World History 2 193 - 12.1.1 The Aftermath

As World War I ended in 1918, the world moved to cope with the destruction it had wrought. Military casualties stood between nine and ten million, civilian deaths at approximately ten million, and the number of wounded above twenty-one million. Veterans had both physical and emotional wounds; some needed physical therapy, prosthetics, or vocational training for their postwar lives. The civilian toll meant families had lost not only sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers but daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. The war also brought into question the notions of superiority that had permeated Western civilization. People wondered whether the West was declining and could no longer consider itself a moral leader in the world.

In Belgium and eastern France, the physical destruction was immense. Thousands of acres, often of prime farmland, were barren after years of artillery bombardment. Towns such as Ypres in Belgium had been shelled so heavily that many buildings had collapsed (Figure 12.3). People had to filter back to the farmlands and cities they had fled and begin to rebuild their lives. Some towns, such as Thiepval, France, had been so thoroughly destroyed that they were never rebuilt.

The photograph shows demolished and burned buildings.
Figure 12.3 The city of Ypres, Belgium, suffered great damage in World War I, as this 1916 photo of its ruined square shows. (credit: “Destruction on the Western Front, 1914-1918” by Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the defeated countries of Germany and Austria-Hungary, economies were in free fall. Millions of men returned home to find stubborn economic instability and labor markets in transition, with factories ill-equipped to return to peacetime production. For men from Europe’s colonies, it took even longer to return home because European troops were demobilized first. Even the victorious nations faced economic problems. Britain and France had borrowed billions to finance the war and had sizable debts to repay, many to the United States. Industries across the world had to reconvert their machinery and processes to begin producing consumer items again, causing continued unemployment.

The world was still dealing with the flu pandemic of 1918–1920, closing schools and theaters and canceling public activities. People were encouraged to wear masks and limit their movement until the crisis had passed. The flu eventually infected about one-third of the world’s population, killing tens of millions, especially younger people. By early 1920, it had stopped spreading, however, and people were able to return to their pre-pandemic lives.

Political change was in the winds. The takeover of Russia in 1917 by a small but determined Bolshevik force sent shockwaves through many nations as they began to fear similar uprisings within their own borders. In the United States, a “Red Scare” was unfolding in 1919. Fear of immigrants who might be communists or socialists was expressed in the growth of nativism—the idea that the nation should be reserved for native-born people of northern European ancestry. A number of mail bombs sent to politicians, businessmen, and newspaper editors heightened public fears of anarchy, and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer began authorizing what were later called the Palmer Raids, targeting newspaper presses, immigrant groups, and Russian worker unions, often without proper search warrants. Supposed “radical aliens” were arrested; some were held for months without being charged, and some were deported to Russia. The Palmer Raids demonstrated the power of the government to ignore individual rights. The American Civil Liberties Union was formed in 1920 to provide legal assistance to those targeted by the raids. As the months passed with no clear threat of a communist takeover, the public increasingly viewed Palmer’s actions with suspicion, and his political career ended.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax