August 01, 2014
WASHINGTON, DC—The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum marks the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, which began 100 years ago this week. The trauma of 1914–18 profoundly changed the attitudes and actions of both leaders and ordinary people. This massive conflict and its divisive peace created conditions that would give rise to a second, even more destructive, world war and genocide committed under its cover.
Casualties in World War I were unprecedented. Nearly 10 million soldiers—more than all the military deaths in all the wars of the previous 100 years combined—were killed, 21 million were wounded, and untallied others endured psychological injuries for the rest of their lives. An unprecedented number of civilians also were killed—at least seven million. As the long-standing, powerful German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires toppled, peacemakers drew new national boundaries, raising the nationalist hopes of ethnic minorities and shuffling a decimated populace that was weary and uncertain.
The conflict saw significant advances in the technology of killing, including the introduction of aircraft and tanks, and the first use of poison gas as a weapon of war. By 1918, one-half of all young Frenchmen and more than one-third of German men ages 19 to 22 had been killed. The sense that a generation had been lost made nations wary of engaging militarily again.
This was the first conflict in which governments fully exploited mass communication to inflame public opinion. Propaganda played on fear to incite hatred for the enemy. This cultural shift left many susceptible to believing overly simplified explanations in a rapidly changing social landscape. Some stories of atrocities committed by the enemy turned out to be exaggerated and later bred skepticism in response to reports of Nazi mass murder.
Massive population movements and the amplification of nationalistic fervor yielded conditions ripe for new and terrible crimes. As a result of the Ottoman government’s systematic policy of mass deportations and executions, at least one million members of its Armenian minority were killed. The most intense period of the Armenian genocide occurred in 1915–16 when hundreds of thousands of people, including children and the elderly, died during forced marches into the desert due to violence, starvation, exposure, and disease. Knowledge of these mass murders quickly spread around the world, but there were few efforts to intervene or hold perpetrators accountable.
For the nations that lost World War I, dreadful carnage on the battlefield—Europe's first experience with mass man-made death—seemed inexplicable unless attributed to insidious betrayal. As partial justification for their crimes, Ottoman officials falsely accused Armenians of collusion with the enemy. Similarly, Jews were baselessly charged with undermining Germany’s interests during and after the war. A “stabbed-in-the-back” legend attributed the German defeat to internal traitors, primarily Jews as well as Communists, who were waging revolution in Russia. German military leaders seeking to avoid personal consequences for their failed policies deliberately disseminated this lie.
The victorious powers (Great Britain, the United States, France, and Italy) imposed a series of treaties upon the defeated nations (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Ottoman Turkey). The settlements held these nations, particularly Germany, responsible for starting the war and liable for massive material damages. The Versailles Treaty of 1919 forced Germany to cede large swaths of territory and to severely limit its armed forces. The ensuing economic chaos and social unrest undermined Germany’s newly formed democratic government, as many citizens associated it with the humiliation of national defeat.
World War I also precipitated the collapse of the Russian Empire, whose czarist regime had long been despised by its populace. Devastating military casualties and starvation conditions among soldiers and civilians bolstered demands for radical revolt and redistribution of wealth. A brutal civil war in 1917 led to the creation of the new Soviet Union, which terrified many Europeans because its ideology held no place for family, national identity, religious faith, or private property.
In the 1920s and 1930s, anti-democratic, right-wing political movements across Europe exploited this fear by touting themselves as bulwarks against communism, which aimed to annihilate nations and cultures. The threat of communism, a sense of national humiliation, and widespread economic and social instability made authoritarian ideologies like Nazism and fascism attractive in Germany, Italy, and other countries that would eventually become allies. The Nazis assumed power just 15 years after the end of World War I, harnessing the forces that would lead to a new global cataclysm.