A Hinge Year of the First World War and the Twentieth Century

Jörn Leonhard
Jörn Leonhard | Photo (detail): Hanspeter Trefzer

Each year of the First World War had its own drama and dynamics. In 1917, however, developments came together and processes accelerated as in virtually no other year. Although the outcome of these developments remained unclear for the time being, and the consequences could not be foreseen, things began to move in the eyes of contemporaries.

Modern war and new alliances

To begin with, the crises following the major battles of attrition in 1916 – at Ver-dun and the Somme in Western Europe but also in Galicia on the Eastern Front – forced new answers in 1917: Militarily and technologically, these involved aerial warfare that had less and less to do with “chivalrous combat”; stepping up submarine warfare against supply convoys; and developing modern tanks, which would be used in vast numbers for the first time in late 1917 by the Allies against the German front line in order to break the stalemate of the trench warfare on the Western Front. Modern, twentieth-century warfare had finally arrived. Politically, all sides were looking for new alliances and allies: in Europe, with the Greek entry into the war; in the Near and Middle East, where the capture of Jerusalem by the British General Allenby in December 1917 seemed to confirm the successes of the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule; in Asia, where China declared war on the German Empire; or in South America, where Brazil and others joined the war.

Disillusionment turned to protest

But 1917 also linked the military and home fronts in new ways. In France, the enormous efforts to launch a last great offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1917 raised soldiers’ expectations that this campaign would be able to end the war. When the Nivelle Offensive, which had started with such high hopes, failed with huge numbers of casualties, disappointment and disillusionment turned to resistance and protest. In May and June 1917, there were mutinies in more than sixty divisions on the Western Front, while thousands of workers, especially women, went on strike at home. But this was neither a pacifist mass movement nor a socialist revolution of soldiers and workers. The soldiers rather fought for more dignified conditions to continue the war against the German aggressors and occupiers of their country.

The February Revolution of 1917

While the French soldiers and (female) workers invoked the values of their democratic and egalitarian republic, the urban masses in Russia challenged the very foundations of the traditional order of the Tsarist Russian Empire, when the combination of military defeats and internal exhaustion came to a head in the spring of 1917. The fusion of war and revolution, the toppling of a ruler who, in the summer of 1914, had still symbolized national unity and order, and his and his family’s execution seventeen months later, revealed a new dimension of violence and upheaval. When the Provisional Government, which had emerged from the February Revolution, continued the war against the Allies in Petrograd under the leadership of War Minister Alexander Kerensky, this gave an enormous boost to the Bolsheviks around Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who, in April 1917, had been smuggled from Zurich to Russia with active help from the Germans. Promising peace, bread, and land, they appealed to both the soldiers on the front and the workers in the factories. After the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, the army’s cohesion unraveled. More and more soldiers wanted to be home for the solution of the land question and deserted by the thousands. 

An entirely new constellation in Eastern Europe

This dissolution of military and governmental structures was a key opportunity for the Bolsheviks, who used it in October 1917. The October Revolution resulted in an entirely new constellation in Eastern Europe: To the outside, the Bolsheviks ended the war that had started in the summer of 1914 and, in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, withdrew from the alliance against the Central Powers, suffering enormous territorial losses. While Leo Trotsky was convinced that the world revolution would soon unfold also in Western Europe, Lenin recognized the need to first consolidate his power at home. The result was a bloody civil war that, until the early 1920s, claimed more lives than the war against the Central Powers since 1914. 

The United States enters the war

The spring of 1917 not only marked a decisive change in Europe’s east. The United States’ entry into the war even further globalized the war. The decision in Washington was not just an American response to the German leadership’s position to force the war’s end and to respond to the British blockade, which had claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of German civilians, with unrestricted submarine warfare. By leading his country into war, the American president Woodrow Wilson pursued his own agenda, challenging the country’s traditional concentration on its own transatlantic and Pacific hemisphere.

By 1917, Great Britain and France had long since relied on American capital and military equipment, making the governments of David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau also more strongly dependent on Wilson’s policies than be-fore. The latter’s global policy agenda now set priorities that necessarily challenged the self-confidence of Great Britain and France as European major powers and global colonial powers. 

Ideal of national self-determination

As early as January 1917, the American president developed his vision of a new global order based on the ideal of national self-determination. Small nations should be put on a par with the established powers. This idea(l) was linked to Wilson’s view of the roots of the war, among which he counted the suppression of many nationalities in continental Europe. It was also a critique of the classical traditions of European secret diplomacy, which he saw as another main cause of the world war.

Almost simultaneously, the Bolsheviks marked a radical break with the past, which met with great international response. They were no sooner in power than they not only published all treaties that the Tsar had concluded with the Entente, thereby programmatically rejecting the tradition of imperialist secret diplomacy; they also advocated the principle of self-determination, which mobilized many national movements and accelerated the break-up of the multi-ethnic Russian Empire. They also pointed to the possibilities of anti-colonial liberation struggles around the world. 

Competition of new utopias

1917 witnessed the beginning of a competition of new utopias, with democratic intervention in the name of capitalism and liberal internationalism on the one hand and world revolution and internationalized civil war on the other. How much Wilson feared that the Bolsheviks’ narrative could win out worldwide be-came evident in late 1917. Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points of January 1918 were a response to this constellation and an ideological offensive to rally the public around his agenda. While the Bolsheviks first had to prevail in a civil war, the “Wilsonian peace” became the global projection surface for a new global order defined by democratic self-government and national self-determination. 

The global expansion of the war

Wilson’s program fueled the global expansion of the war. The wave of new declarations of war in 1917 brought new expectations, which were further and further removed from the European contexts but were to affect them in the long term. The new ideals were not only a promise to the national groups of the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, they applied not solely to the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks, but also to the Irish, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and Koreans. The new ideas inspired anti-colonial movements in India, Asia, and Africa. Within a short period of time, Wilson himself became a symbol of the potential for political change once the war was over. The end of the war was overburdened with contradictory expectations, which were to intersect in Paris in 1919. While the American war propaganda of 1917 struck a deep chord in India and many Asian societies, the tensions between the new partners in Washington, London, and Paris increased – a foretaste of the problems at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

The collapse of old orders

1917 was also the year of exploratory peace talks – in the German Reichstag in the summer, at the initiative of the new Habsburg Emperor Charles I, finally at the suggestion of Pope Benedict XV. However, all peace efforts failed, since the military situation in 1917 remained unsolved and no side wanted to weaken its position by making concessions. The belief that victory was still possible fostered high expectations that the war would end soon. At the same time, these hopes also contained the possibility of turning to disappointment, to the sudden collapse of old orders. After four years of war, the regimes and wartime societies more and more resembled houses where only the outside walls were left standing, ready to col-lapse at the next hit. The answer to the question of who would have more stamina in the final stretch and force the enemy’s disintegration seemed the key point for many. 

Taking stock of 1917

1917 was the year that revealed the mechanism of the paradoxical self-prolongation of the war through itself: the more victims and sacrifices it claimed, the less chance for a peace settlement based on compromise, and the greater the focus on a victory whose conditions had to justify all earlier victims and sacrifices. This mechanism continued until one side broke down under the relentless stress. Whose side this would be would remain unclear until the late summer of 1918. At the beginning of 1918, the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau took stock of the year 1917. Russia had withdrawn from the war, but the American forces on the European continent were not yet strong enough to decide the war. For Clemenceau, what mattered now was the existential connection between the home front and the military front, loyalty and national cohesion in war. And he recognized the fine line between victory and defeat. In this situation, the winners would be those who are able to mobilize their moral forces one more time, however briefly: “The longer the war goes on, the more we see a crisis of morale, a crisis that spells the end of every war. ... ‘The winner is he who is able to believe, for even a quarter of an hour longer than his opponent, that he is not defeated.’“