The Great War of 1914-1919 configured the world we confront every day. In his history of the conflict, The Great War, historian Hew Strachan draws our attention to this reality. He illuminates the extraordinary ways the Versailles settlement of 28 June 1919, and other supplementary agreements, revised the map, and redefined the way we appreciate our world.
“The First World War broke the Empires of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. It triggered the Russian Revolution and provided the bedrock for the Soviet Union; it forced a reluctant United States on to the world stage and revivified liberalism. On Europe’s edge, it provided a temporary but not long-term solution to the ambitions of the Balkan nations. Outside Europe it laid the seeds for the conflict in the Middle East. In short, it shaped not just Europe, but the world in the Twentieth Century.”
Even in the opening two decades of the twenty-first century we still feel the aches and pains caused by the geospatial effects of the Great War: radical changes in territory, contested political boundaries, unsatisfied cultural ambitions intensified by nationalism, and the restlessness caused by tribal and religious loyalties demanding attention in a world of nation states.
Even a cursory examination of the changes implemented by the multiple treaties ending the war demonstrates the extent to which many nations had to accommodate a new vision. In 1919, the peace negotiations dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire and created Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Some of the Empire’s territory also went to Italy, to a born-again Poland, to Romania, and to Yugoslavia, the latter an effort to provide a stable home for rival Slavic groups.
Most of these changes have survived to the present. For nearly a century, these new entities formed a political and cultural junction, linking Asia with Europe in the west. Populations shifted, resources split between states, and national and regional identities struggled for recognition. All of these states and territories still live an uncertain life as the lands between the power of Germany and Russia.
The war also caused the Ottoman Empire to collapse, opening a great void in the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement effectively split portions of the Middle East and Africa between France and the United Kingdom attempting to resolve the prewar imperial adventures of most major powers. Germany, branded as the cause of the war, lost all of its colonial possessions in Asia and Africa to the peace settlement.
Jewish communities sought a homeland under the Zionist banner, and the British created states like Iraq by enclosing multiple ethnic traditions within rationally drawn economic and geographical boundaries. Upon careful consideration, we must recognize that the roots of our absolutely unstable Middle East extend back to the peace settlements signed in 1919 and the early 1920s.
All at once it seemed that no place on Earth would escape major geospatial changes. For its part, the Tsar’s Russia disappeared into a new ideological and geospatial entity called the Soviet Union. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan broke away from the Russian Empire, but all soon faced an uncertain future as the Soviet Union grew in stability and power. With the creation of Ireland’s republic shortly after the war, only northern Ireland joined Great Britain in the United Kingdom.
Germany, still seen by many as a threat, experienced considerable unwanted geophysical change. Some northern territories went to Belgium as compensation for wartime destruction. Denmark received northern Schleswig. Most of the former Prussian provinces of Posen and West Prussia joined a reconstructed Poland along with a resource-rich portion of Upper Silesia and the region of Soldau.
The Versailles Treaty also placed the German city of Danzig and the Saarland region under the auspices of the League of Nations and Memel, a portion of East Prussia on the Lithuanian border, fell for a time under French administration. Alsace-Lorraine returned to France after nearly 50 years under German control and Germany lost all of its Pacific Ocean possessions, including its naval base in China at Tsingtao. To complete the Pacific picture, Japan assumed a trusteeship over many former German island territories.
While it remained the largest political and economic entity in central Europe, the peace settlements scattered much of the larger Germany. These circumstances created a very different geographical, political and geospatial challenge for postwar Germans looking to take their place in a new world.
After the peace, many nations and individuals needed to adjust to a new reality, and the challenge obviously went beyond Germany. One hundred years later people, young and old, vastly underestimate the nature and severity of the geospatial adjustment confronting both those nations recovering from the war, and the individuals emerging from the trenches. They welcomed the end of the war, but how did they see their future in the world reshaped by the peace treaties? In his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front, author Eric Maria Remarque has his young main character reflect on that question.
“Had we returned home in 1916, out of the suffering and strength of our experiences we might have unleashed a storm. Now (1918) if we go back we will be weary, broken, burned out, rootless and without hope. We will not be able to find our way anymore.”
The Great War became the ultimate change agent. It would take the world another generation to find itself, recover from the violence of the war, and properly digest the geospatial changes wrought by the peace.