Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
The End of World War I
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. Although the guns fell silent following the Armistice of Compiegne in November of 1918, the impact of the war continues to be felt to this day.
The war resulted in the death of empires and the birth of nations, and in national boundaries being redrawn around the world. It ushered in prosperity for some countries, while it brought economic depression to others. It influenced literature. It changed culture. The impact of World War I was monumental. Let's explore the political, economic, and social consequences of the Great War.
The Political Impact of World War I
There is a lot that can be said of the political effects of World War I, so we'll try to focus on the highlights. This will be rather 'rapid-fire' in terms of content, so hang on tight. Here we go.
Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to make significant territorial concessions. These were primarily along its eastern and western borders. Probably the most important concession was the ceding of Alsace-Lorraine to France. This area had been the subject of dispute between France and Germany for a long time. This area bordering the two countries had been ceded to Germany following its victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.
For decades afterwards, France wanted it back. Emerging as victorious powers in World War I, France and Great Britain jointly controlled Saarland for a period of fifteen years. Other parts of Germany were given to the newly independent country of Poland and to Denmark.
Coinciding with the end of World War I, a socialist revolution broke out in Germany. The German Revolution of 1918-1919 resulted in the creation of the left-leaning Weimar Republic, which lasted until Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party seized power in the early 1930s. Many historians believe Germany's defeat in World War I and the harsh terms imposed by the Treaty of Versailles led directly to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Following its defeat, the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke up into several independent states. Among the most prominent were Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Austria. The Ottoman Empire also split apart. Portions of the former empire were placed under the control of France and Great Britain, such as Syria and Palestine, while the bulk of the empire emerged as the Republic of Turkey.
Discontent with World War I also helped bring about the Russian Revolution of 1917. In this revolution, the Russian Empire was toppled and replaced by a socialist government led by Vladimir Lenin. In northeastern Europe, new states emerged that had formerly been a part of the Russian Empire. Among them were Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania.
We should understand that mandates, territorial concessions, and independence movements took place throughout the world, not just in Europe. For example, the League of Nations mandated that the colony of German East Africa be partitioned to Belgium, France, and Portugal. While the specifics of how post-World War I nation-states emerged is quite complex, the important thing to remember is that after World War I, the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires fractured into numerous independent nations.
It can be argued convincingly that the United States emerged from World War I as the world superpower. Because of U.S. intervention and President Woodrow Wilson's diplomatic leadership, America had now become the 'savior of Europe.' The United States left World War I with a major confidence boost.
The Economic Impact of World War I
Let's look at the economic impact of World War I. Unlike in some European countries, the United States was not laid to waste by war. America's factories and countrysides were unharmed, and performing better than ever. World War I sped up American industrial production, leading to an economic boom throughout the 'Roaring Twenties.'
While the war was a devastating experience for France and the United Kingdom, these countries were able to recover economically without too much difficulty. It was Germany, however, that particularly suffered following the war. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to make monetary payments to the Allies, called reparations. The heavy reparations, combined with the devastated economic infrastructure throughout Germany and political tension under the Weimar Republic, led to an economic depression.
Hyperinflation and unemployment in Weimar Germany were staggering. Reichsmarks, the German currency, became so devalued, that it took wheelbarrows full of money to buy basic items, such as a loaf of bread. One famous photograph shows children flying a kite made out of reichsmarks sewn together.
In the mid to late 1920s, the German economy stabilized somewhat, but after the American stock market crash in 1929, the Great Depression spread to Germany. From 1929 into the early 1930s, depression again wreaked havoc on German society. It was under these conditions that the Nazis were able to come to power.
The Social Impact of World War I
World War I had important effects on society at large. Some of you may watch the television series Downton Abbey. This program does a good job of showing how World War I disrupted decades of social norms. Generally, the war brought an increase in progressive thinking. In many parts of the world, opportunities for lower and middle class people improved, while members of the aristocracy sometimes found their power waning.
Of course, this was not true across the board, but the general trend following the war was toward liberalization. During the war, many women took on tasks that previously had been relegated to men. The disruption of social norms during the war aided the cause of feminism, which grew throughout the 1920s.
With the war over, technological advances could now be put toward peaceful purposes. Improved means of transportation, mechanical progress, advances in communication and medicine all helped improve the quality of life for many around the world.
World War I also sparked a vibrant literary movement. Memoirs of the war and poetry about it were particularly common. Popular themes included death, loss, the meaning of life, humanity, and other existential abstractions. Ernest Hemingway is one notable American author who fought in World War I, and went on to become a popular literary figure throughout the 1920s.
Above all, the end of World War I ushered in a spirit of modernism throughout the world. Many people were optimistic about the future. World War I was supposed to be the 'war to end all wars.' Imperialism and old systems were crumbling; faith in technology and human progress abounded. The beacon of democracy and liberalization appeared bright. Of course, this was not to last - roughly twenty years later Adolf Hitler brought upon the European continent a second, even more destructive war.
Let's review the highlights concerning the impact of World War I. After losing the war, Germany was forced to make significant concessions along its eastern and western borders. Under the Treaty of Versailles, the defeated nation was forced to hand over the area of Alsace-Lorraine to France. This region had belonged to France prior to the Franco-Prussian War, and France jumped at the opportunity to get it back.
In Germany, the end of the war coincided with the German Revolution of 1918-1919, in which the imperial government was replaced by the Weimar Republic. Russia also experienced a revolution. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the creation of free states, like Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania in northeastern Europe. Weimar Germany was plagued by economic depression throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Hyperinflation caused the German reichsmark to become virtually worthless.
Feminism made significant gains following World War I, a result of social norms being disrupted during wartime. The war also spawned a literary movement, in which Ernest Hemingway became a notable figure.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Understand the political ramifications after WWI may have set the stage for Germany's Nazi party and WWII
- Identify the revolutions after WWI which changed borders and governments
- Recognize the how the economies of the U.S. and European countries differed after WWI
- Recall the social growth of feminism, popular music and a thriving literary movement during this period
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