World War I killed, lost, and wounded over thirty-five million people. Civil wars and insurrections killed many more. Disease killed fifty million. Millions of people lived in poverty. Millions more were under imperialistic rule. Empires fell. Nation-states were created. Capitalism, colonialism, and democratic liberalism were in question. International insecurity and competition led to rivalries and alliances. Five empires fell during this time, the Qing, the Ottoman, the German, the Hapsburg, and the Russian. The empires that survived faced opposition from the colonies as well as economic unrest at home. World War I and its aftermath left the world searching for new economic and societal formats.
The alliances that were formed assured that when rivalry led to war, others would join. Because of these alliances, a single terrorist attack in Sarajevo, Bosnia triggered a war that soon engulfed most of the world. When Serbian terrorists killed the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Bosnia, Austria blamed Serbia and declared war. Germany was allied with Austria. Russia was allied with Serbia. The Russians declared war on Austria and the Germans declared war on Serbia and Russia. France was allied with Russia so Germany initiated a pre-emptive attack on France that required German troops to travel through Belgium. England was allied with Belgium and declared war on Germany. Japan was allied with the British so they invaded German holdings in China and German held islands in the Pacific. The Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and declared a holy war on England and France. The United States entered the war on the side of Britain and France. Britain and Germany extended the war into the colonies. The colonies, particularly India and Africa, contributed resources, labor, and millions of lives for the benefit of their rulers. The outcome of the war hinged on access to sustainable wealth.
Industrialism and colonial holdings provide that wealth. Military buildup before and during the war meant increased wealth for the industrialized economies. Science and industrial innovation created new tools for war and improved industrial capabilities enabled their mass production. Colonial societies benefitted from increased exports. Empires with holdings outside Europe and access to shipping lanes had the greatest chance of surviving. Hardship and poverty because of sacrifices for the war effort led to dissatisfaction at home. This brought about revolutions in Russia, Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire. The war ended when nations and empires ran out of money or lost the willingness to expend more lives and treasure. Nor were the victors exempt from troubles at home. Revolutions demanding independence or economic equality sprang up in the colonies. Civil unrest, labor strikes, and revolutionary uprisings occurred in Canada, the U.S., Russia, and throughout Europe, East Asia, India, Africa, and South America.
Even more tension was created when the winners of the war divided the spoils arbitrarily, ignoring political, cultural, and linguistic divisions. This created new rivalries and political unrest within the colonies. Twenty-five million people found themselves to be minorities. Colonial subjects fought for independence and the ruling parties fought to retain control over their subjects while fighting with one another to defend and expand their territorial holdings.
The end of the war brought home an increased work force as demand for industrial goods rapidly decreased. Colonial subjects could no longer sell the commodities they had been forced to produce. A worldwide economic depression followed the war. Alternative philosophies were explored. Italian Fascism, German Nazism, Russian Communism, Latin American Corporatism, and Japanese Militarism gained popularity. Authoritarian rule began to look more capable than liberalism of responding to economic crises due to its ability to respond quickly. Various forms of socialism and communism were presented as alternatives to capitalism. Unfortunately, the more socially focused economic models that espoused various forms of central control were combined with authoritarian regimes that ruled through nationalism, propaganda, and violence. These conditions combined to create even more unrest.
The Great War, the War to End All Wars, set the stage for the wars and political unrest that plagued the world for the next thirty years. Liberal nations in Europe and the Americas were forced to implement more aggressive government interventions in the economy to reign in capitalism. Both the authoritarian and liberal governments instituted social programs in an effort to alleviate suffering. Inequalities plagued all. The world still had not learned to create a society that could work for all. The world was more unsettled than ever with many questions left unanswered.