Conclusion: The Costs of War

views updated

Conclusion: The Costs of War

No matter how they are measured, the costs of World War I were enormous. Undoubtedly, the most tragic and devastating of the losses caused by the war was the loss of life. Millions of soldiers died in battle, and countless civilians were killed by the side effects of the war: starvation, disease, or—in the case of the Armenians in Turkey—genocide. Even greater numbers of lives were disrupted. Millions of soldiers survived the war with grave injuries, and families across the world were ripped apart by the destruction of war. The monetary losses associated with the war were equally enormous. The combatant countries threw millions of dollars into the war effort, straining their economies during the war and for years thereafter.

Were the sacrifices in lives and money worth it? Was anything settled by this four-year killing contest? In the aftermath of the war, Europe was in worse shape than it was when the war began. Empires were shattered, governments fell, and violent and destructive regimes came to power in several of the combatant countries. Perhaps the only country to truly benefit from the war was the United States, which emerged as the world's greatest power. Almost every other combatant was drained nearly to destruction by the conflict. In the end, World War I settled nothing. It merely set the stage for a war that would surpass it in its measures of death and destruction—World War II.

A Lost Generation

The total number of dead soldiers—8,600,000 men, or more than 5,600 soldiers killed per day for the duration of the war—is the baseline from which all other assessments of the war's cost must begin. Multiply the number of soldiers dead by the number of lives these deaths touched—parents, family, friends—and the toll of war mounts even higher. In War and

Social Change in the Twentieth Century, historian Arthur Mar-wick estimates that the war produced 5 million widowed women, 9 million orphaned children, and 10 million refugees, people ripped from their homes by the war.

Besides the huge number of dead soldiers, there were other military loses. Armies counted the cost of waging war in terms of casualties—the total number of men killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or missing. All told, the Allied forces had a casualty rate of about 52 percent—22 million of the 42 million men sent to war. The Central Powers lost 15 million of the 23 million men they mobilized, a 65 percent casualty rate. Austria-Hungary had the highest casualty rate—90 percent—followed by Russia at 76 percent and France at 73 percent.

Modern weapons like machine guns, fragmenting artillery, and poison gas injured soldiers of every country and sent them back to their families shattered and often disfigured. Many men bore scars or carried chunks of shrapnel in their bodies, but could continue with their lives. They were the lucky ones. Some lost arms and legs and could not return to jobs. Many were wounded in the face, some so badly that their faces had to be reconstructed. In France these men were known as gueules cassées, men with broken faces. Other soldiers bore no physical wounds but were devastated by what they had seen in war. These shell-shocked men often received little sympathy from a public that did not yet understand the psychological effects of war.

Many referred to those killed or wounded in the First World War as a "lost generation," using the phrase made famous by American author Gertrude Stein. Many soldiers, of course, were lost in battle, but many other soldiers and civilians simply felt lost after the end of the war. All the truths about national honor and virtue seemed to have been destroyed by the war, and many writers and thinkers wondered how to make sense of the new, modern world. In his war novel A Farewell to Arms, American writer Ernest Hemingway expressed the sense that old truths had been destroyed. One of the main characters in the book, an American ambulance driver on the Italian front, reflects:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.

The Financial Toll

Because it is impossible to place a price tag on human life, calculating the total costs of the war is a difficult task. Several economists, however, have attempted a rough estimate. Shortly after the war, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimated that the war cost the world over $337 billion; a later estimate, quoted by Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War, sets the cost at $208 billion. Whichever figure is closer, there is no doubt that the cost was staggering. These figures count the costs of productive lives lost, ships sunk, buildings and farms destroyed, and many other costs of war. The war had come at a time of unprecedented prosperity for Europe, and that prosperity and productive capacity were used to fuel a vast killing machine.

Once the killing stopped, Europe's economies did not return to their prewar expansion. Germany, of course, was devastated. Mass poverty among the working classes led to rapid inflation, and politicians could do little to stop it. Many of the country's profits went toward paying the reparations to the Allies. Throughout Europe, wages for most workers stayed low, while prices for food and other goods soared. Nations had bor rowed heavily to finance their war efforts, and they spent years following the war struggling to repay their debts. Just as the political problems left at the end of World War I led inevitably to World War II, the economic troubles of European nations contributed to the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s.

The Unsettled Peace

Those who enter into a war usually do so believing that the war will settle things. Entering into World War I, Germany

wanted to establish itself as the supreme power in Central Europe; Austria-Hungary wanted to cement its influence in the Balkans; France and Britain wanted to control the power of Germany and ensure their shared (if not equal) dominance of Europe and distant colonies; Russia wanted to secure its influence in the Balkans and keep Germany's power under control; and the Ottoman Empire wanted to reestablish itself as the dominant power in the Middle East. The shape of the postwar world reveals that not one of the major combatants achieved its goals. In the end, World War I settled nothing.

Unlike Germany and Austria-Hungary, Great Britain and France did not enter World War I with lofty goals of expanding their power. But as the victors in the war, they imposed a peace that created long-term problems. The biggest problem was their punishment of Germany. Moderates urged the Allies not to punish Germany too severely after the war, but rather to recognize that power needed to be shared among the major European countries (Great Britain, France, and Germany). However, politicians in Great Britain and France felt compelled to punish Germany. Their punishments humiliated the Germans and helped create the conditions that led to the rise of the Nazi Party, which came to power in part by promising to avenge the German loss in World War I. German politicians became obsessed with regaining Germany's position as a world power, and they started World War II to accomplish this goal.

The way the Allies imposed peace also caused other problems. First, they redrew the map of eastern Europe in ways that planted the seeds for future conflict. When they created the countries of Czechoslovakia and Poland, they gave these countries territory that Germany thought of as her own. After Germany regained power in the 1930s, these territories were the first prizes Germany seized in World War II. And the Allies' attempt to unite the southern Slavic peoples into a unified Yugoslavia brought together people with deep differences. These differences flared up throughout the century, leading to a brutal civil war in the 1990s. Second, Britain and France gained control of colonies in Africa and the Middle East, but many of these colonies were not content to remain under European control. In the Middle East especially, hostility to Western culture and Western control led to revolution and war. As the twentieth century progressed, Britain and France found it impossible to manage their colonial possessions. As with the peace they imposed on Germany, the peace they proposed for eastern Europe and for distant colonies created as many problems as it solved.

Revolution and Civil War in Russia

Russia was radically reshaped by its participation in the war. Russia got into the war in order to support its Serbian

allies in the Balkans, but its involvement in the war led to the Russian Revolution and a civil war that fundamentally reshaped the nation and the world. Participating in World War I so stressed the Russian political and economic system that a radical group known as the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, drew Russia out of the war by making peace with Germany. But Russia's troubles had just begun.

The Bolshevik or Red armies were opposed by the White armies of counterrevolutionaries who wanted to preserve the old order. In organized battles and in guerrilla raids, the Reds and Whites fought a bitter civil war for control of the country. White and Red forces alike committed brutal atrocities, slaughtering rival bands and any civilians who supported the other side. In southern Russia the Whites directed a pogrom, or organized massacre, of approximately 100,000 Jews. The Red secret police executed thousands of people who would not support their cause. According to Robert T. Elson, author of Prelude to War, "those five ghastly years of civil war, accompanied by the famine and pestilence, killed up to 15 million Russians—6.5 million more than the total deaths on all fronts during World War I."

By 1921 the Reds had secured power in Russia. The country was so devastated economically that Lenin announced strict government control over all areas of the economy. This New Economic Policy was the basis for communist control of the country; under this policy the government received all economic gain and distributed it to the people. Lenin—and later his successor, Joseph Stalin—brutally suppressed any resistance to communist rule. Stalin consolidated Russia and several independent republics into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R. or Soviet Union). The U.S.S.R. grew into a world power in the years to come, and it promoted the spread of communism around the world. After World War II, the Soviet Union's power was contested following World War II by the leading capitalist countries, especially the United States, which believed in allowing individuals and businesses to improve themselves without much government intervention. The Cold War between these countries ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Rise of Nazism in Germany

The moderate German government that had signed the Treaty of Versailles with the Allies found itself in an impossible position. Not only was it shackled with rebuilding a country under the difficult conditions imposed by the peace, but its political enemies accused the government of betraying the German people by surrendering. Rival political groups vied for power in postwar Germany. Socialists and Communists hoped that they might stir up a revolution among the workers like the one taking place in Russia. Right-wing groups—which included the upper middle class and the army—argued that Germany needed to return to a position of power. One small party, the German Workers' Party, seemed to promote both worker control and the return of German industrial might. A young former soldier named Adolf Hitler soon joined this party, renamed it the National Socialist German Workers' Party (shortened to Nazi Party in Germany), and set his sights on power.

As the leader of the Nazi Party, Hitler electrified listeners at party rallies with his call for a powerful, triumphant Germany. Over the years, Hitler and his Nazi Party slowly claimed ever greater power, allying themselves with the German military and stirring up racial hatred with their anti-Jewish propaganda. Hitler received enough backing from the German parliament to become chancellor in 1933, and he quickly acted to secure ultimate power. Within months he banished all other political parties and imprisoned his political enemies. By 1934 Hitler had secured the office of president as well. Hitler led his nation in rebuilding its military strength and began to plot Germany's rise to world power.

When the Allies and Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, many observers feared that the treaty satisfied the Allies' desire to punish the Germans but did not provide for a lasting peace. According to James Stokesbury, author of A Short History of World War I, French marshal Ferdinand Foch, upon reading the peace treaty, cried out, "This isn't peace! This is a truce for twenty years!" Foch was right. Twenty years and sixty-seven days after signing the treaty, Germany launched the attacks that soon engulfed the world in World War II. Most historians lay the blame for World War II directly on the failed peace of World War I.

The End of Old Empires, the Beginning of New

The war brought changes to many other nations, though few of these changes were as dramatic as those in Germany and Russia. Italy, which felt cheated by its failure to gain more from its involvement in the war, soon fell under the spell of a political leader named Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was a fascist dictator, which meant that he held complete power in his country and brutally suppressed opposition. Mussolini became Hitler's great ally in the years leading up to and including World War II. Turkey also entered a period of political turmoil, which brought the downfall of the sultan (king) and the rise of republican leader Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey. The Austro-Hungarian Empire disappeared, broken up into Austria, Hungary, and pieces of several other nations.

The one country that emerged from World War I in decent shape was the United States. Compared to the other countries, the United States had taken very little loss of life, and by delaying its entry into the war until nearly the end, it had avoided the severe financial strains of waging war. Financially strong when others were weak, the United States became the world's most dominant nation during and after World War I. It developed an army and navy of which it could be proud. It provided aid of many sorts—money, food, supplies—to countries devastated by war. Furthermore, while most European economies struggled throughout the 1920s, the U.S. economy boomed, lifting the nation into a time of unprecedented prosperity. Despite the United States' strong position at the end of the war, many Americans were not yet ready to accept their country's role as the leader of the Free World. Isolationist senators refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s the United States tried to stay out of European affairs. That isolation was finally ended when America was pulled into World War II.

A War without Winners

The Allies dictated the terms of peace to the vanquished Central Powers at the end of World War I. But it is difficult to say that the Allies won, for World War I was truly a war without winners. Every country involved was decimated by the extreme loss of life, and most countries continued to experience severe economic troubles years after the end of the war. The war also crushed the spirit of millions of people around the world. Many had hoped that the rising tide of industrialism and world trade would create a more prosperous, peaceful future. But World War I only proved that nations would use advances in industrial capacity and technology to sponsor widespread destruction and killing.

For More Information

Bosco, Peter. World War I. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

Clare, John D., ed. First World War. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

"The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century." [Online] (accessed October 2000.)

Heyman, Neil M. World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Kent, Zachary. World War I: "The War to End Wars." Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow, 1994.

Stewart, Gail. World War One. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1991.

"World War I: Trenches on the Web." [Online] (accessed October 2000.)


Elson, Robert T., and the editors of Time-Life Books. Prelude to War. New York: Time-Life, 1976.

Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929, 1957.

Heyman, Neil M. World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Marwick, Arthur. War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Study of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Winter, Jay, and Blain Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.

The Cost of War

Any reckoning of the costs of World War I must begin with a roll call of the dead and wounded. The Allies, who emerged victorious, saw more than 5,100,000 men die in battle or from wounds received in battle. The losing Central Powers lost more than 3,500,000 men. By country, the dead are as follows:

These numbers are from Martin Gilbert's The First World War.
France1,384,000United States48,000
Italy615,000New Zealand16,000
Romania335,000South Africa8,000