The First World War, 100 Years Later

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Remembrance Day is right around the corner, and this year it will mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities in the First World War on November 11, 1918. The First World War has a complicated legacy. Often overshadowed by the Second World War which followed twenty years later, the Great War has nevertheless had profound influence on the world today. Many of the international institutions we take for granted arose from the aftermath of the First World War, as did the current global order. One hundred years later, 2018 is an ideal time to evaluate the legacies left by this profound conflict, as many of the diplomatic institutions which arose from the Great War are being questioned by current world leaders and their futures remain uncertain. The ‘War to End all Wars’ did not in fact end all wars, but it did forever change the way societies, particularly those of the West, view warfare and the purpose of diplomacy. 

Attitudes: Culture and the Great War

The First World War profoundly changed the way people, both statesmen and public alike, viewed their own societies. The Victorians were obsessed with progress; scientific, technological, and societal. The so-called “Great War” brought to light the dangerous and destructive power of all this technological and scientific progress. Poison gas, air raids, and the tank were all introduced during the war and represented the application of cutting-edge technology leaning towards death and destruction. Many European armies were initially unprepared for fighting with this new technology, attempting to wage traditional offensive warfare with cavalry and infantry, only to be mowed down by modern rapid-fire artillery. Over 5 million casualties were reported in 1914 alone, making the First World War deadly on a scale unprecedented in world history. The long, dragged-out defensive war which resulted changed the image of war as being glorious and noble. In popular culture, the ‘Lost Generation’ of writers and artists summed up this general disenchantment with warfare. In Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel A Farewell to Arms, about a soldier in the war, he writes, ‘I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice…I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done to the meat except to bury it.’

The First World War was also the first to see widespread civilian casualties, totaling almost seven million. The traditional rules of warfare were being upended as armies no longer distinguished between military and civilian targets. The first air raids were levied against Britain using German zeppelins in 1915 and the British were quick to return the favor. Propaganda was also used by both sides to stir up feelings of nationalism and patriotism in their populations. These tools would be taken to a new level in the Second World War.

Total war, or the involvement of the entire society in the war effort, increased the role of government in people’s lives and expanded the role of central government through conscription, food rationing and wartime munitions production. In both the UK and the US, the contributions of women during the war were recognised with the granting of suffrage in 1918 and 1920 respectively. 

Institutions

Because the war had cost so much in lives and resources, and because entire societies were invested in the war effort, the victors wanted to ensure that a war on this scale would not happen again. The problem was that they disagreed about how to go about this. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously wanted ‘peace without victory,’ while the European powers’ enormous losses made them eager to blame Germany and press for reparations. Wilson’s 14 Points are perhaps the most obvious example of the legacy of the First World War, as they led to the League of Nations, which formed the basis for the United Nations. Based on liberal policies, the League of Nations was the most ambitious attempt at international peace yet, and was designed to mitigate the flaws of the pre-war international system. Namely, it was designed to promote self-determination and nation-states rather than monarchical empires, replace large military alliances with a guarantee of collective security, promote open discussion instead of secret negotiations, and prevent another arms race. While the League of Nations didn’t succeed at preventing another global war (the refusal of the United States to join handicapped it), it was taken as the basis for the post-Second World War United Nations, one of the most influential and longest-lasting diplomatic institutions in history. In the aftermath of the Second World War, further institutions based on these principles were established, including the European Union which, among other purposes, seeks to promote collective security and open discussion. The series of non-proliferation treaties now in place can also be seen as a legacy of the First World War, as they aim to prevent an arms race. 

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Balance of Power

The First World War was the beginning of the United States as a dominating world power, a position it would retain for much of the 20th century. Having lived through a brutal Civil War fought with modern artillery and enormous casualties, Americans were hesitant to engage in European conflict. Their late entry into the war, prior economic strength, and the fact that no battles were fought on U.S. soil led to  Americans emerging from the armistice as the preeminent world power. As the war dragged on, Britain began importing more and more of its necessities from the U.S.; in 1916 Britain bought more than half of its shell casings and 2/3 of its grain from abroad, with the U.S. comprising the largest share. Because America entered the war later than the other powers, it emerged with significantly fewer casualties. Accordingly, the scars of the First World War were not so profoundly felt as in, for example, Britain, which saw over 3 million casualties compared to 300,000 of the United States. The U.S. had already lent billions of dollars to the Allies, who would remain indebted to the U.S. after the war concluded. The reputation of the United States as the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation emerged from the ashes of the First World War. While this reputation is now in decline with the emergence of eastern nations like China and India as global powers, the First World War reshaped global power structures in a ways which remain relevant today.

Britain, France, and Russia, while victorious, were crippled by the war’s costs. The war was a contributing factor to the unrest which produced the Russian Revolution in 1917, and, ultimately, the emergence of communism in Russia, shaping international relations of the 20th century. Britain and France were economically devastated. 1916 was the year American economic output outstripped that of the British Empire, and Britain was unprepared for the economic consequences of war, experiencing its largest economic downturn to date in 1920-21. Furthermore, countries cut off from British goods during the war’s trade embargos had built up new trading networks, damaging British exports. Germany also experienced economic devastation, compounded by massive hyperinflation in the wake of war. With citizens unable to comprehend that they had lost, the desire to regain international power and lost greatness was a contributing factor to the election of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Geography and Nationalism

The victors of the First World War redrew the map of Europe and the Middle East, with lasting consequences. The break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire created several new nation states and raised ongoing questions of self-determination. Many of the present conflicts in the Middle East can be traced at least in part to the anticipation of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and to British and French intervention in the area prior to the war’s end. In 1916, the Sykes-Picot agreement drew a ‘line in the sand,’ drawing borders on the Middle East in order to create French and British spheres of influence. These arbitrary borders had little regard for ethnicity, religion, tribe or language, leaving many countries encompassing groups which were sworn enemies; causing these countries to fall apart unless held together by a powerful central government or despot. Sykes-Picot is a source of general resentment in the Middle East even today, and in 2014 the Islamic State symbolically bulldozed the border between Syria and Iraq, declaring Sykes-Picot to be over. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 similarly created lasting conflict by declaring British support of a Jewish state in the Holy Land– inflaming Zionism and leading to the creation of Israel– one of the most contentious areas in the world.

Nationalism in the Balkans was one of the causes of the First World War, and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires led to the creation of several new states which would remain subject to nationalist conflict for decades to come. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed for the creation of a larger Serbian nation, which would become Yugoslavia. Like in the Middle East, Yugoslavia was comprised of conflicting ethnic groups who each thought they deserved self-determination. In the early 1990s, ongoing nationalist and ethnic conflicts, as well as the fall of the Soviet Union, led to the breakup of Yugoslavia into the countries of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. These nations are still trying to recover from late 20th century warfare and conflict. 

The First World War Today

Ultimately, the First World War impacted our world today by raising a series of questions we are still struggling to answer. Warfare, self-determination and traditional diplomacy were all called into question. The international community is still trying to figure out how to fulfill the concept of self-determination since it is never easy to decide which peoples deserve their own nation-state and which do not. The First World War made war decisively total, involving all of society in nations all over the world, making it incredibly costly in terms of lives and finances. The purpose of diplomacy became to avoid war, replacing war’s traditional role as a last-ditch tool of diplomacy. From the First World War came the beginnings of the international institutions we take for granted today, and solidified in Western conscience the undesirability of war. Britain especially experienced massive losses, and the profound impact of the First World War is visible on Remembrance Day and through the nationwide Poppy Appeal which leads up to it. Honouring the sacrifices of the First World War is a national activity, used to help modern veterans’ organisations and raise awareness of the cost of warfare. In the United States, where losses were not quite so great, the First World War is often taught as part of a larger 20th century narrative which emphasizes the Second World War as a turning point in history.

Today, many questions remain unanswered. Institutions meant to promote widespread peace, such as the European Union and the United Nations, are being questioned by politicians who seem to emulate their predecessors by preaching an ‘America first’ or ‘Britain first’ mind-set in an effort to regain lost global power. In our current political climate, as long-held diplomatic principles are called into question, understanding the legacy of the First World War is more important than ever.

If you are interested in learning more about the legacy of the first world war, there are a lot of great resources out there, created in honour of the 100th anniversary. Listed below is a small sample. 

New York Times: The Great War: A 100-Year Legacy of World War I

Imperial War Museum: Stories from the First World War

The Great War Youtube Channel

The Royal British Legion: Poppy Appeal 2018

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