The Demons Unleashed: WWI as the Seedbed of the 20th Century

Before WWI, Europe had been largely at peace for forty years, and faith in liberalism and progress was fairly universal. The slaughter in the trenches and subsequent political upheavals changed all that – for the worse.

WWI shattered what was an orderly and stable world order • The Holocaust, the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Fascism would have been almost impossible before the slaughter on the Somme, Isonzo and in the East • Reflections on the reverberations of the Great War which still resonate today

Almost exactly a century ago with the outbreak of the First World War, a chain of destruction, revolutionary upheavals, political chaos, and mass deaths was set in motion which permanently changed the face of Europe and of the wider world. At the end of the bloodiest conflict hitherto known in world history, four empires had collapsed: the Hohenzollern Reich in Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy which then ruled much of East-Central Europe, the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and the multi-national Tsarist state in Russia. By 1918, new states like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Baltic countries had achieved independence in their place, while Poland had been restored.

Imperial Germany, Austria, and Hungary were severely amputated, while Romania expanded. In the Near East, Great Britain and France carved up the spoils of war, while the seeds of future Arab-Jewish confrontations in Palestine were being sown. On the ruins of Tsarism, the Bolsheviks swiftly conquered power in what would become the Soviet Union, while militant fellow-Communists sought to emulate their revolutionary coup elsewhere. Meanwhile, the United States, having tilted the balance of forces in 1917 in Europe, established itself for the first time as a major player in international affairs.


The slaughter of the trenches shattered faith in liberalism. A British machine gun team. Photo: Wikipedia.
The slaughter of the trenches shattered faith in liberalism. A British machine gun team. Photo: Wikipedia.


The huge bloodletting during the First World War contributed much to weakening the sense of irreversible material and moral progress that had prevailed in the western world before 1914. Outside the Anglo-Saxon democracies, enlightened concepts of liberalism, parliamentary government, the rule of law, and “civilized” morality seemed less persuasive in the aftermath of the slaughter of the trenches. The age of mass demagogues, ambitious army officers, pseudo-intellectuals, and bohemian misfits seizing power from the streets, was about to dawn. Before 1914, who could have imagined the grey silhouettes of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, or Hitler exercising supreme authority in their respective countries? Their triumphs would have seemed inconceivable in the relatively well-ordered, hierarchical, and often authoritarian states that existed in continental Europe before World War I.

Tsarist Russia, it is true, was something of an exception to this stability as the abortive 1905 Revolution had revealed; but without the disasters at the front after 1914, it, too, might well have evolved from a rigid autocracy towards greater prosperity and a better functioning parliamentary system. The First World War dealt a hammer-blow to the cosmopolitan ethos and pluralistic culture of the old multi-national European empires. In the more narrow-minded “tribalistic” world of the post-1918 successor states (except for Czechoslovakia), a triumphalist nationalism now held sway — a trend which boded ill for transnational minorities like the Jews, who had acted as a kind of cultural glue in prewar Habsburg-ruled East-Central Europe. This radical nationalism tended to be viscerally ethnocentric, exclusivist, prickly and intolerant — filled with rage, resentment, and a sense of humiliation at the loss of large territories formalized in the Treaties of Versailles, St. Germain, and Trianon.

The de-facto Balkanization of Europe after 1918 signified an unexpected triumph for the nation-state (sanctified by the liberal American President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination) over the Imperial idea in its European heartland. Even on the continents of Asia and Africa we might see 1914 as the prologue to the history of decolonization which would swiftly accelerate after 1945. Significantly, even in Great Britain, which had emerged from World War I with its world-wide Empire still intact (and even enlarged), the seeds of its future decline were already palpable. This downward curve was even truest of the French Republic, which had paid a tremendous price in blood and treasure for the Allied victory in 1918 over Imperial Germany. The sheer scale of both French and British casualties during the war helps to explain the mood of appeasement which overtook the West in the 1930s, when faced with the prospect of rearming to face down the threat of Nazi Germany.

Learning all the wrong lessons

The trauma of 1914 and the overwhelming desire not to repeat its horrors exercised a paralysing influence, even in the United States — increasingly receptive to isolationist currents in the 1930s. In Germany, the military defeat of 1918, together with the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, had the opposite effect — providing a powerful impetus for the ultra-nationalist resentments that from the outset drove the Nazi movement. To this revanchist syndrome we should add Hitler’s personal obsession with never permitting another 9 November 1918 to occur on German soil. This date marked the end of the Hohenzollern Monarchy, the proclamation of the democratic Weimar Republic, and the coming to power of the Social Democrats in a potentially revolutionary situation.

There was the specter of Lenin’s triumph in Russia, made possible by a failed war, mass misery, and the Machiavellian machinations of the German General Staff — which had facilitated his return in a sealed train from Swiss exile to St. Petersburg. For the radical Right in Germany the specter of the “Bolshevization” of Germany was real. More ominous still, in Hitler’s mind, the confluence of events in November 1918 became inextricably linked with the fantasy of a “Jewish conspiracy” for world domination — an antisemitic myth which he had absorbed in Munich at the end of World War I from Baltic Germans like Alfred Rosenberg.


Lenin and Hitler: their rise would have been impossible without the war. Photos: Wikipedia
Lenin and Hitler: their rise would have been almost impossible without the war. Photos: Wikipedia


For the Jews of Russia as well as Central and Eastern Europe, the First World War was in many respects no less than a disaster. Approximately 70,000 out of the half-million Jews serving in the Russian army were killed; some 12,000 out of the 100,000 Jewish soldiers in the German army died on the battlefield — which did not prevent the spread of the noxious antisemitic libels about “Jewish” pacifists having “stabbed Germany in the back.” In the Austro-Hungarian army, no less than 350,000 Jews were in uniform, with a notably high percentage of reserve officers among them, and a casualty rate similar to that of non-Jews. Jews also served with distinction in the British, American, and French armies — with some, like Australian General Monash, reaching the very highest rank. As the inevitable price of their ardent patriotism, Jews found themselves at times killing their co-religionists in the opposing armies.

The massive carnage in the trenches during World War I produced a general mood of pacifism in the 1920s. It did not, however, prevent the remilitarization of Europe and the U.S.S.R. during the following decade, nor did it offset the growing impact of fascism, one-party dictatorships, and totalitarian thinking on both the Right and the Left. It was accompanied by a violently racist antisemitism which simultaneously demonized Jews as “defeatists” and “revolutionary subversives” while branding them bellicose “warmongers” seeking to plunge the West into a wholly unnecessary conflict, with a “peace-loving” Nazi Germany. This was a rally-cry in the late 1930s common to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, to right-wing populists, and left-wing pacifists in France, as well as Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” agitation.  Much of this “peace” propaganda had, of course, been fashioned in Berlin by a Nazi regime that relentlessly depicted Jews as the cynical instigators of World War I and the dark conspirators behind the unleashing of a mendacious “atrocity” campaign against Nazi Germany. The gradual moral collapse of European bourgeois civilization after 1918 would soon open the floodgates to a new era of unrestrained violence, barbaric atrocities, ethnic hatreds, deadly nationality struggles, and rabid racism —drowning out the naïve patriotism which had initially greeted the outbreak of the First World War.

You Can’t Go Home Again

“The World of Yesterday,” to quote Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s nostalgia-laden phrase, was finally gone, never to return. Nor would Jewish sacrifices on the battlefront led to their greater social acceptance, let alone to a decline in the prevailing nationalist antisemitism in Central and Eastern Europe. On the contrary, Jew-hatred would scale hitherto unprecedented heights in Europe during the decade preceding the Shoah. The First World War did, however, significantly strengthen Jewish national sentiment and directly led to the Balfour Declaration issued by the British government in November 1917, which promised to facilitate the establishment of a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine.

Thirty years later, in the wake of the massive destruction of World War II, the horrific cataclysm of the Holocaust, British withdrawal from Palestine, and the military defeat of seven invading Arab states by a fledgling Jewish army in 1948, the State of Israel was born. Its establishment in the land of Israel after nearly two millennia of exile and persecution represented not only the fulfilment of age-old messianic longings, historical memories, and romantic hopes, but also the concrete realisation of Theodor Herzl’s dream fifty years earlier of a restored Jewish political sovereignty. Israel has turned out to be among the most vibrant of all the successor states of the fallen Empires of 1918 — embattled, controversial, yet a vital hub of modern science and technological innovation still closely bound to its ancient biblical roots.

Robert Wistrich is Professor of Modern European History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Head of its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism.

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1 comments on the article

  1. I keep reading “The Guns of Krupp” . It is a great book for demonstrating how Germany (and Willhelm II) really wanted war