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Great War (Weimar Germany #AtoZChallenge)

It is normally quite easy to understand why war breaks out and who is pitted against who. Not so for the Great War. And this is true to the point that it has been defined as one of the most enigmatic events in contemporary history.

It’s hard to understand the Great War without understanding the ‘Long Century’, that XIX century that started in 1815 when the Napoleonic Wars ended and lasted until the break out of WWI. The one-hundred-year long peace that started then was largely the making of a German, Otto von Bismarck, the creator of the ‘Concert of Europe’ that harmonised the life of all European nations. Even if the Napoleonic Wars had involved almost the entire continent, when they were over, all the European nations felt that they belong to the same civilisation, especially in contrast with the colonised world ‘outside’. The Concert of Europe succeeded in creating a balance that rested on that common civilisation based on Enlightenment, industrial and scientific advancement, good manners – in brief, what we could define as ‘Victorian’. Although disturbed by many small conflicts (like the Crimean Wars) throughout the century, that balance was never tipped.

"The Great War has been defined as one of the more enigmatic events in contemporary history. That's how complex a matter it is #WWI #history Share on X

The industrial revolution was the one unbalancing factor. Nations evolved at different speeds, and a few that used to be pre-eminent started to lose ground to younger powers. This created a first imbalance, which was nonetheless kept under control by the ‘Concert of Europe’.

Still, many societies slowly became aware of that imbalance. Catastrophic theories based on the wild increase of the world population, the intensive use of resources, the mixing of the races, the lost of contact with tradition and the effects of urbanisation and industrialisation became very commonplace. It’s quite interesting to note how these theories never foresaw the destructive impact of a total war, as instead literature did a few times.

In fact, a war was seen favourably, as the event that could readjust the European balance to what reality had evolved into over one century. The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo was only the trigger of what all nations were expecting to happen sooner or later. They all accepted it as the way to reorganise a balance that had become vastly artificial. Young people, tired of an old way of life and eager to change a world that was not their own anymore, enthusiastically joined the war effort. Besides, all nations thought this was going to be just one more ‘small conflict’ as the ones they had known throughout the ‘Long Century’. They all thought it was going to be over in a few months.

Nobody expected what actually happened.

The industrial revolution and science and mechanic advancement had afforded all nations with weapons no one really knew the potentiality of. They were far more effective and far more destructive than any of the veteran generals who lead the respective armies ever imagined. They started a war as they had always done, but the new weapons turned it into something new and horrible that nobody expected or knew how to handle.

Surprised by the effectiveness of the new total war, unprepared to judge what was going on, but able to keep going, all armies kept their ground. Consequently, the war went on and on. Not only on the frontline. For the first time, war invaded every layer of society. Everyone was called to help in the war effort. The war infiltrated in all aspect of life, whether it was on the frontline or not.

This was a new kind of war. This was a total war that had the potentiality to destroy everything.

At the end of the war, the destruction, not just of goods, but especially in terms of loss of lives, was devastating. Of the 60 million European soldiers mobilised in the period 1914-1918, 8 million had died by the end of the war, 7 million were permanently disabled, 15 million were seriously injured. An estimated 5 million civilians had died for causes connected to the war.
It was a horrible, mindless carnage that changed the souls of all European nations forever, a dramatic breaking point as few had been in the history of the world and certainly of the continent. Although the old Victorian ideas and social mores still persisted, they were utterly ineffective in guiding this new world.

Europe, as it emerged from the Great War, was a new place that few Europeans knew how to navigate.


History – 11 November 1918: World War I Ends
History of War – First Warld War 1914-1918
Jimmy Atkinsosn – The Treaty of Versailles and Its Consequences
BBC History – 12 amazing WWI facts that you probably don’t know
WWI Facts – Life in the Trenches
YouTube – Epic History: World War I – 1914

Mario Isnenghi  and Giorgio Rochat, La Grande Guerra, 1914-1918, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2014
Enzo Travero, A ferro e fuoco. La guerra civile europea (1914-1945), Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008

Weimar Germany - GREAT WAR (AtoZChallenge 2018) It is normally quite easy to understand why a war breaks out and who is pitted against who. Not so for the Great War. And this is true to the point that it has been defined as one of the most enigmatic events in contemporary history.


    Posted April 7, 2018 at 04:37

    Thanks Sarah! A great summary of a great war.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2018 at 15:16

      Thanks John. It wasn’t all that easy to grasp why WWI even broke out. It was indeed a very complex time.

  • Anabel Marsh
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 10:00

    Dreadful that so many people died in a war in which no-one really knew what they were doing. I hope we have learned from history, but i’m not so sure at the moment (not least because no-one seems to know what they are doing!)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2018 at 15:19

      You know? I’m surprise that we don care to look carefully enough. It’s true that our times have so much in common with the 1920s, and with many bad thing that happened at that time. But while those people of one hundred years ago had no possibility to imagine the outcome, we are luckier. We don’t even need to imagine, because we just have to look at what history has to offer us.
      I’mm be honest, reseaching the 1920s has made me realise and understand a lot of things about ourselves.

  • Sue Bursztynski (@SueBursztynski)
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 14:12

    A dreadful war! Though, which war isn’t? But it must have been scary to have thought the war was over and then have the Spanish flu when the conflict was done! You know, the battlefields of France during that time inspired the land of Mordor in Lord Of The Rings. For Tolkien, that WAS Mordor!

    Aussie Children’s Writers: Gleitzman and Griffiths

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2018 at 15:20

      I’ve been a Tolkien fan for decades. You bet I know 😉

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 14:28

    What a fine post! There’s no doubt that the Great War had wrenching, even permanent, effects on the world, in particular on Europe. I don’t think anyone expected what it would be like. And, to me, part of the zeitgeist of the Twenties came from the impact of that war.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2018 at 15:24

      The truly scary think about WWI and something that we should really consider more carefully, is that the Victorian world thought they had all figured out. They thought their world was perfect, and that it would only become better thanks to all the advancements they were producing. Then, exactly that advancement produced something so terribly new Victorians never imagined.
      If this doesn’t ring a bell for us, I don’t knwo what will.

  • Shari Elder
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 14:40

    This is truly beautiful blog. I love how you weave images and Agreed, why world war I occurred is hard to wrap our heads around. Great post.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2018 at 15:26

      It took me lots of research and thinking. And I think it’s so different because it wasn’t the result of a villain’s machination, but the unpredictable result of a globality of circumstances.

  • Hilary
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 19:31

    Hi Sarah – thanks for this great expose of the build up to WW1 and for reminding me, perhaps even letting me know, about the Concert of Europe (a system of dispute resolution) and the ‘long century’ … you really are teaching me a lot of history here. It is certainly adding to my basic knowledge of that century … 1815 – 1920 or thereabouts. Really interesting and so well written up for us – I know I’ll be back to re-read – cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 09:38

      Thanks, Hilary. I’m happy to hear it makes some kind of sense. Sometimes, when I read so fast on a deadline, I’m not sure I’m writing in a clear way.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 20:39

    I had never thought of WWI that way, as unleashing horrors that were unexpected and new. Well, yes I knew in a way, but not the way that you put it and I never had heard of the concert of Europe. Wise in their own conceit they seem to have been and the same today.
    So depressing.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 09:41

      I remembered the Concerpt of Europe from school as a very important staple in European history, but I didn’t really remember what it was about. I’m happy I’ve revisited it. If you think about it, it was indeed a great achievement since, with all its later complications, it did give to the continent one hundred years of peace.

  • Claire Noland
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 23:18

    You have managed to clearly explain a very complex war.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 09:42

      Thanks. I’m very happy to hear this. When I started researching the Great War, I had a very hard time grasping the reasons.

  • Stepheny Houghtlin
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 23:23

    This is an incredibly ambitious theme that you are presenting with such clarity. One of the things I love about the #Challenge is the education it offers on a myriad of subjects. This theme, of which I know so little about compared to you, is an opportunity. I am going to follow you so I can continue learning, If you have time, I’m writing about BOOKSTORES. Come join me if you can.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 09:46

      Happy you find it interesting, Stepheny.
      Yes, the challenge is a great opportunity of learning. I’ve seen such creative themes. It is also a way of openign our mind, I believe.

  • Iain Kelly
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 23:51

    So many factors were involved in this war and in the end it was probably preventable. I read a couple of books on the outbreak and basically it seems to come down to politicians and rulers signing pacts between countries that they couldn’t then back out of. Great week of history, looking forward to more next week. 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 09:48

      I wouldn’t know. My impression is that the outbreak of war didn’t depend on single, recognizable events, but was more of a global imbalance of powers and general recklessness. Personally, considering the circumstances, I’m not at all sure it could have been prevented.

  • Julie Weathers
    Posted April 8, 2018 at 08:00

    This was an amazing blog post and so true. They had no idea of the destruction that waited. Thanks so much for such an interesting post.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 09:51

      Thanks for stopping by, Julie 🙂
      That part is what bothers me the most, because we might be doing the same thing now. We are so faithful in our advancements, but do we really know what kind of power we’re wielding and what the consequences might be?

  • Kat Seaholm
    Posted April 8, 2018 at 20:05

    The cost of lives in war is horrific. War despite being glorified, is a horrible, horrible thing. And what you said about weapons was true, they had no idea of the destructive potential they held. It still blows my mind that the machine gun was invented by a doctor. Great post!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 10:10

      I didn’t know that. I will look into it.
      When I first started researching the Great War, the sheer numbers blew my mind. EVery battle seemed to count tens of thousends of dead. It’s just crazy.

  • Karen
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 00:08

    We seem to continue to develop weapons that increase the devastation of war. How horrible that so many millions of lives were lost or forever altered by this one.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 10:14

      I’ve seen video footage that really broke my heart. I never imagined. A few were interviews made in the 1960s and 1970s of people who had been in the war. They are not with us anymore, but we need to remember them.

  • Tasha Duncan-Drake
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 11:18

    I think to the modern mind The Great War seems somewhat incomprehensible because our wars tend to be fought at much further distance. It was a war with old tactics and new weapons which seems completely insane in hindsight.
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Movie Monsters

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 13:27

      I was thinking to this lately, watching old films from the war. Wars today are global. That terrible moment when the men went over the top must have been unbearable. I mean, knowing that you were throwing your life away in that exact moment, while before you were covered.
      I’ve read about it in interviews to veterans. It was such horrible feelign that some soldiers prefered to kill themselve rather then going over the top.
      I don’t think we can quite understand it. It really belong to a different time.

  • Debs
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:58

    I’m with Iain on this one (although more because my boyfriend is a military historian and educates me on the subject frequently). Often, I think it’s easier to accept that a war was inevitable, but it is so important to examine whether it could’ve been prevented, especially the whats and whys and whens of that process. Fascinating subject and interesting post, as always Sarah.

    A-Zing this year at:
    Normally found at:

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 13:41

      I’d be interested on hearing about it 🙂
      I’ve only just started researching WWI, but my impresison is really that it was more of a social situation than anything having to do with mere politics or military.
      Maybe the war could have been avoided if certain things had been done, but my impression is that the general circumstances didn’t allow for those things to happen.

      It’s like the rise of the Third Reich. Of course we can say that ‘if’ the government had found a way to handle the Great Depression, ‘if’ there hadn’t been the provision in the concitution allowing the president to act on his own accord, ‘if’ Hitler hadn’t been protected after the putch and had been sentenced to dad, ‘if’ the Left had found a unity, then the Nazi probably wouldn’t have rise to power. But there were historical and social reasons why all these ‘ifs’ didn’t happened. That’s what I mean when I say I don’t think the war could have been avoided… and the causes of it look far more difficult to pin down than the rise of the Third Rich.
      But I’d be very curious to hear a different point of view 🙂

  • Birgit
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 05:26

    I’m so glad that my mom’s family were not taking part in the First World War because they were either too old or too young. I have no clue if my great uncles were in the war. I know my Opa thought war was just utterly useless.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 15:48

      My greatgrandfather was in the First World War and he survived. He was born here in Italy, but both his parents were Britishers. I suppose laws were different back then because he was enlisted in the British Army.
      I suppose he didn’t like to talk about the war. My father only remembers a couple of episodes he told when my father was a child.
      I do own a ‘diary’ of him where he noted all the places where he was with the theatre (he was a theatre actor) since 1901, but there is nothing from the war years.

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