World War I

Map of Europe in 1914, illustrating the Entente and Central Powers.

Map of Europe in 1914, illustrating the Entente and
Central Powers.

German soldiers going to the front at the beginning of the war in 1914.

German soldiers going to the front at the beginning of the war
in 1914.

To provide a proper account of World War I would be beyond the scope of this website. However, given the centrality of World War I to the events leading up to the emergence of the Third Reich, its significance must be mentioned. World War I was the first international conflict and the first to employ modern weaponry, such as airplanes, tanks, submarines, machine guns, and chemical warfare. The aftermath of World War I created catacylsmic changes in the political, economic, and geographic landscape, including the fall of most of Europe's monarchies, the establishment of the Soviet Union, the rise of Hitler, the outbreak of World War II, and the creation of the modern Middle East.

During World War I, high and low technology were often used in conjunction. This photograph shows German soldiers using horse and human power to bring their artillery gun to the front.

During World War I, high and low technology were often used in conjunction. This photograph shows
German soldiers using horse and human power to bring their artillery gun to the front.

World War I was between the Entente powers (the British Empire, the French Empire, the Russian Empire, the United States, Italy, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria). The assassinations of Archduke Franz Ferdinard (heir to the throne of Austro-Hungarian empire), and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, were usually considered the event that sparked the outbreak of World War I. Broadly speaking, a rise in nationalism and an arms race between the European powers created an environment in which conflict was inevitable.

Photograph of German soldiers with an anti-aircraft gun. They are wearing gas masks to protect against the use of chemical weapons.

Photograph of German soldiers with an anti-aircraft gun. They are wearing gas masks to protect against the use of chemical weapons.

When the war started in August 1914, the general impression was that it would be a quick conflict. Because nationalist sentiment was prevalent among the citizenry of the belligerents, most people greeted the news of war with great enthusiasm; men from all walks of life on both sides of the conflict rushed to enlist and huge parades were organized to bid them farewell. Since Germany was a severely divided country (e.g., Protestant vs. Catholic, Christian vs. Jew, worker vs. capitalist, conservative vs. liberal, liberal vs. socialist, socialist vs. communist), many people believed that the war served a beneficial purpose in that it unified the country. However, this view of the war proved to be inaccurate. The war lasted four and a half years and resulted in the deaths and maiming of millions of soldiers and civilians.

Poster from The Reich Association of Jewish Veterans. It urges the public to remember 12,000 Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Germany in World War I.

Poster from The Reich Association of Jewish Veterans. It urges the public to remember the 12,000 Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Germany in World War I.

In early 1917, the Russian Empire was torn apart by civil war. Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and a moderate liberal-socialist government was established under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky. However, this government was short-lived; the Russian war effort continued to deteriorate because of the economic and political problems that were inherited from the Czarist period. On October 25, 1917, the Bolshevik Party leader, Vladimir Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace and ousted Kerensky. The Soviet Union, the world's first communist country, was established. The Bolsheviks knew that Russia could not afford to continue fighting, so the Soviet Union negotiated a separate peace with Germany on March 6, 1918.

World War I was the first conflict to employ chemical weapons. This Canadian soldier is suffering from mustard gas burns.

World War I was the first conflict to employ chemical weapons. This Canadian soldier is suffering from mustard gas burns.

Once Russia pulled out of the war, most Germans believed that their side was on the verge winning the war. In reality, the war effort was going very badly for the Central powers; as 1918 progressed, Germany and her allies began to lose territory on the Western Front. German soldiers and sailors began to mutiny, and radicalized industrial workers formed Soviet-style "workers councils" in major cities. The United States entered the war in 1917 on the side of the Entente and supplied its allies with a fresh wave of troops that decimated Germany's defenses. Austria-Hungary surrended on November 3 and on November 9, German emperor Wilhelm II abdicated the throne. On the same day of the emperor's abdication, Friedrich Ebert of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) proclaimed Germany a republic. Two days later, the war ended when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles with France.

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were extremely punitive; German had to relinquish control of all of her overseas colonies, claim sole responsibiliy for starting the war, and disband most of its military units. Furthermore, a union between Germany and Austria was prohibited, dashing the dreams of nationalists who yearned for all Germanic peoples to be united in a "Greater Germany." In addition, Wilhelm II was to tried as a war criminal and a series of crushing war reparations were laid at Germany's feet. A substantial amount of land in the eastern part of Germany was lost, stranding millions of ethnic Germans outside of the borders of their country. Anger over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles would play a major role in the rise of the Nazi Party.

Germany suffered terrible losses during World War I; almost 2 million soldiers died, and there were 426,000 civilian casualites. An additional 4.2 million military men were wounded. The unprecedented carnage of the war coupled with the Central Power's shocking defeat led many in Germany and Austria to believe in the "knife in the back" theory, a belief that some entity within Germany betrayed the country to the opposing military forces. Subscribers to this theory argued that Jews and communists were the culprits. Jews were believed to have started the war to exploit Germany through war-profiteering. They were also allegedly responsible for the communist take-over of Russia, the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and the establishment of the hated Weimar Republic. The "knife in the back" theorists conveniently overlooked the fact that Jews had served honorably in the German army in numbers much larger than their actual proportion in society. Since the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was directly controlled by Moscow, the patriotism of German communists was considered dubious at best. Hence, antisemitism, which had been decreasing during the Imperial era, made a virulent return in German political discourse.

Photograph of Adolf Hitler with other soldiers in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment. He is seated on the far left.

Photograph of Adolf Hitler with other soldiers in the 16th
Bavarian Reserve Regiment. He is seated on the far left.

Postcard of Hermann Göring in the cockpit of his plane during World War I. This postcard was part of a series about German war aviators.

Postcard of Hermann Göring in the cockpit of his plane during World
War I. This postcard was part of a series about German war aviators.

World War I and its aftermath played an important role in Nazi mythology and propaganda. Belief in the "knife in the back" theory radicalized many Germans, particularly veterans, to find a political situation that would free Germany of the humiliations imposed on their country by the Treaty of Versailles. Many prominent Nazis were World War I veterans; Adolf Hitler received the Iron Cross, First Class (1914) and the Iron Cross, Second Class (1918) and was wounded twice; Hermann Göring was a flying ace with a reputation for skillfully executing daring manuevers during battle; Ernst Rohm was severely scarred during a battle in France. Rudolf Hess was seriously wounded multiple times during the war. Much of the Nazi Party's success was due to its skillful ability to exploit the public's anger regarding the outcome of World War I, the widespread fear of communism, and the linking of everything wrong in Germany to a plot by "International Jewry." The unprecedented loss of life during World War I also made the United States and the other European countries reluctant to contain Nazi Germany during the early years of the Nazi regime.

Works Cited

Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.

Peukert, Detlev J.K. The Weimar Republic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Antisemitism in History: World War I." Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10007166 (accessed July 10, 2008).

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "World War I." Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10007427 (accessed July 10, 2008).

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "World War I: Aftermath." Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10007429 (accessed July 10, 2008).