4.2 The Great War

The Great War

Those who survived it called World War I “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars.” While they were, sadly, wrong about the latter, they were right that no war had ever been like it. It was the world’s first mechanized, “impersonal” war in which machines proved to be much stronger than human beings. It devastated enormous swaths of territory and it left the economies of the Western World either crippled or teetering. To make matters worse, the war utterly failed to resolve the issues that had caused it. The war began because of the culmination of nationalist rivalries, fears, and hatreds. It failed to resolve any of those rivalries, and furthermore it was such a traumatic experience for most Europeans that certain otherwise “normal” people were attracted to the messianic, violent rhetoric of fascism and Nazism.

Background to the War

The single most significant background factor to the war was the rivalry that existed between Europe’s “great powers” by the beginning of the twentieth century. The term “great power” meant something specific in this period of history: the great powers were those able to command large armies, to maintain significant economies and industrial bases, and to conquer and hold global empires. Their respective leaders, and many of their regular citizens, were fundamentally suspicious of one another, and the biggest worry of their political leadership was that one country would come to dominate the others. Long gone was the notion of the balance of power as a guarantor of peace. Now, the balance of power was a fragile thing, with each of the great powers seeking to supplant its rivals in the name of security and prosperity. As a result, there was an ongoing, elaborate diplomatic dance as each power tried to shore up alliances, seize territory around the globe, and outpace the others.

While no great power deliberately sought war out, all were willing to risk war in 1914. That was at least in part because no politician had an accurate idea of what a new war would actually be like. The only wars that had occurred in Europe between the great powers since the Napoleonic period were the Crimean War of the 1850s and the wars that resulted in the formation of Italy and Germany in the 1850s, 1860s, and early 1870s. While the Crimean War was quite bloody, it was limited to the Crimean region itself and it did not involve all of the great powers. Likewise, the wars of national unification were relatively short and did not involve a great deal of bloodshed (by the standards of both earlier and later wars). In other words, it had been over forty years since the great powers had any experience of a war on European soil, and as they learned all too soon, much had changed with the nature of warfare in the meantime.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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