Skip to main content

How a century-old war affects you

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
June 15, 2014 -- Updated 1756 GMT (0156 HKT)
  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: 100 years ago this summer, World War I began. Its legacies still resonate
  • She says its carnage was unprecedented; it changed military, sparked innovations
  • She says empires fell, borders shifted, new words emerged, and women's roles changed
  • Ben-Ghiat: Begun after an assassination, it would draw in 30 nations, upending the world

Editor's note: This is the first in a series on the legacies of World War I. It will appear on in the weeks leading up to the 100-year anniversary of the war's outbreak in August. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, guest editor for the series, is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. A specialist in 20th century European and Italian history, she writes and lectures on the world wars, dictatorships and empire. Her forthcoming book (January 2015) is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- World War I began a hundred years ago this summer, but for many of us it might as well be a thousand. We know it, if we know it at all, as a dimly remembered chapter in high school history, or as scenes from old black-and-white movies of soldiers hunkered in trenches doing battle with Germans in pointy helmets. It was all too real for more than 65 million men from some 30 nations who were plunged into carnage the likes of which the world had never before seen.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Every one of those soldiers is dead, and the causes they fought for are lost on many of us. Yet this "war to end all wars" is not a remote event. In fact, World War I changed the world forever, and its effects are all around us.

To begin with, it rewrote history at the grandest level: Empires fell, and new nations--Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Poland among them-- were born in the ashes. Leaders of the still-powerful French and British empires used the conflict to redraw borders in ways that set the stage for future conflicts that stretch on today, in the Middle East, for example.


The first World War began August 4, 1914, in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28 of that year. In the next two months, will feature articles on the weapons of war, its language, the role of women, battlefield injuries and the rise of aerial surveillance.

But there is much more. The first mass conflict among industrialized nations, World War I upended the way war was fought. The weapons it introduced -- submarines, machine guns, poison gas, grenades, tanks -- are all still part of our arsenals. And it was World War I that made airpower and strategic bombing central to the success of any future war. Trench warfare traumatized both soldiers and landscapes, and informed art and literature for years. It would reappear as a battlefield strategy in both the Korean War and in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

At home and on the battlefield, World War I put new objects and words into circulation: "cooties" are something no kid wants to get, but for GIs in the trenches, they were real and they were lice; and sanitary napkins developed from the handy alternative use nurses found for cellulose bandage material produced for the war. The war popularized Kleenex and tea bags and zippers.

In fact, every time you admire an aircraft carrier, eat a meatless sausage, sit under a sun lamp, wear a Burberry trench coat, or set your clock ahead for daylight saving time, you are reaching back to commune with World War I.

The dawn of chemical weapons

French soldiers sing the national anthem at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. This "war to end all wars" might seem like ancient history, but it changed the world forever. It transformed the way war was fought, upended cultures and home life and stimulated innovations that affect us today. With more than 30 combatant nations and nearly 70 million men mobilized, World War I profoundly destabilized the international order. Look back at some of the war's key events. French soldiers sing the national anthem at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. This "war to end all wars" might seem like ancient history, but it changed the world forever. It transformed the way war was fought, upended cultures and home life and stimulated innovations that affect us today. With more than 30 combatant nations and nearly 70 million men mobilized, World War I profoundly destabilized the international order. Look back at some of the war's key events.
World War I: A time of upheaval
Photos: World War I Photos: World War I

World War I's new weapons caused previously unseen and horrific kinds of injuries, and scientists raced to develop protections against them -- or to make even more lethal versions to use against the enemy. Poison gas was first used on a mass scale by the Germans in April 1915 during the second battle of Ypres, and cloths strapped over the mouth and nose were at first the only protection.

Gas masks evolved quickly, though, and by the end of the war even some horses and dogs at the front had their own. The horrors of gas attacks resonate today in the reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, and, earlier, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and the world still struggles to contain them.

All told, more than 9 million died in the conflict, and 21 million were wounded, psychologically scarring a generation. Soldiers were at pains to explain this new human experience of battle to those back home.

The English poet Siegfried Sassoon had this to say in 1917 about his time at the front: "I'm back from hell/With loathsome thoughts to sell/Secrets of death to tell;/ And horrors from the abyss." Many others had no more words: these victims of "war exhaustion," (the label of shell shock became more common) had trouble speaking: they are the forefathers of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder today.

"Every time you admire an aircraft carrier, eat a meatless sausage, sit under a sun lamp, wear a Burberry trench coat, or set your clock ahead for daylight saving time, you are reaching back to commune with World War I."

Likewise the scale and type of physical injuries challenged the ingenuity of prosthesis designers, whose work to replace lost body parts would enable countless soldiers to return to productive civilian life, a process echoed today as soldiers from recent wars recover from the toll of roadside bombs.

World War I also set the stage for future conflicts, by breaking down barriers between military and civilian life. While soldiers fought at the battlefront, civilian women and men built their weapons, distributed food and propaganda, and kept the home front running. Women gained new visibility in society, moving into the jobs vacated by enlisted men.

They drove streetcars, smelted iron, built bombs and then, after a long day at the factory, scrounged for food for their families. Civilians working for the war effort meant that anyone could be a target: German Fokker planes attacked at the front, but Zeppelin airships bombed London and Paris. "Total war" made the home front a dangerous place.

This war left few things unchanged in its path, even in lands that saw no fighting. Although it was mainly fought in Europe, it awakened many to the scope and diversity of the planet. "The entire world is participating in the war!" a French almanac exclaimed in 1917, showing its readers a map of the world divided into enemy, ally, and neutral peoples. Whether as laborers or soldiers, Europeans went to other countries, and millions of Americans, Africans and Asians came to Europe.

'Trapped in a net of woe'

More than two million United States soldiers fought in Europe, and the British and French empires brought over their colonial subjects. "We perish in the desert; you wash yourself and lie in bed," wrote an Indian soldier to his wife in September 1915. "We are trapped in a net of woe; while you go free. Our life is a living death."

How did Europe arrive at this state of catastrophe? The assassination of Austrian-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914 by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip caused an international crisis that led in just over a month to multiple mobilizations.

The Archduke, traveling in an open car, was in Sarajevo to inspect imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were among the former Ottoman territories annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908, angering Serbian nationalists such as Princip.

"The scale and type of physical injuries challenged the ingenuity of prosthesis designers, whose work to replace lost body parts would enable countless soldiers to return to productive civilian life."

After the assassination, Austria-Hungary gave Serbia an ultimatum, causing Russia to intervene to protect its Serbian client state, and Germany to help its Austrian ally. And so it all began: the military obligations imposed by the system of alliances drew one power after another into combat.

All parties thought the war would be a short one; none imagined the speed with which the conflict would degenerate into a series of local atrocities (the Belgians became the conflict's first group of refugees, as they fled German rape and plunder) and mass slaughter across many fronts.

The habituation to violence and the acceptance of these lethal new inventions is one of World War I's most unfortunate legacies. Chemical weapons provides a case in point. Their effectiveness, as proved by the precedent of World War I, has given them a permanent place in many state arsenals, despite the paper trail of international agreements meant to ban their use. Democracies and dictatorships (France and Italy) both used them in the interwar period as agents of colonial conquest and rule, and Syria is the most recent example of their use.

As we approach this 100-year anniversary, each combatant country is remembering the war in its own way. In America, the echo has been fainter, due as much to the country's late entry into the war (April 1917) as to the prominence of World War II.

"The First World War is not well understood or remembered in the United States, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a 2008 Veterans Day ceremony at which the last living American combatant, Frank Buckles, who died in 2011, was present. "Yet few events have so markedly shaped the world we live in."

At war's end in 1918, America emerged from its 18 months of combat with a raft of new legislation that is still in force -- such as the Selective Service Act, which still today allows the President to draft soldiers, and the Espionage Act, used recently to charge Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden -- and with a new status as an international power.

A century of debates over how and whether America should intervene in global crises would lie ahead.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on

Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?