The aftermath of the war was horrendous. Approximately forty million people, both soldiers and civilians, were dead. For Russia and France, of the twenty million men mobilized during the war, over 76% were casualties (either dead, wounded, or missing). A whole generation of young men was almost wiped out, which had lasting demographic consequences for both countries. For Germany, the figure was 65%, including 1.8 million dead. The British saw a casualty rate of “only” 39%, but that figure still represented the death of almost a million men, with far more wounded or missing. Even the smaller nations like Italy, which had fought fruitlessly to seize territory from Austria, lost over 450,000 men. A huge swath of Northeastern France and parts of Belgium were reduced to lifeless fields of mud and debris.
Politically, the war spelled the end of three of the most venerable, and once powerful, empires of the early modern period: the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Empire of Austria, and the Ottoman Empire of the Middle East. The Austrian Empire was replaced by new independent nations, with Austria itself reduced to a “rump state”: the remnant of its former imperial glory. France and Great Britain busily divided up control of former Ottoman territories in new “mandates,” but Turkey itself achieved independence thanks to the ferocious campaign led by Mustafa Kemal, or “Ataturk,” meaning “father of the Turks.” As noted above, revolution in Russia led to the collapse of the Tsarist state and, after a bloody civil war, the emergence of the world’s first communist nation: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. While Germany had not been a major imperial power, it also lost its overseas territories in the aftermath of the war.
For surviving soldiers everywhere, the psychological damage from years of carnage and desperation left wounds as crippling as those inflicted by poison gas and artillery strikes. From the euphoria many felt at the start of the war, the survivors were left psychologically shattered. The British term for soldiers who survived but were unable to function in society was “shell shock,” a vague diagnosis for what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whereas P.T.S.D. is now understood as a grave psychological issue that requires medical and therapeutic intervention, it was considered a form of “hysteria” at the time, a deeply gendered diagnosis that compared traumatized soldiers to “hysterical” middle class women suffering from depression. While the numbers of shell shock cases were so great that they could not be ignored by the medical community at the time, the focus of treatment revolved around trying to force former soldiers to somehow “tough” their way back to normal behavior (something that is now recognized to be impossible). Some progress was made in treating shell shock cases by applying the “talking cure,” an early form of therapy related to the practices of the great early psychologist Sigmund Freud, but most of the medical community held to the assumption that trauma was just a sign of weakness.
Likewise, there was no sympathy in European (or American) culture for psychological problems. To be unable to function because of trauma was to be “weak” or “insane,” with all of the social and cultural stigma those terms invoke. Any soldier diagnosed with a psychological issue, as opposed to a physical one, was automatically disqualified from receiving a disability pension as well. Thus, many of the veterans of World War I were both pitied and looked down on for not being able to re-adjust to civilian life, in circumstances in which the soldiers were suffering massive psychological trauma. The result was a profound sense of betrayal and disillusionment among veterans.
This was the context in which Europeans dubbed the conflict "The War to End All Wars." It was inconceivable to most that it could happen again; the costs had simply been too great to bear. The European nations were left indebted and depopulated, the maps of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn as new nations emerged from old empires, and there was profound uncertainty about what the future held. Most hoped that, at the very least, the bloodshed was over and that the process of rebuilding might begin. Some, however, saw the war’s conclusion as deeply unsatisfying and, in a sense, incomplete: there were still scores to be settled. It was from that sense of dissatisfaction and a longing for continued violence that the most destructive political philosophy of the twentieth century emerged: fascism.
Image Citations (Wikimedia Commons):
Black Hand - Creative Commons License
Schlieffen Plan - Public Domain
Alliances - Creative Commons License
Soldiers in Trench - Public Domain
Australian Propaganda - Public Domain