In 1918, the flames of the Great War finally receded from the continent that, over four years, had become a barren, cratered plain. Families were broken up, people were uprooted and all around swirled the dark currents of hatred and loss. In the wake of the terrible conflict, Europe and the world were hardly recognisable, and it grew clear that they would never return to their existence of 1914: the immediate and far-reaching consequences of the total war had irrevocable political, economic and social effects.
The most obvious political effect of the war was the dissolution of three key European imperial powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the foundation of states newly independent from them. Germany, the key aggressor, suffered the most ignominy as it was forced to accept the war guilt clause, pay an impossibly large indemnity, decimate its army, relinquish its fleet, forfeit its colonies, surrender the Saar and the Rhineland. Even before these terms were accepted, however, the German and Austrian empires had begun to disintegrate: in the autumn of 1918, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia declared themselves nations.
As revolution reached Berlin, the Kaiser abdicated and Ebert became Chancellor of the newly formed German republic.
From the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia lost control of Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Finland and the Baltic states, and had by the war’s end undergone a radical upheaval when the Bolsheviks seized power. Soviet Russia, which along with Germany later gained pariah status, then played a large part in encouraging subsequent socialist movements such as the Spartacists and Rumania’s Bela Kun, that had sprung up in the conditions favourable to revolution. To help maintain order and diffuse crises in this new environment, the League of Nations was established as a corollary of the Versailles Treaty. Resulting from the Alliance’s defeat and the subsequent fragmentation of Germany, Russia and Austria Hungary, a tremendous weakening of belligerents and neutrals created a power vacuum in Europe; the USA, which had remained strong throughout, resumed an isolationist stance and protective alliances were difficult to forge.
This yearning for security manifested itself economically and was especially evident in the Danube valley. Finding themselves without the labour and capital that had previously come from Germany, and fearing for their safety, the successor states instituted protective export and import tariffs not observed in the Europe of half a decade ago. Another element of the post-war continental economies was growing currency instability that occurred as their gold reserves rapidly and unevenly flowed to the USA in debt payments. Inflation, too, was universal, but particularly plagued Germany, which was printing much money at the time, Austria and Hungary, where the League of Nations intervened economically, and Poland and Russia. Much needed stabilisation came with US loans to Germany from 1924, as capital once again began to flow to Europe and growth reappeared. Immediately after the war, however, economic destitution in Europe was comprehensive. Primarily, resources were depleted; most of the workforce was killed, factories and farms were destroyed, little capital was available and shortages were ubiquitous (except for the USA, which improved economically during the war). Communications and infrastructure were badly hit by the fighting and took long to reconstruct, for Europe’s manufacturing production reached only around 75% of what it was in 1913. Unemployment soared, but evened out as more women were trained to take over male positions in industry.
Meeting the new female roles that sprouted from a heavily disrupted gender ratio, legal adjustments ensuring equal pay and other protection were established, (social change, unsurprisingly, was slower in following). The League of Nations also guaranteed minorities in the newly formed, nationality-oriented states the freedom to establish and use religious, cultural and linguistic institutions. This spreading ethnic awareness was felt in colonies, which gradually increased their independence. For example, India gained self-sufficiency as a result of growth in British created industries to produce for Imperial operations in the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia during the war.
Nationalism generally rose, especially in Germany and newly created states, as a means of quick mobilisation of labour and, more typically of Nazism, the conversion of defeat and sorrow to hatred and pride. Germany found this strategy especially successful, even in alleviating the acute post-war problem of low birth rates and poor population growth, with the help of the abolition of contraceptives and abortions. The slow population growth was another social indicator of the depression and insecurity felt in most European countries for many years after 1918. These feelings were realistic, as society’s landscape was bleak at the time: Families were torn as thousands of women and children became widows and orphans; because of bombings, numerous people lost their homes and were displaced but were often provided with neither shelter nor welfare. In general, the social ramifications of WWI were mixed.
World War One, the war that should have ended all wars, was the most terrifying and large-scale confrontation the old world had experienced. As it ploughed through European cities and countryside, it slaughtered people and animals in cold blood, razing settlements to the ground and bringing industry to its knees. The social, political and economic effects of the first world war were so historically influential that they have not only defined the immediate future, but continue to shape our present existence.
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