History Files


First World War

The Results of the War

by Bill Purkayastha, 1 January 2009

For any understanding of the developments of world history in the past century, one needs to know about the First World War, because this is the one event which shaped virtually everything that came after it.

The first thing about the First World War is, of course, that it was the most unnecessary war in history (at least until the Iraq invasion, which, as I shall discuss, was a result of the First World War as well).

Back in 1914 the world was carved up between the imperialist powers. The few small countries that were suffered to exist independently, such as Liberia, Siam (modern Thailand), or Nepal, were colonies in all but name, maintained as buffers or allowed liberty since it was simply too much trouble to rule them directly. There was hardly any jockeying for territorial expansion because there was hardly any territory left to expand into.

The armies of the 'great powers' (by this term I mean Britain, France, Russia and Italy on one side and Germany, Austro-Hungary and the bankrupt Ottoman Empire on the other, with the US and Japan as Great Powers-in-waiting) were hardly capable of serious combat for a long period. Except for the German and British armed forces, they had only cosmetic changes since the time of Napoleon; even the French went into combat in 1914 dressed in blue tunics and red trousers like the soldiers of a hundred years before.

In 1914, there was a total lack of serious issues on which, it would seem, most of the world could go to war. Any jockeying for influence was of the sort that could be handled by normal negotiations, there was no real competition for resources because the world was less industrialised and there was a far lesser pressure of population, and the intricate web of alliances were thought to have kept the peace in Europe for the unprecedented period of forty years.

So why should the nations go to war? Who would ever have thought it?

The web of alliances

Actually, the web of alliances meant that Europe was a tinderbox on the verge of being set alight. The slightest spark could set off a conflagration, and it would have required cool heads and firm diplomacy to avoid a European war. Unfortunately, not only were cool heads and firm diplomacy lacking, the rulers of the Continent seemed eager, or even anxious to jump into a conflict - for no reason that one can think of even at this late date.

There was the web of alliances: Germany with Austria-Hungary; Serbia with Russia, Russia with France, Britain with Belgium. It was supposed to 'keep the peace'. It had succeeded in keeping the peace, more or less, since the Franco-Prussian War, and there was no reason why it shouldn't. Or so went the theory.

In the event, what happened was this: when a Serb nationalist assassinated the crown prince of Austria-Hungary, that nation took the opportunity, egged on by Germany, to declare war on Serbia. Russia, Serbia's Slavic 'big brother' and treaty ally, declared war on Austria-Hungary and Germany; Russia's treaty ally, France, then joined in, in part to avenge its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and recover Alsace-Lorraine, which it had been forced to cede in that war.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated alongside his wife

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Germany's war plan against France called for an attack through Belgium on its left flank (the Schlieffen Plan) - therefore Germany attacked neutral Belgium. Britain, which in any case did not want Germany to dominate the European landmass, was a treaty ally of Belgium. Therefore Britain took the opportunity to enter the war against Germany. Such was the effect of the web of alliances; but nobody, whether statesman, diplomat, general or common civilian, seemed to be disturbed in the slightest.

So when the Serb nationalist Gavriilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, there was no serious attempt to avert war; and when the war was declared, the citizens of the nations erupted in joyous cheering. They behaved as if the war was the best thing that could ever have happened. The 'patriotic poets' cheered on the fighting men and anyone who refused for any reason to fight was liable to be handed a white feather by some militant female or other.

The lesson to be drawn is you absolutely cannot rely on the good sense of politicians and 'statesmen' to prevent needless wars, and, of course, military alliances are more likely to begin wars than to avert them.

While the violence of the war was horrific, and the weaponry became more and more complicated and murderous, it was a bagatelle compared with what was to come, in the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and the like. Far more important than the massacres of the Western Front were the results of this war. In order to understand them clearly, we could divide them into immediate and long-term results.

The immediate results

The immediate results can also be further divided into the social, technological and political results.

Let's take the social results first: the First World War began the end of the feudal order. It sounds trite today to say, even if one doesn't mean it, that all men are equal; but a hundred years ago anyone who said such a thing would have been considered an anarchist or a dangerous radical.

Lenin rouses the masses

Lenin arrived back in Russia on 16 April 1917, having been smuggled through Europe

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It was still a world where only the white man was a full human being, and only the upper class among the white man had the rights we'd now call human. The working class existed only to serve the rich, and had no other reason for existence. The decaying aristocracy ruled the roost all over Europe.

So when the First World War, or Great War, broke out, suddenly the working man found himself with a role. He had to fight, not just for, but with, the aristocrat; and as war thinned the ranks of the latter, he had the unfamiliar experience of leading and organising other men. Even if he stayed back home, he was pulled off the lord of the manor's farm or game preserve and thrust onto the factory floor with his peers from across the country. There could not but be a social churning, and once you let the genie of egalitarianism out of the bottle, you can never really put it back again.

Then there was the effect of the war on the colonial troops. If you look at the Hollywood movie version of the war you'd think every last fighting man was a white European volunteer taken from his manor or his schoolroom or his tool shed; but a very large proportion of the soldiers were Asian or African colonial troops, who for the first time saw the world; for the first time found themselves fighting the white man at the behest of the white man; for the first time saw for themselves a reality where the white man was not necessarily the master; and found somewhat to their own surprise that there were circumstances when the white man would turn tail and run.

And of course it finished off the aristocracy in all but name. The lords and barons and their ilk mostly didn't survive the war; those that did ended as pale shadows of their former selves.

Socially, therefore, the First World War introduced a measure of egalitarianism into European society, broke down social classes, introduced the colonial soldier to the world of European warfare and taught him that the white man was not automatically superior but could be beaten (a lesson that would really come into its own in Singapore in 1942).

The technological results

Adolf Hitler salutes his troops

Adolf Hitler was able to grab power due to problems Germany inherited from 1918

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Technologically the improvements were obvious; really, too obvious to need going into in detail. In 1914 Europe was still, even after the Industrial Revolution, relatively backward technologically, largely dependent on animal transport, with limited telecommunications and electricity.

The war left it with the urgent requirement for building up infrastructure, as well as technological innovations and the capacity for large scale motor transport and the beginnings of air transport. I'm not saying this wouldn't have happened but for the war; but it is true that it would have taken much longer.

The most interesting changes, by and large, were the political ones. The war brought about the spectacular collapse of three empires: the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, creating many new countries and a whole slew of problems (and, for the unscrupulous, opportunities). The end of the Russian Empire was certainly the most important politically of these, because the end of the despotic and parasitic Tsarist society would have likely taken much, much longer without the war. The tsar was already hated by the Russian intelligentsia, but it was the war that made him and his regime hated by the average Russian and made the rise of Bolshevism (as it was then called) inevitable, the results of which are pretty obvious. And the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the taking over by the West of a large amount of territory in the Middle East, the effects of which are very much with us to this day.

Meanwhile, in Germany, defeat in the war not only overthrew the kaiser and brought in the Weimar Republic; it created massive social and economic chaos and created the perfect conditions for the rise to power of one Adolf Hitler, a small time agitator and ex-soldier.

The nineteenth century had been a time of the triumph of imperialism and feudalism. The First World War began the process of bringing that to an end. Socially, technologically and politically, when the gassed young men screamed in their trenches and died in their thousands in frontal attacks on massed machine guns, the nineteenth century was finally over.

The long term results

The years after the end of the First World War continued developing, with hiccups along the way, the social and technological consequences of the war; but far more significant for us now were the political consequences. Let's take them one by one.

Russia: The collapse of the Tsarist monarchy and the destruction of the Tsarist army made civil war virtually inevitable in Russia. And because the Tsarist army had been virtually wiped out, the Bolsheviks came out victorious in the Civil War, despite all the White Russians could do.

The victory of the Bolsheviks had consequences far beyond the frontiers of Russia - the rebirth of China, the rise of socialism in South and Central America and in Indo-China, the Cold War and its effects including NATO and the current efforts by it to 'contain' Russia - the recent war in Georgia included - can all be traced back to the rise of Bolshevism; and Bolshevism's rise was one of the primary after-effects of the First World War.

Germany: Defeated militarily but not destroyed, ruined economically by the punitive Versailles Treaty, the Germans descended into turmoil.

Hyperinflation and civil strife created perfect conditions for a fascist takeover. There were masses of disaffected, unemployed former soldiers wandering the streets, prime material for fascist gangs like the Sturmabteilung which Hitler used to launch an abortive coup in Munich and which ultimately helped him come to power.

Without the First World War, there would have been no Nazi party, no gas chambers, no Second World War. Without the Second World War, there would have been no permanent US presence in Europe, no NATO, and the imperialist countries would not have had to disinvest from their colonial empires in an effort to keep themselves solvent.

There would have been, for instance, no independent India and no myth of a victorious Indian non-violent freedom movement. Many of these newly decolonised nations, as a matter of fact, got their independence handed to them on a plate when they were still far too tribal and divided to make use of it (especially in Africa). And because the imperialists ignored ethnic boundaries in their colonies, drawing lines on the map more or less at random, this independence has led to civil war, famine, and massacres beyond imagining.

The Vietnam War
The horrors of the Vietnam War developed from the post-First World War colonial successes of the European powers

France and Britain: Like their First World War allies and Second World War adversaries, Italy and Japan, the two Western European nations did pretty well in terms of colonies out of the First War.

The German and Turkish colonial empires were carved up and distributed among them, allowing Japan a firm foothold on the Asian landmass which it would use to launch an aggressive anti-Chinese war in 1931. That war would directly help in the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and the rebirth of China as a truly independent nation, not one ruled by warlords and foreigners.

On the other hand, the French in particular had paid an immensely heavy price in terms of blood for their victory. This had also infused in them a defensive military doctrine (the Maginot Line) because of which they felt that they were safe behind a line of blockhouses, fortresses and trenches. In 1940, when the Nazi Panzers swept past the Maginot Line and into France, the French government admitted that there were no reserves - the troops who might have served as reserves had all been killed in the First War.

And, of course, as I said before, without the first war there would have been no second war. And without the second war these imperialist powers wouldn't have been impoverished to the extent that they had to quit their colonial empires, acquired over a couple of centuries, in the span of a couple of decades.

The Ottoman Empire/ Middle East: This is probably the most significant long-term after-effect of the First World War. The end of the Ottoman Empire opened up a lot of territory for occupation: the whole of the Middle East, in fact, except for what is now Saudi Arabia.

The Allies lost no time in betraying the Arabs who had been promised independence in return for rebelling against the Turks, and colonised them instead in order to exploit their oil reserves. The artificial nation of Kuwait was carved out of Iraq under a puppet emir so that its considerable oil reserves could be preserved for western exploitation. That would have its own blowback in 1990 when Saddam Hussein decided to re-take the territory for Iraq (the First Gulf War). And that would lead to the 2003 Iraq invasion (the Second Gulf War) and the ongoing war, which has its own part to play in the economic collapse the world over today.

Palestine, where Jews and Arabs had co-existed for centuries, was declared (by the Balfour Declaration of 1917) to be a homeland for the Jews, and Jewish immigration was encouraged there. After the gas chambers (which of course never would have existed but for the First World War), immigration received a boost, but it had been going on all through the 1920s and 1930s.

Suddenly the Palestinians found themselves a non-people: pushed off their own ancestral land, confined to ghettoes, their plight became a provocation for other Muslims such as a certain Osama bin Laden. And the actions of bin Laden and his al Qaeda group gave the US under the Bush neo-conservative regime the excuse to invade and capture Afghanistan, something that was desired for the construction of pipelines from Central Asia and that, furthermore rejuvenated the Taliban, and, because of its extreme expenditure, had its own role in the economic crisis mentioned above.

The United States: The US was already well on the way to becoming an imperial power by the time of the First World War, with regular interventions in Central America and a colony in the Philippines after a so-called 'liberation war' that swiftly became a war against the natives (sounds familiar, does it?).

But the US was not a European power and it's probably right to say that it would have remained a trading and industrial power rather than a military one (its armed forces were pitiful by European standards back in 1914) but for the First World War. And because of the fact that economic advancement requires access to energy, along with the British and French, the Americans also began shoving their oar into the newly 'liberated' territories of the world.

Because of its ideological antipathy to Bolshevism, which itself was a child of the First World War, the US was led after the Second World War into forming NATO and right up to today it thinks of Russia as an adversary which must be contained if it cannot be crushed. Without the First World War there would have been no US superpower today and the world would not seethe with anti-US sentiment.

Terrorism, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Georgia, not to mention Sudan and Somalia, world economic crisis, the ruination of the environment in a search for energy rather a lot to come out of the assassination of a Habsburg prince in Sarajevo ninety-four years ago.

And there we have the reasons why one needs to study the First World War.

US soldier in Iraq

The US only became a major power because of its involvement in the First World War

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Main Sources

Clark, Alan - Suicide of the Empires, American Heritage Press, 1971



Images and text copyright Bill Purkayastha. An original feature for the History Files.