World War I, also known as “The Great War”, was perhaps one of the most defining
World War I, also known as “The Great War”, was perhaps one of the most defining events of the twentieth century. It spelled the end of the hundred year’s peace on the continent created by the Concert of Europe in the 19th century, but also led to an enormous loss of faith in government and an end to the old established order (including the beginning of the end of the European colonial empires). The belief in the power of human reason was challenged, spelling the end of many ideas of an “Enlightened Europe” and paving the way for future extremism. The loss of life, as well as the long term economic costs, would be instrumental in paving the way for an even greater conflict, World War II.
The war would have longstanding consequences to European consciousness. No longer were Europeans convinced that the established order was supreme. Remember, all of these casualties are of young men in the prime of their lives, leading to massive population losses and a collective sense of loss. An entire generation of young men was lost in this war. To make matters for Europe’s establishment, the feared mass revolution that had been originally anticipated in 1848 finally arrived in Europe.
On October 24, 1917 (November 6th according to the Gregorian calendar that was not yet in use in Russia), Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin sent a letter to the Central Committee Members of the Bolsheviks, now known as his “Call to Power”. Attempting to insight a new revolution to overthrown the provisional government which had been created in March earlier that year, Lenin said the time was right and that “History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they could be victorious today (and they certainly will be victorious today), while they risk losing much tomorrow, in fact, they risk losing everything.” He finishes his letter with the bold claim that “The government is tottering. It must be given the death blow at all costs. To delay action is fatal.”
Though these events took place nearly a year before the end of the Great War, the October or Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was perhaps one of the most important events of the 20th century. It harkened the formation of one of the first communist states in Europe and would facilitate the creation of the Soviet Union, a nation that would define the political and cultural makeup of the world for much of the next century.
Though some claimed the first world war was fought for “democracy” it actually resulted in the expansion of imperial powers (in the case of Britain and France) and the destruction of many of the old absolute monarchies (in the case of Germany and Russia). The Peace process (in the form of the Treaty of Versailles) failed to create a “better Europe” and instead had laid the groundwork for future revolutions and extremism (But more on that next week).
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