Until 1914, war in Europe was inevitable

lemoLiving Museum Online
  • In the boggy battlefield in front of Armentières, 1918

Power political rivalries and an intense arms race have been a burden on international relations since the beginning of the 20th century. After the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, all diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict failed due to the implacable striving for power of the major European powers. From August 1914 the Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war against the allied Entente states France, Great Britain and Russia. The war raged not only on the battlefields in Europe, the colonies in Africa, in the Middle East and on the high seas, but for the first time also on the "home front". Here, many Germans were soon starving, disappointed by the tough course of the war and shocked by the mass killing on the western front. The First World War ended in November 1918 with the military defeat of Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary. The number of dead and injured by 1918 was immense: around nine million soldiers and more than six million civilians died worldwide.

Audio: Speech by Wilhelm II "Appeal to the German People", August 6, 1914
© Foundation German Broadcasting Archive

The shock of the new war

In high-ranking German military circles, people have been convinced that a pan-European war is inevitable since the end of 1912, which was ultimately triggered by the assassination attempt in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The assassination first triggered diplomatic, then military activities, which increasingly tended towards armed confrontation between highly armed states. After Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, all alliance agreements came into effect within a few days. In the large German cities, the beginning of the war on August 1, 1914 was only partially received with open enthusiasm. Intentional thoughtfulness and concern about the incalculability of the coming conflict predominated, but above all confidence about a happy outcome of the war and the belief in victory.

Newspapers and patriotic publications fueled a certainty of victory that went beyond any measure of reason - and from the very first day of the fighting they wrote of a "world war": of a confrontation that would change the face of the world in its effects. The war on two fronts that Germany had to wage had become inevitable in view of the opposing alliances. In the east, German troops managed to penetrate deep into Russia and keep the front away from home. In the west, the German advance had stalled in September 1914 and turned into a murderous positional battle. After just a few months, the war in France and Belgium no longer corresponded in any way to the ideas of a short and decisive armed conflict or even to the traditional soldierly ideals of a heroic man-to-man fight. This war brought with it a hitherto largely unknown technical "modernization" and totalization. Due to material battles and the use of modern military equipment, killing began on the western front, which was unprecedented up to this point in time. The increase in violence in the course of the war to industrialized mass death, the brutalization of combat and the invention of ever new techniques of killing and injuring using poison gas, flamethrowers or through aerial warfare shaped not only subsequent wars, but also the thinking of almost every soldier.

Death and trauma

All armies required their officers and men to put their lives to the test, and like guns and ammunition, soldiers were seen as deployable materials. Death as a constant companion of the soldiers at the front was transformed into a "heroic death for the fatherland". In order to escape from it, the soldiers dug themselves deep into the earth, fortifications were supposed to protect against fire and enemy attacks. For the attackers, a storm on the enemy trenches was far more lossy than for the defenders, they died in rows in the defensive fire of the machine guns. In particular, the "major offensives" that collapsed on the defenders' built-up rift systems resulted in the greatest numbers of victims. The gigantic "Attrition Battle" of Verdun in 1916 became the epitome of the cruelty of war and a symbol of senseless death. Never before have so many soldiers been deployed in a military conflict as between 1914 and 1918. The states involved in the war mobilized millions of men, in Germany alone there were around 13.2 million. Those of them who survived the war often suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder - very few of them received well-founded help.

Hunger and the end of the war

The massive death and suffering - at the front and at home - was the basic experience of the First World War. In Germany, supply bottlenecks, rising food prices and, last but not least, the feeling of unjust distribution led to the first hunger riots as early as 1915. The national community, which had not only been propagated since the summer of 1914, but was also perceived as such by the majority of the German population, developed visible cracks in the face of obvious social inequality. The persistence of the fighting with no prospect of success soon and the extent of the casualties, which became more and more apparent to the civilian population, led to a general, deep war fatigue from 1916 onwards with the growing social hardship. However, the German Reich received further impetus when it enforced an advantageous peace treaty with Russia on March 3, 1918. On the Western Front, however, the prospects of victory had deteriorated dramatically since the United States entered the war in April 1917. After the failure of major offensives in the summer of 1918, the fighting strength of the German army was completely exhausted. They still held their positions against superior opponents, but Germany could no longer win the war. On September 29, 1918, in a militarily hopeless situation, the Supreme Army Command (OHL) demanded negotiations on an armistice from the political leadership, which was signed on November 11, 1918.

At the end of the First World War in 1918, state conditions in Europe and the Middle East had changed considerably. The monarchies in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia were eliminated and the Ottoman Empire fell apart. New nation states emerged. Nationality problems and armed conflicts continued to prevail in Europe and the Middle East for a long time. The suffering of the war erupted in revolutionary convulsions in many European states. In the German Reich, too, hunger and deprivation, together with disappointment over the military defeat, increased democratic and socialist aspirations. On November 9, 1918, the Republic was proclaimed. Kaiser Wilhelm II had to renounce his throne. The armistice was signed on November 11th. That same day the guns fell silent.