The history of World War I shows how the ways in which societies define “we” and “they” can help to precipitate war. To understand how this dynamic played out in the buildup to World War I, one must consider the ideology of nationalism and the theory of Social Darwinism. In the 1800s, the biological view of race shaped how many Europeans and Americans defined the word nation. Members of a nation shared not only a common history, culture, and language but also common ancestors, character traits, and physical characteristics. Many believed, therefore, that a nation was a biological community. Nationalists believed that their biological communities—their nations—were inherently superior to others. Through the practice of eugenics, nations sought to promote the health of their biological communities and protect them from “threat,” which they often defined as mixing with other, allegedly inferior, “races.”
How could a nation demonstrate its superiority to other nations? In the late 1800s, the answer to that question was increasingly demonstrated through competition and conflict. After Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, many Europeans and Americans began to apply his ideas about natural selection to human society. The result was the theory of Social Darwinism and its belief in the “survival of the fittest.” Social Darwinists believed that people who were at the top of the social and economic pyramid were society’s fittest. People at the bottom must be “unfit,” they reasoned, because competition rewards “the strong.”
Inspired by the desire to prove that their societies were the “fittest” and enrich themselves in the process, European nations set out to extend their empires around the turn of the twentieth century throughout Africa and Asia. To sustain this imperialism, nations devoted more and more men and resources to their armies and navies. As militaries became more powerful and competition increased between European nations, they began to form military alliances to ensure that they had the necessary support to fend off rival nations in case war broke out.
It was in this context that the 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, by a Serbian nationalist, set off the series of events that engulfed the world in war. In response to the assassination, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia. Soon after, Russia (Serbia’s ally) and Germany (Austria-Hungary’s ally) declared war on each other. Other nations, including France, England, and the Ottoman Empire, entered the hostilities soon after that.
World War I 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—a conflict marked by genocide, civil wars, famines, and revolutions. By its end, more than 9 million soldiers and more than 5 million civilians had been killed. As a result of the war, three European empires fell (the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman), causing panic and displacement for millions of people.
This lesson explores the effect of World War I on Germany and how its aftermath created conditions that helped give rise to the Nazis in the years that followed. 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:
- The destruction and brutality of World War I “seemed to many Europeans to prove that human life was cheap and expendable.”
- The trauma of World War I created in Europeans and their leaders a “deep fear of ever risking another war.”
- 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.”