It is well accepted that we live in the modern world. But what do we mean by this term “Modern World”?
Well, there are many aspects to this. Some of it is technological – for instance the TV, the fridge, the microwave – these are considered modern appliances by most people. After all, none of these things were around 200 or 300 years ago!
The most pervasive aspect of of modernity is political. This has several dimensions.
The first is that related to liberty – the ideas of democracy, of universal adult franchise (everyone gets to vote), the idea of human rights – all these are modern concepts. Only in the modern world have they gained such wide acceptance.
Another aspect of political modernity is the end of racism.
Lets not forget that at the start of the 20th century, most of the countries of the world had been enslaved by a few European powers, as “colonies”. And yet, today at the start of the 21st century, we see none of these colonies around us. This too is an aspect of the modern world, and an important one. Today, most of the world’s population lives in these erstwhile colonies, and the fact that they live in an era of freedom is a very significant fact whose importance cannot be understated.
Another aspect of modern politics is totalitarianism, and its close cousin, Communism. Although repressive political regimes have a long history, the modern totalitarian regime, where every instrument of power and of society is controlled is something that is unique to the modern world. In communist China, even reproductive rights are controlled by the State. The erstwhile USSR and Communist China have had a massive impact on our world. In the latter, Marx and Mao are still a living reality for almost 1/3 of humanity.
The final aspect of modernity is economic – the idea of equal pay for equal work between men and women, the idea of unions and collective bargaining, and the idea of pensions – all these are modern ideas, and did not exist 200 or 300 years ago.
It is thus quite clear that the world that we live in today is drastically different from the one that existed in say the 17th or the 18th or even the 19th century. But what has led to this? Why is our world so different from those centuries past? What has led to this current situation?
The First World War
If there is any one event, above all others, that have shaped the modern world, that have led us to the economic, social, political structures that we live in, and that we take for granted so easily, then it is the First World War. Although it lasted for only 4 years, from 1914, until 1918, the world would never be the same again.
There are many aspects to the War – like the causes of the War, its progress, or its battles, the strategies employed, the logistics of the War, and many other such things. Indeed, some background knowledge on the War is essential to understand the rest of this blog post. However, we shall not really go into much depth here. There are excellent resources that go into each of these, and here is a collection of links that I would recommend.
Impact beyond the Battlefield
Today, its been almost a 100 years since the War and most of the political entities that were involved in it no longer even exist. Therefore, we shall ignore aspects of who fought who, where and how. Instead we shall focus totally on the deep impact the War had on the entire world, an impact that continues to be felt today.
France was one of the greatest sufferers of the War. Almost all of the “Western Front” – one of the two major theaters of the War – lay in French territory. French cities, villages, farms and factories were bombed, occupied, and turned to rubble. Up until 1917, the French Army was the foremost among fighting troops on the Western Front, and it also took on the greatest number of casualties. Paris was subject to daily artillery bombardment.
The great suffering of the War made most French unwilling to fight anymore. The morale of the French citizens and the French Army was broken. The French began to see all wars as pointless, and there arose a culture of obtaining peace at any cost. Although not immediately apparent, this loss of confidence and morale would become painfully visible just 20 years later, when the entire French Army and French republic would collapse within days of the the first Nazi attack.
The First World War exposed severe weaknesses in the British Empire. The Empire was quite unable to satisfy the industrial output required to carry on the War and support its Armies. As the War dragged on, the Empire came to increasingly rely on the Americans for all manner of industrial production from rifles to bullets to tanks. It also bought from the USA, all kinds of foodstuffs to keep itself fed. By the end of the War, the British Empire was severely weakened, in huge debt, and almost bankrupt. It was a shadow of its former self, although it still kept up appearances of regalia.
The War also began the process of the Independence of India. Indian troops proved invaluable in the War, manning almost 1/3 of the Western Front on the side of the Allies. Their contribution is still being documented.
But the political impact of this contribution was tremendous. Immediately after the War, Gandhi and the Congress practically demanded concessions from the Empire for the War Service put in by Indians. These demands – expressed for the first time so openly and clearly, were testament to fact that Indians saw for the first time how dependent the Empire was on them for its survival.
Over the next two decades, Indians and the Congress Party would grow more and more vocal in their demands for political power and increasingly adamant on their fulfillment. Again and again, the British Empire would be forced to make concessions, culminating in the three Round Table Conferences held in London. On the eve of the Second World War, elections would be held in India, and power in the provinces would be handed over completely to Indians.
Thus, the foundation of what is often called a miracle – the peaceful withdrawal of the British from India in 1947 – was really brought about by the circumstances that arose in the aftermath of the First World War.
The War proved to be an opportunity for Germany to demonstrate its vast technological superiority over the rest of Europe. For most of the War, their country was blockaded making it impossible to import most raw materials.
Yet the Germans, with their ingenuity, managed to keep their armies well supplied, and avoid shortages until the very end. They would produce artificial gasoline, artificial rubber and poison gas. This technological superiority was well known, and yet ending up on the losing side led to great resentment among the Germans. This resentment would within a few years emerge as that terrifying movement, Nazism.
The Russians collapsed quite completely during the War. By the Winter of 1916, the Russian armies were not only in total retreat but also in a state of chaos and open rebellion. The men stopped obeying orders by the officers. The same thing happened in most Russian cities and factories. In March of 1917, the rot reached the top, and the Royal Family was disposed of, and a republic declared in Russia. Tired of the shortages of all daily items, the population rebelled in a manner never seen before and formed communes, essentially taking administration into their own hands. By October of the same year, the world’s very first Communist State was declared in Russia.
The political situation in Eastern Europe before 1914 was one of the leading causes of the War.
The region is home to a large number of nationalities, but who did not possess a country of their own. Poland was divided between Germany and Russia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had trapped within its borders Slavs, Croats, Serbs, Hungarians and many others, who were hungering for freedom, and whose freedom would be possible only with the destruction of that Empire. A significant proportion of Slavs were also dispersed across the German and Russian Empires.
The War would bring political freedom to Eastern Europe, but the political problems of the region were far from over. By the end of the Second World War, the entire region would find itself enslaved by the Soviet Empire, and freedom eludes the region to this day – see for instance, the Yugoslav Wars that continued up until the early 2000s, and the recent and ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The Ottoman Empire, at the time, extended from the Mediterranean Sea in the West to the Arabian Sea in the East. It was the proud yet impoverished surviving fragment of the erstwhile Islamic Caliphate.
The War was a disaster for the Empire. Within months of joining the War in 1915, its absolute technological inferiority was exposed, and by the end of the War, it lost most of its territories. The British victories led to the modern day map of the Middle East – the countries of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and many others emerged, while the Ottomans got restricted to Turkey.
The defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the Caliphate caused a deep existential crisis in the Muslim World, a crisis that continues to rock our world to the present day. The Caliph was the temporal ruler of all Muslims, the symbol of Islamic Internationalism. But now, unbelievers roamed in his very palace. What did this mean for the future of Islam?
One segment of the Muslims took this as a sign of changing times. Kamal Ataturk, a thoroughly westernized Army officer of the Turkish Empire, took matters into his own hands, and deposed the defeated Caliph, imposing a military secular dictatorship in Turkey in 1919, one year after the War. The Islamic Caliphate thus came to an end.
This did not, however, go down well with many Muslims, and it remains to this day, one of their principal grievances. Both the Islamic State (IS / ISIS / ISIL) and Osama Bin Laden have sought to right this injustice, as they see it. It is safe to say that the reverberations of the end of the Caliphate are going to continue to rock our world for the foreseeable future.
About the same time, and taking advantage of the chaos in the Middle East following the War, the Saudi family, in partnership with the Wahabis, a most reactionary and regressive sect of Islam, seized power in Arabia, the birth place of Islam. They created the modern state of Saudi Arabia, that to this day, is the principal sponsor of Islamic evangelism around the world.
The sole “Victors” of the War, if it can be called such, were the Americans. But few saw this at the time, including the Americans. The USA profited greatly from the War, by selling weapons, food and all manner of supplies to the British and French. Yet, when time came to distribute the political prizes from the Victory, the Americans simply walked away. They entered into no treaty obligations, and thus, took on no power or responsibility. At the time, the USA seemed content solely with the money they made.
Everything as before?
After four years of War, Europe was tired, and on November 11, 1918, the German Army surrendered, and fighting ceased. The World let out a collective sigh of relief. The victors were too busy celebrating, and there was upheaval in the defeated countries. On all sides, there were too many dead and wounded soldiers, and mourning families. In fact, a new world – our world – had been born in those four years, yet, no one really saw it at the time.
Indeed, as the treaties were drawn up at the end of the War, it seemed like everything was just like as it was before the War began.
The British Empire was still the primary world power, and the French were still in an alliance with them. The “upstarts”, the Germans, had been shown their place, and rightly humiliated. The Americans had made a lot of money, but no one really cared about them, and they seemed just as disinterested in everyone else. Something sinister was going on in Russia, but that land was too distant and too frozen for anyone to care about.
In physics, as in life, there is a principle of inertia.
Things continue to move as they were moving earlier, unless a force is applied. But the direction of the moving object does not change immediately on applying the force. Rather, the process is much more gradual.
First the object slows, then it stops, and only after it has reached a complete stop, does it start to move on the new course. Even now, it first begins very slowly, but as we continue to apply force on it, it speeds up, going faster and faster and faster…
The direction is changed
It is this same physical principle that we see in full display at the end of the War in 1919.
In 1919, the Royal Regalia of The British Empire was still in full display, but behind the facade, there was a bankruptcy. Huge debts were owed to the US, and the Army was depleted. These fundamental forces were already at work, and would in less than 30 years cause the Empire to literally vanish.
In 1919, the Indians were without representation at all levels of Government. But they had seen the Empire’s weakness, and would in coming years grow more & more vocal in their demands, leading to freedom in 1947.
Pacifism would strengthen in France, and they would continue to lose faith in their British and American allies. The French Army would collapse in the opening days of the Second World War, and soon after, the French would collaborate actively with the Germans – a partnership that would continue after the War (NATO and the European Common Market), and which continues to this day (the European Union).
The Germans, although for the moment defeated and humiliated, were already, in terms of industrial strength the principal power in Europe. They would continue to build upon this strength, leading to the absolute supremacy of the Nazis over all of Europe until 1942. Germany is today the strongest economy in the EU, literally bankrolling the entire continent. (Germany drives the Eurozone).
Outside of Europe, that sinister political-economic movement of Communism had made its debut in Russia. While at the time, Russia was primarily rural and very poor, the communists would consolidate power, and emerge by the mid-1940s as the most powerful country in the world.
The powerful propaganda of the Communists, and the contribution of women during the War, would also lead to new laws all over Europe, regarding workspace equality between Men and Women and the formation of trade unions.
Finally, unable to ignore the contribution of the working class to the War, whose women had served in the factories, and whose men has served on the Front, universal voting rights were announced and implemented in all European countries soon after the War.
The United States, although content with simply money, had shown its usefulness and its power to Europe. In the coming decades, it would be drawn more and more into European affairs, ultimately leading to the D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944. By the end of the Second World War, it would find itself re-building all of Europe via the Marshall Plan.
It is clear to see that though the First World War had little if any immediate impact, the forces unleashed by it reshaped the World long after the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles. In fact, it lay the foundation of the modern world, its political boundaries, and the social and economic structures that we so take for granted.
But why was the War so influential?
It is because the fundamental assumptions of life had changed. It is not the War that bankrupted the British Empire – rather the deficiency existed already, and the War merely exposed it. In the same vein, the alliance of the French with the British was artificial, and all the War served to do was expose this anomaly.
Germany, before the War, was already one of the largest economies in Europe, with some of the highest productivity, and it would be foolish to think that they could be kept down forever. Conversely, Russia was little more than a peasant country in 1914, quite unable to compete with the highly industrialized countries of Western Europe. The global ambitions of the Russian monarchy were the reasons for their undoing.
With regards to India, the Empire was always reliant on Indians at all levels of administration and especially in the police and the army. Without these Indians, there could be no Empire in India. Yet, by an act of great delusion, these Indian felt themselves to be powerless. However, the First World War opened their eyes to a world of possibilities, let them travel the world, and bring back those experiences to their homeland, and their lives. What happened next was only natural.
In other words, the fundamental forces behind the massive changes were already in motion long before the War. And in 1914, that point was reached that they could be suppressed no more.
Beware the fundamental forces!!!