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Posted on Mon. Aug. 04, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

World War I still shapes the world a century later

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World War I began a century ago this week, and its legacy continues to have economic, social and political effects that influence our world. I cannot, in this space, do justice to the breadth of the war's impact, but a few numbers help bring it home.

Indiana lost 1,420 men in combat. Had they lived, their great grandchildren would more than equal the incoming freshman class in every Hoosier high school. Thousands more Hoosier men were damaged by the war, my grandfather among them.

Sgt. Harrison Hicks, a Hoosier National Guard soldier, was badly gassed in the waning days of the war, while serving with K Company, 307th Infantry, 77th Division. He succumbed to the effects of gas within two decades, leaving four young sons and a wife who was widowed 60 years.

Around the world, this hardship and grief was repeated in nearly every village. Even a century later the remembrance of this war and its ringlets of sorrow are marked in towns across Europe with solemn ceremony at cenotaphs and memorials in village squares.

World War I birthed many of the great evils of the 20th century. Out of the trenches walked the Russian Revolution, the seeds of fascism, holocaust and the ugly divisions of colonies. This proved disastrous, and it is enough to say that the maps of modern Iraq and Syria, and much of Africa and South Asia, were crafted out of the peace settlement. Never before had national borders been so fully redrawn.

The armistice was poorly managed. A young economist, John Maynard Keynes, and an infantry battalion commander turned politician, Winston Churchill, both wrote books warning of a failed peace. Keynes' work especially, The Economic Consequence of the Peace, is a remarkably prescient piece of forecasting. Written while Keynes was at the Versailles Treaty, along with a young lawyer Ho Chi Minh, it sketches the ill effects of the peace settlement and reparations. It seems hard to imagine, but Germany made its final war payment to Great Britain in 2010, more than a year after the last veteran from both nations had died.

There are a million modest cultural influences of the war that remain with us. From fashion — trenchcoats and black dresses — to the explosion of modernism in art and literature, World War I shaped today's world in ways nothing since has. For Americans, only the Civil War's effect in southern states had a similar cultural influence. In much of Europe, as in Civil War-era Virginia and the Carolinas, one in four men died in the war. The ruin to families and social institutions like churches was unlike anything before seen.

The plain truth is that World War I casts a greater shadow over the lives of most Americans and Europeans today than does the Persian Gulf War and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That should give us great pause as we think about our nation's role in the world, the blessings of peace and the century old sacrifice of Sgt. Hicks.


Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.


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