The Long World War

3 mins read

Neil Faulkner argues that the seeds of the Second World War were sown in the 1918 armistice.

The First World War ended the belle époque and inaugurated the modern age.

Until 1914, there had been growing optimism that a new era of industry, prosperity, and progress was dawning. The Long Depression between 1873 and 1896 had come to an end, the world economy had been growing fast for two decades, and the metropolitan heartlands were enjoying their first ‘consumer boom’.

But then the First World War began, and it brought carnage, destruction, and waste without precedent. Industrial society’s fast-growing capacity to satisfy human need – its signal characteristic during the belle époque – was now transformed into its opposite: industrialised slaughter.

Versailles was a victors’ banquet. The ‘war to end all wars’ concluded with a ‘peace to end all peace’. The only real beneficiaries of Versailles were the political and economic elites of the victorious powers. The end of the war meant that arms spending was cut to a fraction of its previous level, the global economy tanked, and millions of demobilised soldiers returned home to find themselves unemployed.

War reparations brought the German economy to its knees in the early 1920s, and hyperinflation wiped out the value of savings in 1923. In the early 1930s, while one in five was unemployed in Britain, it rose to one in three in Germany.

A wave of revolution swept across the world between 1917 and 1923. It destroyed reactionary regimes that had lasted for centuries: that of the Romanov tsars in Russia, the Habsburg emperors in Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul.

Anti-colonial mass movements challenged the authority of the European powers from Ireland to India. Peasant land-wars threatened the grip of landlords from Mexico to China.

The crisis broke the liberal centre and led to polarisation to both left and right. An apocalyptic confrontation between socialist revolution and fascist reaction dominated European politics during the 1930s. The victory of the latter across most of Europe set the stage for another world war, even longer, bloodier, and more barbaric than the first.

Germany has been at the heart of Europe’s geopolitical dysfunction since at least the 17th century. Germany was unified by war – in 1864 against Denmark, in 1866 against Austria, and in 1870 against France. The unified state thereby created dominated Central Europe geographically and, potentially, might soon have come to dominate the whole of Europe economically and politically.

A 1924 Nazi rally.

Late 19th-century Imperial Germany was a clear and present danger to Britain’s global hegemony. To sustain its expansion, Germany needed raw materials and markets. During the First World War, German leaders dreamed of a vast imperial domain stretching from the Baltic to the Bosphorus – Mitteleuropa (‘Middle Europe’) – and a further sphere of influence extending from there down to the Persian Gulf.

Defeat in the First World not only dissolved this dream: it led also to a partial reversal of Bismarck’s achievement, with the slicing away of great chunks of German national territory. Hitler was the inheritor of the revanchist imperative to which this gave rise in German political life.

The Nazis appropriated the German national cause. The Weimar politicians had failed to challenge this architecture of national disempowerment. Hitler promised action. He would tear up the Versailles Treaty, end crippling reparations payments, and rebuild German power in Europe. Hitler’s demands for Lebensraum (‘living space’) at the expense of Slavic Untermenschen (‘subhumans’) echoed the traditional imperialist ambitions of German statesmenin Central and Eastern Europe.

A J P Taylor, the famous historian of 19th- and 20th-century European diplomacy, attracted notoriety when he published The Origins of the Second World War in 1961, arguing that, in relation to foreign affairs, Hitler should be regarded as a mainstream German statesman.

The tensions between the Great Powers and their respective ‘military-industrial complexes’ had not been resolved in 1918; in many ways, they had intensified. By partly dismembering Germany, by building up rival (but weaker) states on her borders, and by imposing crippling (but ultimately unenforceable) reparations payments and arms limitations, the Versailles powers had merely set the stage for the second phase of Europe’s early 20th-century civil war.


This is an extract from a 7-page feature on the Long World War in the January issue of Military History Monthly.

To read the full analysis, get a copy of the issue from your local W H Smith, or click here to subscribe to the magazine and have it sent straight to your door every month.

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