Sooner or later anyone who seeks to understand the course of the 20th century must confront the First World War. In so many ways, the conflict that occurred between 1914 and 1918, and not 1900, marked the real beginning of the 20th century. The human cost of those four years was appalling enough: nearly 9 million people died and millions more were maimed, crippled, grief stricken, or psychologically scarred. But the war’s long-term consequences were equally profound. The necessity of mobilizing the whole of a society’s human, economic, and emotional resources to fight an industrialized “total war” highlighted a host of issues that remain controversial to this day. How far could governments go in regulating the lives of their citizens? To what extent could they control the flow of information or even twist the truth to elicit voluntary consent? How would women respond to being pulled in two directions? On the one hand, the war reinforced society’s traditional expectation that women should focus on marriage and motherhood, bearing numerous children to replenish the many lives lost. But on the other, wartime conditions could stimulate a newfound sense of personal freedom. For women, being patriotic meant pitching in wherever they were needed, taking advantage of the expanded opportunities of working outside the home (perhaps as a factory worker or a streetcar conductor), and (for some) enjoying wages and leisure time away from parental supervision. The difficulty in reconciling these potentially conflicting roles would generate further controversy in postwar discussions of gender.
On the international scene, the war’s legacy was equally controversial. It included appalling examples of genocide (in Armenia) and ethnic cleansing on the one hand, yet it also spawned, among progressive politicians in many countries, a commitment to recognize the rights of legitimate nationalities and minorities. As a result, the map of the world was literally redrawn. Under the strain of total war, many of the vanquished states simply crumbled (the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires) and from their wreckage new states emerged,