Changes in the political and economic structures of European states in the 20th century can be somewhat attributed to the First World War. The war resulted in the loss of Empires and creation of nation states and extension of liberal democracy, changing the borders within Europe, and conceiving an international organisation to mitigate future concerns. However, some political concerns such as women suffrage and Irish Home Rule, were adjourned until after the war. Moreover, the war contributed to one of the largest political and economic shifts in Europe, the conception of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R). Nevertheless, there were already shifts in the economy that cannot be attributed to the war such as industrialisation, which caused significant changes to both political and economic structures.
Changes in the political and territorial structures of European states can be significantly attributed to the First World War. Pre-war there were dominating and competing Empires which contributed to the outbreak of the First World War, alongside growing nationalist tensions. During and after the war, these Empires diminished and some ‘destroyed’ including Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary, Tsarist Russia, and the Ottoman Empire (Beckett, 2014). Notably the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up into several, independent states, such as Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia – the latter two an idea ‘entertained’ by the Entente Powers as Pole and Czech soldiers fought alongside the Allies (White, 2007). A socialist revolution in Germany between 1918-1919 saw the creation of the Weimar Republic, adopting a democratic political structure in place of an autocratic, monarchical one. Moreover, victorious Britain and France gained territories from the reallocation of territories as a result of the decline of empires, seizing land from the defunct Ottoman Empire, and France regaining control of Alsace-Lorraine which it had lost in 1871. The League of Nations, a new international organisation, was created in the wake of the war as a form of international diplomacy to regulate the Treaty of Versailles and to resolve minority issues. Nevertheless, the League of Nations bore a resemblance to the ‘Congress of Vienna’ which aimed at preventing conflicts and was successful for forty years in stabilising power on the continent (Perry et al, 2012). The First World War can also be attributed to the growth of nationalism, and resulted in political movements such as Fascism and National Socialism as seen in Germany and Italy afterwards (White, 2007).Thus, the First World War created a seismic shift in territorial boundaries and political rule for many states in Europe, including independence and recognition of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and democracy in Germany and newly formed states. Moreover, the First World War contributed to the growth of nationalist movements which created tensions within and between nations, playing a large role in the Second World War some 21 years later.
However, the First World War did not impact the political ambitions or structures in all states equally, as in Britain and France where there were no dramatic shifts of power domestically or otherwise, though there was a rise in Labour support (Phillips, 2006). The First World War ‘eclipsed’ other seminal events at the time, such as extending suffrage to women, industrial unrest pre-war and Irish Home Rule (Doherty, 2014). The war therefore adjourned political issues and these changes introduced after cannot be significantly attributed to the war. The Irish experience of the war had similarities to the Continent, with a ‘fractured’ Ireland comprised of two rival states of independent Nationalists and Unionists (Reynolds, 2014), however the war did not create the issue of Home Rule in Ireland, which existed beforehand. The issue of expanding the franchise and Irish Home Rule therefore after the war was a result of domestic pressures before the war and growing tensions during the wartime effort – arguably the war did not encourage change but hindered the progress of these movements instead.
The creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R) was one of the most the prominent political and economic changes in Europe, which occurred in part due to the First World War. A culmination of socio-economic tensions and the First World War resulted in a socialist revolution in 1917, as the ‘Tsarist regime failed to cope with the ensuing crisis’ (Kenez, 2006). The war was ‘central’ to both the conception of the revolution and its outcome as it cultivated discontent in the Empire (Wade, 2005). The First World War highlighted Russian shortcomings, resulting in military failures and loss, and causing decline in morale and support. The war therefore played a large role fostering discontent for the Romanov dynasty, especially amongst the ‘educated elite’ (Wade, 2005), though the 1905 revolution ‘changed the character of the Russian state’ as concessions were made to satiate demands (Kenez, 2006). The revolution initially replaced the Romanov dynasty with a Provisional Government, but later the Bolshevik uprising and subsequent Civil War saw the Bolsheviks victorious in 1923, and introduce a new state-led economy which nationalised resources and promoted equality for citizens. A new society ‘emerged’ in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, with a ‘transformation’ of the economy and society that was more revolutionary than 1917 (Reynolds, 2014). The war and Russian Revolution ‘catalysed’ widespread political upheaval, with many nations undergoing ‘revolution, liberalisation or national regeneration’ which ‘assumed a new model of citizenship’ including universal franchise (Isakhan, 2015). Therefore, the First World War had a profound impact in the changes of political and economic structures in Russia, though was not necessarily the direct cause of the revolution. Tensions were not a ‘consequence of stagnation’ rather ‘dynamic change’ (Kenez, 2006) which although occurred before the war, were likely compounded by it also. Marxists would go further and argue the revolution was the ‘natural progression’ in the development of states and culmination of class struggles. The Russian Revolution moreover played an important role in the future of Europe politically and economically, and the First World War can be seen to indirectly cause these also.
The change to economic structures can be significantly attributed to the First World War, namely pertaining to the stagnation and decline of economies, such as recessions that required intervention. Principally the economies of many powers were impeded by the war after the collapse of the perceived internationalist world order, and growing protectionist policies made more apparent with the new emerging states and their own currencies and tariffs (González, 2012). War and the battle of attrition was costly, both economically and socially, but conflicting ideology also changed structures as they competed during and after the war, such as communism, fascism, and liberal democracy (González, 2012). The Allies had the economic advantage over the Central Powers before the war, and economic development played a role in military success against the longevity of war, with poorer nations unable to sustain warfare (Broadberry et al, 2005). After the war, Britain and France could recover somewhat easier, but for Germany, war had ‘bankrupted the old regime in every sense’ (Bessel, 1993). The reparations agreed in the Treaty of Versailles crippled the already weakened German economy, and it was these reparations the Allies claimed would help them pay off their American debtors (Wilkins, 2020). The attempts to return to the pre-war Gold Standard demonstrate a desire for continuity, and included deflating prices and wages, resulting in recessions (Herendeen, 2007). Though there was a desire to return to the pre-war economy, the expenditure of war resulted in recovering economies and change in economic structures and commitments to debtors.
However, the First World War cannot be directly attributed to economic changes pertaining to industrialisation. Industrialisation, which is the shift from agricultural to industrial economies, occurred before the war and resulted in the increase of towns and cities, and the emergence of the working class based on them (Bagnasco et al, 2000). By 1914 industrialisation was an established ‘presence’ in many European nations, however, development was not equal or evenly distributed in the continent, nor was it quick or ‘complete’ by 1914 (Blanning, 2000). The change in economy and its structure before the war resulted in social and political changes and tensions, such as the emergence of distinct working and middle classes and migration (Bagnasco et al, 2000). The Russian state encouraged industrialisation and created an industrial proletariat (Kenez, 2006), however, these ‘wretched’ conditions and the growth of urban workers played a major role in the revolution (Wade, 2005). Although statistics from the Soviet Union were falsified and inadequate, they show a development of industry after the war as well as mechanisation in the agrarian communities to rival neighbour economies, for fear of falling behind (Reynolds, 2014). Thus, even though the First World War had a profound impact on trade and the economy, it was arguably not as profound as the impact of industrialisation on political and economic structures in the preceding years.
In conclusion, changes in the political and economic structures of European states can be somewhat attributed to the First World War. The First World War resulted in a seismic shift from autocratic rulers and Empires to an adoption of democratic nations states and republics, such as in Germany, and division of former Empires into independent, democratic nations. However, some political concerns were adjourned until after the war. The war contributed to, but did not create, the most prominent ideological political economy, that of communism, which had a lasting impact on Europe for decades thereafter. The expenditure of war caused recessions and debts within Europe, impacting the economic and political structures. However, socio-economic changes before the war resulting from industrialisation played an even greater role in changes to political and economic structures within Europe, before, during and after the war.