialist groups began to agitate for peace, a process that received a boost as a result of the 1917 Russian revolution. At the end of the war in 1918 the socialist and trade union movement was much stronger than in 1914.
The Great War also saw the introduction of the planned economy and a much bigger role for the state. Soon after the outbreak of war the German government took control over banks, foreign trade and the production and sale of food as well as armaments. It also set maximum prices for various goods. When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917 they embarked on a vast nationalisation programme and later a comprehensive planned economy. The planned economy also had its adherents in other countries, especially after the twin shocks of hyperinflation in the 1920s and the Great Crisis of 1929.
Foreign policy implications
The 1914-18 conflict had a global impact. In the Middle East, for example, the British and French promised different things to the Arabs and the Jews in return for their support against the Ottoman Empire. Under the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, London and Paris carved out respective spheres of influence in what was to become Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But at the same time the British promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine under the equally infamous Balfour Declaration laying the foundations for the emergence of Israel and the world’s most intractable contemporary conflict.
Ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences were of little concern to the colonial-era map-makers. Iraq was formed by merging three Ottoman provinces – dominated respectively by Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. It was also cut off from Kuwait – the genesis of trouble later. The biggest losers of the post-war lottery in the Middle East were the Kurds. Nowadays this still stateless people enjoy a high degree of regional autonomy – as well as relative peace – in federal Iraq while their compatriots in Syria and Turkey face challenges from Damascus and Ankara.
As regards the map of Europe, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were broken up and drastically shrunk, while Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were all born or reborn as nation states. Russia underwent the Bolshevik Revolution that would have a major impact on European and world history. Germany was reduced in size and forced to pay substantial reparations.
The Kaiser went into exile, and Germany plunged into economic and political chaos that paved the way for the rise of Hitler. The new countries were poor and often in conflict with each other. US President Wilson had talked about transparent international agreements, unfettered access to the seas and the lifting of trade barriers.
These would prove utopian as was his concept of borders based on ethnicity, a concept that would be the precursor to many conflicts. The biggest of the new countries was Poland, which had disap-peared from the map for over a century after being partitioned in 1795. In 1923 when its bor-ders were finally settled, Poland had relatively good relations with only two neighbours – tiny Latvia to the north and a distant Romania to the south.
The real winner of the First World War was the United States. It was late in entering the war, only in 1917, but emerged far stronger than most other nations as it had not suffered either the bloodletting or the wasted industrial effort of the major European nations. It became, al-most overnight, the leading financial power in the world, elbowing Britain out of its way en route to becoming the world’s banker.
The financial crash of 1929 brought misery across Europe. Adolf Hitler seized the opportunity to seize power, under dubious semi-legitimate circumstances, and start building up Germany’s armed forces in contravention of the Versailles Treaty. Few in Western Europe believed that Hitler was deadly serious about creating a Greater Reich across the European continent.
There were also concerns that the reparations that had been demanded by France at Versailles had been too harsh, a view expressed eloquently in The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes. When London and Paris finally awoke to the threat it was too late. By 1941 Hitler controlled half of Europe after a stunning series of Blitzkrieg victories. But Hitler over-reached himself by declaring war on the US before defeating the Soviet Union. In 1945, just thirteen years after the proclamation of the one thousand year Reich it was all over. Germany was divided and lay in ruins.
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* Youtube – Noam Chomsky – Optimism. Avram American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, logician, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes described as “the father of modern linguistics”, Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy, and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.
* Youtube – The Mike Wallace Interview: Erich Fromm (1958-05-25).
Erich Fromm, psychoanalyst and social critic, talks to Wallace about society, materialism, relationships, government, religion, and happiness.