For the first few years of the war, the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) were rapidly expanding. The Germans successfully used their lightning war, or “blitzkrieg.” The idea was to quickly invade a place rather than waiting for all parts of your military before advancing. Using new technology like the radio, airplanes, and motorized vehicles, the German army was able to concentrate its attack on one part of the enemy’s lines. Breaking through, they would create chaos and disorganization amongst the enemies while their slower moving military elements came later and swept up what was left.
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In 1940, Hitler quickly invaded and conquered most of France. The French signed an armistice and the Nazis set up a government of French collaborators known as the Vichy government. The French resistance fled to the unoccupied territories or to other countries, but not before they did everything they could to prevent Hitler from benefiting from their culture.
By 1945, World War Two had become the deadliest conflict in human history. 78 million people died during the war. And, thanks to “total war,” more civilians died than soldiers. The United States lost 418,000 people and Great Britain lost 450,000 in the war which, amazingly, is low compared to the other nations involved. For comparison, Japan lost 3 million, Germany lost 9 million, and Russia lost 23 million people. 23 million.
Today we’re going to look at World War I, or “The War To Cause All Wars!” There will be acronyms, accidental hijinks that get an archduke killed, trench foot, and a really pissed off Germany. That can’t be good.
So, World War One was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. And boy, was Wilson wrong. Europe walked into the war willingly. They all had a lot to prove, territories to gain, and they believed that their nation’s military was so powerful they would all be home in a few weeks. Four years later, the global landscape is shifting. The last two great land empires – Russia and the Ottomans – have fallen apart. And colonists who shipped off to fight for their mother country in the name of nationalism are coming back home and thinking, “Nationalism seems pretty great. Maybe we should have that here, too?” And Germany – the rising young country – has had its national pride run into the ground. In Europe and the United States, everyone retreats back into their protectionist holes, hoping that if they just don’t get involved in foreign affairs then another war won’t happen. Boy, was everyone wrong.
By the early 1900s Europe is solidly in charge of the world, thanks to a few hundred years of challenging authority, innovating, conquering, subjugating, and industrializing. But now they’ve hit a snag because they’re running out of land to conquer – it’s the original “First World Problem.” Also, this whole “balance of power” thing that was created after Napoleon isn’t working so well any more. Some new powers are rising, like Germany, and shaking things up. But also, all of the European countries want to be on top – they don’t really want a balance of power. They’re just saying that so they don’t look like jerks.
Germany’s Schlieffen Plan fails, mostly because the British step in and support France. And so they are stuck fighting a war on both of their borders. The allies siding with Austria are called the Central Powers because, if you look at a map of the fighting, well, they’re in the center of it. The the Allied Powers are mostly made up of Russia – who handles most of the fighting along the eastern front, and Britain and France – who set up shop along the western front.
So what caused the Russian Revolution? Why are people unhappy in Russia? If you’ll remember, ever since Peter the Great Russia has been playing this balancing game between modern westernization and traditional power structures. Czars are willing to reform the economy through industrialization, social hierarchy by emancipating the serfs, and culture by shaving everyone’s beard off.
But they are never willing to give up any of their political power. This makes sense – all of the other absolute monarchs were forced to give up their power because their government was overthrown (King George during the American Revolution, Louis XVI in France, the Shogun in Japan).
World War I was a wake up call for a lot of the European powers. They realized the dangers that came with imperial competition and massive military spending, and so a lot of these countries turned inward. They decided to focus their time and attention on strengthening their country and empire from within and not worry so much about what’s going on in other countries. This is fine, except that in the 1930s when fascist dictatorships rise across Europe, a lot of countries are going to be a little too willing to ignore them.
For world history, there are two huge outcomes of World War I. The first is almost never taught in schools, which is insane to me. So when the Ottoman Empire fell apart after the war, the Allied Powers, especially Britain, took control of a lot of their former territory.
Turkey became an independent country led by a pro-western nationalist named Ataturk. But the rest of their land becomes mandates of the British or the French. The idea was that a lot of these governments were not quite ready to govern themselves so they would be closely watched over by the British until they were deemed ready to be independent. How nice of them.
In the Middle East, Britain and France determined who would get what land at a secret meeting in 1916. What came out of this meeting, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, basically divided up the Middle East “Scramble for Africa” style. Syria and Lebanon were given to the French while Iraq and Jordan were given to the British. They determined that Palestine, because of its religious significance, would be governed by an “international regime,” whatever that meant.
Britain promises palestine to both sides
The problem with this was that the British had also been wheeling and dealing on the side. As they were stoking Arab nationalism and rebellion in Saudi Arabia, they did so by promising the Arabs that they would get control of the land after they defeated the Ottomans. Although they weren’t specific about what land they would make sure the Arabs got, it was widely assumed that this included protection of Arab control of the most important land in all of Islam – Palestine.
But, at the same time, other British diplomats were promising Palestine to another group of people – the Zionist movement pushing for Jewish state. Uh oh. Also, when the British and the French determined the new states they would administer they did not take into account local rulers, ethnicity, or religious sects. Just like in Africa, they just drew lines on a map and said, “You’re Syria now!” Needless to say, this has caused a lot of problems since.
the paris peace conference of 1919
The other major event that came out of World War I was the Treaty of Versailles. This was the peace treaty with Germany that formally ended the war and it was a hot mess. In 1919 27 nations who had in some way supported the Allies gathered in Paris for the peace conference. The conference was dominated by the imperial powers of Britain, France and the U.S., but it’s worth mentioning that some colonies sent delegations.
India sent people in the hopes that their support of Britain would help them earn more rights and possibly independence. Nope. The Hejaz, a group of Arabs, were there to make sure they would get the land that had been promised by the British. This land would later become Saudi Arabia. And a young man from French Indochina named Ho Chi Minh was in attendance and he left feeling very frustrated that the imperial powers had ignored the plight of his people. But I’m sure it’s fine…
the league of nations
The Treaty of Versailles did two important (and bad) things. First, it established the League of Nations. This, in itself, is not bad. It was a noble idea proposed by U.S. President Wilson as a way to avoid future conflict. Unfortunately, after convincing everyone across Europe to join, Wilson brought the treaty back to his own Congress who refused to sign it. Ah Congress… accomplishing nothing since 1919.
The League of Nations was a fine idea but, as we’ll see, it had no real power. It didn’t have an army or peacekeeping force of its own and without the U.S. involved it lacked legitimacy. Plus, it refused to let the former Central Powers, like Germany, join. So… it’s pretty hard to prevent a future conflict with Germany when Germany is not allowed in the negotiating room.
But why would there ever be future conflict with Germany? Surely they learned their lesson and nothing the Allied Powers could ever do in the wake of World War I could cause them to rise up again, more powerful and terrifying than ever. Oh wait…
The other important (and bad) thing that the Treaty of Versailles did was punish Germany. And I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have punished Germany at all, but come on. Think about it: who started World War I? Gavrilo Princip of Serbia? Or maybe Austria, because they were trying to conquer the Balkans? Sure, Germany played its part and made the first act of aggression, but still.
Let me be clear: in the next World War I will very emphatically accept that Germany was the bad guy. But in the First World War there really was no bad guy. There wasn’t a “good side” and a “bad side.” There were just two sides who ended up allied with different people. So, with that in mind, let’s look at what they did to Germany:
Germany lost territory in Europe and all of its colonial possessions to Britain and France.
Germany was forbidden to have submarines or an air force. Their navy was limited to six battleships and their army to just 100,000 men. For reference, Germany had 27 battleships before the war and they mobilized 11 million men during World War 1. And now they can only have 100,000 soldiers as a defense force.
Germany had to pay the equivalent of $33 billion in reparations for damages done during the war. They literally paid off the last installment in 2010. Seriously.
Finally, Germany was forced to accept all blame for the war. Now, this is mostly a symbolic move but it’s the worst one for all of the nationalists back home who had been built up before and during the war to believe that Germany was the best and most powerful nation on earth. At this point, it just adds insult to injury.
And this insult will be remembered by many of the men who fought for Germany in the trenches. One of them will use this national shame as a rallying cry to unite conservative nationalist elements together in a new, stronger regime. But we’ll get to him next episode.
Last time we explored the Age of Imperialism in Africa, India and the Pacific. The West was able to successfully conquer most of the world through its advanced technology and ruthless superiority complex. But now they’re going to attempt to crack open the big guys. Some of these are the empires that we’ve been talking about all season – the heavy hitters in world history: China and the Middle East. And other are new, young powers that have been partially adapting to the rise of the west – Russia and Japan. Who will be left standing by the 20th century? (Japan) And who will succumb to the rise of the west? (Everyone but Japan.)
So, the east has had mixed success resisting western influence. The Chinese failed spectacularly and are now ready to get rid of the thousands-year-old dynastic cycle for something new. The Ottomans and the Russian do their best to be like the west but they’re never quite comfortable with constitutionalism and limiting their own power. They’re wearing the clothes but not fully committing. Both empires will be dead within twenty years. But Japan has shown what could have been. They rejected western intervention in favor of modernizing themselves, while still maintaining their culture and nationalistic loyalty. And they are going to expand out across the Pacific, ultimately running up against another new power trying to set up an empire of their own: the United States.
So if you can remember all the way back to Act 1, China was forced open by the British and had a chaotic, uncoordinated response. Pretty much everyone was unhappy with the situation, but they disagreed on what to do about it. The same thing is going to happen in Japan except that they will be relatively unified in their response. This is one of the benefits of having a smaller nation that is not fragmented into various ethnic groups, like China. And this unified rejection of western imperialism is going to put Japan on the path to dominate Asia in the 20th century.
Peter’s daughter Elizabeth was ruling Russia – I don’t know what it is about Elizabeths but they are crushing that glass ceiling! Her nephew was the heir to the throne but it was his wife, Catherine, who would really carry out Peter the Great’s vision.