Text of Video Narration

Place of World War I and II in history

You are about to see a geographic overview of the history of the First World War. World War I resulted in the loss of about 26 million people; the Second World War twenty years later resulted in 55 million deaths. These two 20th century wars dwarf the casualities from any earlier conflicts in human history. But their horror should not stop us from studying them; indeed, it is all the more reason that they should be studied, so that this history not repeat itself a third time.

In what follows you should look for answers to the following questions:

  1. What event began World War I?
  2. Which nations fought on the opposite sides?
  3. What were the underlying motives of the opposing nations?
  4. When and why did America come in?
  5. What were the results, in terms of national boundaries or geography, of World War I?
  6. Can you foresee any causes of World War II in the results of World War I?

Position of Europe on world map

Chief theater of both world wars was Europe, the western extension of the great Eurasian land mass, an area approximately the same size as that of the United States. For one hundred years the Europeans had been largely at peace, devoting their war-like energies to industrialization and the conquest of overseas colonies. By 1900 Europe ruled the world, and the only remaining question was: Who would rule Europe?

Geography of Europe in 1910

The map of the western half of Europe, the more developed half, was then much as it is today: England, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, the Benelux countries of Holland, or the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg, and the Scandinavian countries in the north of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, all had reached their modern borders for some time, except Italy, which had been unified only since 1870.

On the other hand, central and eastern Europe were much simpler than today. This huge region was then divided among four empires. By far the youngest of these eastern giants was the Second Reich, or Empire, of Germany, which was ruled by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, from Berlin. Like Italy, Germany had been unified only since 1870, when Prussia won the Franco-Prussian war, and managed to dominate the smaller German principalities. The architect and founder of the Second Reich was Otto von Bismarck. In 1910 Germany was twice as strong as any other European power, and she was still growing.

The other great central European empire was that of Austria-Hungary, ruled from Vienna by the Hapsburg Dynasty, the oldest ruling house in Europe. Austria-Hungary was well past her prime, barely able to suppress the nationalist minorities within her boundaries. The southern flank of the Hapsburgs, in the Balkans, bordered the northern flank of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, ruled by the Sultan from Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire was the disintegrating remains of the once vast Islamic Empire of the Arabs in the Middle Ages, with much of the Near East still under the rule of the Turk.

To the east, and extending across the entire continent of Asia, was the vast Empire of Russia, the most feudal and backward state in Europe. Russia was ruled by the Czar from Moscow. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the European area of the decaying Ottoman Empire in the Balkans was breaking up into small states. Russia supported these nationalist movements as a way to penetrate the area and gain access to the Mediterranean sea.

British, French, and German colonial empires

Before World War I, the imperialist nations of Europe ruled much of the earth as colonies. The British Empire, on which the sun never set, was the oldest and the largest, held together by the British fleet, which dominated the oceans of the world. France had the second largest empire, while Germany, only recently unified and thus active in the race for colonies, was rising fast.

As the 20th century began, there were no more third world territories left for the European powers to conquer. Facing each other once again, the European powers began to gird for battle, arming themselves with weapons based on the new technologies created by the second industrial revolution, which introduced electricity, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, and chemicals, all areas where Germany was the industrial champion of Europe.

Two alliances in Europe: the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance

Preview On the continent itself a balance of power between two opposing alliances formed, pledging partner nations to go to war together under certain conditions. In the center of these machinations was the Second Reich. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, France had allied herself with Russia, so that if war came again, Germany would have to fight on two fronts: in the west against France, and in the east against Russia. Along with England these nations became the Triple Entente. Germany allied herself with the other central power, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, as the Triple Alliance. If any one of these countries were attacked, the others would spring to its defense. Fear of all-out war would in theory keep Europe peaceful forever.

The German Master Plan to defeat her enemies

Because of Germany's terrible strategic position, surrounded on all sides by potential enemies, the German General Staff diligently worked out a master offensive plan to win an all-out war quickly. In 1905 a master plan was developed by von Schlieffen, then Chief of the General Staff, to defeat all of Germany's enemies in rapid succession, based on the strategy of interior lines. This strategy utilizes the geometric fact that lines of movement inside an area are shorter than exterior lines outside the area. The surrounded central power uses its full force against one enemy in a surprise attack, defeating him quickly and then switching to another front. This is a variation of the basic rule: to divide and conquer.

Since Russia would take six weeks to mobilize for war, the plan called for the initial surprise attack to be launched against France in the west, and the problem reduced to one of winning such a war quickly. An attack launched directly against the French frontier would become a long war of attrition, since that frontier had been heavily fortified since the Franco-Prussian war. The logical military course was to go round it, not through Switzerland, with its mountainous terrain ideal for defense, but through Belgium, a low, flat land.

German forces were divided into left and right wings: the left wing along the frontier would make an initial attack or feint, causing the French to counterattack and move their reserves toward that area. The preponderance of force would be given to the right wing, which would as quickly as possible, with its tremendous concentration of force, sweep through Belgium and northern France, occupying the coast and thus cutting off possible British troop landings. Bypassing Paris, the German armies would attack the French armies from behind, quickly destroying them. Having defeated the enemy in the west, and neutralizing Britian, Germany would then rapidly deploy her forces to the east to meet a mobilized Russia with Germanyıs full force.

Assassination of Arch duke Ferdinand begins World War I

With the Schleiffen master plan in place, and the energy of continued industrial expansion and growth as impetus, all that was needed to precipitate a violent reaction, much as in one of Germany's chemical plants, was a catalyst. The unstable Balkan situation provided this in the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. Using this as a pretext to punish the growing Slavic nationalism, of which Serbia was the chief instigator, Austria-Hungary declared war on that country. Russia jumped to Serbiaıs defense, and began mobilization.

At this point Kaiser Wilhelm, an inveterate saber-rattler in foreign affairs, was told by his General Staff that it was necessary immediately to begin the all-out war. He had no choice but to agree, as the Schlieffen plan was the only viable option. His military advisors assured him the war would be over by Christmas. Thus France was invaded for no other reason that to make the master plan work. Moreover, as Germany explained to Great Britian, "for technical reasons" the attack on France had to pass through Belgium, a neutral.

Invasion of Belgium stopped at Marne River; Russia invades in east

Germany declared war on Russia and France and on August 3rd, 1914, invaded Belgium, whose security was guaranteed by England which therefore declared war on Germany. Thus World War I began, with Germany and Austria-Hungary, called the Central Powers, lined up against France, Russia, and England, hereafter called the Allies. Only Italy held back.

Unfortunately for Germany, but fortunately for the rest of the armies advanced as planned through Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France, but they were halted northeast of Paris, and in the battle of the Marne River they were thrown back. Following the "race to the sea," in which the opposing armies attempted to outflank each other, the western front firmed up, with the Germans facing both British and French armies. The Russians attacked on schedule in the east, and thus Germany found itself in the dreaded two-front war.

Historic footage illustrates mechanization of war

What no one had anticipated was the effect of industry and mechanization on the art of war. Soldiers charged in lines as before, and they were mowed down like wheat by the newly invented machine gun. Mechanization increased the power of defense tenfold. The western front froze into trench warfare. Despite the largest battles in the history of man, the line changed little from 1914 to early 1918. Hundreds of thousands of men would be sacrificed to gain a mile of front.

Ottoman Empire and Italy choose sides

In late 1914 the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers. In 1915 Italy finally made up its mind and joined the Allies. The war simplified into three main fronts. The western front was the most important, but it remained a stalemate, with the British holding the northern half and the French holding the rest. For four years tremendous battles were fought with hardly any change in the line, at places with names that echoe down the hallways of time: Arras, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, where the British had sixty thousand casualities in the first day, Ypres, Passchendaele. Like the western front, the Italian front hardly changed throughout the long war. The German strategy quickly became one of defense in the west and offence in the east. The Germans consolidated the alliance with the Ottomans by slowly conquering the intervening Balkans, and they took big chunks of Russia on the eastern front, where the lines were thinly held, but they gained no real advantage except to wear down the enemy, as we shall see.

Entrance of America

Then, in 1917, two events occurred which ushered in the end: the entrance of America on the side of the Allies, and the exit of Russia. During the first two years of the European struggle, the United States remained hesitantly neutral, under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson. Nonetheless the US increasingly traded with England and the Allies, since the British navy had blockaded the continent and it was thus impossible to trade with the Central Powers. Though their newly built navy was bottled up, German submarines, or U-boats, sank increasing numbers of these supply ships, including American ones. In early 1917 Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare which finally forced America to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Germany's naval policy was part of a last, desperate, grand strategy: to starve England into submission and win the war before America could mobilize for modern war and actually land troops on the continent, which would take at least a year. Thus Germany created a second window of opportunity during which she had to win, or defeat was inevitable.

Russian revolutions and Russian exit from the war

The collapse of Russia occurred in the same year. Framing the American war declaration like parentheses, were two Russian revolutions. After three years of inhuman sacrifice, the Czar found it impossible to maintain his feudal control over his vast domain, and in February, 1917, he was overthrown and replaced with a parliamentary government. Within six months this new republic was itself overthrown by the communists, or Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, in a putsch, or takeover, in the Baltic city of St. Petersburg where the Czar had his winter palace. In October, 1917, Russia left the concert of nations to become an outlaw state, ruled by the communist party. Even the name was changed, to the USSR, or Soviet Union.

The first order of business of the new Soviet government was to take the country out of the interminable war. In early 1918 Lenin had Trotsky sign a peace treaty with Germany. The Germans exacted huge territorial demands, which included Finland, Russian Poland, and most of the Ukraine.

Germany held in west; American troops join in final push

With this peace in the east, World War I became a one-front war again. Seventy German divisions were brought west. However, by late 1917 the German U-boat menace had been overcome, and in early 1918 American troops, convoyed across the Atlantic, began arriving in France in increasing numbers. The Germans began a last, desperate series of attacks to win the war before the Americans arrived in force. But the English and French managed to contain the new German offensive until the American army under Pershing took its place on the right of the French, and the reinforced Allies were finally able to push the exhausted Germans back.

Ottoman Empire surrenders and Austria-Hungary collapses

Meanwhile, in southeastern Europe, an Allied army occupied the Balkans, and in late October the Ottoman Empire surrendered, after an English army conquered Palestine. Thus exposed, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell into pieces of its own accord, as the nationalist minorities within it revolted against a weakened Vienna.

Germany surrenders and armistice declared

In November, 1918, facing ever increasing American forces and being slowly strangled by the British blockade, but with the western front still outside the borders of Germany, the Kaiser was forced to abdicate, and the German socialists came to power, who quickly submitted to President Wilsonıs 14-point plan, reaching an armistice in the west and ending World War I.

Communist revolutions in central Europe

In the immediate aftermath of the war, communist-inspired uprisings occurred throughout central Europe, including Berlin, Bavaria, and Budapest, as well as a number of German cities. These mini-revolutions were quickly quelled by the returning German army. For years after the Great War, the right and left would do battle in the fatherland, with the right finally emerging victorious in the person of Adolf Hitler, who had been a corporal in the first world war and was nearly blinded by British gas. For Hitler, World War II would be a war of revenge.

Woodrow Wilson goest to Europe for peace conference

Woodrow Wilson went to Europe in the beginning of 1919 to preside over the peace conference meeting at Paris and Versailles. Enthusiastically cheered by the peoples of both sides of the conflict, Wilson insisted that the new political boundaries allow self-determination for the individual peoples, usually defined by language.

Geographic results of Versailles peace treaty

The map was redrawn at the expense of all four eastern empires. The Hapsburg Empire disappeared altogether. Italy was rewarded with pieces of the front she fought on with Austria. Austria was much reduced, with Vienna still the capital city. Hungary became a separate country, with the capital at Budapest. Czechoslovakia was created, with the capital at Prague. The new nation of Poland got a section in the north. Romania was much expanded, incorporating parts of the Russian and Hapsburg Empires. Yugoslavia was created out of Serbia and the southern Hapsburg domain, long dominated by Slavs. In the Balkans themselves, Bulgaria and Albania remained much the same.

Likewise the Ottoman Empire was utterly dismembered, with the Turks confined to Asia Minor as Turkey. Their holdings in the Near East were to be administered by the victorious allies, France and Britian, with Syria, including Lebanon, going to France, and Palestine, including Trans-Jordan, going to the British, as well as the new nation of Iraq.

Out of the western fringe of Russia, now the Soviet Union, an outlaw nation not present at the conference, Finland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were created. More important, Poland was recreated, having last been divided among her neighbors a century earlier. The Prussian heartland of Germany was divided, with East Prussia separated from the rest of Germany by the Polish Corridor, to give the new Poland access to the sea.

In the west, Germany lost the Alsace-Lorraine area to France, from whom she had taken the area in the Franco-Prussian war. Most German-speaking peoples were within the new Germany, except for those in Austria and two million in the new Czechoslovakia, where the boundary was drawn along the rim of the Sudeten mountain range rather than by language. These inequities in the Versailles Treaty would give Adolf Hitler important pretexts for German expansionism in the thirties.

The Rhineland, the area surrounding the Rhine river, was to be demilitarized, despite the fact that this included the heartland of German industry. The new German republic would be allowed a small army to keep it from going communist. Germany was required to pay heavy reparations to the Allies, and of course she lost all her overseas colonies, with the Pacific islands being mandated to Japan, the only nation to have actually gained from the First World War.

Rise of fascism anticipated

In all these lands, but especially in Germany and Italy, demobilization threw millions of unemployed soldiers into economies devastated by the Great War. Groups of former soldiers continued to battle for survival and patriotic goals, and it was out of this breeding ground of turmoil and economic and social disaster, under the threat of socialism and communist revolution, that the new order of fascism bludgeoned forth to save the nation from chaos and create a new world out of the rubble of the old.