The First World War was one of the most remarkable wars in history. It has bared witness to such unmitigated slaughter not seen before or after in history. Out of one shot from a Serbian rebel came one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, and one of the most revolutionary. While it is often noted only for its supposed connections to World War Two, it had far more far-reaching effects than that war or any other war in shaping the Twentieth or Twenty-First century.
One of the most important causes of the Great War involved a complex system of alliances and treaties which crisscrossed the Great Powers of Europe, making a small conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary into a war involving all powers. The alliances of that era were different from what we would consider proper in this ideological age. For instance, France, arguably the most liberal out of all of the Great Powers, and Russia, the most reactionary, were very close allies at this point. These two powers which were politically opposite could somehow join together in politics in a way that would be scandalous today. Another example, Austria-Hungary and Germany were very close allies, despite that when the alliance was made it wasnâ€™t even a decade after Prussia destroyed the German Confederation and stole Austriaâ€™s dominance over Germany. While there certainly were grudges in politics back then, they had far less significance than they do now. This shows a remarkable difference between then and diplomacy today, the acceptance of realpolitik by the Great Powers. Alliances were created out of necessity, rather than any kind of ideological or moral code. While it is true today that there are times in which a power will support a government that has glaring differences in ideology, it will practically never do it openly and almost never do it as an equal of such a power. It is almost always a powerful country using a small movement. We see this difference in methods occurring not 25 years after the end of the First World War, with World War Two. World War Two alliances, unlike that of the First World War, fell perfectly in line with ideological beliefs, and there was at no point any attempt to change that. The Axis has all the fascist nations, the Allies the liberal democracies, and the Comitern the socialist states. Even when the USSR was attacked in 1941, there was difficulty with Great Britain and them reconciling ideological differences to unite and fight the Axis, and it was only with Rooseveltâ€™s help that the alliance was kept together. There would have been no problem with Russia and Great Britain in 1914 joining under the same circumstances, they would have quickly made an alliance out of political necessity. It is therefore obvious that the end of the First World War brought rise to an age of diplomacy and international relations we still have not left, the Age of Ideology, where political philosophy dominates international relations.
But there is a far deeper change in World War One that marked the end of over a millennium of history. When the war started, all of the Great Powers except for France were monarchists. While only Russia was still absolutist, the monarch held great power in both Austria and Germany, and monarchism was the dominant form of government at the time. This contributed greatly to the rise of realpolitik in Europe at the time. But by 1919, both the German Kaiser and the Austrian Emperor had abdicated their thrones, and the Russian Czar was overthrown in the February Revolution. The Ottoman Empire was finally destroyed in the First World War as well. Dynasties which were hundreds of years old and monarchies which had dominated European politics for centuries were destroyed in nigh 4 years. And in its place rose liberal democracies, socialist states, and soon fascist states.
The entire political map of Europe changed after the First World War for another reason as well. The empires which were part of European history for centuries were now fractured and split between various groups. The nation of Poland was created and for the first time since 1795 the Poles had a country of their own. Austria, which had been rocked by ethnic tension for years was now splintered into many new nations, including Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary. Of course, existing empires also got a share of some of the territory of the defeated empires. Britain, France and Belgium annexed territories in Africa, Japan received many of the German Pacific islands, and Britain and France took huge tracts of land from the Ottoman Empire, France taking what is now Syria and Lebanon, Britain taking the rest of the empire except for what would become the nation of Turkey. These land-grabs by the Allied powers would lead to conflicts which are still being fought today.
If it is one of the greatest legacies of the First World War, it is the British and French legacy on the Middle East and Africa. Due to their careless partitions of territory into states with no consideration for religious or ethnic differences led to many struggles within these regions. One of the best examples of this is in the creation of the nation of Iraq. When the British created Iraq, they had very little consideration for the people they were grouping into one nation. Sunni Iraqis and Shiâ€™ite Iraqis have many differences in culture and beliefs, making it hard for them to cooperate with each other, and the Kurds are not even of the same ethnicity as either of them. This matching of groups which were different and soon-to-be hostile to each other would have far-reaching consequences. The crimes of Saddam and the Iraqi War of today are both consequences of this decision, where ethnic and religious violence will most likely lead to civil war. Another example of this would be the creation of the state of Israel. Despite deep reservations on it by all the neighboring countries and the Palestinians themselves, the British established Israel as a state in 1948, leading to a land torn by conflict between Palestinians and Israelis over land, as well as a rise in anti-Judaism in the Arab population that continues today. The creation of the nation of Sudan has led to the genocide at Darfur as well as civil wars between the North and the South. There are many more examples of struggles between different ethnicities and religions because of the partition of colonial lands after World War One.
World War One also gave open for another important event in human history which would create a country and make manifest an ideology which would dominate much of the world for more than 50 years. This event was the October Revolution in Russia. When the Bolsheviks toppled the interim Russian government and established the first socialist state ever, they created a nation which would rise to become a superpower, and whose political ideology would spread to many other countries. The establishment of the USSR made the Cold War possible, as well the spreading of the socialist revolution to China, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and many others. It would change the destiny of half the world. It is also through the October Revolution that WWI would be connected with the rise of the NSDAP in Germany. While many people claim erroniously that the rise of the NSDAP had to do with the anger over the Treaty of Versailles, the economic depression caused at the end of the war and the like, all of those problems were gone by 1926. In reality, th Nazis are connected in a more subtle way. The fear of communism in Germany helped the Nazis greatly, and much of its base support came from those afraid that the KPD and the SPD were too socialist. The Great Depression, which is also interconnected to WWI has to do with this as well.
Of course, it was not only politics which changed in the Great War. Weaponry and tactics also changed considerably during the war. The introduction of the machinegun made trench warfare highly effective, and made the Western front a stalemate for the majority of the war. It also would have crucial parts in the tactics of all wars that came after it. The tank made its debut in the war, although it was not the fast armored cavalry is has come to be known today. The warplane too made its first flight then, although it was much less important to the war than what is commonly believed. Submarines too were first used in the war. A whole myriad of technology came into being during the time of this war. and tactics were no different. The Battle of Caporetta would mark the first use of infiltration tactics, which would become a crucial tactic especially for the Germans in World War Two. A young Erwin Rommel himself commented on the fact that the more he kept pushing into the Italian lines, the more unprepared they seemed to be for battle.
Even though the Great War only lasted four bloody years, it took the lives of over 15 million and resonates even today in the headlines of our newspapers and in the record books of history. While often pushed aside in favor of the Second World War, it was far more revolutionary and is far more important to the history of mankind. It ended the times of monarchs, colonization and the like which dominated 19th century politics and brought in the 20th century. It was the war that ended a chapter in history centuries long and began a new chapter that is still being written today. It was the last war of the 19th cnetury, and the first war of the 20th century.