There is a tendency to think of wartime as a special time when domestic policy-making lies suspended and the focus shifts to battles and diplomacy. Yet it is important to consider the ways in which domestic social life and politics carry on and change in wartime. The First World War shaped, and was shaped by, the politics of the home front. As the war dragged on and it seemed that victory on the battlefield would be elusive, increasingly both sides hoped to damage each other heavily enough so that people on the home front would grow weary and demand surrender.
The two most cohesive countries before the war, France and Germany, remained solidly supportive of the war effort, even when both countries were severely strained in 1917 and 1918. At the start of the war, people in both countries decided to put aside their political differences for the sake of unity. The war was supported by all political parties as well as by trade unions and religious leaders. If in France censorship was not a main factor in improving morale, the German government, an authoritarian regime, instituted heavy censorship in the hope of maintaining order and morale.
In August 1914 Premier René Viviani established a national government that included Jules Guesde, the first Socialist in a Third Republic cabinet. The government also shelved its plan to arrest dissidents, and suspended laws banning religious orders. But the union sacrée, the ideological union of all French people on the basis of patriotism, was more apparent than real; it foundered in the bloodletting of the war. By 1917 the French government had to contend with army mutinies, anti-war agitation, work stoppages, even domestic sabotage in munitions factories and power plants. Georges Clemenceau became prime minister.
To increase industrial production in France, the government had to demobilize from the army half a million skilled workers; it also temporarily assigned other soldiers to war work. Loss of industrial capacity in territory captured by the German Army in 1914 forced the French into growing economic dependence on Britain. These lands had produced three-quarters of the nation’s coal and four-fifths of her iron and steel. Despite the crippling presence of German soldiers occupying productive areas of the nation, French industry achieved a great deal.
1917 was the year of maximum strain for France. With the Germans still on her soil, France continued to fight for her very existence although the fierce patriotism of 1914 had largely given way to weary resignation. The malaise and restlessness which followed Verdun was heightened by the Russian Revolution and the failure of the Nivelle offensive, becoming manifest in increased anti-war activities and propaganda from pacifist and defeatist elements in French society. Food shortages worsened in 1917. However, France's food supplies were never so precarious as those of Britain and Germany.
German unity began to break down with the poor harvests of late 1916 and the harsh winter of 1916-1917. Food prices rose faster than wages, which provoked disgruntlement. In 1916 and 1917, complaints were made more vociferously by socialists and trade-unionists. The government responded to their appeals for more democracy by leaning more to the right. Increasingly, Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had more of a say in the day-to-day operations of the government at home.
Germany was hard hit by the British blockade, certainly one of the most important factors in her defeat. The naval blockades of Germany and Austria-Hungary probably resulted in the death of more than a million people. Even in peacetime Germany imported 20 percent of her food and much of her raw materials. Her military planners knew that after 18 months of a blockade the food situation would become critical, but they expected to win the war before that happened. Under Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff the High Command took full control of the economy, demanding greater production of war goods.
The war deprived the German people of basic necessities. The food problem had arisen early. In the winter of 1916-1917 it was coal. Then came serious shortages of such essentials as clothing (especially shoes) and housing. Even soap was in short supply. Civil unrest began to rise, with strikes and demonstrations on the rise throughout 1917-18.
In Italy the government of Antonio Salandra leaned to the right. Factories were put under military control and the press and politics were censored. Socialists gave their implied support by not speaking out against the war, but they tended not to speak out in favor of the war either. By 1916, Italian casualties against Austria and Germany, combined with falling living standards and shortages of food, provided the pretext for demonstrations in a number of Italian cities.
Italy was hard hit by the war. Less well off economically than her Western allies, she was not well suited to the demands of industrial war. During the conflict about half the males in rural areas were taken into the military. This depleted the countryside of laborers, especially in the rural south where 75 percent of the rural workforce was male.
Britain began the war with unprecedented unity across the lines of class, politics, and religion. In Britain there was unity but there was also robust debate about certain aspects of the war. The British government walked the fine line between repression and democracy. Critics forced the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a coalition government with conservatives. Continued failure to make progress on the Western Front made it possible for a more right-leaning Liberal, David Lloyd George, to replace Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916. In Britain, censorship and repression increased, most famously in Ireland.
The Irish Volunteers, with more than ten thousand members, smuggled weapons from Germany and drilled surreptitiously. At Easter in 1916, a group of more than a thousand armed Irish nationalists seized the main post office in Dublin along with several other buildings, hoping to spark a wider insurrection. The insurrection did not occur, as most Irish remained loyal. In a matter of days the nationalists found themselves surrounded by twenty thousand British troops who pummeled them with artillery. With much of central Dublin ruined, the rebels surrendered. The British court-martialed and shot the leaders.
In August 1914 Parliament’s Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) gave the government extraordinary power in a number of areas including the economy. DORA’s provisions were periodically amended and expanded as the need to manage the economy grew. With time came price controls, import/export regulation, subsidies for agriculture, manipulation of labor to specific wartime industries, and in 1918 food rationing.
Questions of national identity played a more prominent role in the war effort of Austria-Hungary. In fact, competing national identities played a large role in the disintegration of the empire. Subjects of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz-Joseph, experienced authoritarian rule and censorship that was similar to Germany’s, although the Austrian half of the empire was more repressive than the Hungarian half. Members of the core German-speaking and Hungarian-speaking nationalities remained loyal, as did other groups that stood to benefit from clear association with the Central Powers, while others such as the Slavs preferred autonomy, and even independence from the empire.
The war hit hard economically. No provisions were made for a war lasting more than a few weeks and Vienna merely relied on Berlin supplying what it needed. Austrian shell output never reached more than a million rounds per month, even in 1916 when the Germans produced seven million and the Russians more than four million. One of the chief problems was the lack of centralization, with both Vienna and Budapest going their separate ways, and as the war wore on the ties binding Hungary to Austria grew more tenuous.
In January 1918 Czech, Pole, and Yugoslav representatives to the Austria Reichsrat called for sovereign constituent assemblies in the empire’s different linguistic divisions. Three months later, Czechs and Yugoslavs demonstrated in Prague and took an oath to continue the struggle for independence. In June the French government recognized the Czechoslovaks’ ‘right to independence’. At the end of the war the various minorities that were part of the empire seceded from it forming their own national states, or joining the already existing ones, like Romania.
In the Ottoman Empire, the core Turkish people remained strongly nationalist and supportive of the war effort, while the rest of the empire began to fragment. With the exception of the Armenians, it cannot be said that the many component groups of the Ottoman Empire were nationalist. The Arabs and Kurds who lived under the Ottoman Empire were semi autonomous and did not think of themselves as Arabs and Kurds so much as they thought of themselves as devoted Muslims who spoke different languages and resisted central authority. The war presented them with opportunities to make inroads against central authority.
The war had profound effects on Russia. While modern in many ways, in others Russia remained virtually medieval. In August 1914 the monarchy benefited from a wave of patriotic support. This soon ended. As the war continued and defeats and economic dislocation multiplied, discontent increased. Tsar Nicholas called the parliament to session only once, in the summer of 1915. When it met, liberals demanded more say in the government but Nicholas refused the request. He and his officials ran the country’s war effort directly and the Tsar even took personal command of the army in September 1915.
Rasputin’s assassination exposed only the tip of the iceberg. In the decade before the war, Russian industrial production had boomed, with many people migrating to the cities in search of work. The war years only accelerated these changes. Working conditions were often terrible. On top of that, working men resented being drafted for the Tsar’s army, while city dwellers resented shortages of food and supplies.
While the Tsar was away at headquarters in Mogilev, domestic matters worsened. The Tsar’s wife, Alexandra, was deeply unpopular, partly due to her German ancestry, partly on account of the way in which she allowed herself to be influenced by Grigorii Rasputin, a mystic and healer who apparently had the ability to alleviate the hemophilia of Nicholas and Alexandra’s only son, Alexei. Rasputin was assassinated.
On 25 February 1917, female factory workers in Petrograd went on strike, demonstrating for more bread and better working conditions while also demanding an end to Tsarism. Within a few days, several hundred thousand workers joined them. When Tsar Nicholas ordered Petrograd’s troops to disperse the crowds, some units instead killed their officers and defended the protesters. Members of parliament gathered and called on Nicholas to step down from the throne. Members of parliament quickly formed what was called the Provisional Government, intending to rule until a new constitution was put in place.
The Provisional Government’s authority was contested by a new type of authority, the soviet, which means ‘council’ in Russian. Throughout Russia, local soviets of workers and educated people, including soldiers and sailors, met together and began to pass and enforce laws, superseding the authority of local governments as well as the central government. These laws extended from mundane matters to matters of national importance. The Petrograd Soviet had enough military and naval force under its control to intimidate the Provisional Government and to force the Tsar to abdicate.
During this time, one leader, Alexander Kerensky, was able to unify the country behind the war effort. Kerensky was a young lawyer and moderate socialist who served as a member of parliament and also served as a member of the Petrograd Soviet. Deriving authority from both bodies, he served first as the Provisional Government’s Minister of Justice and eventually the Prime Minister. He promoted Brusilov to the position of Chief of Staff, and together they began to plan a new offensive against the Austrians. In July the Bolsheviks decided that the time was ripe to seize power in Petrograd, but Kerensky was able to find enough loyal troops to stop them.
Germany launched an offensive against what had been Russia’s strongest defenses, in the Baltic region just to the west of Petrograd. In October, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky, staged a successful coup in Petrograd. Lenin announced that a new government was forming that would redistribute land and make peace. The Bolsheviks declared a truce that the Germans accepted. During that time, the two sides negotiated the terms of surrender at Brest-Litovsk. The Bolsheviks turned their attention to internal problems and began to form a Red Army to defend their territory against their opponents in a looming civil war.
The First World War, unlike Europe’s last major conflict (the Franco-German War of 1870-71), involved entire societies. All warring governments greatly increased control over their citizens during the war. Each imposed some degree of censorship, attempting to control the flow of news to their citizens both for reasons of morale and for military security. Governments extended power over their national economies. In this the Entente benefited from its substantially greater economic base, probably the key factor in its victory.
Not only did the war affect national economies, it profoundly altered social structures as well. In 1914 political power in European states was still exercised by small groups of men drawn from the upper classes. Seemingly secure, by 1918 these elites had either disappeared or were badly weakened. The war also exacerbated the desire for national homelands.
The war also brought profound political changes, although some of what seemed significant at the time was actually slight. Europe’s middle classes were hard hit by the war, for inflation robbed them of their savings. Their economic losses, coupled with social changes, produced disillusionment. This in turn led to instability, an instability exploited by radical political groups.
The war dramatically affected the status of women, many of whom served the war effort directly. Although some progress was temporary in that it was for the war only, the First World War accelerated trends which were already underway in the professions and politics. Women’s rights achieved greater gains in the four years of the war than during the preceding generation of female activism. In at least one area most European women gained lasting progress: governments granted them the right to vote after the war. In 1919 Lady Nancy Astor was elected to the House of Commons, the first woman to serve in a European parliament.