World War I can largely be seen as the result of decades of rampant European imperialism, militarism, and grandstanding. Locked into military alliances, the entire continent was quickly dragged into a brutal war resulting from a hostile dispute between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. A few years later, the United States entered the war after Germany continued its hostility toward American ships suspected of bringing war material to the Allies (Britain, France, and Russia). When the dust finally settled, Germany was the sole remaining Central Power that had not collapsed…and the Allies decided to punish it harshly. The war guilt clause and reparations hurt Germany after the war, setting the stage for revenge.
Before World War I: Militarism Instead of Diplomacy
Although international diplomacy is common today, this was not the case in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Europe, landlocked powers postured militarily to show their strength. Western Europe had been relatively peaceful since the Napoleonic Wars that ended in 1815, allowing many Europeans to forget the horrors of war. Instead of fighting each other, European powers had used their militaries to establish colonies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Quick military victories during this Age of Imperialism, especially when Western powers put down the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, made military solutions seem desirable.
After decades of relative peace in Europe, with powers choosing to do their fighting overseas, such as Britain in southern Africa in the Boer War, tensions were high. There were large militaries…but nobody to fight! The new nations of Italy and Germany, united through armed conflict during the mid-1800s, tried to prove themselves as capable European powers. When war finally broke out in August 1914, civilians thought it would be a quick conflict akin to a brawl to show strength, not an attack to destroy. The phrase “over by Christmas” was used to show that many felt the situation would be a quick display of power.
Before World War I: Empires and Monarchies Make It Worse
In addition to colonialism and militarism, Europe was still dominated by monarchies, or royal families. This reduced the level of true democracy enjoyed in governance. Although most monarchs no longer had substantial executive power by 1914, the image of soldier-king was used for pro-war propaganda and likely increased the drive for war. Historically, kings and emperors have been displayed as brave military men, not thoughtful diplomats. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire, two of the three Central Powers, even had names that denoted conquest.
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European colonialism in Africa and Asia also increased the incentive for hostilities, as colonies could both be used as a source of military resources, including troops, and as locations from which to launch attacks on enemies’ colonies. And, while nations were focused on combat in Europe, opponents could invade their colonies and seize them. This focus on both using and seizing colonies during World War I made it the first genuine World War, with combat occurring in both Africa and Asia as well as Europe.
The Christmas Truce Reveals Social Class Divides
The sudden eruption of World War I and its expansion into total war that featured full mobilization of each European power’s resources can largely be attributed to leaders’ desires for proving strength, settling scores, and seeking conquest. France, for example, wanted revenge against Germany for the humiliating defeat in the rapid Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Germany wanted to prove that it was the dominant power on the continent, which put it in direct opposition with Britain. Italy, which began the war as a political ally of Germany in the Triple Alliance, remained neutral but would end up joining the Allies in 1915.
Front-line soldiers, however, did not initially share their leaders’ goals. These men, typically from the lower social classes, engaged in a famous Christmas Truce on the Western Front during the first Christmas of the war in 1914. With the war having begun without an invasion of any one power, there was little sense of having to defend one’s freedom or way of life. In Russia, especially, lower-class peasants quickly soured on the war. The miserable conditions of trench warfare quickly led to low morale among soldiers.
An Era of Propaganda and Censorship
After World War I bogged down into a stalemate, particularly on the Western Front, it was vital for full mobilization to continue. This led to a new era of mass propaganda, or political imagery to influence public opinion. Without being attacked directly, nations like Britain and the United States utilized propaganda to turn public opinion against Germany. In Britain, this was especially important as the nation did not move to conscription, or a draft, until 1916. Attempts to win public support for the war effort were important as the conflict appeared heavily entrenched, and government agencies directed these efforts for the first time. Although propaganda certainly existed in virtually all previous wars, the scale and government direction of propaganda during World War I were unprecedented.
With the advent of government-directed propaganda also came government censorship of the media. News reports about the war had to be supportive of the cause. To avoid concerning the public, even disasters were reported in newspapers as victories. Some claim that the war dragged on for so long, with little public demand for peace, because the public did not know the true extent of casualties and destruction.
Tough War Conditions Lead To Government Rationing
The war caused food shortages, especially among the three Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) and Russia. France only avoided shortages through British and American aid. With many farmers drafted into the military, domestic food production decreased. In Europe, all powers introduced government-mandated rationing, where consumers were limited to how much food and fuel they could purchase. In the United States, where entry into World War I occurred later, rationing was not mandated but was strongly encouraged by the government.
In the United States, government encouragement to reduce resource use led to a voluntary 15 percent decrease in consumption between 1917 and 1918. Food shortages in Britain increased during 1915 and 1916, leading to nationwide government controls by 1918. The rationing situation was far more stringent in Germany, which faced food riots as early as 1915. Between propaganda and rationing, government control over society during wartime drastically increased during World War I and established precedents for later conflicts.
Crumbling Economies Lead to Central Power Collapse
On the Eastern Front, the Central Powers scored a major victory in 1918 when Russia decided to exit the war. The Russian monarchy, led by tsar Nicholas II, was on somewhat shaky ground since the 1905 Russian Revolution following the country’s unexpected defeat in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Although Nicholas II vowed to embrace modernity, and Russia achieved some major military victories over Austria-Hungary in 1916, support for his administration quickly waned as war costs mounted. The Brusilov Offensive, which cost Russia over a million casualties, sapped Russia’s offensive capabilities and led to pressure to end the war.
An eroding economic situation in Russia in autumn 1916 helped spark the Russian Revolution the following spring. Despite Russia undergoing a violent Civil War, Austria-Hungary was undergoing its own dissolution due to economic contraction and food shortages. The once-powerful Ottoman Empire was also strained by years of warfare with Britain and Russia. It would begin collapsing almost as soon as it signed an armistice with Britain in October 1918. In Germany, economic hardship eventually led to political violence and strikes by November 1918, revealing definitively that the country could not continue the war. A combination of high casualties and poor economic situations, most acutely felt through food shortages, led to demands to exit the war. If one’s citizens cannot feed their families, the public desire to continue the war disappears.
Post-World War I: Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations
In November 1918, the final remaining Central Power, Germany, sought an armistice with the Allies. The Allies – France, Britain, Italy, and the United States – all had differing goals for a formal peace treaty. France and Britain both wished to punish Germany, though France specifically wanted territorial concessions – land – to create a buffer zone against its historic rival. Britain, however, wanted to keep Germany strong enough to avoid the Bolshevism (communism) that had taken root in Russia and was threatening to expand westward. United States President Woodrow Wilson wanted to create an international organization to promote peace and diplomacy and not punish Germany harshly. Italy, which had primarily fought Austria-Hungary, simply wanted territory from Austria-Hungary to create its own empire.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, included both the goals of France and Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which created a League of Nations for international diplomacy, were featured, but so was the War Guilt Clause that laid the blame for World War I squarely on Germany. Ultimately, Germany lost all its colonies, had to almost completely disarm, and was forced to pay billions of dollars in reparations.
Despite US President Woodrow Wilson championing the creation of the League of Nations, the United States Senate declined to ratify the treaty to join the organization. After a year of brutal warfare in Europe, through which it gained no territory, the US wished to return to a focus on domestic issues and avoid international entanglements. Thus, the 1920s saw a return to isolationism, where the US could avoid entanglements through the safety of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Ending Foreign Intervention
The brutality of World War I ended other Allies’ desire for foreign intervention. France and Britain, along with the United States, had sent troops to Russia to assist the Whites (non-communists) during the Russian Civil War. Outnumbered by the Bolsheviks and dealing with complicated politics, the Allies’ separate forces were unable to halt the progress of the communists. The American position, especially, was sensitive and involved spying on the Japanese, fellow Allies in World War I, who had thousands of troops in eastern Siberia. After their debacles in Russia, the Allies wanted to avoid further international engagements…allowing radicalism to flourish in Germany, Italy, and the new Soviet Union.