Painting title Gassed by John Singer Sargent. Shows World War I soldiers with bandaged eyes being led by other soldiers. Many dead and injured soldiers laying at the base of the painting.
Chapter

World War: Choices and Consequences

Investigate how World War I heightened divisions between “we” and “they” among people and nations and left behind fertile ground for Nazi Germany in the following decades.

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At a Glance

Chapter

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History

Grade

6–12
  • The Holocaust

Overview

About this Chapter

The ways societies define “we” and “they” can help to precipitate war. In turn, the violence and chaos of war can sharpen the differences people perceive between their nation and others, as well as between different groups within their own nation. This chapter focuses on how World War I shaped and was shaped by ideas of “we” and “they,” and it highlights aspects of the war that influenced the history of Nazi Germany in the following decades.

  • How did World War I change the balance of power in Europe? How did it affect people's attitudes toward other nations as well as their own? How did it affect people's attitudes toward war?
  • How did World War I affect the way that people perceived the value of human life?
  • What happens to the way a society defines “we” and “they” in the midst of the chaos and violence caused by war?

This chapter is from the World War: Choices and Consequences section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 17 readings 
  • Connection Questions

The world war that began in 1914 in Europe would eventually involve 30 nations and 65 million soldiers. It was a war with incredible loss of human life on every battlefront and huge damage to the land wherever fighting occurred; it was marked by genocide, civil wars, famines, and revolutions. World War I was a total war, affecting thousands of civilians even in countries where no actual fighting took place. By its end, more than 9 million soldiers and more than 5 million civilians were killed. As a result of the war, three European empires fell. But the war had encouraged strong nationalist feelings in the countries that had made up those fallen empires, creating lingering post-war tensions, not only in Europe but also in the colonies in Asia and Africa, where pre-war racism continued to endure.

World War I, which many had hoped would be the “war to end all wars,” was an explosion of violence on a scale never before seen in modern history. That explosion, wrote philosopher Hannah Arendt in 1951, “seems to have touched off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems to be able to stop.” 1 And yet neither the First World War nor the Second, which began 25 years later, was inevitable. Each was the result of decisions made by individuals and groups.

Chapter 3 focuses on the explosion of violence Arendt describes and the chain reaction it set off. This chapter begins the case study of the years leading to the Holocaust, which is the centerpiece of the Facing History and Ourselves journey. But instead of tracing the course of the war itself, the chapter highlights the aspects of World War I that had an important effect on the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Historian Doris Bergen writes that while World War I did not cause Nazism or the Holocaust, its aftermath left in place fertile ground for the history that followed in at least three ways. First, the destruction and brutality of World War I “seemed to many Europeans to prove that human life was cheap and expendable.” Second, the trauma of World War I created in Europeans and their leaders a “deep fear of ever risking another war.” Third, the war’s resolution left in place across Europe lingering resentments about the war and the terms of the peace. These resentments would later prove useful to leaders such as Adolf Hitler who sought to create “a politics of resentment that promoted a bitter sense of humiliation.” 2 As teachers and their students explore the history of World War I, they should select the readings from this chapter that are most appropriate for their curriculum and classrooms.

  • 1Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1968), 267.
  • 2Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 42–43. Reproduced by permission from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

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Inside this Chapter

Analysis & Reflection

Enhance your students’ understanding of our readings on World War I with these follow-up questions and prompts.

  1. War takes place between armies, but it also changes what happens within a nation. What do the readings in this chapter suggest about how war can reshape the identities of people and nations, build upon and expand ideas of “we” and “they,” and affect an individual’s or a nation’s universe of obligation?
  2. Several historians, in describing the immense destruction to both military and civilian populations, have pointed to the after-effects of violence and the “cheapening of human life” as one of the most significant legacies of World War I. How might such a legacy have impacted the post-war world?
  3. Historians often debate whether ideas or actions are more important in bringing about change. What do you think are the key ideas in this chapter that had the greatest impact? What events occurred that either challenged those ideas or made them more acceptable?
  4. While in a German prison camp in October 1918, Captain Charles de Gaulle, who later became president of France, wrote:
    Will France be quick to forget, if she ever can forget, her 1,500,000 dead, her 1,000,000 mutilated, Lille, Dunkerque, Cambrai, Douai, Arras, Saint-Quentin, Laon, Soissons, Rheims, Verdun—destroyed from top to bottom? Will the weeping mothers suddenly dry their tears? Will the orphans stop being orphans, widows being widows? For generations to come, surely every family will inherit intense memories of the greatest of wars, sowing in the hearts of children those indestructible seeds of hatred? . . . Everyone knows, everyone feels that this peace is only a poor covering thrown over ambitions unsatisfied, hatreds more vigorous than ever, national anger still smouldering. 1
    What does de Gaulle’s view suggest about the aftermath of World War I in Europe and throughout the world? Is it possible for people to put the hatred, violence, and loss caused by war behind them?
  • 1Quoted in Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker, France and the Great War, 1914–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 181.

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