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 shall be discussed, was a result
of the First World War as well).
Back in 1914 the world was dominated 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.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated alongside his wife,
Sophie, duchess of Hohenberg (both in the back of the motor car)
by the nineteen year-old Gavrilo Princip (far centre-left) on 28
June 1914, sparking the First World War
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The armies of the 'great powers' (this term refers to 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 experienced 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.
Suffragettes of Palmers Green, Winchmore Hill &
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 lower
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
European continent seemed eager, or even anxious to jump into 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 of 1870-1871, 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 following that war.
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
Vladimir Lenin arrived back in Russia on 16 April 1917, having been
smuggled through Europe to act as the figurehead of the October
Revolution as well as its key instigator and controller, but the
revolution plunged Russia into three years of bitter civil war
Besides growing war fever, 1914 Britain was
struggling against the suffragette movement
SUFFRAGIST "How dreadfully you've been treated by your
WOMAN "Well, it might have been worse."
SUFFRAGIST "How could it have been worse?"
WOMAN "Well, I might have been in the same position
as yourself - having no husband!"
So when Serb nationalist Gavriilo Princip assassinated 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, they can be divided 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.
Adolf Hitler was able to grab power due to problems which Germany
inherited from 1918, it being one of the most unsettled of the
post-war European nations
It was still a world in which 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 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 in which the
white man was not necessarily the master; and found somewhat to their
own surprise that there were circumstances in which 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 up as pale shadows of their former
selves, and those who were still at home faced many new challenges
to their diminishing authority.
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
Technologically the improvements were obvious;
by far too obvious to need going into in detail. In 1914 Europe
was still, even after the Industrial Revolution, relatively
backwards technologically, largely dependent upon 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. It's not that 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 Czarist society would have likely
taken much, much longer without the war. The czar 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 against 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
Russia: The collapse of the czarist monarchy
and the destruction of the czarist army made civil war virtually
inevitable in Russia. And because the czarist army had been
virtually wiped out, the Bolsheviks came out victorious in the civil
war, despite all that 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 America and Central America and in
Indo-China, the Cold War and its effects including Nato and the
current efforts by that treaty organisation 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 such as 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, and 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
divest themselves of 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, had 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
The horrors of the Vietnam War in Indo-China developed
out of the post-First World War colonial successes of
the European powers and the growing native realisation
that fighting back was a possibility
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
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 pull out of their colonial empires,
acquired over the course of 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,
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 dire results 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 fighting there, which has its own
part to play in the recent economic collapse the world over.
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 pull out of their colonial empires, acquired
over the course of a couple of centuries, in the span of a couple of
Palestine, in which 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
which, furthermore, rejuvenated the Taliban and, because of its
extreme expenditure, had its own role in the economic crisis
The US only became a major power because of its involvement
in the First World War, although it was already becoming an
imperial power before that, in the fashion of the time
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' which 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.
Clark, Alan - Suicide of the Empires,
American Heritage Press, 1971
Images and text copyright © Bill Purkayastha. An original
feature for the History Files.