First World War: Causes, Consequences

The First World War

  • IN 1914, a war began in Europe which soon engulfed almost the entire world. The damage caused by this war had no precedent in history. In the earlier wars, the civilian populations were not generally involved and the casualties were generally confined to the warring armies. The war which began in 1914 was a total war in which all the resources of the warring states were mobilized. It affected the economy of the entire world the casualties suffered by the civilian population from bombing of the civilian areas and the famines and epidemics, caused by the war far exceeded those suffered by the armies. In its impact also, the war had no precedent. It marked a turning point in world history. The battles of the war were fought in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific. Because of the unprecedented extent of its spread and its total nature, it is known as the First World War.


Imperialist Rivalries

  • The underlying causes of the war were the rivalries and conflicts among the imperialist countries. The imperialist conquest of Asia and Africa was accompanied with conflicts between the imperialist countries. Sometimes the imperialists were able to come to ‘peaceful settlements’ and agree to divide a part of Asia or Africa among themselves without resorting to the use of force against each other. At other times their rivalries created situations of war. Wars were generally avoided at that time because the possibilities of further conquest were still there. If an imperialist country was excluded from a certain area, it could find some other area to conquer. Sometimes wars did break out between imperialist countries as happened, for instance, between Japan and Russia. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the situation had changed. Most of Asia and Africa had already been divided up and further conquests could take place only by dispossessing some imperialist country of its colonies. So in the period beginning from the last decade of the nineteenth century, imperialist rivalries resulted in attempts to redivide the world, creating conditions of war.
  • Germany entered the scramble for colonies late. After the unification of Germany had been achieved, it made tremendous economic progress. By 1914, it had left Britain and France far behind in the production of iron and steel and in many manufactures. It had entered the shipping trade in a big way. One of its ships, the Imperator, built in 1912, was the largest in the world. Both Britain and France were alarmed at the expansion of German manufactures as they considered it a serious threat to their position.
  • Germany could not grab many colonies, having arrived late on the scene. Most of Asia and Africa had already been occupied by the older imperialist powers. The German imperialists, therefore, dreamed of expanding in the east. Their ambition was to control the economy of the declining Ottoman Empire. For this purpose, they had planned the construction of a railway from Berlin to Baghdad. This plan created a fear in Britain, France and Russia as the completion of the Berlin-Baghdad railway would endanger their imperialist ambitions in the Ottoman Empire. The Germans had imperialist ambitions elsewhere also, including in Africa.
  • Like Germany, all the major powers in Europe, and Japan also had their imperialist ambitions. Italy, which after her unification had become almost an equal of France in power, coveted Tripoli in North Africa which was under the Ottoman Empire. She had already occupied Eritrea and Somaliland. France wanted to add Morocco to her conquests in Africa. Russia had her ambitions in Iran, the territories of the Ottoman Empire including Constantinople, the Far East and elsewhere. The Russian plans clashed with the interests and ambitions of Britain, Germany and Austria. Japan which had also become an imperialist power had ambitions in the Far East and was on way to fulfilling them. She defeated Russia in 190405 after having signed an agreement with Britain and was able to extend her influence in the Far East.
  • Britain was involved in a conflict with all other imperialist countries because she had already acquired a vast empire which was to be defended. The rise of any other country was considered a danger to the British Empire. She also had her vast international trade to defend against the competition from other countries, and to maintain her control over what she considered the lifeline of her empire.
  • Austria had her ambitions in the Ottoman empire The United States of America had emerged as a powerful nation by the end of the nineteenth century She had annexed the Philippines Her main interest was to preserve the independence of trade as her trade was expanding at a tremendous rate The expansion of other major powers’ influence was considered a threat to American interests.


Conflicts within Europe

  • Besides the conflicts resulting from rivalries over colonies and trade, there were conflicts among the major European powers over certain developments within Europe. There were six major powers in Europe at this time—Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and Italy. One of the questions with which almost all these countries got involved concerned the countries comprising the Balkan Peninsula in Europe.
  • The Balkan countries had been under the rule of Ottoman Turks. However, in the nineteenth century, the Ottoman rule had begun to collapse. There were revolts by various nationalities for independence. The Russian Czars hoped that these areas would come under their control once the Ottomans were ousted from there. They encouraged a movement called the Pan-Slav movement which was based on the theory that all the Slays of Eastern Europe were one people.
  • Many areas in Austria-Hungary were inhabited by the Slays Russia, therefore, encouraged movements both against the Ottoman empire and Austria-Hungary The major Balkan country, Serbia, led the movement for uniting the areas inhabited by the Slavs in the Ottoman empire as well as in Austria-Hungary.
  • The Serbian nationalism was encouraged by Russia. Other major European powers were alarmed at the growth of Russian influence in the Balkans, They wanted to check the Russian influence, while Austria Hungary had plans of expansion in this area.
  • Corresponding to the Pan-Slav movement, there was a Pan-German movement which aimed at the expansion of Germany all over central Europe and in the Balkans. Italy claimed certain areas which were under Austrian rule. France hoped to recover not only Alsace Lorraine which she had lost to Germany in 1871 but also to wreak vengeance on Germany for the humiliating defeat that she had suffered in the war with Germany in 187071.


Formation of Alliances

  • The conflicts within Europe and the conflicts over colonies had begun to create a very tense situation in Europe from the last decade of the nineteenth century. European countries began to form themselves into opposing groups. They also started spending vast sums of money to increase the size of their armies and navies, to develop new and more deadly weapons, and to generally prepare themselves for war, Europe Was gradually becoming a vast armed camp Simultaneously, propaganda for war, to breed hatred against other countries, to paint one’s own country as superior to others, and to glorify war, was started in each country.
  • There were, of course, people who raised their voice against the danger of war and against militarization. But soon all these voices were to be drowned in the drumbeats of war. The opposing groups of countries of alliances that were formed in Europe not only added to the danger of war, but also made it inevitable that when the war broke out it would assume a worldwide magnitude. European countries had been forming and reforming alliances since the nineteenth century. Finally, in the first decade of the twentieth century, two groups of countries or alliances, emerged and faced each other with their armed might In 1882 was formed the Triple Alliance comprising Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
  • However, Italy’s loyalty to this Alliance was uncertain as her main aim was to gain territories in Europe from Austria-Hungary and in conquering Tripoli with French support As opposed to this, emerged the Triple Entente comprising France, Russia and Britain in 1907.
  • In theory it was only a loose group based on mutual understanding as the word ‘Entente’ (meaning ‘an understanding’ indicates. The emergence of these two hostile camps made it inevitable that a conflict involving any one of these countries would become an all- European war. As the aims of the countries in these camps included the extension of their colonial possessions, an all-European war almost certainly would become a world war. The formation of these hostile camps was accompanied with a race to build more and more deadly weapons and have larger and larger armies and navies.
  • A series of crises took place during the years preceding the war. These crises added to the bitterness and tension in Europe and engendered national chauvinism European countries also entered into secret treaties to gain territories at the expense of others. Often, these secret treaties leaked out and fear and suspicion grew in each country about such treaties. These fears and suspicions brought the danger of war near.


Incidents Preceding the War

  • The outbreak of the war was preceded by a series of incidents which added to the prevailing tension and ultimately led to the war. One of these was the clash over Morocco. In 1904 Britain and France had entered into a secret agreement according to which Britain was to have a free hand in Egypt, and France was to take over Morocco. The agreement became known to Germany and aroused her indignation. The German emperor went to Morocco and promised the Sultan of Morocco his full support for the independence of Morocco. The antagonism over Morocco, it appeared, would lead to a war. However, the war was averted when in 1911 France occupied most of Morocco and, in exchange, gave Germany a part of French Congo. Even though the war had been averted, the situation in Europe, with each country preparing for war, had become dangerous.
  • The other incidents which worsened the already dangerous situation in Europe occurred in the Balkans. In 1908 Austria annexed the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These provinces were also coveted by Serbia which had the backing of Russia in establishing a united Slav state in the Balkans. Russia threatened to start a war against Austrian annexation but Germany’s open support to Austria compelled Russia to retreat. The incident, however, not only embittered feelings in Serbia but also created further enmity between Russia and Germany. The situation in Europe had become even tenser.
  • The crisis resulting from the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria was followed by Balkan wars in 1912, four Balkan countries — Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece —started a war against the Turks. As a result of this war, Turkey lost almost all her possessions in Europe However, the Balkan countries fought another war over the question of distributing the former Turkish territory among them. Finally, Austria succeeded in making Albania, which had been claimed by Serbia, as an independent state. The frustration of Serbia’s ambitions further embittered her feelings against Austria. These incidents brought Europe on the verge of war.


The Outbreak of War

  • The war was precipitated by an incident which would not have created much stir if Europe had not stood divided into two hostile armed camps, preparing for war for many years On 28 June 1914 Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria- Hungary , was assassinated at Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia. (Bosnia had been annexed by Austria only a few years earlier.) Austria saw the hand of Serbia behind the assassination and served her with an ultimatum. Serbia refused to accept one of the demands of the ultimatum which went against the independence of Serbia on 28 July 1914 Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia had promised full support to Serbia and started full scale preparations for war. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia and on 3 August on France. German troops marched into Belgium to press on to France on 4 August and on the same day Britain declared war on Germany.
  • Many other countries soon entered the war. Japan declared war on Germany with a view to capturing German colonies in the Far East, Turkey and Bulgaria joined on the side of Germany Italy, in spite of her membership of the Triple Alliance, remained neutral for some time, and joined the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1915.


End of the War

  • Many efforts were made to bring the war to an end. In early 1917, a few socialist parties proposed the convening of an international socialist conference to draft proposals for ending the war without annexations and recognition of the right of peoples to self determination.
  • However, the conference could not be held. The proposal of the Bolshevik government in Russia to conclude a peace “without annexations and indemnities, on the basis of the self-determination of peoples” was welcomed by many people in the countries which were at war. However, these proposals were rejected. The Pope also made proposals for peace but these too were not taken seriously. Though these efforts to end the war did not get any positive response from the governments of the warring countries, antiwar feelings grew among the people. There was widespread unrest and disturbances and even mutinies began to break out. In some countries, following the success of the Russian Revolution, the unrest was soon to take the form of uprisings to overthrow the governments.
  • In January 1918, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, proposed a peace programme. This has become famous as President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. These included the conduct of negotiations between states openly, freedom of navigation, reduction of armaments, independence of Belgium, restoration of Alsace Lorraine to France, creation of independent states in Europe, formation of an international organization to guarantee the independence of all states, etc. Some of these points were accepted when the peace treaties were signed at the end of the war Britain, France and USA launched a military offensive in July 1918 and Germany and her allies began to collapse. Bulgaria withdrew from the war in September, and Turkey surrendered in October.
  • Political discontent had been rising in Austria-Hungary and Germany. The emperor of Austria-Hungary surrendered on 3 November. In Germany revolution broke out. Germany became a republic and the German emperor Kaiser William II fled to Holland. The new German government signed an armistice on 11 November 1918 and the war was over. The news was received with tremendous Jubilation all over the world.

The Treaty of Versailles with Germany- 1919

  1. Germany had to lose territory in Europe
  • Alsace-Lorraine to France
  • Eupen, Moresnet and Malmedy to Belgium
  • North Schleswig to Denmark (after a plebiscite, i.e. a vote)
  • West Prussia and Posen to Poland-though Danzing (the main port of West Prussia) was to be a free city under league of Nations administration, because its population was wholly German
  • Memel was given to Lithuania
  • The Saar was to be administered by the League of Nations for 15 years, after which the population would be allowed to vote on whether it should belong to France or Germany. In the meantime France was to have the use of its coalmines
  • Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which had been handed over to Germany by Russia at Bresst-Litovsk, were taken away, from Germany and set up as independent states. This was an example of self-determination being carried into practice
  • Union between Germany and Austria was forbidden
  1. Germany’s African Colonies were taken away and became “mandates” under League of Nations supervision: this meant that various member states of the League “looked after” them
  2. German armaments were strictly limited, to a maximum of 100 000 troops and no conscription (compulsory military service); no tanks, armored cars, military aircraft or submarines, and only six battleships. The Rhineland was to be permanently demilitarized. This meant that German troops were not allowed in the area
  3. The war Guilt clause fixed the blame for the outbreak of the war solely on Germany and her allies. Germany was to pay reparations for damage done to the Allies; the actual amount was not decided at Versailles, but it was announced later (1921), after much argument and haggling, as 6600 million
  4. A league of nations was set up; its aims and organization were set out in the league covenant.

Germans had little choice but to sign the treaty, though they objected strongly. The signing took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the German Empire had been proclaimed less than 50 years earlier.


USA – Woodrow Wilson’s famous 14 Points (January 1918) were:

  1. Reliance on open diplomacy rather than secret agreements
  2. Freedom of the seas
  3. Free trade
  4. Reduce the military forces and/or weapons
  5. Readjust the colonies fairly
  6. The allowance for Russia to self-determine its own government
  7. Respect for Belgium’s Integrity
  8. Restoration of French Territory
  9. Italy receives territory based upon ethnicity
  10. Austria-Hungary receives fair development opportunities
  11. Independence for the Balkan states
  12. Self-determination for the peoples of the Ottoman Empire and free passage through the Dardanelles
  13. Independence for Poland
  14. The formation of a League of Nations to guarantee independence for all countries, large and small

These points achieved publicity when the Germans late claimed that they had expected the peace terms to be based on them and that, since this way not the case, they had been cheated.


Peace Treaties

  • The victorious powers or the Allies, as they were called, met in a conference first in Versailles, a suburb of Paris, and later in Paris, between January and June 1919. Though the number of countries represented at the conference was 27, the terms of the peace treaties were really decided by three countries — Britain, France and USA. The three persons who played the determining role in framing the terms of the treaties were Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Britain, and George Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France. The defeated countries were not represented at the conference. The victorious powers also excluded Russia from the conference. The terms of the treaty were thus not the result of negotiations between the defeated and the victorious powers but were imposed on the defeated by the victors.
  • The main treaty was signed with Germany on 28 June 1919. It is called the Treaty of Versailles. The republican government of Germany was compelled to sign this treaty under the threat of invasion. The treaty declared Germany and her allies guilty of aggression.
  • Alsace Lorraine was returned to France. The coal mines in the German area called Saar were ceded to France for 15 years while that area was to be governed by the League of Nations. Germany also ceded parts of her prewar territory to Denmark, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The area of the Rhine valley was to be demilitarized. The treaty also contained provisions for disarming Germany. The strength of her army was to be limited to 100,000 and she was required not to have any air force and submarines she was dispossessed of all her colonies which were taken over by the victors. Togo and the Cameroon were divided and shared by Britain and France.
  • German colonies in South West Africa and East Africa were given to Britain, Belgium, South Africa and Portugal. German colonies in the Pacific and the spheres under her control in China were given to Japan China was aligned with the Allies during the war and was even represented at the Paris Conference. But her areas under German possession of control were not restored to China; instead they were given away to Japan. Germany was also required to pay for the loss and damages suffered by the Allies during the war. The amount of reparations was fixed at an enormous figure of $6,500,000,000.
  • Separate treaties were signed with the allies of Germany. Austria-Hungary was broken up and Austria was required to recognize the independence of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Poland. She had to cede territories to them and to Italy. Many changes were made in the Balkans where new states were created and transfers of territories from one state to another took place Baltic states which earlier formed parts of the Russian empire were made independent.
  • The treaty with Turkey stipulated the complete dismemberment of the Ottoman empire Britain was given Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Syria went to France as what were called ‘mandates’. In theory, the ‘mandatory’ powers, that is Britain and France, were to look after the interests of the people of the ‘mandates’ but actually they were governed as colonies.
  • Most of the remaining Turkish territories were to be given to Greece and Italy and Turkey was to be reduced to a very small state. However, there was a revolution in Turkey under the leadership of Mustapha Kemal. The Sultan was deposed and Turkey was proclaimed a republic in 1922. Turkey regained control of Asia Minor and the city of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Allies were forced to abandon the earlier treaty.
  • An important part of the peace treaties was the Covenant of the League of Nations. Wilson’s Fourteen Points included the creation of an international organization for the preservation of peace and to guarantee the independence of all states. The League of Nations was created. It was intended as a world organization of all independent states.


  • It aimed at the preservation of peace and security and peaceful settlement of international conflicts, and bound its members ‘not to resort to war’ One of its important provisions was with regard to sanctions. According to this provision, economic and military action would be taken against any country which committed aggression. It also bound its members to improve labour and social conditions in their countries. For this the International Labour Organization was set up which is now one of the specialized agencies of the United Nations.
  • The hopes of having a truly world organization devoted to the preservation of peace and independence of nations were, however, not realized with the formation of the League. Two major countries – Germany and the Soviet Union — were not allowed to become its members for many years while India, which was not independent, was made a member. The United States which had played an important part in the setting up of the League ultimately decided not to join it. The League was never an effective organization. In the 1930s when many countries resorted to aggression, the League was either ignored or defied An important feature of the peace treaties which indicates its nature was the decision with regard to the colonies of the defeated powers. The Allies had entered into many secret agreements for dividing the spoils of war The Soviet government, to bring out the imperialist nature of the war, made these treaties public.
  • During the war, the Allies had been claiming that the war was being fought for freedom and democracy. President Wilson had said that the war was being fought “to make the world safe for democracy”. The publication of secret treaties by the Soviet government exposed these claims. However, in spite of this, the distribution of the colonies of the defeated countries among the victors took place as has been mentioned before. Of course, the Soviet Union which had repudiated all the secret agreements did not receive any spoils which had been promised to the Russian emperor. The League of Nations also recognised this division of the spoils. Legally most of the colonies which were transferred to the victorious powers were ‘mandates’ and could not be annexed.


Consequences of the War and the Peace Treaties

  • The First World War was the most frightful war that the world had so far seen. The devastation caused by it had no precedent. The number of persons who fought in the war is staggering. Estimates vary between 53 and 70 million people. The total number of those killed and dead in the war are estimated at about nine million, that is, about one seventh of those who participated in it.


  • Several million became invalids. The air raids, epidemics and famines killed many more among the civilian populations. Besides these terrible human losses, the economy of many countries was shattered. It gave rise to many serious social problems. The political institutions as they had been evolving in various countries also suffered a serious setback.


  • The war and the peace treaties transformed the political map of the world, particularly of Europe. Three ruling dynasties were destroyed — the Romanov in Russia during the war itself, the Hohenzollern in Germany and the Habsburg in Austria-Hungary. Soon after the war, the rule of Ottomans came to an end in Turkey. Austria and Hungary became separate independent states. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia emerged as independent states. Poland which had been divided among Russia, Austria and Prussia in the eighteenth century was reformed as an independent state.
  • The period after the war saw the war saw the beginning of the end of the European supremacy in the world. Economically and militarily, Europe was surpassed by the United States which emerged from the war as a world power The Soviet Union was also to soon come up as a major world power. The period after the war also saw the strengthening of the freedom movements in Asia and Africa. The weakening of Europe and the emergence of the Soviet Union which declared her support to the struggles for national independence contributed to the growing strength of these struggles.
  • The Allied propaganda during the war to defend democracy, and the participation of Asian and African soldier in the battles in Europe also helped in arousing the peoples of Asia and Africa. The European countries had utilized the resources of their colonies in the war. The forced recruitment of soldiers and labourers for war, and the exploitation of resources of the colonies for war by the imperialist countries had created resentment among the people of the colonies. The population of the colonial countries had been nurtured on the myth that the peoples of Asia and Africa were inferior to the Europeans. The role played by the soldiers from Asia and Africa in winning the war for one group of nations of Europe against another shattered this myth. Many Asian leaders had supported the war effort in the hope that, once the war was over, their countries would be given freedom. These hopes were, however, belied. While the European nations won the right to self-determination, colonial rule and exploitation continued in the countries of Asia and Africa.
  • The contrast between the two situations was too glaring to be missed. Its increasing awareness led to the growth of nationalist feelings in the colonies. The soldiers who returned to their respective countries from the theatres of war in Europe and elsewhere also brought with them the new stirrings. All these factors strengthened nationalist movements in the colonies. In some countries, the first stirrings of nationalism were felt after the war.
  • The First World War had been believed to be ‘a War to end all war’. However, the Peace Treaties had failed to ensure this. On the contrary, the treaties contained certain provisions which were extremely harsh on the defeated countries and thus they sowed the seeds of further conflicts. Similarly, some victorious countries also felt cheated because all their hopes had not been fulfilled. Imperialism was not destroyed as a result of the war. The victorious powers had in fact enlarged their possessions. The factors which had caused rivalries and conflicts between imperialist countries leading to the war still existed. Therefore, the danger that more wars would be fought for another ‘redivision’ of the world remained lurking. The emergence of the Soviet Union was considered a danger to the existing social and economic system in many countries. The desire to destroy it influenced the policies of those countries.
  • These factors, combined with certain developments that took place in the next twenty years, created conditions for another world war.