In the early years of the 20th century, tension grew between Germany and France over colonial conflicts in Africa and Asia.
The countries went to war in August 1914 when Austria-Hungary joined forces with Germany.
The four-year conflict devastated the Europe.
More than 8 million soldiers were killed, many due to disease or starvation from malnutrition caused by food shortages.
No longer able to produce sufficient supplies of food, farmers abandoned their crops on an unprecedented scale,
resulting in an even worse famine that was devastating across Europe.
In China alone more than 20 million people died – more than half of them were children under ten years old.
Poverty was widespread, social services were devastated, and many families were broken apart as the men were killed in the war.
The home front was especially hard on women and children. Millions of people were killed and wounded, cities bombed and destroyed.
With the end of World War I many countries fell into an economic slump known as the Great Depression.
Industrial production dropped sharply, prices for farm products fell to a fraction of their pre-war levels, and unemployment grew rapidly.
In Germany, hyperinflation threw millions out of work by 1923 when a German currency reform was passed that practically ended the hyperinflation.
The Great Depression also sparked political radicalism –
right wing dictatorships rose in many countries and extremist parties gained popularity.
The war itself caused few of the human casualties that it has been compared to:
most deaths and destruction occurred during the long period of economic crisis that followed.
The war did, however, help spread ideologies that would lead to World War II – Nazism in Germany, and Italian Fascism or Italian National Socialism in Italy.
And many other wars have since been fought based on the same principles. The ‘great powers’ were never really great again,
although they would occasionally build up the strength to threaten other countries (e.g., during the Cold War).
Nationalist movements affected both the defeated and the victorious countries.
The resentment in Germany produced a severe bitterness that easily helped Nazism become the most popular political party in Germany.
It also contributed to convincing many Germans that their country was not responsible for the war,
but had been stabbed in the back by weak politicians and communists on the home front.
Hitler used this belief to gain support among those who were angry at unfair settlement terms arranged by leaders of both Britain and France.
The Treaty of Versailles
was harsh on Germany, as everyone wanted revenge on someone for the war.
It caused Germany to make a series of reparation payments to other countries that totaled hundreds of billions of dollars over several decades.
Many Germans felt they had been unfairly treated, and Hitler capitalized on their feelings.
The treaty also violated the Wilsonian dream of building a new world by refusing to consider other ideas but its own.
This, along with many promises made by wartime leaders that were not kept, led to widespread disillusionment and cynicism about war in general.
Two years after the Treaty of Versailles was signed all the nations attacked by Germany –
France, Belgium, Russia, Japan, Italy and Britain – declared war on Germany for its attack on Poland.
Four more years of war ensued until Japan surrendered.
It was Germany’s defeat that led to the creation of the League of Nations. In order to ensure its survival,
the League created a system of collective security,
settling disputes among its members over territorial claims and other issues through a system of international arbitrations.
The failure of the League to prevent future wars convinced many people that a second world war could not be prevented.
It led to increased worldwide disarmament efforts that ultimately stifled any possible military threat from other countries.
There were some progressive economic and social reforms that were passed into law in many western countries
but they were more successful in preventing war than would be possible in peacetime.
The threat of nuclear weapons also kept some nations from invading one another until it was too late.
The League of Nations
failed to prevent the war, but it did play an important role in keeping it from spreading around the world.
The League also accomplished many things that were not ever realized by its founders.
It created a system of international arbitration that settled disputes peacefully without relying on the power of strong nations to enforce their will on weaker nations.
The League also created a legal obligation for countries that signed the treaty to adhere to its terms, which prevented any possible violations.
This was more effective than any other policy could have been and kept an atmosphere of peaceful co-existence between states,
which is something that is still needed today as conflicts continue to escalate.