Historical Context: The Global Effect of World War I
by Steven Mintz
A recent list of the hundred most important news stories of the twentieth century ranked the onset of World War I eighth. This is a great error. Just about everything that happened in the remainder of the century was in one way or another a result of World War I, including the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, World War II, the Holocaust, and the development of the atomic bomb. The Great Depression, the Cold War, and the collapse of European colonialism can also be traced, at least indirectly, to the First World War.
World War I killed more people--more than 9 million soldiers, sailors, and flyers and another 5 million civilians--involved more countries--28--and cost more money--$186 billion in direct costs and another $151 billion in indirect costs--than any previous war in history. It was the first war to use airplanes, tanks, long range artillery, submarines, and poison gas. It left at least 7 million men permanently disabled.
World War I probably had more far-reaching consequences than any other proceeding war. Politically, it resulted in the downfall of four monarchies--in Russia in 1917, in Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1918, and in Turkey in 1922. It contributed to the Bolshevik rise to power in Russia in 1917 and the triumph of fascism in Italy in 1922. It ignited colonial revolts in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia.
Economically, the war severely disrupted the European economies and allowed the United States to become the world's leading creditor and industrial power. The war also brought vast social consequences, including the mass murder of Armenians in Turkey and an influenza epidemic that killed over 25 million people worldwide.
Few events better reveal the utter unpredictability of the future. At the dawn of the 20th century, most Europeans looked forward to a future of peace and prosperity. Europe had not fought a major war for 100 years. But a belief in human progress was shattered by World War I, a war few wanted or expected. At any point during the five weeks leading up to the outbreak of fighting the conflict might have been averted. World War I was a product of miscalculation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication.
No one expected a war of the magnitude or duration of World War I. At first the armies relied on outdated methods of communication, such as carrier pigeons. The great powers mobilized more than a million horses. But by the time the conflict was over, tanks, submarines, airplane-dropped bombs, machine guns, and poison gas had transformed the nature of modern warfare. In 1918, the Germans fired shells containing both tear gas and lethal chlorine. The tear gas forced the British to remove their gas masks; the chlorine then scarred their faces and killed them.
In a single day at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, 100,000 British troops plodded across no man's land into steady machine-gun fire from German trenches a few yards away. Some 60,000 were killed or wounded. At the end of the battle, 419,654 British men were killed, missing, or wounded.Four years of war killed a million troops from the British Empire, 1.5 million troops from the Hapsburg Empire, 1.7 million French troops, 1.7 million Russians, and 2 million German troops. The war left a legacy of bitterness that contributed to World War II twenty-one years later.