The Consequences of World War I

Political and Social Effects of the War to End All Wars

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

The conflict today known as World War I was fought in battlefields throughout Europe between 1914 and 1918. It involved human slaughter on a previously unprecedented scale.

The human and structural devastation left Europe and the world greatly changed in almost all facets of life, setting the tone for political convulsions throughout the remainder of the century. The elements that greatly affected the 20th century and beyond trace the fall and rise of countries throughout the world. In many of those elements is seen the unescapably looming shadow of World War II.

A New Great Power

Before its entry into World War I, the United States of America was a nation of untapped military potential and growing economic might. But the war changed the U.S. in two important ways: the country's military was turned into a large-scale fighting force with the intense experience of modern war, a force that was clearly equal to the old Great Powers; and the balance of economic power began the transfer from the drained nations of Europe to America.

However, the toll taken by the war led to decisions by U.S. politicians to retreat from the world and return to isolationism. That isolation initially limited the impact of America's growth, which would only truly come to fruition in the aftermath of World War II. This retreat also 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 communism, only one of the world’s growing ideologies, into a major European force. While the global socialist 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's politics initially tottered toward joining Russia, but eventually pulled 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 German's right, whereas Russia's authoritarian regime after the tsarists lasted for decades.

The Collapse of Central and Eastern European Empires

The German, Russian, Turkish, and Austro-Hungarian Empires all fought in World War I, 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, as well as that of 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 its territory for decades. Austria-Hungary appeared close behind.

But the fall of the young, powerful, and growing German Empire, after the people revolted and the Kaiser was forced to abdicate, came as a great shock. In their place came a rapidly changing series of new governments, ranging in structure from democratic republics to socialist dictatorships.

Nationalism Transforms and Complicates Europe

Nationalism had been growing in Europe for decades before World War I began, but the war's aftermath saw a major rise in new nations and independence movements. Part of this was a result of Woodrow Wilson’s isolationist commitment to what he called "self-determination." But part was also a response to the destabilization of old empires and the rise of nationalists to take advantage of that 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 others emerged. But nationalism conflicted hugely with the ethnic makeup of this region of Europe, where many different nationalities and ethnicities all lived uncomfortably merged with one another. Eventually, internal conflicts stemming from new self-determination by national majorities arose from disaffected minorities who preferred the rule of neighbors.

The Myths of Victory and Failure

German commander Erich Ludendorff suffered a mental collapse before he called for an armistice to end the war, and when he recovered and discovered the terms he had signed onto, he insisted Germany refuse them, claiming the army could fight on. But the new civilian government overruled him, as once peace had been established there was no way to keep the army fighting or the public to support that. These civilian leaders who overruled Ludendorff became scapegoats for both the army and Ludendorff himself.

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 who had damaged the Weimar Republic and fueled the rise of Hitler. That myth 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 Italian 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 was born from the ashes of World War I.

The Largest Loss: A "Lost Generation"

While it is 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 anyone who had not lost someone to the war. Many other people had been wounded or shell-shocked so badly they killed themselves, and these casualties are not reflected in the figures.

The tragedy of the "war to end all wars" was that it was renamed World War I, and the resulting unsettled political situation in Europe led, in large part, to World War II.