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Overview of World War I
Digital History ID 2919

The Associated Press ranked World War I as the 8th most important event of the 20th century. In fact, almost everything that subsequently happened occurred because of World War I: the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and the collapse of empires. No event better underscores the utter unpredictability of the future. Europe hadn't fought a major war for 100 years. A product of miscalculation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication, the conflict might have been averted at many points during the five weeks preceding the fighting.

World War I destroyed four empires - German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Romanov - and touched off colonial revolts in the Middle East and Vietnam. WWI shattered Americans' faith in reform and moral crusades. WWI carried far-reaching consequences for the home front, including prohibition, women's suffrage, and a bitter debate over civil liberties.

World War I killed more people (9 million combatants and 5 million civilians) and cost more money ($186 billion in direct costs and another $151 billion in indirect costs) than any previous war in history.

Triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War I began in August 1914 when Germany invaded Belgium and France. Several events led to U.S. intervention: the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger liner; unrestricted German submarine warfare; and the Zimmerman note, which revealed a German plot to provoke Mexico to war against the United States. Millions of American men were drafted, and Congress created a War Industries Board to coordinate production and a National War Labor Board to unify labor policy. The Treaty of Versailles deprived Germany of territory and forced it to pay reparations. President Wilson agreed to the treaty because it provided for the establishment of a League of Nations, but he was unable to persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty.

Consequences:

1. Nearly 10 million soldiers died and about 21 million were wounded. U.S. deaths totaled 116,516.

2. Four empires collapsed: the Russian Empire in 1917, the German and the Austro-Hungarian in 1918, and the Ottoman in 1922.

3. Independent republics were formed in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Turkey.

4. Most Arab lands that had been part of the Ottoman Empire came under the control of Britain and France.

5. The Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, and fascists triumphed in Italy in 1922.

6. Other consequences of the war included the mass murder of Armenians in Turkey and an influenza epidemic that killed over 25 million people worldwide.

7. Under the peace settlement, Germany was required to pay reparations eventually set at $33 billion; accept responsibility for the war; cede territory to Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, and Poland; give up its overseas colonies; and accept an allied military force on the west bank of the Rhine River for 15 years.