How World War I changed Germany forever

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How World War I changed Germany forever

It is 100 years since Germany’s entrance into World War I. Historian and teacher Mike Stuchbery reflects on five massive changes that the conflict wrought on Germany after four years of bloody war.


1) The Age of Empire was over...

The signing of the Armistice on November 11th, 1918 broke the people’s confidence in the ruling dynasties that had seen them through the Holy Roman Empire to the German Empire

The expansionist military ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm II had shown themselves to lead only to ruin and death, as an entire generation of German youth were killed or maimed.

Democracy, something that had only been half-heartedly entertained beforehand, became the rallying cry of various political factions jostling for power. The Kaiser (and nobility across the country) abdicated and a power vacuum yawned.

2) ...and the age of Left and Right had begun

Karl Marx is one of German’s most famous sons, but the full impact of his ideas wasn’t felt by his countrymen until the end of the war. Revolution in Russia gave hope to socialists and communists across Europe.

Following the abdication of the Kaiser, the centre-left SPD took control, but it wasn’t long before more extreme left-wing groups such as Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League attempted to wrest power from those they saw as not going far enough.

In January 1919, the Spartacus League, alongside other left-wing groups, flooded the streets of Berlin and temporarily gained control. However, they were soon attacked by the far-right, paramilitary Freikorps, many members of which would go on to join the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.

3) It led to a cultural renaissance

One can argue that without the horrors of World War I, Germany may never have seen the explosion in artistic output that occurred during the 1920s and 1930s.

Seminal filmmaker of ‘M’ and ‘Metropolis’ fame, Fritz Lang was a frontline soldier during the war and wrote the ideas for many of his films while recovering from shellshock.

Otto Dix, the painter who did so much to establish the ‘look’ of post-war Germany in popular culture, fought on both the Eastern and Western fronts and was deeply impacted by what he had seen.

Of course, the seedy, sordid world of the Weimar Republic, seen in musicals such as ‘Cabaret’ was also a direct result of a populace trying to escape the horrors of four years of war and more of economic depression.

4) It redrew the map of Germany

The Treaty of Versailles was the document put together by world powers in 1919 in an effort to ensure a lasting peace, following the horrors of the previous four years.

Part of the reparations sought by those nations who had been attacked by Germany was the ceding of lands.

The Saar region, between Germany and France, became a protectorate of the League of Nations. Chunks of Germany bordering Czechoslovakia were given away. Denmark swallowed up part of Schleswig.

All in all, large tracts of German territory, with a German-speaking population were lost to the ‘winning’ powers. Inhabitants had no choice but to stay under their new masters, or move back into the redefined Germany.

PHOTO GALLERY: A soldier's life behind World War One lines

5) It directly set up the sequel

War is a costly thing. Over four years of war, both sides had expended billions to feed, clothe and arm their troops.

So, when it came time for the previously mentioned Treaty of Versailles to settle the terms of peace, the Allies charged like a wounded bull, not only to recoup the enormous losses they’d sustained, but to ensure that Germany would never be in a position to make war again. 

German resentment due to the crippling repayments required, and the devastating hyperinflation that came with it is considered by historians to be one of the prime reasons so many flocked to the Nazi party as it rose to power.

The war clearly laid the foundations for not only World War II, but raised questions about how we deal with nations that seek to overstep their bounds. Plenty there for today’s Germans (and Europeans in general) to consider.

SEE ALSO: Rare World War I colour photos mark centenary


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