Friday, March 1, 2013

World War One and Total War

            While World War One may not have been the first global war (the Seven Years War featured fighting in Europe, North America, Central Asia, and numerous naval skirmishes all across the globe), it was certainly the first total war.  To be considered a total war, a war must have profound impact on the daily lives of nearly every citizen in the combatant states.  Their social, political, economic, and cultural lives become directed by the state in such a manner that it benefits the military effort.

            Once the European powers realized that the war would not be over as quick as they initially believed, they had to make adjustments to the lives of their citizens in order to sustain what was quickly becoming a war of attrition.  In previous centuries, European states were perfectly equipped to wage war because nearly all political power was concentrated in the hands of a single individual, be it a king, queen, emperor, or empress.  By 1914, however, nearly every state had some sort of electoral system, although France and Britain were the only two countries with completely democratic institutions.  This popular form of governance, inherently slow, was not suitable for wartime.  Thus states quickly consolidated power not to oppress the citizenry, but to allow for the government to operate more quickly to address war needs.  As such, there were no elections in any combatant state during the entire duration of the war. 
            The nature of industry changed as well in the first era of total war.  Since industrial technology allowed for new battlefield innovations, a military-industrial complex began to emerge.  Governments began giving very lucrative military contracts to corporations, allowing them to grow very large as the government desired quick production and was willing to pay almost any price for new weapons of war.  Factories were completely redesigned to address the needs of the military as the government required a quick, streamlined, and steady flow of products to send to the front.
            Due to the need for quickly produced manufactured goods, the power dynamic within the industrial field changed.  While the factory owners gained significant influence in the government, the labor unions began to win political power as well, providing them their first success in decades.  As strikes would cripple the war effort, the industrial leaders were forced to give the union leadership a seat at the decision making table in order to ensure that production did not slow down.
            Culturally, the war changed the home front as total war shifted women into roles which typically were assigned to men.  As men were drafted into the military, women were needed to enter the factories in order to keep production moving at the clip the war effort required.  This allowed women to earn more money than they ever had in the past, granting them a sense of independence.  Men, on the other hand, were jammed with traditional gender role images, as they were instilled with the value of honor, courage, strength, and violence. 
            The sheer impact the war had on the collective psyche of Europe tore apart the liberal ideals which had dominated intellectual discourse for decades.  The liberal secularism and rationalism were thrown away in favor or renewed spiritualism as a reaction to the unimaginable violence and horror the war created.  The wave of death brought by the war exposed rationalism’s deepest flaw; no sense of afterlife.  The populace could not accept the rationalistic outlook when it did not dive life—which the war was revealing as very fragile—a sense of purpose. 
            The economic life of regular citizens also experienced changes during World War One.  Goods which were considered vital to the war effort, which was nearly everything, were rationale domestically in order to provide for the troops.  Home front citizens were also inspired and encouraged by propaganda to purchase war bonds to sustain the war effort.  Additionally, with the government funding the war effort by massive spending and foreign debt, inflation began to spread, often with the approval of the government, as it increased the ease of payment for tools of war.  When the war machine slammed to a halt in 1919, this inflation exploded across the continent, devastating the economies of almost every European nation.  It wiped out wages in the cities, driving urbanites towards socialism, while wiping out debt in the rural countryside, allowing for increased profits and a drift towards fascism to defend these profits from the socialists.
            World War One had a profound impact on the ways of life in nearly every European state.  Economic, political, social, and cultural changes which occurred either during or immediately after the war planted the seeds for the tumultuous inter-war years as well as setting some members of society (women and industrialists in particular) for a century of profound improvements and social and economic growth.  

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