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First World War





In this lesson you should learn to identify and discuss the following events and names:

  • The Jazz Age, Roaring 'Twenties, The Great Depression, Fascist, Prohibition, Nationalism, Cold War, The Second World War, Communist, Treason Act of 1918, Industrial Workers of the World, CIO, Red Scare, Ku Klux Klan.

In addition, you should have considered and be abble to discuss the following topics:

  • In what way did the First World War set the pattern for most of the rest of the twentieth century?
  • Why were the common people of Europe so agreeable about going to war in 1914?
  • What was the effect of the First World War upon the peoples of Africa and Asia?
  • How did the financial policies of the victorious powers in the First World War contribute to the coming of the Great Depression?
  • How important was German culture in American society before 1917? What happened to this culture?
  • What was "The Red Scare" in America, and what was its long-term effects?
  • What were the differences between the Ku Klux Klan of the 1860's and 1870's, and that which arose in the 1920's? Which of them was the more dangerous and why?
  • How did the United States fare during the First World War? How did Japan fare?


The First World War was another of those watersheds in History. Although the fighting occurred between 1914 and 1918, it led directly into a period known in the United States as The Jazz Age, 1922-1929, an era of unprecedented prosperity, cultural vitality, and decay of traditional social values; and the Roaring 'Twenties led in turn to the collapse of world markets and the economic collapse known as The Great Depression, 1929-1939; which was a major reason for the rise of the fascist dictatorships in Germany, Italy, and Japan that brought on The Second World War, 1939-1945; which left two great powers, The United States and the Soviet Union, locked in a struggle known as the Cold War, 1946-1987. There is so much that one could say about the First World War that an entire course would not provide enough time to do much more than survey those four years. And so, rather than attempting to provide a summary so brief as to be virtually useless, this essay with discuss a few aspects of The War to End All Wars that it might be worth your while to know and think about.

Europe had enjoyed relative peace for a hundred years when the war broke out. There had been conflicts, naturally, but nothing as devastating or global as the Napoleonic Wars had been. During that period, basically conservative governments had protected the position of their privileged classes and had nurtured their own economic growth. The mass of the people did not object all that much, at least not after about 1850. A wave of new inventions and the expansion of the economies of the Western nations brought about a more or less steady improvement in living standards -- partly because the economic growth of the industrial nations was being paid for by the exploited labor of Africans, Indians, Chinese and other native peoples. Europeans paid little attention to the growing hatred of the residents of their new empires, partly because they were caught up in the emotions of nationalism, the proposition that the individual finds fulfillment only within his or her nation, an entity that is sacred, without fault, and more important that the individuals who comprise it.

This was one of the reasons that people flocked with joy and song to go to war once the complex series of alliances that been supposed to keep the peace had become unraveled. It may also have been because no one expected a long war. The nations were mobilizing armies many times larger than Napoleon's Grand Armee, and it was inconceivable to most that such armies could be kept in the field for more than a matter of a few months. All sides expected and hoped for a quick and decisive battle, but that never occurred. Barbed wire made cheap and almost impenetrable fortifications, and two men with a single machine gun possessed greater fire power than an elite regiment of Napoleon's time. The war dragged on through the years with incredible losses of men by all of the opponents. France and England drew on their colonial peoples to serve as ammunition carriers, trench diggers, and the like, and these "inferior" peoples were allowed to see that British sahibs and French messieurs could be killed just as easily as anyone. Meanwhile, in a theater of war little noted by the Europeans, the Japanese Imperial Navy seized all of Germany's Asian and Pacific possessions, and so announcing to the native peoples of that part of the world that Asians could beat the Europeans at their own game. In the midst of its conflict, Europe scarcely recognized that their overseas empires had become to crumble.

It was a hard war, and governments had to promise their disillusioned people a great deal to keep them fighting. So it was that, when an Armistice had been declared and the fighting men began returning home, the victorious governments shied away from adopting the traditional methods of beginning to retire their war debts and, instead, began to manipulate their currency to pay for the good things they had promised their people. Most of these governments proposed to avoid the problem of war debts by expecting the defeated nations, primarily Germany since the other states had been more or less dismantled, to pay for the entire war. This was an impossible dream, however, since Germany did not have the resources to pay. After a few years of trying to pay indemnities, the German economy collapsed and, one after the other, the other industrialized nations followed. This was not the only cause of The Great Depression, of course, but it contributed significantly to that collapse.

I would like to turn my attention to one curious aspect of the United States during The First World War, and that is the prevailing pattern of hate that sprang up within the nation. First, let us consider German culture in America.

Many, if not most, American scholars of the latter half of the nineteenth century wishing to study abroad, looked to Heidelberg and Frankfort rather than Oxford and Cambridge. In the same way, more American artists studied in Munich than in Paris. American scholars adopted the German seminar system as their standard for graduate education and consequently continued to look to Germany for their models of research and theory. Since so many Americans were of German ancestry more American tourists went to Germany than to England.

There was also the fact that the German population of the United States was large, active, and successful in keeping German language and culture alive and well. There were a number of flourishing German language newspapers and publishing houses in the country, virtually every town had its German band that gave free public concerts, German bakeries, and, of course, German breweries. Early in the nineteenth century, there had been some thought of establishing an official language for the United States, but the plan was abandoned when it was discovered that the official language might very well turn out to be German.

America still has reminders of how German culture was to American ways. We put up Christmas trees, give presents on Christmas Day, and talk of Santa Claus rather than Father Christmas. We eat cookies, not biscuits as do the English, drink coffee rather than tea, prepare gravy pretty regularly, and do and say a host of other things that mark the German and Dutch influence on our ways. This dynamic German element of American culture was virtually eradicated during the period in which the United States fought in the First World War (1917-1918). A wave of hysteria not unlike the early modern European witch hunts swept across America. Many states passed laws forbidding the teaching of the German language in public schools; it became dangerous to speak German at all in public; German clubs and Turner halls were closed down, some only after being gutted and torched by angry crowds; establishments owned by people of German descent or even German-sounding names (including German Jews) were boycotted or vandalized; and many German citizens sought to change their names or to claim that they were in fact of Dutch descent. It seemed to make little difference that hundreds of thousands of German-Americans had joined the armed forces and that thousands would die fighting, as they believed, for their country. The printing presses of German newspapers were smashed, German books were burned in bonfires, and more. One could go on at much greater length, but it should be sufficient to say that German culture and the pride of Germans in their origins and traditions never recovered from the attacks of this period. It is almost a comic relief to note that at least some historians feel that the American adoption of prohibition, making the sale or consumption of any alcoholic beverages illegal (1920-1933), was intended, at least partly as a punishment of German Americans (such as Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schlitz, and others).

One of the effects of the long and grueling war had been the collapse of Tsarist Russia and its takeover by a communist-led revolution (1917). The governments of the capitalist nations feared that the "infection of Bolshevism" would spread to their own people, but none reacted with the violence of the United States. Congress had passed a Treason Act of 1918 that permitted the government to dispense with many constitutional protections of individuals on the grounds that, in time of war, civil rights cannot protect the individual who commits treason. Of course, this left it up to the government to define treason, and, beginning almost immediately, the federal government began to use the Treason Act to jail "left-wing", that is, radical liberal, dissidents, including labor organizers, pacifists, people who questioned the government's handling of the war and the peace, often without trial. Mobs chased down some such people and lynched them without much in the way of official interference.

An interesting aspect of all of this is that, in the days before the War, the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, or "Wobblies", a militant labor organization attempting to create something similar to the modern CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), had been achieving some success in organizing working men's unions. During this Red Scare, most of the leaders of this group were either jailed or executed, and a sufficient number of members lynched or beaten that the growth of trade unionism in the United States never reached the level of the other industrialized nations of the world.

All of this happened in a relatively short time. Within five years, the Red Scare was over, but had been replaced by something more insidious and pervasive. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the former Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, organized the Ku Klux Klan, a supposedly secret group that spread throughout the states of the old Confederacy, using violent means to regain political control of those states from "carpet-bagger" politicians and the newly-freed and enfranchised Blacks whose votes they organized to gain power for themselves. By 1876, the Northern occupation of the Southern states came to an end, and the Ku Klux Klan slowly declined. In the early 1920's, however, a new Klan arose, this one centered in Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and other Midwestern states, but gradually spreading into the South. The pervasiveness of this new Klan and its political power did much by the thirties to create an atmosphere that permitted the resumption of lynchings of Blacks, and more. The new Klan was not only anti-negro, but also anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-labor, and opposed to many other peoples and things. It would seem, in fact, that it was the raw material of a native American Fascist movement and was only waiting for a leader to unite. It is probable that only the onset of the Great Depression, and perhaps the assassination of Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, averted the growth of a powerful reactionary party in America. So, perhaps even the Great Depression had a bright side to it.

One could say much more about the First World War and its effect upon the world's peoples, but it is difficult enough to find a reasonable conclusion to what we have already discussed. Indeed, these observations already raise more questions than they answer. One must remember that United States did not really suffer during the war. For most of the conflict Americans grew rich selling food, clothing, medicines, and war materials to the allied powers of Great Britain, Italy, and France, and ended the war a wealthier and more powerful company than she had entered it. What war debt it had incurred was wiped out in the inflation of the 'twenties, and its war casualties, compared to those of other combatants were quite few. One can understand the disillusionment of the Europeans since their governments had led them into a war from which they seemed unable to extricate them, and their generals were uninterested in preventing or lessening the slaughter of their men. The fact that many of the survivors seemed intent on enjoying life as excessively as possible and that others began to question the supposed superiority of Western culture is not surprising.

But what was it in America that caused it people to turn on each other in the hysterical waves of hate and to deny to each other the very rights that they were supposedly fighting for? There were obviously great social and economic tensions within American society, but what were these tensions, and do they still exist?



One of the most attractive First World War sites is the PBS presentation of the The Great War, but it is not always available. I would suggest that you consult Trenches On-Line as a starting point.


There is an excellent site offering a history of the German-Americans, although it merely mentions the persecutions of 1917 without much in the way of the more dramatic details that might have been adduced. If you wish dramatic details, however, the Industrial Workers of the World provide those in abundance. See the Hoosier Slim's Wobbly Page, and Puget Sound Division's history of the labor struggles in that region.

This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
2 April 1998
Lawrence KS