HS-102 Readings

Effects of World War I



    England had been the center of the great British Empire before World War I. The war marks the beginning of the decline of that empire in the face of rising nationalist demands for independence throughout the non-European world.

    England had also been the great creditor nation of the world, providing shipping and insurance services to the rest of the world. The cost of the war was so great that England consumed all of its credits and became heavily indebted to the United States. As a result of the war, the world's financial center shifted from England to the United States, from London to New York.

    The demands by women for the right to vote had become most strident in England prior to the war. It could no longer be denied. Women acquired that right throughout most of the countries of Europe following the war.

    Working class people, as well as women, were fully employed during the war, and their status, once defined as very subordinate to the aristocracy, was greatly enhanced. The distribution of income shifted in favor of the poor. Relatively, the status of the aristocracy was diminished. Politically, this is reflected in England by the rise of the Labor Party as one of the two major parties.

    In France, the heavy losses in manpower at the front decimated an entire generation of Frenchmen and is thought to have created a leadership vacuum when that generation came of age. France had fallen behind Germany and England in population during the 19th century. They were, therefore, less able to sustain wartime losses.

    France also suffered untold property damage since most of the war on the western front was fought on French soil.

    The United States, removed by an ocean from the center of the war and joining late in the war, did not suffer the catastrophic losses of the major belligerents. U.S. losses in life were great, more than 100,000, but this was small in comparison to the millions lost by the other major powers.

    Furthermore, the United States was a great continental power, with great population and resources. The war stimulated the U.S. economy, increased employment and wages, and brought great profit to industry. The United States emerged from the war as clearly the greatest power in the world as well as the creditor nation of the world.

    These circumstances thrust the United States into a position as world leaders, while the American people still assumed that Europe had little to do with America. President Wilson had a vision that would have involved the United States extensively in world affairs through the League of Nations, but he was unable to find popular support.

    Germany had entered World War I as the greatest power among the belligerents, with its people immensely proud of Germany's achievements in the years since unification. Defeat in war was a profound shock, and coupled with economic privation and collapse, was more than the German people could accept.

    The unusual circumstances at the end of the war, in which their government collapsed and the Social Democratic Party assumed power, were not of their choosing. Revolution was forced upon them by outside pressure, before the people were prepared for change.  The new government was unpopular from the beginning. Rather than being in the
mainstream of German politics, its support came mainly from the working class. Its popularity was further eroded by the fact that it was tainted with having to sign the armistice and then to accept the Versailles Treaty, a treatly which was universally denounced by the German people.

    Severe economic difficulties created by the war and the demand for reparations caused despair and hardship which ensured an uncertain future for the nation.

    Austria-Hungary collapsed during the war, torn apart by its multi-national divisions. Though the Treaty negotiators in Paris in 1919, recognized a new political arrangement after the war, it, too, lacked stability because it was impossible to put to rest the multi-ethnic tension between the people in the region.

    Czechoslovakia was a relatively stable successor state in the north, though it was divided among two Slavic nationalities and included many Germans in the Sudetenland, as well as Polish and Hungarian minorities.

    Rumania, one of the Allied nations, was given a large share of territory inhabited by Hungarians.

    The greatest uncertainty was, however, in the areas inhabited by Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, where the different ethnic groups could not be separated from one another and were included together in the new multi-national state of Yugoslavia.

    In the former European portion of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish people mingled with Bulgars in Bulgaria, while Albanians mingled with Greeks in Greece and with Serbs in Yugoslavia.

    Both the Austrian and the Ottoman Empires had been destroyed without there being any stable alternative.

    In Russia, the war led to the Russian Revolution and a civil war which continued the conflict for three years beyond World War I. The civil war involved foreign intervention, almost total disintegration of the economy and, by 1921, massive famine.

    The revolution came earlier than it otherwise would have, under circumstances of war, and before a middle class leadership were prepared to establish a stable, liberal alternative to the old regime.

    In other words, the war accelerated the process of change driven by industrialization, and created circumstances in Germany, in the Balkans, and in Russia which people were not prepared for. As previously indicated, it also thrust the United States into a position of world leadership before the American people were ready to accept that responsibility.

    The problems, the instability, the uncertainties, and the economic collapse created by the war were far more difficult to deal with than any situation that existed prior to the war.