Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
One hundred years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, World War I ended. Life would never be the same for the more than 65 million men from some 30 nations who fought in it, or for the civilians who experienced the first “total war” in history.
Four empires fell during the conflict – the Ottoman, Habsburg, German, and Russian – the last in a Revolution (1917-1921) that sparked a 30-year “European civil war” between left and right. New nations – Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Poland among them – were born from the war’s ashes.
The modern strongmen, and the fascist and communist political systems that they shaped, emerged from the war’s vortex of ruined bodies and disfigured minds – the psychological and physical wreckage of mass violence.
World War I was the first mass conflict among industrialized nations, and it upended the way war was fought and conceptualized. The weapons it introduced – submarines, machine guns, poison gas, grenades, tanks, and more – have become part of our arsenals, as did airpower and strategic bombing.
An immense laboratory of military, scientific, and political transformation, the war birthed many visionaries who believed a better society could rise out of its ashes, whether that meant adapting democracy for a new message or discarding it as a failed experiment.
Indeed, World War I brought emancipation for many – but it also created the conditions for the growth of fascist movements that denied freedom, promoted hate, and led to another World War, 20 years later.
World War I: The Legacy
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, CNN Opinion is republishing selected pieces from a 2014 series of op-eds on World War I’s legacies that looked at the way this momentous conflict still influences our lives today. (You can read the first installment of that series here, and view a fascinating photo gallery here.) Advances in prosthetics, debates over collective guilt and women working in “male” jobs, the use of chemical weapons, and the idea that language can never express war’s horrors – all come out of the experiences of these four dense and consequential years.
The political landscape has changed drastically since that 2014 anniversary, with many right-wing leaders in Europe mimicking the tactics and rhetoric of the war’s worst legacy – dictators – and America now governed by a President who has repeatedly shown he admires autocrats.
Today more than ever, history can be a guide, so that we lessen our risk of being “sleepwalkers,” to quote the title of Christopher Clark’s study of the political elites who brought about the war: individuals so entrenched in their positions and sure of their own righteousness that they did not see what was coming until it was too late.