Canada and the First World War


The War to End All Wars?

The First World War ended in costly victory for the Entente and total defeat for the Central Powers. It also sowed the seeds of future strife.

Sweeping Post-War Changes

The war swept away the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires and created a string of new states, arbitrary borders, and simmering disputes from the Baltic Sea to the Persian Gulf. The European victors – France, Italy, and Great Britain – were financially exhausted and politically spent. Grieving their unprecedented numbers of war dead, they sought territory and reparations from their enemies. The United States soon retreated into isolationism, dismayed by the seemingly unsolvable squabbles of the Old World. Russia remained mired in civil war and ideological violence, at first attacked by Western governments, and then ignored by them. The new League of Nations could play no meaningful role in preserving international security if its principal members stayed committed to national agendas. In the League’s critical early years, Europe’s greatest potential powers, Germany and Soviet Russia, were not members at all.

An Unstable Peace

The First World War ended in a complete victory and an unstable peace. Post-war Germany, disarmed and humiliated, became a weak and short-lived republic. Its resentments and frustrations – real and imagined – fuelled the rise of Hitler’s brutal fascists. Bolshevik Russia, fascist Spain, and much of eastern and central Europe also succumbed to brutal, though sometimes popular, dictatorships. Most had territorial designs on neighboring states or scores to settle at home against those who had not supported their rise. Mob violence, domestic repression, and outright wars flickered through much of Europe. Italy pushed to expand its colonial possessions in Africa. Japan honed the armed forces and militarist ethos that would soon conquer most of the Asia-Pacific region. The war left the principal powers divided from one another, even at the Versailles treaty negotiations – vengeful toward old enemies and distrustful of old friends.

Disillusionment, Fear, and the Threat of Future War

The post-war world was weary, indebted, and disillusioned. Intellectuals and ordinary civilians questioned the notion of human progress and scientific rationality that pre-war generations had believed natural and indefinite. Writers spoke of a ‘lost generation’; artists depicted the horrors of war. Western economies recovered and retooled slowly and unevenly from their wartime efforts; many eastern economies, ravaged by post-war inflation, barely managed to rebuild at all. Canada and the other British Dominions had purchased pride, glory, and political autonomy on battlefields from Flanders to Iraq, but they had done so at great cost. The scars of war, and the terrible legacy of the dead, left most victorious Allies shunning international commitments in the post-war years.

It was not apparent to the celebrating crowds in Ottawa or Paris in November 1918, but in the ashes of the First World War lay concealed the embers of the Second.

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