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How World War I Affected Society in Europe & The U.S.

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  • 0:01 The World Wart I Home Front
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Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn how World War I impacted the American and European societies. We will highlight the important events and themes associated with the World War I 'home front.'

The World War I Home Front

World War I shook the world. Never before had technology been put to such destructive ends. Never before had a war been so global in scope. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, Europe had experienced a period of relative peace and prosperity. There is a great book, called 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, that highlights the pleasant culture of pre-World War I Europe. Of course, we know it all came crashing down.

The First World War was a cataclysmic event that profoundly affected European and American societies. In this lesson, we will be learning about the impact the war had upon the European and American home front. The term 'home front' simply refers to the civilian populace at the time of war. Whereas enemies meet one another along a 'front' to engage in combat, the 'home front' is the region where the civilian population responds to the changes and challenges brought about by their nation at war.

In order to fully understand the scope of World War I, we need to explore its social history, or in other words, how it affected society.

How World War I Impacted Europe

When World War I broke out following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, a spirit of nationalism swept Europe. Nationalism, in its simplest form, is extreme pride in one's nation. It is often coupled with the belief that one's nation is superior to other nations.

Initially, the war was met with much joy and celebration by the major countries involved. In other words, the Germans were excited about it and convinced they would win; the French were excited about it and convinced they would win, and so on and so forth.

The spirit of nationalism fueled widespread propaganda campaigns. Propaganda is any genre of media used to influence a person's attitude about a particular topic or theme. Music, film, art, and speeches can all be used as propaganda.

Posters were one of the most common forms of World War I propaganda. Propaganda posters encouraged civilians to engage in such patriotic acts as conserving resources, joining the military, or not sharing government secrets. In many cases, they also demonized the enemy, or glorified the country they represented. In many propaganda posters, 'the Hun' was used as a derogatory term to describe Germans. All major European countries made extensive use of propaganda posters throughout World War I.

In 1916, about halfway through the war, David Lloyd George became Great Britain's prime minister, a position he held until 1922. He put on a brave, energetic face, and helped transform the British wartime economy. Despite his best efforts, the war proved a hardship upon the British people, and among the people of all countries involved, for that matter.

Systems of rationing were common throughout Europe over the course of the war. Toward the end of the war, Germany in particular suffered greatly. In fact, the winter of 1916-1917 was regarded by the German people as the Turnip Winter because of the severe lack of food, except for turnips. Turnips were therefore prepared in every imaginable way. As you can imagine, all throughout Europe, industries were configured to meet wartime demands.

How World War I Impacted America

Remember, the United States did not become directly involved in World War I until 1917. Unlike in World War II, some twenty-five years later, the American people were very divided about their role in the First World War. In the years leading up to war, isolationism among Americans was very popular. Isolationism, in this context, was the view that the United States should stay out of the war in Europe, and basically mind its own business. When the war broke out, many American were sympathetic, but felt this was a European affair. The United States had not been attacked. Why should Americans die fighting a war that the Europeans foolishly walked into? Isolationist sentiment gradually declined, due to events like the sinking of the Lusitania and German U-boats targeting American merchant vessels.

By the time the United States joined the war in April 1917, it was experiencing many of the same trends as countries in Europe. Propaganda was readily visible on the American home front. With the American industry configured for war, Americans were encouraged to conserve resources, and 'make do with less.' With patriotism sweeping the country, Congress passed the controversial Sedition Act of 1918, essentially making it a crime to speak negatively about the United States government or war effort.

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