The First World War was the most important event of the twentieth century. It fundamentally changed the way we look at the world; it produced revolutions, destroyed empires and created new states; it stimulated new developments in science and technology, produced new modes of cultural expression and altered the course of popular culture; it sent shock waves through European social structures and Afro-Asian views of Europe. The other ‘turning points’ in twentieth-century history that might, arguably, compete with World War I in terms of significance were, in fact, largely produced by the experiences of 1914-18: the Russian Revolution, the rise of Fascism, the Holocaust, and the Second World War itself are all unimaginable without the First.
The way in which people understood themselves and their world after 1918 depended largely upon the way in which they experienced the conflict. Young, well-educated men from the upper classes who fought in the trenches alongside uneducated men from the lower classes altered their views of society in a manner that separated them forever from the preceding generation (Harold Macmillan became devoted to the principles that would underpin the welfare state — a conviction that he never abandoned). Americans who viewed the war from afar tended to regard it as the ‘European War’ and worked to promote neutrality legislation in America to ensure that another Woodrow Wilson would not be able to lead them into a war there again; while those on the spot (like the young Ernest Hemingway on the Austro-Italian front) produced a new style and sensibility in American letters. Many of those young women who unexpectedly experienced gainful, non-servile employment found the experience liberating; as did, in a different way, those troops brought in from Africa and Asia to fight a ‘white man’s war’ in a ‘white man’s world’.
The results of the war were myriad, often intertwined, and proved more far reaching than any contemporary could have imagined. We live with the effects still - as Gordon Martel shows in this brilliant new history, the first general survey of its kind.