The First World War was a defining moment in the history of human conflict. It was for the first time that a war encompassed such a vast area of the world. The subsequent conduct and the results of the war make it fundamentally different than the wars that preceded it. This essay examines the overall significance of the First World War on the Geopolitical, Military, Economic, and Social parameters of human affairs.
The First World War marked the end of empires as a political entity in the world. The great Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the German Empire, and the Russian empire all dissolved in the aftermath of the First World War metamorphosing into geographical boundaries of individual nation-states that came into existence as a result of the breakup of those empires. The war involved all the major global powers, a total of 32 countries and their colonies spanning Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Never before had so many countries participated in a war in such a large geographical expanse? The war that started purely in the European theatre soon spread to as far as the Indian subcontinent on the opposite side of the Globe. The First World War led to the mobilization of over 70 million military personnel, by far the largest number in the history of warfare up to that point in time. The proximate causes of the war have been similar to those that preceded it. Inter-power rivalry, need for power, the impulse for gaining territory, suspicion, conquests for attaining wealth, and prosperity were all present in sufficient measure as the causes of the First World War. What started as an incident of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria led to a complex web of political intrigue that led the major powers of the world to align into two opposing blocs, the Entente and the Central Powers, a phenomenon not witnessed on such a gigantic scale ever before.
Balance of Power
The war affirmed the principles of the Balance of Power Theory. In this case, it was the shift in Balance of Power that led to the war. With the defeat of the French at Waterloo, other powers such as Russia, Britain, and Prussia Italy began jostling for influence in the European landscape. In the duration 1850 to 1870, this led to a classic Balance of Power dynamics where nations changed alliances as and when it suited their calculations of national interests. In 1871 the unification of Germany became the pivotal event for geopolitical events leading to the Great War. Prussia unified all Germanic states, and thus became a potentially hegemonic state (Lasagna). This led to the German Paradox in the Balance of Power system prevalent in Europe. Germany as a rising new power faced a possibility of strategic encirclement with France on the West and Russia on the East, Austria-Hungary on its South, and Great Britain on its North. So Germany had to constantly calculate how to prevent a German defeat in war or German isolation by an alliance. To do that Germany had to build its military capability, which in turn triggered other surrounding nations to join this arms race and take counter-measures. German threat was in the sense an objective threat where the nature of the leadership; democratic, autocratic, or dictatorship did not matter. The First World War reinforced the tenets of the Balance of Power theory and its application in defining international relations amongst nation-states.
Conflicting Expansionist Policies
The First World War resulted by and large because of the expansionist dreams of the major powers in Europe and their rush to assimilate parts of the failing Ottoman Empire into their territories and spheres of influence. This led to many changing and shifting alliances in the lead-up to the war. Great Britain tried to prop up the faltering Ottoman Empire to prevent its territories from falling into the hands of rival European powers (Fromkin 50). Austria and Russia looked at the Ottoman Empire as a legitimate target for increasing their power and prosperity. Thus expansionism expressed by the various European powers over coveting the same pieces of territory led to the eventual conflagration. As a result of the First World War, expansionism became a legitimate credo for practitioners of power politics.
The legitimacy to the Theory of Preemption
The mechanism of nation-states in their domestic and international dealings added impetus to the legitimacy of the doctrine of Preventive Wars. European nation-states had instituted internal legislation that required each state to declare their production timetables for armament (Fromkin 30). States, therefore, had a clear idea of the defense production of a rival state and thus could be tempted to consider launching a preventive war. The preventive war also aimed at removing the threat of a future rival and expanding own territory for national interests. The Austrians did not hide their intentions of embarking on such a preventive war in dismembering Serbia (Fromkin 157), a rising power that was threatening the Austro-Hungarian domination of the Balkans. Thus the First World War provides ‘precedence’ for embarking on preventive wars, which is an important aspect of laws of armed conflict. The inclusion of the concept of ‘anticipatory self-defense’ in the UN charter can be traced back to the analysis of action taken in the First World War.
Formation of Alliances
While kingdoms and states in the past had always entered into alliances for collective security against a stronger enemy or for ensuring peace between each other, the First World War institutionalized the validity of formal alliances between nation-states for a host of complex geopolitical reasons. It has been argued that the rigid alliance system of Europe in 1914 (Fromkin 266) brought about the First World War. Nonetheless, it was the First World War that brought formal acceptability to the system of alliances that then led to the NATO, Warsaw Pact, SEATO, CENTO, and a host of other similar groupings to maintain the international system.
The Rise of Nationalism
The First World War accentuated the rise of nationalism and the importance of nationalism as a driver of international politics. Europe was increasingly becoming a continent of nation-states (Fromkin 23) as it entered the twentieth century and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was one such dichotomous entity that affected the rise of such nation-states. Nevertheless, one of the lasting significance of the First World War was the acceptance of nation-states as the geographical entity based on national identities, shared ethnicity, religion, and cultural values.
Emergence of Marxism
The events before the First World War catalyzed new ideological strains of political systems. Lenin had argued that capitalism had entered its last phase where the further expansion of economies could only take place by further colonialism by the capitalist countries (Fromkin 278) and hence there was a need to counter such an event by a new system that provided for more equality and equitability of resources and thus was born the Marxist philosophy. Marxism led to the development of the Communist bloc in opposition to the capitalist system, which was one of the byproducts of the First World War.
The First World War was the first instance of a Total War (Fromkin 56) where all countries employed their entire military-industrial and human resources for the prosecution of the war. On previous occasions, wars used to be conducted between armies where the local populace continued to follow their humdrum existence. In the First World War, countries mobilized their entire populations to either serve directly in their armies or be employed in industries and services in support of the war effort.
Warfare had evolved from the static siege and mobile warfare in the preceding years. The First World War, however, retracted back to the largest static battlefield of trench warfare in the history of human conflict. The waterfront extended over 9,600 kilometers of trenches, the longest the world had ever known. The First World War saw the introduction of many technological innovations into the conduct of warfare. It was the first time that the Tank was introduced into the battlefield. It was also the first time that chemical warfare was used extensively by both sides as a weapon of war with the use of Chlorine, Mustard and Phosgene gases as the chemical agents. The use of submarines in unrestricted trade warfare at sea was a techno-tactical innovation of the war that laid the foundations for a much larger sophisticated campaign of trade warfare in the next Great War. The First World War also saw the introduction of aircraft carriers as a man of war. Telephone and wireless communications too made their large-scale debut in the conduct of the war. The nature of artillery fire too changed from direct fire to indirect fire with a wide variety of guns and howitzers coming into the fray along with sophisticated methods of directing the fire that included telephones and aerial observation. The use of aircraft graduated from aerial spotting to fighter and bomber roles. The First World War thus laid the foundations for the further advancement in military technology and hardware that changed the very concepts of waging war in the decades that followed.
The Theory of War
The First World War saw a conflict of 20th-century technological innovations and the persistent use of 19th-century tactics that led to the static battlefields. It also led to the development of war theory, specifically the theory of operational logistics as leaders quickly realized the value of planning quick turnarounds using extensive railway systems and ships for transportation of war materials and soldiers. The use of submarines by the Germans and the subsequent countermeasures deployed by the British in the form of hydrophones called ASDIC, now known as sonar gave rise to the fields of operational research that were refined by the time the Second World War arrived.
The First World War led to the consolidation and harnessing of the economic power of the states involved. It led to the national-level mobilization of all the economic resources of the state, a phenomenon not witnessed earlier. The war laid the foundations for planned economic progress as a prime ingredient for the projection of national power. It also brought into focus the concepts of mass production, economies of scale, and the need for integrating the economy with other functions of governance. The First World War destroyed European economic power and led to the rise of America as the dominant global economic powerhouse.
The First World War resulted in the employment of women on a large scale to sustain the war effort. This led to the emancipation of women across the Western world. Women even began taking part in direct military operations. In America, Britain, and Canada, the women’s rights movement achieved significant successes with the declaration of universal suffrage after the First World War. Women also earned the right to equality in workplaces and legislations against discrimination of women in workplaces. The very images of women working side by side with men in defense industries, caring for the sick and wounded on the battlefields, served to bring about social and cultural change in the way society viewed women.
The technological changes initiated during the war also affected the way the media was used by both sides. The First World War was the first war in which military correspondents were deployed in large numbers across the world to cover and record the war. Most of these correspondents remained embedded with their respective units and field formations and thus gave rise to the first authentically recorded war history in the world by such a large number of literary persons. In the wars that preceded the First World War, war reporting was the province of the few and not the many. Media was used to empower, shape opinions, and documentaries were made and shown to target audiences across the opposing sides. Media propaganda came into its own due to the First World War and laid the foundations for its use as an instrument of the state in the succeeding conflicts. The power of the motion picture was realized by the Germans who very effectively used it to build an invincible image of Nazi Germany in the subsequent decades.
The First World War resulted in over 15 million fatalities making it one of the largest numbers of casualties inflicted in a single war till that time. Approximately six million were seriously wounded and another 14 million people were moderately wounded. The disruption to life and nations resulted in an unprecedented 10 million people being rendered refugees across the theatre of conflict.
The aftermath of the war resulted in the formation of the first global body, the premature League of Nations, which nevertheless was a pioneering effort at instituting a global conflict resolution mechanism. The war also set forth changes in the international legal system. The first formulations to codify and regulate the use of weapons such as chemicals agents, use of civilians, considering the plight of prisoners of wars and the conduct of victors over the vanquished were a result of the First World War. The unequal and humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles 1917, was also a product of the First World War which aimed as arms limiting treaty to reduce the chances of war in Europe but ended up as one of the main reasons for the outbreak of the Second World War.
In conclusion, it can be emphasized that the First World War significantly affected the existing systems that governed human affairs till then. In international geopolitics, the First World War signaled the demise of Empires as a legitimate formal entity and established the nation-state as the acceptable international geopolitical entity. The war changed the geography of Europe forever and was responsible for the causation of future conflicts such as the Second World War and the Cold War. The war refined the theories of international relations such as the Balance of Power theory and led to further advancement in military technology and military theories of war. The war also brought about the demise of Europe as an economic powerhouse and the rise of the United States as the prime global economic power. The war institutionalized the system of alliances that were evolved before and during the First World War, which was to play an important role in future conflicts. The war also produced the first world body for international arbitration and thus set the stage for the future evolution and acceptance of the United Nations and other world organizations to regulate human affairs. On the social front, the war led to the emancipation of women and their liberation and acceptance across the developed world.
- Fromkin, David. Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? NY: Knopf, 2004.
- Lecture by Lagagna, Professor Victor on Politics and Warfare delivered at UC san Diego 2009.