What aspect of the war has society changed?

The First World War

Wolfgang Kruse

Apl. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kruse, born in 1957, is an academic senior counselor and adjunct professor in the field of Modern German and European History at the Historical Institute of the Distance University in Hagen. His main research interests include the history of the First World War, the history of the French Revolution, the history of the German and international labor movement and the history of the political cult of the dead. Among others, von Kruse has published: Wolfgang Kruse: The First World War, Darmstadt 2009 (history compact of the WBG).

The First World War is often seen as the first "total war". He discharged already existing tensions and contradictions into the conflict-ridden permanent state of the 20th century, which was characterized by war, civil war and bloc confrontation. And it was the first confrontation that made use of new technical possibilities - and thus revealed the destructive potential of industrial modernity.

Total war: ammunition depot for French and English artillery, laid out as a supply base for the battles on the Somme. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

In France and England, the First World War is still remembered today as the "Great War". This points to its exceptional importance for modern European, but also global history. In fact, the First World War was not only a major European event, as one might assume from the context in which it came about, but it also developed into a global, global event in a very short time. And beyond that, its dynamic was by no means limited to external expansion. Rather, this war brought about such an extraordinary intensification in its manifold manifestations that it has become common today to recognize the first "total war" in modern history in the First World War. Ultimately, from the historian's perspective, this war appears to be the great "primal catastrophe" of the 20th century, which ushered in a phase of world history generally characterized by war and civil war and without which hardly any development in the 20th century can be adequately explained.

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Wolfgang Kruse: The First World War

Every scientific treatment of historical events and contexts is dependent on the use of concepts and terms that on the one hand help to understand and analyze what is happening, but on the other hand also contain specific patterns of interpretation.
With regard to the First World War, two conceptual terms in particular have been booming for a long time: The war itself is mostly understood as the first "total war" in modern history. A contemporary political project, especially formulated in the post-war period, aimed at mobilizing society as a whole aimed at the "home front" for the industrialized people's war, has been further developed into an analytical concept, which is essentially about taking into account the effects of this war that encompass and pervade all areas of society. And for his more general historical classification, it has almost become a commonplace to interpret the First World War with Georg S, Kennan as the "primordial catastrophe of the 20th century". Because this war has in fact the further development of the 20th century its violent one With the stamp on it, I can see that hardly any events in the following decades, especially in Europe, can be explained without reference to them.

Nevertheless, the First World War is put into a somewhat differently contoured context: It is to be interpreted as a civilization crisis of European modernity. Before that, the 'long' 19th century of European history had been characterized by a secular modernization process that - driven by the industrial revolution, political democratization and social emancipation - produced a new kind of bourgeois society and was associated with a comprehensive optimism for progress. Prosperity, freedom, education and civilization were the target points towards which an eventful modern history seemed to lead. But in the end there was a war that mobilized all productive social forces for the purposes of destruction and annihilation. Far more than 10 million deaths, an even greater number of destroyed existences, shattered societies, collapsing political systems, and even after the formal end of the war, never-ending violent conflicts between and within the peoples of Europe: these were the results and consequences of the so-called great War that did not simply break out over modern Europe, but that despite all the optimism for progress were deeply and causally rooted in it. As clairvoyant and sensitive spirits had long prophesied, this modernity clearly contained contradictions, abysses and destructive potentials, which not only destroy all advances and development perspectives based on them, but could also make them usable for their work of destruction.

The recourse to the concept of crisis still includes something else. Because crises have a Janus face, which also marked the First World War. They not only destroy the old order from which they grew up, but at the same time set free new forces pointing into the future, which arise from the attempt to control or overcome their destructive power. Revolution, democratization and the right to self-determination of peoples, new people, mass culture, avant-garde or League of Nations were the keywords that indicate the creative potential of dealing with the civilization breach of the great war, but also total mobilization, national community, cult of violence and leadership. The introduction to the history of the First World War presented here therefore attempts to consider the various levels of war events from the double perspective of extensive destruction and creative awakening; Phenomena of total war, however, which - and this is where the actual historical drama lies - were often connected with one another in a way that could hardly be resolved. [...]

From: Wolfang Kruse, The First World War, Darmstadt 2009, p. 1f.



The European and Global Character of the War

At its core, the First World War was a European war. It originated in the Balkans, based on the imperialist aspirations of the great European powers, and it was essentially carried out between two European power blocs and on the European continent: The Entente with England, France and Russia, expanded in 1915/16 by Italy and Romania, faced the Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungary, which Bulgaria joined in 1915. And in a more general, socio-historical way, this war was founded in a comprehensive crisis of European modernity, the development of which in the course of the 'long' 19th century had produced a variety of contradictions, contradictions and conflicts: the idea of ​​a national spring of peoples had become aggressive and sharp Nationalisms profiled against each other were formed against enemy images. Economic progress had brought about not only material prosperity, but also national crises of meaning, class social conflicts of interests and highly armed military apparatus. Finally, at the political level, the democratization tendencies in society on the one hand, and the claims to rule of traditional elites on the other hand, had become extremely virulent and unstable. So it was hardly surprising that the war not only overturned the European map, but also the social and political conditions in Europe.

The political systems in Europe on June 30, 1914 (& copy Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr)
Nevertheless, from the beginning this war was also a global war with effects far beyond Europe. The war between the European colonial powers was also fought in the colonies, with the German colonies in Africa quickly losing out. However, the guerrilla warfare of General Lettow-Vorbeck's protection force repeatedly inflicted severe blows on the British until the end of the war. The effects on the population were also considerable, because they were directly involved in the war, primarily through the recruitment of auxiliary troops, and there were numerous casualties Colonial troops also Australians and New Zealanders, Canadians, South Africans and Indians were deployed on the European theater of war. This undoubtedly strengthened their efforts to become independent, so that the First World War also triggered tendencies towards decolonization, which at the end of the war received further nourishment with the slogan of the peoples' right to self-determination, as represented by the American President Woodrow Wilson, but also by the revolutionary Bolsheviks. And finally, over time, large parts of the international world were drawn into the war.

Weapons, guns and ammunition factory built with German help in Turkey (probably in Sirkedij). (& copy picture-alliance / akg)
The early entry of Japan into the war on the side of the Entente was of comparatively little importance. Apart from the occupation of the small German colony of Kiautschou, the East Asian island empire remained largely inactive. The entry into war of the Ottoman Empire on the part of the Central Powers, which was announced in November 1914, was far more important. With the fate of this multi-ethnic empire, not only was its future role in the circle of European powers at stake, but also the development of the Arab peoples previously ruled by the Ottomans in North Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East. While the Sultan in Istanbul called for the "holy war" of the Muslims on November 14, 1914 and attempts were made by Germany to incite the Arab peoples to fight against English rule in Egypt, the opposing initiatives of the English colonel and adventurer Lawrence (of Arabia ) far more successful. He succeeded in stimulating the Arabs to fight together against Ottoman rule. The promised independence was not granted to them after the end of the war, because as early as 1916 the British and French had divided up their spheres of interest in the Arab region in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The creation of a home for European Jews who were willing to emigrate in Palestine, promised by the British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour in 1917, was ultimately not realized.

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Daniel Marc Segesser: The First World War from a global perspective

Was the First World War really the First World War and can the war we describe as such really be called a world war?
Even if various politicians and military officials spoke again and again in the run-up to the war of 1914-18 that the world was heading for a world war, very few of them gave thought to the question of what they themselves wanted to understand by this. In the German Reich in particular, there was the conviction that just one entry into war by Great Britain and its world empire would have to lead to a world war. In addition, the German General Staff also expected that France would deploy colonial troops from North and Black Africa to defend its country in another war, as it did in 1870/71. Whether a war in Europe would then also extend to the non-European possessions of the European states was just as unclear for most politicians and military officials as the question of whether non-European states such as the USA, Japan, China or the Latin American republics were united would participate in such a war. After the war began in 1914 and was not limited to Europe, however, many became convinced that it was a world war. This view was hardly questioned even after the war [...]

A closer look at history, however, shows that global military conflicts were by no means exclusively a phenomenon of the 20th century. The globalization process that had been going on since the 15th century and was characterized by European expansion overseas was shaped by military conflicts that repeatedly affected larger parts of the globe, both in the form of clashes between European and indigenous powers as well as in the shape of global colonial wars between European states. Examples of the latter are the War of the Austrian Succession from 1740-48, the Seven Years War from 1756-63 or the American War of Independence from 1775-83. Most of the disputes were therefore European conflicts that were fought worldwide, but in which non-European powers hardly took part. If the latter were involved, it was mostly a regional conflict. For the period up to the end of the 18th century it is therefore probably appropriate to discuss wars with global backgrounds, but not real world wars [...]

Following Stig Förster, it is probably better not to speak of a world war until it is a major conflict with significant involvement of both European and autochthonous non-European powers. (...) To what extent the Napoleonic or French wars from 1792 to 1815 can be described as world wars, as Förster does, is controversial. It is true that at this time war was not only waged in Europe and that only European powers were involved in the war. Persia, the Ottoman Empire, Indian rulers, the Wahabites of Arabia, the Shawnee Indians in North America and the United States, which was founded in 1787, took an active part in this dispute. However, some parts of the world were not really involved in this conflict. This applies to Australia and the Pacific on the one hand, but also to Japan and China, which were important from a global perspective around 1800, on the other. The clashes between Japan and Russia over the Kuril Islands at that time were not part of a global conflict, but rather a regional conflict within the framework of the expansion of a single European power into non-European regions.

There are therefore good reasons to really regard the First World War as the First World War, not least against the background of the intensification of the process of globalization that has yet to be described, which is opening up new opportunities for the powers that be at war through the revolution in transport and communications which first came to fruition on a global level during the First World War. Hans Ulrich Wehler, The End of the “Long 19th Century” and the Beginning of the “Short 20th Century”.

From: Daniel Marc Segesser, The First World War in Global Perspective, Wiesbaden 2012, pp. 8-10.



The last and, in some respects, decisive factor in globalization, the war experienced in April 1917 with the entry of the United States, in the wake of which the countries of South America and China declared war on the Central Powers. In the long term, this not only shifted the economic and military balance of power in favor of the Entente. The coordinates of world politics also began to move: the USA began to replace Great Britain more and more clearly as world political supremacy, and with the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet state, the world political conflict of the future was already emerging. In the short term, however, the increased potential hardly had any effect in favor of the Entente, because the USA first had to adapt the economy and society to war and mobilize an armed force for the war in Europe. In the course of 1918, however, the structural superiority of the Entente began to have an increasingly clear effect. And by autumn 1918 at the latest, the American President Woodrow Wilson had risen to become the decisive political figure in world politics, who largely dictated the conditions for ending the war.

The totalization of the war

Human slaughterhouse - the First World War as total war. Deutschlandfunk, background culture, broadcast on August 6, 2004. Authors / Creators: Wolfgang Kruse / Bernd Ulrich. (& copy Wolfgang Kruse / Bernd Ulrich)

The novel quality of war was not only evident in the global dimensions and in a war policy aimed at victory or surrender.The warfare on the front itself and the orientation of society towards the war on the so-called home front gained an increasingly intense character during the First World War, which was already characterized at the time as a "total war" and was later elevated to a program primarily by the National Socialists. This term has been developed into a concept in modern historiography that tries above all to grasp the industrialization of war, militarily in the growing importance of war machines, civil in the orientation of economy, society and culture to the needs of warfare, thus was also expressed in the political dissolution of the division between the military and civil society. Cannons and grenades, machine guns and cartridge belts, airplanes and bombs, submarines and torpedoes, poison gas grenades and soon also armored cars put a new stamp on the war. And all these weapons had to be produced by the industries of the warring countries, in ever larger quantities, in order to replace the devices that were used up and destroyed in rapid succession and to continue to expand industrial destruction capacities. For this it was not only necessary to build up and expand production capacities; The working and living structures of civilians also had to be adjusted to the new requirements of war production, motivated or obliged to work, stopped or compelled to forego leisure and pleasure. The actually civil society at home thus became a second front on which the war could actually be decided. In the end, the war was won by the powers that be better than their opponents in producing weapons and ammunition, while at the same time ensuring basic supplies for the population and motivating them to "persevere".

Prisoners of war in the Stallupönen camp, East Prussia, in front of the camp entrance in 1916. Against all international law, prisoners of war were also used in the war economy and for compulsory work near the front. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)
The totalization of the war was also expressed in the tendency to override legal and humanitarian restrictions not only against the opposing soldiers, but also against the civilian population. The English naval blockade against Germany aimed not least at starvation of the population, while the German submarine war no longer differentiated between war and merchant ships. Prisoners of war were not only poorly cared for and mistreated, but were also used against all international law in the war economy and for forced work in the area close to the front. Violence against civilians also reached a climax in the first great genocide of the 20th century, in the extermination actions against the Armenian people by the Young Turkish government, which killed more than a million people.

The "great catastrophe" of the 20th century

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Fallen and wounded of the First World War

Over 60 million soldiers have been mobilized worldwide.
According to Dupuy / Salewski
France 1,357,800 dead
4,266.00 wounded
British Empire 908,371 dead
2,090,212 wounded
Russia 1,700,000 dead
4,950,000 wounded
Italy 462,391 dead
953,886 wounded
German Empire 1,808,546 dead
4,247,143 wounded
Around 760,000 civilians died, almost all of them victims of the Allied blockade
Austria-Hungary 922,500 dead
3,620,000 wounded
300,000 blockade victims

War dead according to Ferguson / Stevenson
United Kingdom 723.000
British Empire (excluding UK) 198.000
France 1.398.000
Russia 1.811.000
Italy 578.000
United States 114.000
other allies 599.000
German Empire 2.037.000
Austria-Hungary 1.100.000
Bulgaria, Ottoman Empire 892.000
Four Alliance Powers together4.029.000


Total losses after Der Große Ploetz, 35th edition.

Fallen wounded Prisoners
Germany 1.808.000 4.247.00 618.00
France 1.385.000 3.044.000
(1.1 million recognized war invalids)
Great Britain 947.000 2.122.000 192.000
Italy 460.000 947.000 530.000
Austria-Hungary 1.200.000 3.620.000 2.200.000
Russia 1.700.000 4.950.000 2.500.000
Turkey 325.000 400.000
United States 115.000 206.000 4.500
Source: Wolfdieter Bihl, The First World War 1914-1918, p. 298f.



The armed forces in the summer of 1914
The outstanding importance of the First World War is ultimately also reflected in the historical periodization, which usually assigns this war the status of a decisive turning point. It has long been common practice to distinguish between a 'long' 19th century and a short 20th century in world history. The long 19th century began with the French Revolution. Above all, it shaped progress, industrialization, democratization and European world domination. The brief 20th century ended with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc since 1989 and was marked by war, civil war and bloc confrontation. The hinge function between these two main phases of modern history is usually assigned to the First World War, which irrevocably destroys all naive hopes for progress, reveals the destructive potential of industrial modernity, but also created new, future-oriented design possibilities and generally left its violent stamp on further developments.

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Hans-Ulrich Wehler: From the beginning of the First World War to the establishment of the two German states in 1914-1949

Old Europe went under in purgatory of the First World War.
That is why his “Long 19th Century”, which had begun in 1789, ended in 1914. […] A look back reveals that after 1918 Europe passed through an unstable twenty-year period between the wars, which in southern, eastern and then central Europe experienced the fatal rise of authoritarian systems. They reached their culmination, it seemed, in Italian fascism, but actually only in German National Socialism. And also in the retrospective it is timed that with the July crisis of 1914 the “age of the two world wars” began, whose inner coherence justifies speaking of a new, “our” modern “Thirty Years War” (R. Aron).

In Europe, the revolution and the collapse of the empire, including the collapse of a thousand years of princely rule, stood at the end of the first total war. Historically unprecedented losses of people and resources subjected German society to a tremendous endurance test. She was overwhelmed by the utterly novel experience of the first industrialized war. This also included being forced to get used to a brutalization which, through years of fashions, changed the individual in such a way that it continued in the internal civil war of the competing political camps.

The revolution in autumn 1918 was not just a reaction to the merciless wear and tear of the first total war and inevitable defeat. Rather, it was also the result of a dam break after a long-lasting problem jam under the harsh, restrictive conditions of recent German social history. For the majority who saw the revolution as a sign of Cain, it was associated with the stigma of defeat, with the ardent renunciation of all glorious war aims, with the “shameful peace” of Versailles, with the “slavery” of reparation payments. The radical nationalism heightened during the war was deeply injured. Immediately, his believers saw in a comprehensive revision of the results of the war the only remedy to give the nation new hegemonic strength, so that it was assured of victory in the expected future great war.

In economic life, the war ended the “golden years” between 1895 and 1913 - the long-lived economic boom that had brought Germany into the top trio of industrialized countries. In addition, the war also destroyed the established balance of power in the Eurocentric world economy. The United States, as the real economic winner of the war, pushed itself to the fore from which it was to rule the “short” 20th century. Behind them rose newcomers to world trade such as the Empire of Japan, the condominium states and resource-rich colonial countries. A new world market order had to be laboriously fought for.

During the agony of the empire, a massive state intervention under the sign of war corporatism had advanced. Its mixed public-private constitution also reflected the inability to perform and the profound discrediting of the purely private economic system, and after the war the fundamental dispute over which economic order was appropriate for the new era continued.

For the time being, however, all interest aggregates fled to inflation, as it made it easier to cope with acute problems: demobilization and the transition to a peacetime economy, wage increases and the mediation of growth impulses, export promotion and reparation payments. A little later, the price consisted of hyperinflation, which destroyed the currency, lowered the standard of living, and turned upside down the distribution of wealth. For many Germans, this economic turbulence dominated the beginning of the “short” 20th century, in stark contrast to the transfigured security of the prewar years.

The social fissures had no less profound effect. [...]

With the epochal break that separates the “long” 19th century from the “short” 20th century, the question is inevitably connected, whether discontinuity reigned in Germany because of the fundamental changes in the historical process or whether continuity bridges still turned out to be stronger than expected . […] With regard to the German “Sonderweg”, the problems of which run like a red thread through this analysis, the lines of continuity cannot be overlooked here. After the outcome of the World War had denied the positively transfigured idea of ​​a German “Sonderweg”, which would prove to be a superior modernization path in comparison with the Western countries, with military rigor, structurally deeply anchored elements of continuity were retained. In addition to these special conditions in German history since the epoch of its “double revolution”, the enormous stamping effect of the total war was added. Only from this merger can it be explained why Germany, as the comparative perspective clearly shows, was the only highly civilized industrial country to commit the "civilization breach" of its murderous radical fascism.

From: Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftgeschichte, Vol. 4: From the beginning of the First World War to the founding of the two German states 1914-1949, Munich 2003, pp.222-25.



The cost of the war
The First World War is therefore commonly understood, in the words of the American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, as the "great seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century ("great seminal catastrophe of this century", 1979). Indeed, the development of the 20th century cannot be understood at all without the First World War. All areas of society, state and culture were covered by it, and the further course of modern history was profoundly shaped by its effects. This applies to the systemic competition between the liberal-capitalist USA on the one hand and Bolshevik Russia on the other, which has been developing since 1917 with the American entry into the war and the Russian Revolution, which largely shaped the bloc confrontation in the second half of the 20th century. First of all, however, it applies to the age of the two world wars from 1914 to 1945, which can also be understood as a unified epoch with good reason, which in recent research is also termed the "new 30-year war" or the "world civil war".

At the center of these developments was - and this remains to be seen in all European and global perspectives - the German Reich. Not only because it was largely responsible for triggering the First World War and deliberately brought about the Second World War, but because these conflicts were also largely shaped by the German attempt to use warlike means to achieve supremacy on the European continent. "Total state" (Ernst Forsthoff), "total mobilization" (Ernst Jünger) and "total war" (Erich Ludendorff) were the conceptual terms that increasingly moved into the center of political discourse here in the 1920s and once again had a powerful history with National Socialism were. It was only after the total collapse of the National Socialist Greater German Reich in 1945, first of all through the division of Germany and Europe, that the "German question" could be pacified and a relatively stable order of peace established in Europe.

Selected literature:

Boris Barth, genocide. Genocide in the 20th Century, Munich 2006.

Roger Chickering and Stig. Förster (ed.), Great War, Total War. Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914-1918, Cambridge / Mass. 2000.

Ludwig Dehio, Germany and World Politics in the 20th Century, Munich 1956.

Marc Ferro, The Great War 1914-1918, Frankf./M. 1988 (orig. Paris 1968).

Gerd Hardach, The First World War, Munich 1973.

Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes. World politics of the 20th century, Munich 1998 (orig. 1994).

Wolfgang Kruse, The First World War, Darmstadt 2009.

Daniel Marc Segesser, The First World War in Global Perspective, Wiesbaden 2012.