As this is the anniversary year of the start of the First World War, it is sure to be the topic of much conversation in 2014. Doubtless, as has already been the case here, there will be a great deal of debate over who was responsible for the war, who caused it, what set it off and how terrible the consequences were. This article will not go into any of those issues as they have been covered here in the past (see the archives). However, one can sometimes tell a great deal about who the driving forces behind any given conflict were by observing who benefited the most from it. This is not always the case to be sure as sometimes countries with little to no involvement in starting a war can sail in at the last minute and benefit immensely from being on the winning side. However, probably more often than not, seeing who benefited the most from a war or conflict can be quite illuminating. Sometimes one can gain a much clearer picture of what a conflict was all about by seeing who gained the most from it. World War II, for example, is often touted as the conflict that saved the world from “fascist” domination, yet, before or even at the height of Axis expansion, not much of the world was threatened. Afterwards, however, communism came to dominate most of Asia, southeast Asia, eastern Europe and large parts of Africa and Central and South America. It is easy to see who benefited the most from that war.
World War II also changed the existing world order. The victorious Allies established themselves as the United Nations with the United States and Soviet Union as the two super-powers with Great Britain, France and China also holding veto power so that only these countries could determine when or where any future war would be deemed acceptable. That was quite a change from the way the world had operated before when there had been a larger balance of powers between the United States, the British and French empires, the Kingdom of Italy, the Soviet Union, the Empire of Japan and smaller regional alliances such as in the Balkans. The world we live in today is the product of World War II and the new world order the Allies established after their victory. Not many seem to make the connection, however, this all had with World War I. Most know that World War II likely would not have happened had there been no World War I, yet, they do not always understand that the victorious Allies, after the First World War, tried to establish a new world order in the same way the Allies did after the Second World War, they just were not as successful at it.
So, who gained the most from World War I? Some gained relatively little in terms of territory but it varied in value and some gained independence. Poland gained (or rather regained) independence as did Czechoslovakia which had never been a country before. The Kingdom of Romania gained a great deal, having joined the war on the promise of extensive gains (mostly from Hungary) and were determined to see those promises fulfilled. The Kingdom of Italy, on the other hand, was promised extensive territory but, in the end, gained relatively little and were cut out of their promised share of the German colonies entirely. The Kingdom of Serbia was a completely different story and part of the reason that the promises to Italy were not kept was because the extensive promises made to the Serbs were kept. Serbia gained Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Dalmatia, Slovenia and everything that eventually became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Essentially, this was the “Greater Serbia” that local nationalists had been dreaming of for years. So, Serbia was one country that gained pretty much everything they had wanted before the war began. Moving into western Europe, the Kingdom of Belgium gained relatively little. There was talk of giving Luxembourg to Belgium but that never came about. Belgium gained a tiny bit of German territory and gained some small but valuable territories in central Africa which their colonial forces had taken during the conflict.
Certainly among the Allies, no two countries gained more territorially than Britain and France. The French Republic made out like bandits, regaining Alsace-Lorraine, occupying part of Germany for a time, most of Cameroon, half of Togo and the mandates of Lebanon and Syria from what had been the Ottoman Empire. The British Empire, already the largest in the world, grew to its peak of territorial expansion after World War I with even the “colonies” having “colonies” of their own. The British Empire gained half of Togo, some border territories of Cameroon, all of German Southwest Africa, the vast majority of German East Africa, the mandates of Palestine, Jordan and Iraq in the Middle East, German New Guinea and the southernmost German islands in the Pacific (the northern islands went to Japan as did the German port in China but this was only temporary and was handed back to China later). The British had also benefited from eliminating Germany as an industrial, colonial and naval competitor and France benefited from the destruction of Germany, becoming once again the most powerful country entirely in Europe. France also received, as did others to varying degrees, or was supposed to receive massive amounts of monetary reparations from Germany for the large part of France that had been devastated in the fighting on the western front.
That leaves, of the major Allied nations, only the United States and Russia. The Russian Empire, obviously, gained the least as it ended up in the red (in more ways than one!) with the Russian Empire being destroyed and with formerly Russian controlled areas such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland becoming independent. Of course, Russia would have lost more had the Central Powers been victorious and thus if the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had remained in effect. In the immediate aftermath of World War I it was also even money if Russia would not have lost more territory as areas under the control of White Russian forces tried to break away from the grip of the Bolsheviks. The United States, so it appeared, gained nothing at all and the U.S. President at the time, the progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, certainly liked to play up that point of the United States being the impartial broker which sought no gains or conquests. However, appearances can be quite deceiving. Certainly the U.S. gained no territory from the war, but almost every Allied nation in Europe had become heavily indebted to the United States as a result of the conflict, putting America in a very strong position to influence these powers. The British, in particular, had gone deeply into debt by borrowing from America and that would be significant as the United States had already been a larger economic rival to Britain than Germany had been and was afterwards set to totally dominate. Likewise, while not seeking territory for the United States, President Wilson did try his best to see others deprived of it. He objected to any acquisitions by the Empire of Japan and it was only because of French and British support for Japan that Wilson was unsuccessful. The reason behind this was that the United States was already looking at Japan as an economic rival for the lucrative markets of China.
However, Wilson could afford to be magnanimous about territory as he considered this a relatively minor detail in terms of what he wanted for America. His biggest problem, however, turned out to be a total disconnect between what he wanted and what the people back in the United States wanted. What Wilson had his eye on was the aforementioned new world order that was expected to come out of the First World War. This was entirely the “baby” of Woodrow Wilson as the European Allies had little real interest in it, at least at first, being more concerned with the usual acquisition of conquered territory and enlarging their empires. Wilson was fully prepared to sacrifice a number of his previous, lofty, ideals in order to see his vision of the League of Nations brought to life. The intention was for this to be everything that the United Nations came to be after the Second World War. Wilson had a vision of the world that looked liked this: The German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires were eliminated, the French and British empires were deeply in debt to the United States and then there would be a League of Nations to ensure that the new world order would be one that this international organization dominated. And who would dominate that organization? It seems clear the answer would be the United States of America which by then possessed the dominant economy, had the greatest industrial output, which had eliminated other potential rivals and which had France and Britain in its debt.
That dream of Wilson might well have been achieved were it not for his own imperious temperament. The Republican Party, already not fond of the idea of the United States being subject to an international organization, was completely cut out of the peace process by Wilson and had absolutely no desire to cooperate with his settlement in any way. They opposed his post-war vision as well as the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson was thus left in the awkward position of having been the “father” of the League of Nations only to have his own country refuse to join (which he blamed on German and Irish immigrants in America). The U.S. Senate likewise refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and so America remained technically at war with Germany for some time longer until a separate peace was agreed to. Wilson may have called the Great War the campaign to “make the world safe for democracy” but the post-war world he envisioned was one that would be dominated by the United States and he sacrificed all of his idealistic “14 Points” (on which he had promised peace to Germany) just to get Britain and France to go along with this plan which his own people ended up rejecting. The American people were not impressed with the war or its results and entered a period of (relative) isolationism.
So, in the end, the U.S. did not gain that much (the big gains would have to wait until after World War II) and while Britain did gain a great deal it was somewhat illusory. They had gone deeply into debt and had rather overstretched themselves, gaining a great deal more land and people on top of already being the largest empire in the whole of human history. They also lost out in the long run by buying into their own propaganda about the lofty, democratic ideals of the war and the evils of colonialism (not good for the largest colonial power) and by being so beholden to the United States and seemingly reluctant to stand on their own without American support. This led to near disaster in the lead-up to World War II when an overstretched British Empire alienated Italy (which sat astride Malta and could threaten Suez) over a colonial war in Africa and then broke off their alliance with Japan in favor of the United States, turning a defender of the British Empire in Asia into a major threat to key British possessions. Ultimately, Britain did not do nearly so well as it seemed on the surface.
Really, the two countries that left the Great War the most satisfied were Serbia and France. The Serbs had their “Greater Serbia” in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia while France had regained Alsace-Lorraine, avenged the humiliation of 1870 and took back from Germany the status of being the strongest continental power. Is it any wonder then that a Serbian nationalist fired the first shot of the war or that the French ambassador in Russia had worked so feverishly to turn a Balkan conflict into a pan-European world war? It seems to make sense, though, as we know, even in the case of Serbia and that of France, their situation was not as good as it seemed. Serbia inherited all of the ethnic problems of Austria-Hungary without any of the unifying factors to combat them that the House of Hapsburg had. We all know what fate eventually befell Yugoslavia. As for France, they had been wounded terribly, were driven deep into debt, drew the wrong conclusions from the conflict and their punitive actions against Germany left an anger and desire for revenge on the east side of the Rhine just as real and just as vociferous as that which they felt after Sedan and the fall of Paris. Just as, after the Franco-Prussian War, France had been determined that there would be another war, so also many in Germany were then determined that one day they would see France crushed. These, and a great many other blunders and bruised feelings, all ended up culminating in World War II and western civilization and the world as a whole would never be the same again. Some may have won more than others in World War I but, ultimately, all the major powers of the world of 1914 lost in the end.