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.
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RULERS DURING THE WAR:
First World War.com
Our Past History
Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated alongside his wife
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
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 arrived back in Russia on 16 April 1917, having been
smuggled through Europe
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
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 was able to grab power due to problems Germany
inherited from 1918
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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
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.
The US only became a major power because of its involvement in
the First World War
Clark, Alan - Suicide of the Empires,
American Heritage Press, 1971
Images and text copyright © Bill Purkayastha. An original
feature for the History Files.