World War I

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Editors: John Merriman and Jay Winter
Date: 2006
Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview; Event overview
Pages: 16
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Page 2751


The conflict that broke out in late July–early August 1914 was immediately referred to as the "European War." European it remained, for at root it was a struggle for supremacy on the Continent, and Europeans were the bulk of its victims. It was soon also called a "World War," with equally good reason. Because the globe was dominated by Europe at the start of the twentieth century, the conflict touched most of it, with some parts, such as the Middle East, affected profoundly. Indeed, though difficult to foresee in 1914, the war marked the beginning of the end of European hegemony, with the United States entering the conflict in 1917 and presiding over its settlement while Japan confirmed its power in east Asia and the Pacific. The war was also called the "Great War" because it seemed likely to change the world more dramatically than any event since the French Revolution.


Although one set of events, the war is best understood as four distinct conflicts that converged in 1914. The first arose from the realignment of the European balance of power following the creation of a powerful Germany in 1870. Otto von Bismarck sought to avoid polarizing the Continent against Germany by keeping France isolated and maintaining Russia and Austria-Hungary as joint allies, despite the potential for rivalry between them. This balancing act was disregarded by the new emperor, William II, and his successive chancellors following Bismarck's dismissal in 1890. Germany's increasingly close alliance with Austria-Hungary pushed autocratic Russia into an alliance with republican France, threatening Germany on each flank. This in turn fed deep insecurities among the German political and military elites about how to safeguard the future of both the nation and the semiauthoritarian monarchy that governed it.

The second conflict arose from the colonial empires accumulated by the European powers before 1914. Not unreasonably, William II felt that Germany's strength and dynamism in Europe entitled it to overseas possessions. But the way he pursued this goal challenged British maritime supremacy, provoking a naval arms race between the two countries. He also created international crises in 1905 and 1911 by intervening in Morocco, where the French were establishing a protectorate. The result was counterproductive. Britain kept its naval lead, and by 1912 Germany refocused on the European continent. However, Britain had been forced to replace imperial isolation by alignment with France (1904) and Russia (1907), in what became known as the Triple Entente during the war. This allowed the concentration of its fleet in home waters against the German threat while also making it unlikely that Britain would stand aside from a challenge to France. Colonial conflicts thus contributed to the nature of the war in 1914, if not to its outbreak, for they encouraged Britain and France to collaborate in Europe and to attack Germany's colonies if war broke out.

A third kind of conflict arose from the attempt by two multinational states, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, to preserve their position amid emergent national identities. The two Page 2752  |  Top of Article empires drew on the older principle of dynastic authority over peoples who belonged to various ethnic, religious, and national groupings. By 1914 former subjects had all but forced the Ottoman Empire out of its extensive territories in southeastern Europe. In retrospect, the two Balkan wars in 1912–1913 were the early warning signal of a European conflict. The key successor states (Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia) reduced Ottoman power to a toehold in Europe before engaging in a second, fratricidal conflict over the spoils. This had the effect of reorienting Turkey, where radicals had come to power in 1907, toward an Asian version of the Ottoman Empire infused with a new Turkish nationalism.

In the case of Austria-Hungary, concessions to the subordinate nationalities (Czechs and Poles as well as the South Slav peoples of Slovenia and Croatia) ultimately threatened the supremacy of German-speaking Austrians and Hungarian Magyars on which the Dual Monarchy rested. In 1908 Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a principality with a mixed Bosnian, Serb, and Muslim population that it had occupied after an Ottoman defeat thirty years earlier. It did so in order to prevent Bosnia-Herzegovina from falling into the hands of Serbia, whose growing power exerted an attraction on South Slavs within the Dual Monarchy. The sword was double-edged, however, as acquiring Bosnia enlarged the potential for just such a challenge. On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a student who belonged to a Bosnian Serb terrorist group with shadowy connections to Serb military intelligence, assassinated the heir to Austria-Hungary, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and his wife, as the couple visited the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. This was the fuse that detonated the Great War a month later.

The fourth kind of conflict was the reverse of this rearguard defense of dynastic power. The Serbs saw themselves as fighting for national liberation, the model for which had emerged with the French Revolution when popular sovereignty became a basis of nationhood. Others agreed, seeing Serbia as the Piedmont of a South Slav nation-state, in a reference to the mid-nineteenth-century unification of Italy around the independent monarchy of that name. More broadly, the legitimacy accorded to nation-states made the defense of the nation, once established, the strongest justification for war. In 1914, invasion—imagined or real—inspired national unity in nearly every belligerent power.

However, war in 1914 took most Europeans by surprise because previous crises had been defused. The question of who was responsible became a major issue of the conflict. The Allies firmly blamed Germany by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, but interwar German governments rejected this burden of guilt. They argued, along with international pacifist opinion, that two armed blocs had accidentally collided in 1914, each fearful lest its opponent seize the advantage. This interpretation remained influential during the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, when the cost of a diplomatic breakdown was even greater. Yet in a West Germany grappling with its Nazi past, attention refocused on the earlier expansionism of Kaiser William II's Germany. While there is no firm consensus, the central role of the German government and army now seems inescapable and the idea of an accident untenable. For once Germany had tied its status as a great power to Austria-Hungary, it was in some measure tributary to the Dual Monarchy's struggle for dynastic survival. By urging Austria-Hungary to crush Serbia after the assassination of Francis Ferdinand, William II and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg deliberately provoked Russia, since the outcome would have been a powerful Austro-German bloc dominating southeastern Europe. This transformed the conflict into one about the balance of power, activating the Franco-Russian alliance. Initially Russia, France, and Britain tried classic diplomacy to resolve Austro-Serb differences, but German policy condemned this to failure. Some German leaders urged a general war; others hoped that Europe might accept a diplomatic coup against Serbia. But all were ready to gamble, partly through confidence in German military strength and partly from exaggerated fear that Russia might prove unbeatable in a future war for the survival of the fittest. With the colonial issue settled, German leaders miscalculated that Britain would stand aloof, whereas the Entente with France helped Britain assert its traditional hostility to Continental domination by one power.

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Soldiers capture Gavrilo Princip moments after he has assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 28 June 1914. © CORBIS

Soldiers capture Gavrilo Princip moments after he has assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 28 June 1914. © CORBIS


The outbreak of war transferred control to the generals. By themselves, invasion plans are no proof of an aggressive intent. The job of generals in peace is to prepare for war, and before 1914 the doctrine that a conflict (whatever its origin) could best be won by the offensive was widespread. The war began with invasions by all the main Continental powers. However, since Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers) held the initiative, German strategy drove events.

Conceived by a prewar chief of the General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, the German plan dealt with a two-front war by launching the main assault against France before turning with its Austrian ally against Russia, which it was assumed would mobilize more slowly. The military key to transforming Germany's position in the east thus lay in the west. However, Schlieffen chose to use the coastal plains of Holland and Belgium, both neutral states, to deploy his invasion. Although modifications by his successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (commander when war broke out), restricted this to Belgium, it turned the war for the Entente (and especially Britain) into a crusade for international law and the integrity of small nations. Had Germany won at the outset, this would not have mattered. But two further factors weighed on the Schlieffen Plan: the strength of the armies and the gap between the imagined war and battlefield reality.

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The major Continental powers before 1914 based their armies on short-term conscription that created cadres of trained men who remained in reserve until middle age and who could be mobilized in time of war. The armies that took to the field in 1914 thus numbered millions. Exceptionally, the British, whose security depended on the navy, had a small, professional army mainly used for colonial campaigns, so that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that was dispatched to France consisted of only some 100,000 men. Realizing that Continental warfare meant a Continental-style army, the minister of war, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, embarked on a recruitment drive which by 1916 had delivered a mass volunteer army to the western front. This was insufficient and Britain introduced conscription in 1916, though this was never applied to Ireland or to the dominions of British settlement (Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), apart from Canada. France, demographically the weakest Great Power, had introduced universal military service in 1905 and extended the period from two to three years in 1913 in order to match Germany's larger population. Russia, with its vast numbers, had no need of full conscription. Germany, which had pioneered short-term military service as the "school of the nation," did not call up all adult men for fear of contaminating the army with politically undesirable working-class elements. This placed the Schlieffen Plan under strain, since modifications that sent more units to hold the Russians at bay meant that the force in the west was inadequate to envelop the French in a battle of "annihilation."

Again, this might not have mattered had the offensive held the advantage. Despite the fact that French and German forces in the west were numerically matched, the German army was supremely confident of its organizational and fighting qualities. The high commands of all the powers understood that technical developments—high-explosive artillery shells, the machine gun—had "industrialized" firepower, making it far more lethal. But although high casualties were anticipated, the antidote was held to lie in the qualities of military commanders who would motivate their soldiers to maintain the offensive and deliver victory. The imagined battlefield drew on the decisive encounters of the Napoleonic Wars a century earlier, which the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and subsequent colonial campaigns had reinforced.

Hence, when von Moltke launched a million men against Belgium in August 1914, expectations were high. By early September the Germans reached the river Marne, thirty kilometers from Paris, virtually on schedule. But the cost was punishing. Losses were unprecedented, with over 300,000 casualties on each side by the end of the month. The German armies had ranged far ahead of their support. Tired and harassed by resistance from the retreating foe, the soldiers had given way to a mass delusion that they faced concerted guerrilla resistance by Belgian and French civilians. The charge had no foundation, being rooted in the German military's fear of democracy. But the result was a brutal reign of terror in the invasion zone resulting in widespread arson and the deliberate killing of 6,500 civilians, which prompted international condemnation of "German atrocities." Above all, the French and British conducted an elusive retreat as the invaders fanned out over an ever-widening arc of territory. Unable to envelop Paris, the Germans tried to close ranks east of the capital. This left them open to a flanking attack from the city in conjunction with a massive counterattack ordered by the French commander, Joseph Joffre. The Battle of the Marne reversed the course of the war as the Germans retreated northward. Then, reaching high ground along the river Aisne, they dug trenches, and the Allies halted in the face of insuperable defensive firepower. Each side raced to outflank the enemy until by November a line of trenches stretched from Switzerland to southwestern Belgium. It was barely to move in four years.

War in the east remained more fluid. Distances were vast and the more primitive transport infrastructure was less decisive in supplying the defensive. After a Russian invasion of remote eastern Germany in August 1914, two German armies under the joint command of the venerable Paul von Hindenburg and the energetic Erich Ludendorff defeated the threat, though the Russians successfully took a large swath of Austrian Galicia. But even here, static trench warfare set in for long periods between dramatic shifts Page 2755  |  Top of Article
German soldiers rest in a trench during a lull in the fighting. © BETTMANN/CORBIS

German soldiers rest in a trench during a lull in the fighting. © BETTMANN/CORBIS
in the front. Elsewhere, trench warfare held sway. Ottoman Turkey entered the war in November 1914 on the side of the Central Powers. In addition to facing Russia in the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks confronted a Franco-British landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula in European Turkey in April 1915, which aimed to seize Istanbul and open a warm-water link with Russia. The operation was a failure, as trench warfare halted any advance and forced an eventual evacuation. When Italy joined the Entente in May 1915 in order to wrest the remaining Italian-speaking areas from Austria, it committed itself to fighting along its northeastern frontier, and despite the mainly alpine terrain, trench warfare predominated there too. Only on the margins, in Germany's African territories and the Ottoman provinces of Palestine and Mesopotamia, did fighting remain mobile. The fact that it took the Austro-Hungarian armies three attempts to crush Serbia (which was not occupied until the end of 1915) proves the tenacity of defensive warfare in Europe.

Trench warfare was thus a structural constant of fighting during World War I. What it really expressed was the destructive capacity of the industrialized firepower that had caused such devastating losses in the opening period and against which trenches were a defense. The result was an extended form of siege combat that overturned the military preconceptions of generals and soldiers alike. The men of all armies soon got used to digging in for survival. A routine developed of manning these modern earthworks, which were supplied by railroads with all the accoutrements of industrial society (from tinned foods to medical facilities, which meant for the first time that fewer soldiers died of disease than of combat) and which were supported by a semi-urban rear filled with munitions dumps, rest camps, temporary cinemas, Page 2756  |  Top of Article and football grounds. All this amounted to a defensive system of extraordinary strength and density, especially on the western front. How to restore the advantage to the offensive, break the enemy's lines, and win a decisive victory was the central military conundrum of the entire war.

Several options presented themselves to both camps. One was economic. Because the stalemate absorbed vast quantities of munitions and materials as well as men, it drew on the entire resources of the societies involved. Here maritime supremacy gave the British, and thus the Entente, an advantage, since they drew on international supplies of food and raw materials and on U.S. munitions production. The Central Powers used submarines to try and neutralize this advantage, though to be effective this meant targeting neutral shipping and risked bringing the United States into the war. Germany also exploited the economies and populations of its substantial occupied territories—Belgium, northern France, Russia's Polish and Baltic provinces, and, from December 1916, Romania. But the Entente powers held the advantage in terms of economic resources and manpower.

A second option was to find a strategic alternative to the trench deadlock. The British had just this in mind when they devised the Gallipoli operation in 1915, which was followed by an equally unsuccessful Franco-British front against Bulgaria (a junior member of the Central Powers), which stagnated in the hills of Macedonia until the end of the war. Difficult logistics and the dominant defensive nullified these efforts to force the enemy's back door. In fact, most British generals (including Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the BEF from December 1915) and virtually all French commanders and politicians believed there was no alternative to expelling the Germans by victory on the western front. The real issue was how to coordinate the western, eastern, and Italian fronts in successful coalition warfare. The Central Powers faced this imperative in reverse. Compelled to fight on several fronts, they could use shorter internal supply lines to concentrate their offensive capacity while defending elsewhere. But defeat on any front would threaten Germany as the dominant power. The "easterners" in the German Supreme Command wanted to eliminate Russia so as to boost the manpower available in the west. But final success still depended on a successful offensive there.

A third option, therefore, was to devise new weapons and associated tactics to achieve this. From the first-ever use of chemical weapons (asphyxiating gas, released by the Germans on the Belgian front in April 1915 and rapidly copied by the Allies), each side sought to restore mobility to firepower. By the end of the war, aircraft had moved from reconnaissance to tactical support for ground troops and to strategic bombing, while the British and French both developed the tank, first used by the British on the Somme in September 1916. Strangely, the Germans neglected this weapon. But if the shape of future warfare was apparent by 1918, it was insufficient to turn the tide. Heavy artillery remained the principal assault weapon. Despite more sophisticated battlefield tactics, which curbed the casualty rates of 1914–1915, the defensive deadlock had not been completely prized open by the end of the war.

By default, this left a fourth option: attrition. Time and again, offensives designed to restore the war of movement ended up being measured solely in terms of the losses sustained by the enemy. The pattern was manifested in 1915 by the French, as they sought vainly to break the western front by assaults in the Artois and Champagne regions while the Germans, who were concentrating on driving the Russians back from Austrian Galicia, remained on the defensive. With the second-highest annual French losses of the war (after 1914), Joffre could claim little more than that he had "weakened" the enemy. For some commanders attrition was a strategy, for others a justification when "breakthrough" failed. Yet its cumulative effect on manpower, matérial, and morale was real. Ultimately it favored the Entente, which was better endowed in the first two categories than the Central Powers. Having failed in 1914, the German leadership was under intense pressure to find a new winning strategy before attrition told against it.

The outcome of the war was shaped by all these options plus one other: the diplomatic search for a negotiated peace as the alternative to a struggle that might destroy the very fabric of the societies involved. In response to the lessons of 1915, the Entente powers began to coordinate their plans, Page 2757  |  Top of Article
German soldiers emerge from a cloud of phosgene gas released by German forces to disable British defenses. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS

German soldiers emerge from a cloud of phosgene gas released by German forces to disable British defenses. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS
which for 1916 turned on a major Franco-British offensive. The German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, preempted this in February 1916 by unleashing a massive onslaught on the fortified (but weakly held) town of Verdun. Unlike Ludendorff and Hindenburg, he believed the outcome should be sought directly on the western front. Realizing that the long-term odds were against Germany, he planned a battle on the basis of attrition, seeking the destruction of the French will to fight and the division of the western Allies. The bid failed. By summer 1916, when the worst of the fighting was over, the French still held Verdun. Moreover, on 1 July a scaled-down version of the Franco-British offensive was launched on the river Somme, with the British taking the lead. Like the French in 1915, the largely untried British troops were devastated by the unbroken power of the German defensive, with sixty thousand casualties (including almost twenty thousand dead) on the first day being the highest in British history. Though some later phases of the battle were more successful, by November, Haig's hope of a breakthrough had evaporated. Yet overall, 1916 demonstrated both the resilience of the French and Britain's ability to deploy a mass army on the western front. Together with an initially successful Russian offensive under Alexei Brusilov against the Austrians, this provoked a crisis in the German leadership that resulted in Hindenburg and Ludendorff taking over the Supreme Command for the rest of the war and dominating domestic politics.

In the short term, the reversion to an eastern strategy worked. The German army went onto the defensive in the west, retreating in February 1917 to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line, which made the western front even more impregnable. In April the new French commander, Robert Page 2758  |  Top of Article Nivelle, who had replaced Joffre when Parliament forced the government to reassert control over the military, promised a decisive breakthrough as he attacked the Chemin des Dames on the river Aisne. Appalling weather and unbroken defenses reduced the battle yet again to a costly struggle of attrition, this time producing widespread disaffection among French soldiers at the gulf between tactics and reality. The crisis in morale was only resolved when Nivelle's successor, Philippe Pétain, renegotiated the terms of service with soldiers who were acutely aware of their status as citizens, the upshot being better conditions and less costly tactics. The BEF, pursuing its own path in the second half of 1917, attempted a frontal assault in Belgium (the Third Battle of Ypres), which Haig ambitiously designed to penetrate the front and link up with a coastal invasion to turn the German flank. This too degenerated into stalemate on the flooded plain of Flanders with high losses on both sides.

On the eastern front, the ultimate failure of Brusilov in 1916 and the internal rigidities of the regime brought down the tsar in the revolution of March 1917. The Provisional Government (composed of liberals and moderate socialists) imagined that it could now unleash the energies of the country in a war effort that would also see the introduction of a western-style democratic constitution. But popular disaffection, growing mutinies in the army, and outright opposition to the war by industrial workers undercut this effort, which was in any case incapable of defeating German military power in the east. A final, disastrous offensive in June precipitated a second revolutionary crisis, which brought Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power in November, covertly backed by the Germans, on a platform of withdrawal from the war and full-blown socialism. This was confirmed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, by which the Bolsheviks ceded much of Ukraine to the German military who now controlled nearly as much of eastern Europe as Hitler would in 1942. In addition, the Germans stiffened the Austrian effort in Italy and caused a disastrous defeat at Caporetto in October 1917, with the Central Powers occupying much of the Veneto before the front was reestablished east of Venice.

Why, given these strategic successes in 1917, were Germany and its allies defeated within a year? War aims—the political core of the conflict—were crucial. In 1914 the German elites wished to preempt Russian expansion and shore up Austria-Hungary, but they had no blueprint for Continental dominance. Yet military success turned these aims into a potential hegemony that was soon fleshed out in economic and political projects. Germany was the mold-breaker, whereas the Entente powers were fighting for the restoration of the balance of power and also, in the French case, for national survival. Despite several peace initiatives by neutral parties (notably the U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, in 1916 and Pope Benedict XV in 1917), the conflict was too stark to be resolved by a diplomatic compromise—short of regime change, as in Russia. In fact the moderate opposition in Germany (democrats, socialists, and Catholics), who held a majority in the Reichstag, envisaged just this. In July 1917 they passed a "peace resolution" calling for more modest war aims plus constitutional reform and the restoration of civil control over the war effort. But this merely stiffened the resolve of Hindenburg and Ludendorff to pursue expansion by military means.

Yet the Supreme Command still faced the central conundrum of the war. Without a technical or tactical transformation of the battlefield, it could not achieve victory on the western front when the underlying tide of attrition ran against it. For in order to reverse the Entente's advantage in munitions and food supplies (reflected in rapidly worsening living conditions in Germany and Austria compared to the western powers), the German government took the calculated risk of unrestricted submarine warfare. After a tense few months the introduction of convoys in the North Atlantic defeated the menace while Germany suffered a second setback with the inevitable American declaration of war in April 1917. Ultimately U.S. strength more than offset the loss of Russia. By early 1918 all that remained was the gamble of a final German assault in the west, boosted by troops from the east, in the hope of securing the elusive annihilation of the enemy.

Ludendorff's offensive pounded first the British and then the French from February to July 1918. It destroyed one entire British army (the Page 2759  |  Top of Article
A man suspected of being a German spy is executed by a firing squad, Belgium, 1914. © UNDERWOOD &UNDERWOOD/CORBIS

A man suspected of being a German spy is executed by a firing squad, Belgium, 1914. © UNDERWOOD &UNDERWOOD/CORBIS
Fifth), reached the Marne, and exposed Paris to long-range bombardment. This was a tribute in part to innovative tactics (the use of specialized "storm troopers") and in part to the institutional resilience of the German army. Yet the Allied front re-formed and held, and in March the French general, Ferdinand Foch, became overall Allied commander. From mid-July to early August the balance tipped. The Germans were exhausted. They were worse fed and supplied than their opponents and faced Allied air superiority and massed tanks. There was still no breakthrough. The Allies relied on a preponderance of heavy artillery, now used with unprecedented accuracy, to force the Germans slowly back. Both the French and British (like the Germans) had pursued an uneven learning curve that resulted in better offensive tactics. The Allies also reaped the benefit under Foch of effective coalition warfare, while in the Americans they had the promise of virtually unlimited manpower. With the Macedonian and Italian fronts collapsing and its armies retreating from France and Belgium, the German military was forced to sue for peace and to accept the opposition program of constitutional reform. In late September, Ludendorff sought a suspension of hostilities. After negotiation, both sides agreed—the Germans to escape unconditional surrender, the Allies to avoid invading Germany. On 11 November 1918, the armistice on the western front brought the war to an end.


A conflict that relied on mass armies and determined the fate of states and nations naturally involved the bulk of the peoples concerned. The cohesion of the home fronts became vital to the outcome. It turned on several factors: the population's identification with the war, the economic roles that it was called on to perform, and the government's credibility in the face of hardship and attrition.

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While few foresaw the nature of the war in 1914, the populations of the main powers responded with resolve to what was perceived as the defense of nation or empire. Everywhere, the lack of hostile reaction took governments by surprise, including Germany. True, the chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, had to insist that the military wait for Russia to mobilize first so as to secure the support of the Social Democrats, but this was reinforced by the brief Russian invasion of east Prussia. Everywhere, domestic politics were suspended in favor of unity—the "Sacred Union" (Union Sacrée) in France, the "fortress truce" (Burgfrieden) in Germany. This produced a "war culture" that polarized the world between the nation and its allies and a dehumanized enemy. While special legislation endowed governments with powers of both coercion and persuasion, including censorship and propaganda, war cultures arose above all from the self-mobilization of society (including intellectuals, political movements, and the churches). Cultural resources, from films and newspapers to popular song, expressed this cohesion behind the war.

War cultures also targeted the "enemy within" as a surrogate for the real enemy. Usually this meant "spies" and resident enemy citizens, the latter being interned by all the belligerent powers. But it could extend to ethnic minorities. In the worst case, the radical Turkish nationalists who had assumed power after 1907 in a Committee of Union and Progress turned on the Christian Armenian minority once war broke out, accusing it of aiding the Russians. From spring 1915 they engineered the slaughter and deportation to death in the desert of a million people. The term came later, but this was genocide.

As the strain of war told, maintaining the initial war culture became increasingly difficult. In 1917–1918 governments actively promoted propaganda to sustain morale both in the armies and on the home front. But the success of the outcome depended on other factors, notably the degree of economic hardship and social conflict caused by the war and the political credibility of the military effort and the regime itself.

One of the surprises to contemporaries was the need to mobilize economic resources for an extended struggle. The requirements of industrial and agricultural production—technical innovation, the division of labor, and commercial exchange—were at odds with the principle of mobilizing the male population for combat. Maximizing both military manpower and economic output was a challenge as fundamental as that of restoring the offensive. Indeed the two were intimately linked, since men without food and the right arms could neither break the deadlock nor sustain a war of attrition. In all the leading powers, an acute shortage of shells prompted the organization of a munitions effort. This was most effective when it co-opted private industrialists and financiers, allowing them to make substantial profits, and obtained the support of the trade unions in defense of the workers, many of whom were released from the front for vital production. Exceptional figures headed up this effort: the Liberal British politician David Lloyd George, the French socialist Albert Thomas, the German Jewish industrialist Walther Rathenau.

Yet by taking adult men from the front, the munitions effort caused tension with other social groups (peasants, shopkeepers, white-collar workers) whose menfolk were not similarly privileged, as well as with the soldiers themselves, expressed in the flourishing negative image of the "shirker." At the same time, it created a wartime working class, including large numbers of women and (in the French case) immigrants, who resented the high profits of businessmen and responded to escalating prices with strikes.

Successful management of the industrial mobilization meant developing state arbitration of labor disputes and involving trade unionists in the outcome. But the potential was there for dissident strikes which, in association with food protests, might challenge the state or even the war itself. The temptation was strong for states that feared organized labor (such as Russia and Italy) or faced an impossible tug between military and industrial manpower (such as Germany) to adopt more authoritarian solutions. In 1916 Ludendorff and Hindenburg implemented an ambitious plan to direct civilian as well as military workers as they retooled German munitions production. But the power conferred on labor by the economic mobilization was too great. The German plan foundered Page 2761  |  Top of Article on necessary concessions granted to the workers, while state hostility in Italy and above all Russia radicalized labor protest. Together with the food crisis that the western Allies were spared, industrial unrest in 1917–1918 contributed to the revolutions in Russia and gained an antiwar edge in Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Germany.

Ultimately the capacity of the different belligerent powers to sustain the war depended on politics as well as on the military situation. Nations with well-established identities, a flourishing civil society independent of the state, and regimes that enjoyed broad legitimacy were best able to cope. This was notably the case with the western democracies (Britain, France, and ultimately the United States), which also enjoyed more favorable material conditions and simple, minimum war aims. Although only France was fighting for survival, there was broad agreement that German dominance must be ended by military means, a position embellished by Woodrow Wilson with the democratic principles listed in his Fourteen Points of January 1918. This is not to suggest that there was no innovation in government (notably in relation to the industrial effort) or to deny that there was disillusionment (especially in 1917) and some outright pacifism. But the democracies remobilized faith in the war effort in 1918, which was embodied in the charismatic personalities of Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau as British and French premiers respectively and of Wilson as the apostle of a new world order.

States with a narrow legitimacy and rigid institutions stood at the other end of the spectrum, even if their goal was essentially survival. Austria-Hungary faced the insurmountable paradox that it could not mobilize national identity within its multinational empire (and army) without reinforcing what it had gone to war to overcome. Russia faced the analogous issue in terms of social class. The tsarist regime could not promote an inclusive industrial mobilization without empowering the liberals and moderate socialists whom it took to threaten its existence. By 1916 economic requirements as well as military setbacks had arrayed the key political forces against it.

In the middle stood Germany. The solidity of its civic life provided continuity across the war and postwar periods despite economic hardships, so that it was never threatened with social breakdown on the Russian scale. Yet uncertainty over what it was fighting for made Germany's war aims deeply divisive. The long war turned the military goal of annihilating the enemy into the driving force of German politics. It was pursued with ever greater radicalism—industrial coercion, exclusive nationalism, and the dream of a German Europe. This strengthened the constitutional and democratic opposition, so that the war unraveled the fabric of the prewar regime. As the kaiser fled to Holland at the end of the war and a democratic republic was declared, a new Germany was left to make its peace with the old Germany as well as with the enemy.


For the Allies, the Armistice amounted to military victory. Under its terms Germany returned Alsace-Lorraine to France, gave up all territory occupied since 1914, and surrendered the High Seas fleet, while Allied troops occupied German territory west of the Rhine. In theory Germany could resume fighting should the peace terms prove unacceptable. In reality the army was in no position to resist. But no Allied troops marched to Berlin, thus creating the myth that the German military remained unbowed. The Armistice also encouraged the new republic to imagine that Germany might take part in the reconstruction of the European balance of power.

Nothing was further from the minds of the Allied leaders as they gathered in Paris in January 1919 for the conference that resulted in settlements with each of the enemy states, signed in the palaces that ringed Paris and that gave their names to the treaties: Versailles with Germany (June 1919), Saint-Germain with Austria (September 1919), and Trianon with Hungary (June 1920). The most fragile of the treaties, with Turkey, was solemnized in the former royal porcelain factory at Sèvres (August 1920). Negotiations were minimal, making the status of the vanquished clear and enforcing the victors' view of the war. Given the scale of the suffering and destruction, this was almost inevitable.

The Paris Peace Conference grappled with all four conflicts that had made up World War I: the Page 2762  |  Top of Article
A French soldier is shot crossing no-man's-land near Verdun, France, 1916. The battle of Verdun lasted ten months and claimed over 700,000 lives. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS

A French soldier is shot crossing no-man's-land near Verdun, France, 1916. The battle of Verdun lasted ten months and claimed over 700,000 lives. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS
balance of power, colonial rivalries, the disintegration of multinational empires, and national defense and liberation. To these the Bolsheviks added a fifth, revolutionary war. Although Lenin had taken Russia out of the war, trading space for time, this was tactical. By mid-1918 the Bolsheviks were resisting Allied intervention as well as counterrevolution. Over the following two years they remobilized Russia against domestic and foreign enemies in a war they saw as part of a "permanent" revolution that would engulf the heartlands of Europe. Only in August 1920, when the Red Army failed to eliminate newly independent Poland, did the revolutionary war subside, leaving the Bolsheviks to build socialism "in one country." Bolshevik Russia was absent from the reconstruction of Europe yet present in the minds of those carrying it out as a new threat.

The other conflicts found solutions after a fashion. The balance of power was restored as German ambitions were apparently put beyond reach. Germany lost some territory and population (additional to Alsace-Lorraine), principally to accommodate Poland, and fears of German "militarism" were addressed by permanent limits on the German armed forces. Morally these provisions were weakened by the ban on German unification with Austria, since national self-determination was one of Wilson's Fourteen Points, and also by the failure to implement the broader disarmament promised by the Treaty of Versailles. Along with Allied occupation of the Rhineland for fifteen years to Page 2763  |  Top of Article secure German compliance with the treaty and a diaspora beyond the national borders, there was plenty to fuel disgruntled German nationalism.

Such resentment was matched by anxiety on the Allied side, especially in France. For if Wilson and Lloyd George became convinced that the peace settlement should not be so harsh as to risk German rejection, Clemenceau faced the task of converting military victory into long-term security in the face of a Germany that remained more powerful than France and whose home territory had not been devastated in the war. Moreover, the removal of Russia from the equation deprived France of the alliance on which its prewar diplomacy had depended. None of this might have mattered had the Allied military coalition that won the war assumed permanent form. But despite promises, the British declined to give the French military guarantees, fearing Continental entanglements now that the balance of power had been restored, while the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the peace treaty. Hence the temporary occupation of the Rhineland and the German obligation to pay reparations for wartime destruction became French substitutes for real security, turning both into running sores in Franco-German relations. In what amounted to an epilogue to the war, French and Belgian troops occupied the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr in 1923 to force a defaulting government to resume reparations, without which the hard-won victory of 1918 would have been severely compromised. This led to an upsurge of warlike sentiment and civil resistance in Germany before Anglo-American diplomacy reinstated a lower level of payments.

The colonial conflict was settled more summarily. Germany was stripped of its possessions, most of which were shared among France, Britain, and the British dominions. Japan reaped the reward of its collaboration with the British by taking German holdings in the Pacific and China. Also, the Near Eastern provinces of Ottoman Turkey fell to Britain and France. The British, who had captured Jerusalem on Christmas Day 1917, took the lion's share with Palestine and oil-rich Mesopotamia (Iraq), while the French acquired Syria and Lebanon. British encouragement in 1917 of Jewish settlement in Palestine helped create one of the most intractable conflicts of the postcolonial period.

Yet the peace conference represented the limits as well as the zenith of European colonialism. The new colonies were held as "mandates" of the League of Nations, with the intention of ultimate independence. The same issue arose with the older colonies that had participated in the war. Half a million French colonial troops, most from North and West Africa, fought in France, while the British used Indian soldiers in Europe and the Middle East. A sense of colonial entitlement fostering visions of independence was the result. This was even truer of the British settler dominions, whose imperial identity had produced extraordinary levels of volunteer participation. Not only Gallipoli (for the Australians and New Zealanders) but the western front was studded with sites (and soon with monuments) where troops from the dominions had suffered martyrdom, and this contributed to the growing autonomy of the dominions in the interwar years. Decolonization would require another world war, but the peace settlement pointed to the dissolution as well as consolidation of empires. Ironically, the loss of Germany's colonies in 1919 reinforced the orientation of the nationalist Right toward the colonization of eastern Europe in areas occupied by the army during the war.

The defeat of the multinational empires was the most decisive outcome of the war. Austria and Hungary were dealt with as separate nation-states by the peace conference, while Ottoman Turkey was reduced to Anatolia. Bolshevik Russia was a partial exception, since the many non-Russian elements of the dynastic empire were integrated into a new multinational state by means of authoritarian socialism. But even here, the western borderlands of tsarist Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland) gained independence. In general, the peace conference endorsed the defense and creation of nation-states. French determination to secure reparations came only in part from fears about Germany's continuing threat to the balance of power. It derived above all from the belief that the nation had been defended at enormous cost against a gross violation of its integrity. Serbia was rewarded for its suffering by becoming the dominant core of a South Slav state, Yugoslavia, whose Page 2764  |  Top of Article longer-term instability, ironically, came from its multinational composition.

This last point was relevant more generally. For if Wilson believed that self-determination and democracy were the twin sources of nationhood, almost all the new states in central and eastern Europe had ethnic minorities (amounting in the case of Poland to a third of the population), while few of them, apart from Czechoslovakia, possessed a democratic political culture. Defeated nations (Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria) were reduced in size leaving minorities in neighboring states and creating friction. Italian nationalists, whose desire to complete unification shaded into expansionist designs on the Balkans, were frustrated by the access to the Adriatic granted by the peace conference to Yugoslavia. Nation-states were not a self-evident basis for durable peace.

War smoldered on around the peace settlement. Finland and the new Baltic states struggled to secure independence from both Bolshevik and German forces. Poles clashed with German paramilitaries over disputed borders in Danzig and Silesia. Some Italian nationalists followed the protofascist Gabriele D'Annunzio in seizing the port of Fiume, which the peace conference had allocated to Yugoslavia, holding it illegally for over a year. The Irish war for independence from the British was followed by a bitter civil war over the half-measure of autonomy actually granted in 1921. Most convulsive was the final war of the Ottoman succession. The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 not only deprived Turkey of its last remnant of European territory (except Istanbul) as well as the Near Eastern provinces but also undermined Turkish power in Anatolia by creating an Armenian state in compensation for the genocide. Along with the deployment of Greek forces in western Anatolia, this prompted a full-blown war of independence led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), a young officer who had distinguished himself in the Gallipoli campaign and who emerged as the founder of the Turkish nation-state. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 reversed the peace terms of Sèvres in Turkey's favor, confirming the national integrity of Anatolia (including the elimination of Armenia) and the recovery of eastern Thrace in the Balkans. In the largest such transfer after World War I, two million Greeks were expelled from Anatolia and
British and German airplanes engage in combat over France during World War I. © BETTMANN/CORBIS

British and German airplanes engage in combat over France during World War I. © BETTMANN/CORBIS
Thrace while Turks were moved in the opposite direction.

By the end of the interwar period the peace settlement had become widely discredited. The apparently harsh terms imposed on Germany and the failure to found stable democracies in eastern Europe were seen by many to have prepared a future conflict. Yet with greater hindsight, this seems superficial. For the deeper issues with which the Paris Peace Conference grappled only received lasting solutions in the 1990s, with a unified but peaceable Germany and stable nation-states in eastern Europe. This occurred after a further world war, a second genocide (of European Jews), mass population transfers in the 1940s, and a bitter conflict as Yugoslavia fell apart after 1991. There were no shortcuts in 1919, yet some of the solutions adopted were quite constructive in view of what came later. For the occupation of the Ruhr was followed by a Franco-German rapprochement based on peaceful negotiation to resolve future disputes and on Germany's entry into the League of Nations. The League itself, which had been set Page 2765  |  Top of Article up by the Treaty of Versailles, showed the desire of many to create a new world order based on the arbitration of conflicts and collective security against aggressors. The League also advocated social reform as the corollary of world peace and pioneered international relief efforts to deal with the humanitarian crises left by the war (refugees, disease). It was via the League of Nations that the first steps were taken to plan the economic integration of Europe. Moreover, many of the new states of eastern Europe made progress in ethnic coexistence. If some of the issues at stake in the war remained intractable, the steps taken to address them before the Great Depression of the 1930s were not doomed to failure.

The war's legacy extended to domestic politics. Defeat brought violence and instability. This was true in Italy (which nationalists felt had been cheated) and in Germany, although the seizure of power by fascism and National Socialism also turned on a crisis of the state and the weakness of democratic traditions in both countries. Nonetheless, the war radicalized nationalism and provided a lesson in mass-mobilization that inspired fascist movements across Europe. Likewise, bolshevism was doubly influenced by the war. For if prewar Russia hovered on the brink of revolution, the world war decided what kind of revolution it would be, while the civil war of 1918–1922 reinforced the coercive nature of the new regime.

The victorious democracies experienced no such upheaval. Indeed, they displayed a strong urge to return to prewar "normality," which in the case of the United States was accompanied by significant disengagement from Europe. This was illusory. The massive military and industrial effort influenced politics, not least through the claims of various groups (veterans, workers, women) for reform in recognition of wartime service, claims that others resisted. But the climate of politics was no harsher than before, while the shock of the war fostered a belief that democracies should use military force only as a last resort internationally. Democracy emerged from the war more sharply delineated. In this respect, the tension between liberal democracy, authoritarian nationalism, and revolutionary socialism as doctrines was translated by World War I into a conflict between more highly differentiated kinds of state driven by competing ideologies.

Finally, the war left ten million dead, most of whom, apart from the victims of genocide, were soldiers. Though only a fifth of the dead of World War II, this was unprecedented. The victorious powers were able to create national monuments and rituals of mourning that centered on the figure of the "unknown soldier" (interred in Paris and London in 1920). This proved more problematic in a Germany divided by defeat, while in Bolshevik Russia there was no official commemoration at all. Locally (except in Russia), memorials proliferated in recognition of the soldiers' sacrifice, and as the former fronts returned to normality, cemeteries and battlefield monuments marked the sites of the slaughter. Although some felt despair and more perceived with irony the blow that Europe had dealt its own "civilization," many drew on traditional religious values for consolation or turned to political ideologies for understanding. But since the peace helped shape the meaning given to the conflict, the political divisions and international tensions of the 1930s suggested that the "war to end all war" might in the end turn out to have been merely the prelude to an even greater conflagration.


Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane, and Annette Becker. 1914–1918: Understanding the Great War. Translated by Catherine Thompson. London, 2002. A stimulating essay.

Bourne, J. M. Britain and the Great War 1914–1918. London, 1989.

Chickering, Roger. Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914–1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Gatrell, Peter. Russia's First World War: A Social and Economic History. London, 2005.

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Hardach, Gerd. The First World War, 1914–1918. Translated by Betty Ross and Peter Ross. London, 1977. A still-useful economic history.

Horne, John, ed. State, Society, and Mobilization in Europe during the First World War. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Herwig, Holger H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914–1918. London, 1997. An excellent military history focused on the Central Powers but covering both camps.

MacMillan, Margaret. Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War. London, 2001. A study sympathetic to the peacemakers.

Mombauer, Annika. The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus. London, 2002.

Smith, Leonard, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker. France and the Great War, 1914–1918. French sections translated by Helen McPhail. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Strachan, Hew, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. Good chapters on different aspects.

Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. Fundamental.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3447000917