The First World War, (1914-1918), was the first conflict to involve so many countries from across the world. It was also the first conflict to really make use of mechanical warfare, and as such it is remembered as one of the most brutal wars in modern history. Many historians believe that the causes of the Second World War are intrinsically tied up in the outcome of the First World War, since Germany was left with an enormous debt to pay in reparations, as well as enormous political tensions which many argue laid the foundations for Hitler’s popularity.
The trigger cause of World War One was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand – who was heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire – by a Serbian activist, Gavrilo Princip. In 1914, a series of alliance agreements had been established between various European powers, so when – in retaliation – Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia was obliged to declare war on Austria-Hungary, since Russia was an ally of Serbia. Russia’s involvement led Germany to declare war in defence of her ally, Austria-Hungary, which in turn meant France and Britain declared war in accordance with their allegiance with Russia. Within a very short space of time, what could well have remained a small, domestic issue between Serbia and Austria-Hungary had escalated into a conflict which engulfed the major powers in the continent, and since many of these powers had colonies overseas, an enormous amount of people outside of Europe were called up to fight on behalf of the empires. The Triple Entente – France, Britain, and Russia – were supported by countries from all five major continents, including South Africa, Brazil, India, China, Australia, the USA, and Canada. Countries fighting on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary), were fewer in numbers, including Iraq, Namibia, Jordan, Turkey, Ghana, Micronesia, and Saudi Arabia.
Roughly 13 million soldiers fighting for the Triple Entente died during the war, and 8.5 million on the side of the Central Powers. Conscription was used by many of the countries participating, meaning that it was not just professional soldiers who were fighting in the war. It was one of the first times that soldiers could adequately express the horrors of warfare to people back at home, and it no longer seemed ‘gentlemanly’ to fight for one’s country. Trench warfare caused an enormous amount of casualties, both physical and mental, and the political implications of the war saw much change occur in the governmental structures in many of the participating countries.
As more and more countries joined on the side of the Triple Entente, the Central Powers essentially exhausted themselves. Though Russia left the war in 1917, the USA joined in the same year, which gave the Triple Entente forces a tremendous boost, whereas the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were running out of supplies fast. Once the Central Forces had sufficiently over-stretched themselves, they became easier to defeat, and on November 11th 1918, the Armistice that ended the war was signed, with the Triple Entente victorious.
As the main aggressor of the war, Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This meant that Germany had to accept almost all the blame for the outbreak of the war, undergo significant disarmament, and pay some £6.6 billion in reparations. The Kaiser of Germany abdicated in 1918, leaving the country without leadership and vulnerable to political tensions. In the years up to 1933, a number of different leaders and political parties enjoyed power in Germany, but none for very long. Economic troubles increased the social pressures, and resentment brewed under the surface over the responsibility element of the Treaty of Versailles. German citizens also considered themselves short-changed by those in power in 1918, feeling that they had been lied to about the war effort. The situation was ripe in 1933 for a charismatic leader who shared these sentiments, and Hitler stepped up for the role.
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