World War I broke out in August 1914. It raged for more than four years and came to an end in November 1918 when Germany was forced to declare an armistice. The German empire collapsed following the victory of Britain and France. On the eve of the war, the whole of Europe was polarised between two armed camps ~ the Triple Alliance comprising Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy and the Triple Entente forged by Britain, France and Russia. The Triple Alliance partners were called the Central Powers, whereas, the members of the Triple Entente were termed as Allies.
A series of events made the political situation of Europe immensely complicated in the early years of the 20th century. Cleavage and conflict among the major European powers for building a vast colonial empire made things worse. Every nation wanted to dominate over others for securing territorial gains or naval supremacy. The Cambridge Classicist, G Lowes Dickinson, called the period between 1904 and 1914, an age of “The International Anarchy”.
World War I flared up both on the land and at sea. Italy had always been an unpredictable and unreliable partner in the Triple Alliance. Italy’s flirtation with both sides, and her eventual desertion of the Triple Alliance for Triple Entente was an important event in the course of the war. Another momentous event that took place during the War was the Russian Revolution in November 1917.
The new Socialist regime called the First World War a conflict among self-seeking European powers and brought Soviet Russia out of this “imperialist war”. After concluding the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, Soviet Russia had withdrawn itself from the First World War.
No less significant was the involvement of the USA in January 1917. To the US foreign office, European quarrels seemed remote and frivolous and the Americans were concerned only with their maritime rights. There was a strategic departure in German warfare in 1917 ~ the adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The price to be paid was America’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies. The decision was important in terms of determining the course of the war. American manpower and money now reinforced the strained army and depleted coffers of the Allies.
The Great War was unique, both in scale and in its toll on humanity. The slaughter was unprecedented. It was estimated that about 6000 people were killed every day for more than 1500 days. During the entire period at least 74 million soldiers were mobilised. About 18 million soldiers of the Allied Powers died. The Central Powers had 12.4 million casualties.
The number of missing on both sides appeared countless. A huge number of people lost their limbs and several European cities and villages were filled with mutilated persons. An enormous loss of human resources had an adverse impact on national budgets. In the aftermath of the war, there was an influenza epidemic in 1918-1919, which according to many, killed more people in Europe than did the war.
The war had a disastrous impact on the economies of several European nations. The economic structure of northern France and part of Belgium were destroyed. The German economy was virtually shattered. It was further damaged by an exorbitant Allied demand for reparation. The British economy also suffered badly, although to a lesser extent. Destruction and shortage had an adverse impact on Europe’s fixed capital, which was overworked and wearing out.
Transport and communications were destroyed after four years of war. Industrial and agricultural production had suffered considerably since 1914. It was estimated that the coal output of Europe outside the Balkans and Russia came down only to two-thirds of its pre-war level. New boundaries emerged as new barriers to the growth of trade and commerce. Furthermore, the collapse of the German economy had a precarious impact on the entire economy of Central and Eastern Europe.
Political stability was swept away by the war in almost all countries of Europe. Three great dynasties, those of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, had collapsed. The dynastic regimes suffered a setback due to the war. Democracy and nationalism benefited. Republican governments were formed in the East European countries. The dual monarchy in Austria-Hungary collapsed and as a result, Austria and Hungary were separated.
Encouraged by the Allied victories in the Balkans and by German defeats in the West, the Czech and Yugoslav deputies in the Austrian parliament publicly proclaimed the right to national self-determination of their respective peoples. On 18 October 1918, the formal declaration of independence of the Czechoslovak Republic was made by a provisional government headed by Thomas Masaryk.
After a few days the Croatian Diet decided to tear apart all ties with Hungary and to join Serbia in creating an independent Yugoslavia. In Austria, a republic was formed and the concept of dynasticism was abruptly reduced to irrelevance.
A revolution in Germany ended the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II and he fled Germany to take asylum in the Netherlands. The German monarchical regime after the First World War was replaced by the Weimar Republic under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert. After the fall of the dynastic rule in Germany prominent socialists like Karl Liebkneht and Rosa Luxembourg wanted to capture state power through an insurrection, but they failed.
The Ottoman Empire, another dynastic state, joined the Great War in favour of Germany and Austria-Hungary. After its defeat, the Arab countries had declared independence from Turkish sway. In Turkey itself, a revolutionary insurgency broke out under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk and the revolutionaries after capturing state power had abolished the post of Sultan and Caliph in Ottoman Turkey. The days of the Ottoman Empire came to an end and a Republican form of government was established in Turkey.
The general perception in Europe was that democracy had won the war. It is true that the principles of democracy and republicanism emerged victorious and nationalism appeared to be their natural ally. The War posed a serious challenge to the old order of Europe putting an end to dynastic rule in several European countries. The old order changed yielding place to the new, but against a heavy price.
The writer is an Associate Professor, Dept. of History, Vivekananda College, Kolkata.