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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

The War

The War - The Changing Domestic Dimensions
Of greater social importance than the extent of military involvement was the war's intensity. The war penetrated into economic, social, and psychological areas, such that it became the first of this century's total wars.

Proof of this assertion can be found in one small historical fact: German beer production had to be cut 25 percent of the prewar quantity by the end of 1915. The war reached into most every aspect of civilian life, as the battlefield engagements continued without much effect. Grinding the enemy down meant more artillery, more and heavier concentrations of infantry. What was therefore required was a nearly total effort, with the civilian economy geared to the war effort and with the vast majority of the nation's population directly supporting that effort. The increasing employment of women in munitions factories in England and Germany gives some indication of this shift, as do the national campaigns for the purchase of war bonds and the ever increasing need to ration foodstuffs. The social patterns defined in the nineteenth century were disrupted.

Of even greater consequence was the new role assumed by the state. The miscalculation about the nature of the war, the anticipated brevity of it as a "summer war," led all the belligerents to the conclusion that they were both well stocked and well prepared for all eventualities. But as they quickly exhausted their supplies, they realized the need for better organization of production to meet the ever-increasing demands made by the war offices. Moreover, the economic hardships caused by commercial strategies of war--the English naval blockade of the German coast, and the German use of submarines against English merchant shipping--gravely affected prewar patterns of foreign trade. Imports to Germany, for instance, fell to two-thirds of the prewar level.

More out of necessity than by calculation, European states began to intrude into the private commercial sector, both to regulate production and to assure the necessary distribution of raw materials required by the military machine. The most impressive of such efforts was made very clearly in Germany, where a War Raw Materials Board was established both to stockpile and distribute vital materials. This increased governmental control was called by the Germans "War socialism," the attempt to regulate the economy for the sake of the state. But later in both France and England the governments also established commercial controls, these worked out through the cooperative efforts of industrialists and trade unions.

With this new "War of Economic Endurance," sacrifices were increasingly required of the population--economic deprivation at home, the intensifying loss of life at the front--and these conditions in turn required ideological justification. The role of propaganda assumed great importance. The war was made into a crusade, or a grand historical cause. For the Allies (England and France particularly), the war was directed against "The Hun," a derogatory caricature of a modern barbarian speaking German and set upon destroying civilization. When the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson provided the most striking of the war's slogans: "Make the world safe for democracy." One way of political and social life was now opposed to another. On the German side, propaganda was directed primarily against England, a nation viewed as attempting to strangle Germany by the network of her fleet and finances.

What began as a "typical" European war quickly turned into a total war. Nations and cultures were cast in a life-and-death struggle for their very existence. War had become the most successful of social institutions, integrating diverse activities and interests into a single national cause.

And yet as the war dragged on the social structure started to disintegrate. The French were confronted with serious mutinies in the army in 1917; German workers increased demands for social benefits. Also, national governments, anxious to avoid domestic discontent, undertook political reforms, as evidenced in the further democratization of the voting procedures in Germany and the granting of suffrage to women in England.

Political reform was not the only result of the severely trying wartime demands. Revolution occurred farther east. The collapse of the monarchy in Russia in 1917 was of worldwide importance. Overwhelmed by war losses, mismanagement, and food shortages, the tsarist regime quickly collapsed to liberal revolution in March, and the provisional liberal government then formed was overthrown by the Communist Revolution of November 7, 1917. The Communists advertised themselves as a peaceful regime, opposed to further continuation of the war. The war, in their ideological view of things, was a capitalist endeavor fought for economic spoils. The new Russian government, faced with superior German military power, made a separate peace and then devoted itself to organizing authority at home and urging similar revolutions in other countries. Forced to deal with a bitter civil war between the Communist regime and its opponents, Russia briefly disappeared from the central international scene but its revolution haunted the traditional European governments and inspired radical Marxists with the thought that the Russian Revolution might be an example to follow.

In terms of ideology, therefore, the First World War caused a new and long- lasting conflict between two opposing political and social systems, neither of which had great influence on European political practices before. From the United States, Woodrow Wilson and the American Republic offered the ideal of democratic, constitutional government based upon "self-determination of nations." From Russia, V.I. Lenin and the Soviet Union (the new name of the Communist state) offered the ideal of Communist government based upon the rule of the proletariat. As the old monarchical systems of Germany and Austria collapsed in 1918, the territory they ruled became the battleground for these contending ideologies.

Ideologically, economically, socially, the war approached the total. Never before had there been such a concerted attempt to mobilize society, not just armies, to achieve military victory.

And, ironically, this was never done. There was no final resounding military success.

The Interminable War
The English cavalry officers who waited impatiently for the final charge against the enemy were never called; there was no dramatic gesture on the battlefield. When Germany sought an armistice in October of 1918, her armies were still intact, and her population was still anticipating a military victory. After all, most of the fighting was still taking place on French soil. What the Germans finally did was surrender out of exhaustion and out of fear of impending military collapse. After the armistice, their armies marched home in regular formations.

The long war ran counter to the thinking of all the high-placed commanders. In his memoirs, the French marshal Joseph Joffre wrote: "Due to the power of modern arms and the moral effects they were certain to produce, it appeared probable that the first battles would be short and that a decision would be promptly obtained."

Why this did not occur can be explained briefly. The unique nature of the First World War is to be found in the balance initially attained and thereafter maintained by both sides. Put in opposite terms, neither side enjoyed an unusual advantage in numbers of men and equipment, or in generalship, or in the technological development of new weapons. The war was thus a vast stalemate, which an intensification of the same tactics could not resolve. More of everything proved but two things: first, the incredible ability of the European economy to generate waste; second, the equally incredible inability of the commanding generals to contrive new strategies. As Winston Churchill commented, this was an industrial war fought by generals with preindustrial mentalities.

In operation, the First World War seemed more like a medieval siege war than a modern war in which technology should have forced mobility to prevail. The most famous statement made by any general in the war was that of the Frenchman General Pétain at the Battle of Verdun: "They shall not pass." And they did not, but neither did the French nor the English in their attempt to break through the enemy lines.

The new factor that did make an appreciable difference in the following year, 1917, was the entry of the United States into the war. The economic support provided by this country, the psychological impact of the democratic giant of the New World aiding beleaguered Old Europe, and, finally, the commitment of large numbers of troops in 1918 combined to give the edge to the Allied side. This involvement of the United States in European affairs was one of the most important changes in twentieth- century European politics, and a change that would have a pronounced effect down to the present. In both world wars the power--economic, military, demographic--of the United States was needed to overcome the imbalance created by a Germany too strong to be contained by any combination of Western European states.

For the first time in its history, modern Europe had not been able to achieve a telling victory on the battlefield, or a meaningful solution at the diplomatic table, to the political problems plaguing it. The war solved nothing, because it exhausted everything. Victor and defeated alike suffered from the same effects, these in turn repeated thirty years later when the Second World War seemed to be a continuation of the first, but with greater destructive capabilities provided by even newer technology.

The impact of the war was such that to speak of it as shattering European civilization is no exaggeration. It was both the unexpected intensity and duration of the war that determined its historical importance. To a world imbued with liberal notions of progress and human betterment, and to a generation instructed in the purposes of the rational mind, the effect was overwhelming. Granted that the dismal and pessimistic philosophers who wrote before the war hinted at and even occasionally predicted the horror ahead, they were not widely believed. However, by 1918 the battlefields of Europe had exceeded the grotesque fantasies imagined earlier in pulp fiction and by science-minded novelists like H. G. Wells.

At home the regular ways of civilian life were disrupted and reordered, a preparation in regimentation, according to some historians, for the totalitarian rule that the various dictatorships of the 1930s would attempt to impose. Although it is difficult to assess the wartime conditioning of the European populations that was caused by increasing state control and domination of daily life, there is no doubt that liberal democracy suffered. A form of wartime dictatorship, in which the legislative branch delegated or abdicated authority to the executive, existed on both sides. The French premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) enjoyed virtual control of the French government in late 1917 and 1918, while at the same time the two most significant generals then directing the military effort in Germany, Erich von Ludendorff (1865- 1937) and Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), held even greater authority. Censorship of the press, harsh laws on treason, food rationing, the drafting of civilian workers for war-directed industries--these were all imposed in the belligerent states, and all to the detriment of the rights of the individual.

Culturally, the war was destructive as well. It is true that few works of art actually suffered, although some major architectural sites were reduced to rubble. Yet the spirit of confidence that inspired the construction of the Eiffel Tower, or the founding of the London School of Economics, or the compilation of the eleventh edition of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" was gone.

The Irish poet W. B. Yeats suggested the contemporary state of European civilization with these words:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Europe after the war was less temperate, less measured in its thought and behavior, less humane than before. Such a statement is not meant to imply that the nineteenth century; was an age of unusual and widespread decency. The novels of Charles Dickens and the dedicated work of the Salvation Army stand as testaments to the misery and pain that then existed. But the organized and calculated destruction of the First World War was of new dimensions and of lasting consequence. The value of life, so highly praised by liberal philosophers, was once again cheapened. Mass slaughter was accepted with a fatalistic resignation. The masses, which in the nineteenth century were forced to produce, were consumed in the twentieth: 100 million individuals died in the two world wars.

Lastly, the war made Europeans aware of the fragility of their civilization and the basic physicality of their earthly existence. Not only was the comfort of bourgeois urban existence shown to be rather decorative like ivory elephants on a mantelpiece, but also the fundamental principle upon which the nineteenth-century world view was positioned was shown to be a lie. Descartes's statement, "I think therefore I am," was a gross deception; the world was anything but rational. What emerges from all the literature of the war is the physical brutality, the forced primitiveness of life on the battlefield. To have the cunning to stay alive, was the major concern. Existence (the moment-to-moment concern with survival), not abstraction (the leisurely interest in systems and long-range purposes) defined the new generation, the "lost generation."

World War I was the "war to end all wars," according to President Woodrow Wilson. In fact, it was the first of the large-scale, industrially generated wars in which success was determined by the amount of destruction caused. War was no longer, if it ever had been, the "sport of noblemen." It was an organized effort at annihilation.

NEXT:  Part Three: Reconstruction and New Order: 1918-1945

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