The First World War was formally triggered by the royal assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, at the hand of a Serbian nationalist terrorist Gavrilo Princip on June 28th 1914.
Underneath the official standpoints that immediately brought Russia on the side of Serbia and against Austria, it is important to underline the nationalist turn that Europe had taken in the last decades of the 19th century which strongly pushed towards a military action. The war, in fact, was seen by many as the best opportunity to settle the Imperialistic thrives of the most powerful European countries and bring about a new balance of powers. Moreover the great faith in technological and scientific progress spread about boundless trust on the speedy resolution of the incumbent events with few damages and casualties. Unfortunately what actually took place proved all the optimistic believers wrong.
Europe, at the time, was virtually split in two. The Triple Alliance that had been signed in 1881 provided reciprocal military aid and support in case anyone of the countries concerned was attacked by others. This treaty bound together Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Thanks to this treaty Germany safeguarded its domestic stability against Austrian’s desire to get back territories that she was forced to give up to Germany during the so called “Seven Weeks War” in 1866, carried out successfully by Bismarck in his ambitious plan to unite all the German confederate States into a bigger and more powerful country. Secondly this treaty safeguarded Austria against Italy’s claims over their territorial disputes, the unity of Italy was not yet complete without Trento, Trieste, Fiume and Istria still under the Hapsburg domination. Italy on her part needed help in case of a French attack.
The other alliance that characterised this European division was called The Triple Entente and it had been signed by Britain, France and Russia in 1906. Britain and France sought to settle commercial and colonial issues thanks to this agreement that had been a diplomatic success of King Edward VII. Russia was included on the side of Britain and France to keep in check its expansion towards Turkey and, on the Russian part to obtain support in case of attack from Austria, a potential rival in the Ottoman Empire’s sphere.
A month after the archduke’s assassination Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia became involved in defence of Serbia, as a consequence Germany declared war on Russia in support of Austria and this action led France into the war because of the alliance with Russia. In the meantime, Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium to reach Paris more easily brought Britain in the conflict as she was tied by a bi-lateral agreement to protect Belgium. Italy managed to keep aloof claiming that the Triple Alliance bound her to intervene only in case her allies were attacked and since in this case they were the ones attacking she withdrew from the alliance. Italy joined the war in 1915 on the side of Britain, France and Russia hoping to gain back from Austria the territories previously mentioned and complete its unity. Finally, the United States became involved in 1917 due to Germany’s submarine warfare. In fact, US trade was seriously jeopardized by underwater attacks on its ships transporting goods on the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, in October 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution forced Russia to withdraw in order to deal with domestic affairs.
The war was not at all as brief as it was expected and at the end of the conflict the consequences were horrifying, the total number of casualties was approximately of 37 million between military personnel and civilians, no one could have predicted the proportion of the disaster. Civilians were heavily involved and the new weapons used were highly destructive. Trench warfare also strongly characterised World War I and the appalling conditions the soldiers had to endure pushed many, on both sides of the conflict, to commit suicide, while many of those who survived often suffered life-long consequences such as constant nightmares and mental instability.
The Outcome of World War I
World War I ended in 1918 but The Treaty of Versailles was signed only on 28 June 1919. The war reparations that Germany was made to pay were preposterous and eventually led the country to near bankruptcy, furthermore Germany was forced to reduce drastically its military forces, was no longer allowed to have heavy industries and most of all those that manufactured weapons or any of its components. She was obliged to give up many European territories and lost her colonies abroad. All these provisions caused unbearable resentment among the people and soon brought about even more disquieting consequences.
Yet Germany was not the only country to face irreparable losses. Most of the European countries had borrowed massive amounts of money from the U.S., and even worse, most of them had suspended all mass consumers’ manufactures concentrating the majority of industrial production on making weapons and ammunitions. This favoured the United States’ takeover of old European markets and even the Stock Exchange moved from London to New York City. Therefore by the end of World War I the U.S. had become the only world economic and industrial power.
The world had undergone unpredictable changes and it progressively moved towards World War II.
WORLD WAR II
The Great War had left Europe in shambles, nationalism grew stronger, unemployment was incredibly high and countries such as Italy in 1923 with Mussolini and Spain, after a violent civil war, in 1939 with General Franco shifted towards right-wing fascist dictatorships. Meanwhile in 1933 Hitler’s nationalist movement took power in Germany, after a general election. The scenario was changing rapidly although politicians all over the world chose blindly to disregard the worrying signals coming from such changes.
World War II broke out in September 1939, at first, Germany appeared to be too strong to be defeated, in a very short span of time its army had conquered in rapid sequence: Poland, Belgium, Holland, Norway and France. But when Hitler decided to invade the USSR in 1941 he determined his downfall. The Russian campaign destroyed German army; while the U.S. joined the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that same year. The U.S. help on the Western European front boosted up the Allies morale and fate seemed to change; for the first time since the beginning of this major conflict, not all seemed lost. The fighting went on with renewed vigour and Germany’s complete defeat brought it to an end in 1945.
The most terrible epilogue was the atomic bombs launched on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by the U.S. air force.
What was publicly unveiled after the war about the German concentration camps and Hitler’s so called final solution shocked the world’s conscience beyond belief. The atrocities perpetrated within the many perimeters of electrifying barbed wires that went under the names of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and so on are still engraved in our minds and there are no words to describe the horror.
The consequences of the war affected the entire continent, many countries were left in total disarray and deep poverty, cities were in ruins.
The faith in scientific progress and spread well-being that had characterised the general atmosphere at the end of the 19th century were definitely shattered and were replaced by a time of uncertainty and overall anxiety as it is well shown in the literary works of these new times arising.
© L. R. Capuana
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