How World War I Changed the World

World War I took place between 1914 and 1918. Although the conflict began in Europe, it roped in countries as far away as the United States and Japan. At the time, the English-speaking world knew it as the “Great War”—the term “World War I” was applied decades later. Historians still actively disagree over the fundamental causes of the war. The period leading up to the war was a complex tangle of diplomacy and political maneuvering—many countries debated over strategies and alliances until nearly the last minute—and the first few weeks of the conflict were similarly chaotic and confusing. However, historians agree nearly unanimously about the war’s consequences: World War I led almost directly to World War II and set the stage for many other important events in the twentieth century.

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 World War I, a war few wanted or expected, shattered a belief in human progress. 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.

Technological and industrial developments in Europe were advancing with unprecedented speed. Military technology was at the forefront of this trend, and a horrible war using these new weapons was both feared and seen as inevitable. Indeed, World War I turned out to be a showcase of new technologies that would change the nature, speed, and efficiency of warfare in the century to come. Tanks, airplanes, and submarines changed the way wars were fought. Other types of motorized vehicles, such as trucks, cars, and especially trains, vastly improved the speed with which troops and supplies could be deployed and increased the distance over which they could be transported.

Guns in all categories, ranging from pistols to major artillery, greatly improved in accuracy and range of fire, enabling armies to fire upon each other across long distances and in some cases without even having to see each other. The machine gun made it possible for a single soldier to effectively take on multiple opponents at once. Chemical warfare was seen on a large scale for the first time, with results so gruesome that most countries vowed never to use such weapons again.

By conservative estimates, around 9 million soldiers died in battle—many of them defending entrenched front lines that were so stalemated that they rarely moved even a few yards in either direction. Civilian loss of life totaled an additional 13 million. Epidemics of influenza and other diseases, either induced or exacerbated by the war, raised the death toll by at least an additional 20 million. In total, counting battle casualties, civilian deaths, and victims of disease, the loss of life worldwide surpassed 40 million.

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 another influenza epidemic that killed over 25 million people worldwide. ?On a smaller but still important note; with the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, added onto the world map now are Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

The great recession in turn set the stage for an aspiring young Adolf Hitler. After the Versailles Treaty, the wheels for WWII and the rise of Hitler were put into motion. He gained the people’s trust and hope after he promised them a better world under his reign. He was elected into government, and soon after, set the foundations of what we know him now as; a smart and influential dictator that used his power and influence to drag the world into another war. With the Holocaust taken aside, he is considered one of the smartest people in his time, as well as one of the most notorious criminal and advocate of hate of all time.

France and England were the primary superpowers; WWI would see to it that they were dethroned and the United States would take their place. It was catapulted into a position of world leadership, as young as the country was. It became a creditor nation by 1925. Unfortunately, American involvement in WWI had some worrisome indirect effects on the country. Wilson had warned that if Americans went to war they would “forget the very meaning of the word tolerance,” and intolerance did increase as a result of our involvement in WWI.

During the war, it seemed necessary to stir up anti-German sentiment to induce men to volunteer or to accept the draft, and to induce Americans in general to make the sacrifices necessary for the war effort. The job of stirring up anti-German sentiment fell to George Creel and his Committee of Public Information. It was the end of the literary age known as the Romantic Era, and the end of the nineteenth century idealism.

World War I led also to a changed status for women. The 19th Amendment (adopted in 1920) guaranteed women the right to vote. Wilson at the time had championed it as “a necessary war measure.” But it seems to me that the real reason men dropped their opposition to the 19th Amendment was the 18th Amendment. Men had opposed women’s suffrage in part because they were afraid women would make prohibition their number one priority. In 1920, men were no longer afraid giving the women the right to vote would lead to prohibition. Why? Because, by then, we already had prohibition.

But despite the fact that World War I had led to some changes progressive wanted, WWI really ended up killing the progressive movement. In 1920, Wilson decided that the Democrats should make the election a “solemn referendum” on the League of Nations. Progressivism was dead—at least for the moment.