Consequences of World War One

The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles by Orpen
The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles by Orpen. Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons

World War One was fought from 1914 to 1918, and saw slaughter on an unprecedented scale. This left Europe and the world greatly changed in almost all facets of life and set the tone for the convulsions of the remaining century. This page looks at the major consequences of the war and isn't in any particular order. You can't help escaping the shadow of World War 2 when you look back at World War One's aftermath, and you'll see most of these points lead into that second conflict.

A New Great Power

Before their entry into World War One, the United States of America was a nation of untapped military potential and growing economic might. But the war changed this in two important ways: their military was turned into a large-scale fighting force with intense experience of modern war, a force which was clearly equal to the old Great Powers, and the balance of economic power started to switch from the drained nations of Europe to America. However, decisions taken by US politicians caused the country to retreat from the world and return to isolationism, initially limiting the impact, which would only truly fruit in the aftermath of World War Two. This retreat undermined the League of Nations and the emerging new political order.

Socialism Rises to the World Stage

The collapse of Russia under the pressure of total warfare allowed socialist revolutionaries to seize power, and turn one of the world’s growing ideologies into a major European force.

While the global revolution that Lenin believed was coming never happened, the presence of a huge and potentially powerful communist nation in Europe and Asia changed the balance of world politics. Germany initially tottered towards Russia but did pull back from experiencing a full Leninist change and formed a new social democracy.

This would come under great pressure and fail from the challenge of the right, whereas Russia's was already authoritarian and lasted horribly.

The Collapse of Central and Eastern European Empires

The German, Russian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian Empires all fought in World War One, and all were swept away by defeat and revolution (although not necessarily in that order). The fall of Turkey (in 1922, from a revolution stemming directly from the war) and Austria-Hungary were probably not that much of a surprise: Turkey had long been regarded as the sick man of Europe, and vultures had circled their territory for decades, while Austria-Hungary appeared close behind. But the fall of the young, powerful and growing German Empire, when the people revolted and the Kaiser was forced to abdicate, was a shock. In their place were a series of new governments, from democratic republics to socialist dictatorships.

Nationalism Transforms and Complicates Europe

Nationalism had been growing in Europe for decades before World War One, but the aftermath saw a major rise in new nations and independence movements. Part of this was to do with Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to ‘self-determination’, and part to the destabilization of old empires and the chance for nationalists to take advantage and declare new countries.

The key region for European nationalism was Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where Poland, the three Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and more emerged. But nationalism conflicted hugely with the ethnic make-up of this region of Europe, where many different nationalities and ethnicities all lived merged with one another, and where self-determination and national majorities created disaffected minorities who preferred the rule of a neighbor.

The Myths of Victory and Failure

German commander Ludendorff suffered a mental collapse before he called for an armistice, and when he found out the terms, having recovered, he insisted Germany refuse them. He claimed the army could fight on. But the new civilian government overruled him, as once peace had been mooted there was no way to keep the army, or the public, fighting.

These civilians acted exactly as the scapegoats for both the army and himself that Ludendorff had wished. Thus began, at the very close of the war, the myth of the undefeated German army being ‘stabbed in the back’ by liberals, socialists, and Jews which damaged Weimar and fueled the rise of Hitler. It came directly from Ludendorff setting up the civilians for the fall. Italy didn’t receive as much land as it had been promised in secret agreements, and right wingers exploited this to complain of a ‘mutilated peace’.

In contrast, in Britain, the successes of 1918 which had been won partly by their soldiers were increasingly ignored, in favor of viewing the war, and all war, as a bloody catastrophe. This affected their response to international events in the 1920s and 30s; arguably, the policy of appeasement from born from World War One.

A "Lost Generation"

While it’s not strictly true that a whole generation was lost – and some historians have complained about the term – eight million people died, which was perhaps one in eight of the combatants. In most of the Great Powers, it was hard to find someone who had not lost someone to the war. Many other people had been wounded or shell-shocked so badly they killed themselves, and these aren’t reflected in the figures. Facial injuries were particularly affecting.

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Wilde, Robert. "Consequences of World War One." ThoughtCo, Mar. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/consequences-of-world-war-one-1222033. Wilde, Robert. (2017, March 26). Consequences of World War One. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/consequences-of-world-war-one-1222033 Wilde, Robert. "Consequences of World War One." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/consequences-of-world-war-one-1222033 (accessed September 24, 2017).