The First World War

Power-political rivalries and the intensive arms race strained international relations. After the murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, all efforts to find a solution to the conflict failed due to the irreconcilable quest for power by the Great Powers of Europe. In August 1914 it came to war between the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the states of the Entente, France, Great Britain and Russia. The war was fought not only on the battlefields of Europe, in the colonies, in the Near East and on the high seas, but for the first time on the “home front” as well. Here many Germans soon suffered from hunger, were disappointed with the sluggish course of the war and shocked by the massive death toll on the Western Front. There the fighting bogged down in battles of materiel and gruelling trench warfare. The First World War ended in November 1918 with the military defeat of Germany. By the end of the war the number of dead and wounded was immense. Worldwide around nine million soldiers and six million civilians perished.

Audio: Wilhelm's public adress "To the German people", 6. August 1914

The Shock of the New War

By the end of 1912 officers in high German military circles were convinced of the inevitability of a Pan-European war. The assassination of the Austrian heir apparent in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 set diplomatic and then military activities in motion in July that were clearly headed for a military confrontation between the heavily armed states. Germany’s promise of support encouraged the Austrian government to take an uncompromising stance against Serbia. When Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia, all of agreements in the alliance with Germany took hold within a few days. In the large German cities, the start of the war on 01 August 1914 was embraced with mixed feelings of euphoria. The unpredictability of the conflict ahead was viewed with deep concern and worry, but these feelings were prevailed by the confidence in a fortunate closure to the war and the faith in victory.

From the very first day of the battles, German newspapers talked about a “world war” – a confrontation which to its full extend would change the face of the world. Germany was forced to wage a war on two fronts in accordance with the plan the former Chief of Staff Alfred von Schlieffen had drawn up. In the east German troops succeeded in advancing far into Russia and keeping the front away from the homeland. But the German advance in the west came to a standstill and turned into deadly trench warfare. After only a few months it became obvious that the war in France and Belgium did in no way resemble the ideals of a brief and decisive battle, nor did it portray a heroic picture of soldiers fighting man-to-man. This war was fought by means of a previously unknown technological “modernization” and totalization. The use of modern war materiel on the Western Front resulted in unparalleled mass killing. The core experience of the First World War was the massive scale of death and suffering on the battlefield and on the home front. The increase of violence over the course of the war ended in industrialised mass of deaths. The brutality of the battle and the invention of new killing and injury mechanisms by means of poisoned gas, flame throwers or through aerial warfare has not only influenced other wars which followed but also the thinking of almost every soldier.

Death and Trauma

All armies demanded the daily offering of life from their officers and troops and soldiers were regarded as supply material, similar to guns and munition. Death, which was a constant follower of soldiers on the battlefield was declared to “Heroic death for the Fatherland”. Soldiers dug themselves deeply into soil in an effort to survive. Strongholds were supposed to protect against attacks from the enemy. The storming of enemy trenches took far more lives on the side of the attackers than from those who were defending the strongholds. The storming troops died row by row from the defending machine gun fire. The greatest number of casualties occurred in particular during the “great offensives” that came to a halt in the defenders’ extensive trench systems and in the “war of attrition” near Verdun. Never before had so many soldiers been deployed in a military conflict. The countries involved in the war mobilised millions of men, 13.2 million in Germany alone. Those who were lucky enough to survive the war, often suffered from post traumatic stress disorder – only a few of them received treatment.  

In the face of the extent and duration of the battles it became necessary for the first time to align the entire economies of the participating nations with the conditions of war. The immense effort put into the production of equipment, arms and munitions created a previously unknown war economy. Both sides attempted to break the resistance of the enemy by cutting off supplies from without, thus destroying the war economy of the respective opposing side. The English blockade of the North Sea and the submarine warfare of the Central Powers (after 1917 again waged “unconditionally”, even against ships of the neutral states) served this objective. The civilian population was thus affected to a greater degree than ever before.

Hunger and the End of War

The totalization of the war manifested itself in all areas of daily life. Large numbers of women worked for the first time in industrial production, the service industries and the administration in order to fill the places of the men in uniform. As the extent of the losses and the persistence of the battles became more and more evident to the civilian population, it led to a general war-weariness, by 1916 at the latest. As in other countries, the German Empire recognized the necessity of using propaganda to fortify the perseverance of the people. Propaganda measures were under the supervision of the military censors. All other important decisions also required the approval of the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, OHL), headed from 1916 by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff.  

In January/February 1918 hundreds of thousands of people took part in massive strikes and demonstrations, partly in reaction to the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917. Their main demands were for “peace and bread”. The German Empire got a temporary reprieve when an advantageous peace treaty was signed with Russia on 3 March 1918. But on the Western Front the prospects of victory had deteriorated dramatically after the USA entered the war in April 1917. After major offensives failed in the summer of 1918, the combat strength of the German army was completely exhausted. The army was able to hold its positions against the superior forces of the enemy, but Germany could no longer win the war. Finding the German army in a hopeless position, the OHL ordered the government on 29 September 1918 to begin negotiations for a ceasefire, which was signed on 11 November 1918.  

By the end of the First World War in 1918 governmental forms in Europe and the Near East had substantially changed. The monarchies in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia were swept away and the Ottoman Empire collapsed. New national states came into being. Nationality problems and military conflicts continued to prevail in Europe and the Near East. The suffering endured in the war erupted in many European countries in the form of revolutionary agitation. Hunger and deprivation, combined with disappointment at the military defeat, reinforced democratic and socialist aspirations in the German Empire, as elsewhere. On 9 November 1918 the republic was proclaimed. Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate. On 11 November the armistice was signed, bringing the Great War, as it is still sometimes called, to an end.

Arnulf Scriba, 8. September 2014
Translated by Stephen Locke