Fallout felt around the world
In Britain, we usually consider the Treaty of Versailles to be the most important and problematic political legacy of the First World War. But we need to think more broadly. Among the larger themes, three stand out.
Old empires crumble
The First World War was total war, testing not just the armed forces but also the whole economy and society of each belligerent power. And losing total war meant total defeat. First to crumble in 1917 was Russia: the March revolution toppled the tsar, and the November coup brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power, though they then had to fight a five-year civil war to gain full control of the country. In the autumn of 1918, not only the German Reich crumbled but also the Habsburg dynasty – dominant in central Europe for four centuries. And the Ottoman Turks, who in 1683 had been at the gates of Vienna, were now driven almost completely from south-eastern Europe. In 1919–22, Turkey had to fight for its very existence as state.
On the ruins of these great dynastic empires were built a variety of new states. In the Baltic, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania won bitter wars of independence against Russia, their old imperial master. Poland emerged again from its long partition between Germans and Russians. Austria and Hungary became independent states; Czechoslovakia was invented from scratch. And in the Balkans, the Serbs forged a south Slav state, Yugoslavia, from peoples formerly under Habsburg and Ottoman rule.
These new states were, however, rickety and flawed: generally multi-ethnic, but with one ethnic group in control. And most borders were in dispute, those of Poland and Czechoslovakia being especially contentious. Here was the fuel for the next war.
Strongmen seize their chance
The First World War also generated new and explosive forms of democratic politics, especially in Italy and Germany.
Italy had an established tradition of parliamentary government but in 1918, as in Britain, the franchise was enlarged to universal male suffrage in order to repay the troops. Germany, by contrast, had implemented a democratic franchise in 1871, but the parliament exerted little control over the government until the kaiser was toppled in the republican revolution of 1918.
Italy and Germany, from these different directions, now tried to make mass democracy work as a form of government in societies that were polarised politically and embittered by the sour fruits of war. The Germans wanted to tear up Versailles; many Italians protested against their ‘mutilated victory’ and demanded more territory in the Adriatic and Mediterranean.
To break the deadlock in fractious and fractured parliaments, charismatic politi- cians appealed to the populace at large – promoting the cult of the ‘strong leader’ and intimidating opponents using private armies of street thugs (many of them brutalised war veterans). Benito Mussolini deployed his squadristi to help lever himself into power in Rome in 1922. Adolf Hitler’s stormtroopers played a similar supporting role in his appointment as German chancellor in 1933. Once in power, both men abolished meaningful parliamentary government and embarked on plans for aggressive expansion.
Glimpses of a new global order
Although the British called 1914–18 the ‘Great War’, the Germans always used the term ‘World War’ ( Weltkrieg), because they considered it a struggle to establish themselves as a top-rank global empire and naval power in the manner of Britain and France. Not only did Germany’s bid fail, the British and French ended the war with even larger empires – picking up German possessions in Africa and the Pacific and evicting the Ottomans from the Middle East.
Yet these lands had strings attached – they came as ‘mandates’ from the new League of Nations, whereby the European power ruled as a ‘trustee’, preparing the inhabitants for future self-government. Syria and Lebanon for France, Iraq and especially Palestine for Britain, proved poisoned chalices. Older parts of their empires also became less tractable. The years after 1918 saw violent upheavals in India, Egypt and French Indochina. And China and Japan felt short-changed by their European allies in the territorial carve-up at the Paris Peace Conference.
So it wasn’t just the Germans and Italians who craved a place in the sun. Across the world, British and French hegemony looked increasingly shaky. Yet no one foresaw the hurricane that would blow away the Europe-centred global order between 1937 and 1945.
New imperial possessions – Syria and Lebanon for France, Iraq and Palestine for Britain – proved poisoned chalices
A stamp used in the British mandate of Palestine, which ended in 1948