Chapter 22 World War I

Historians sometimes suggest that Western civilization reached its zenith in 1914. Looking back on the previous century, people living in that year saw an era of progress. Reason appeared triumphant in human affairs. Science and industry had improved the human condition beyond what even “the most audacious optimists had dared to dream.” By 1918, however, the hopeful view of 1914 had turned to disillusionment. The magnificent accomplishment of the 1800s had ended in an equally stupendous disaster. In Britain, a rising young politician named Winston Churchill explained what had gone so terribly wrong.

“Far more than their vices, the virtues of nations ill-directed or mis-directed by their rulers, became the cause of their own undoing and of the general catastrophe.”

The catastrophe of which Churchill wrote was a war of unprecedented ferocity and devastation—a total war between entire nations. In later years, before they found it necessary to number such catastrophes, people called it the Great War. Today we know it as World War I.

The outbreak of World War I ended a long period of relative peace and stability in Europe. The great powers of the world descended into four of the bloodiest years of fighting in history. By the end of the war in 1918, many people were calling for the formation of a new world order that would ensure lasting peace. The peace settlement, however, did not resolve all of the issues among the warring nations, and, in fact, helped lay the foundations for future conflict.