Chapter Summary

It can be argued that the twentieth century began with the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. The ostensible cause of the Great War was the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28th. However, there were other, more subtle, reasons behind the outbreak of the war. The Bismarckian system of secret alliances had broken down. The Second Industrial Revolution created the chemical and electrical industries; it also introduced changes in management that dramatically increased the speed of production. The end of the nineteenth century was also the period of new imperialism, in which the great powers of Europe and the United States made a desperate bid to colonize new territories in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. An arms race developed as well. On the cultural front, the grand system of values referred to as Victorianism had finally succumbed under its own weight. Something had to give; in some sense, Europeans welcomed the war when it finally broke out in August 1914. It was to be a glorious war and over by Christmas. It was not.

When the Great War broke out the foremost nations of Europe were perhaps at the height of their power. At the center of the world economy and managing vast overseas interests and colonies, the great powers of Europe believed they were the harbinger of peace, prosperity, and the progress of human civilization. But progress proved difficult to defend in the wake of a war that killed more than 9 million people, decimated the French countryside, shackled Germany with war guilt, and sewed the seeds for the authoritarian regimes in the period between World War I and World War II. The Great War was a different kind of war. It was an "industrial war," waged by generals, businessmen, and men in black suits who stood in their nation's capitals, comfortable with the knowledge that they were directing the war. The reality of the war-hundreds of miles of mud-filled trenches, poor food, weapons that would not fire, machine guns, and poison gas-was quite different. And while the foot soldier in Verdun, Ypres, or the Marne carried sixty pounds on his back and took shelter huddled in a trench, the big guns continued to pound Europe.

At war's end in 1918, all soldiers would have agreed with Edmund Blunden's bleak statement following the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) that "both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win the War. The War had won, and would go on winning." Even worse to come was the answer to the question: who was responsible? "War is hell and those who initiate it are criminals," responded Siegfried Sassoon.

The Great War was a new type of war for a new century. It ushered state intervention into the economy and society. It brought women into the workforce and broke down gender barriers. It destroyed the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and left Germany reeling under the pressure of galloping inflation. The Russians forced the abdication of their tsar and the Bolsheviks took power. It also produced the Treaty of Versailles, which served as the great humiliation Adolf Hitler needed to create the Nazi "new world order." But above all else, the Great War created the twentieth century.