Speaking to a crowd of some 3,000 shop stewards and trade union officials in Glasgow on Christmas morning of 1915, the United Kingdom Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George (1863-1945) famously proclaimed that the Great War “is not a passing shower – it is a deluge”:

It is a cyclone which is tearing up by the roots the ornamental plants of modern society and wrecking some of the flimsy trestle bridges of modern civilization. It is an earthquake which is upheaving the very rocks of European life. It is one of those seismic disturbances in which nations leap forward or fall backward generations in a single bound.[1]

In making this speech – an attempt to encourage Scottish trade unionists to support the war effort and not to strike – Lloyd George memorably described the cataclysmic, revolutionary effect that the war was seen to have on the societies of combatant countries. For them, the First World War was a watershed, an upheaval of unprecedented proportions, after which nothing would be the same again.

This essay is entitled “postwar societies”, which is intended to signal the complexity, diversity, and often contradictory nature of social transformations in the wake of the First World War. Particularly in Western societies, many who had survived the war could feel optimism that their future would be brighter than the past; for many others, particularly in societies in Eastern Europe that had been ripped apart, the postwar world appeared anything but bright. Postwar society was something rather different in the rural Highlands of Scotland than in Sarajevo. It was something rather different when seen from the perspective of an Austrian orphan than from the perspective of a French ancien combattant. And it was something rather different in former combatant countries than in countries far away from the battles of 1914-1918, countries which also were, in a sense, “postwar societies”, even if had they not been sucked into the slaughter of the First World War on their own territory.

The changes brought about by the First World War, often regarded as “total war”,[2] certainly seemed unprecedented. The scale and intensity of the war, not least in those areas where battle had raged and which fell under enemy occupation, were enormous. In all major combatant countries, the state had vastly increased its intervention in economic and social life. Mass conscription, on a scale never before seen, left tens of millions of soldiers to be demobilised and, somehow, re-integrated into civilian life. Millions had died violent deaths, leaving postwar societies hollowed out of young men, and millions more returned from war physically and/or psychologically damaged. The financing of the war led to inflations that profoundly affected not only postwar economies, but also social relations. And, in many countries, war and bloodshed did not end with the Armistice in November 1918; instead, the “war after the war” continued into the postwar years, as state authority eroded, revolution triumphed or was suppressed, and violence marred the lives of millions. Postwar society, it seemed, would be transformed fundamentally as a result of the Great War.

But was it? This has been a matter of some debate, for while the First World War undoubtedly caused massive social, economic and cultural changes in combatant countries as well as in neutral states, after the “deluge” receded, some things remained remarkably similar to what they had been before 1914. Central to this argument is the remarkable durability of family relations, which had been disturbed profoundly during the conflict as millions of men were torn away from home, many never to return. Nevertheless, despite the upheaval (or perhaps even because of it), in the aftermath of war, many people felt a deep desire to return to “normal” (a concept that needs to be approached critically), to re-establish themselves within the framework of traditional family life. (Even in revolutionary Russia, there was an upsurge in marriages after the First World War. In Moscow, in 1919 – in the midst of the Civil War – there were 24,603 marriages, and in 1920 there were 21,363; in 1913, 10,093 marriages had been registered.)[3] The desire to return to “normal” was reflected not only in a postwar upsurge in marriages, births and the reconstitution of conventional family life, but also in the widespread pressure to remove women from their wartime employment and to return men to “their” jobs.[4] Here, too, domestic ideology was reinforced. Thus, in some respects, the First World War was more a conservative than a revolutionary force[5] as it manifested itself in postwar societies.

At the same time, the First World War led to what many regarded as an alarming breakdown of traditional moral standards. Divorce rates, while low compared to present-day levels, increased sharply in the wake of the war: in Germany, the number of divorces, which had averaged 15,633 annually between 1909 and 1913, peaked at 39,216 in 1921;[6] France saw a similar trend, rising from 15,450 divorces in 1913 to 29,156 in 1920 and 32,557 in 1921.[7] Further evidence of an apparent breakdown in moral standards was provided by rising crime levels – not least among women and youth.[8] Rising crime, anxiety about youth allegedly running wild after years without “the firm hand of the father”, and fears about the behaviour of soldiers returning from the front led many to conclude that the moral cement that had held society together was crumbling. As Jon Lawrence has observed of postwar Britain, there was widespread fear “that violence had slipped its chains – by the fear that the ex-servicemen, the general public, the state, or perhaps all three, had been irrevocably ‘brutalized’ by the mass carnage of four and a half years of war”.[9]


Whether one emphasises change or continuity, it is clear that after the armistice of 1918, combatant countries (and not just them) faced enormous challenges making the transition from war to peace, from wartime societies to postwar societies. First and foremost, there were the immediate challenges of demobilisation. Millions of men who had enlisted or been drafted into the mass armies that fought the First World War had to be demobilised and to re-integrate into civilian life, as economies simultaneously had to shift from war to peacetime production, with all the dislocation in the labour market that this entailed.

The return of the soldiers unfolded at different tempos in different countries. Generally, the servicemen of the defeated powers returned home more quickly than those of the victorious powers, as those on the losing side were compelled to demobilise their armies in unexpected haste and often were unable to control their soldiers at the end of the war and to enforce an orderly return home. The greatest rapid demobilisation was that of the German armies following the Armistice in November 1918. Altogether, roughly 11 million men served in the German armed forces and survived the war; of these, some six million still were serving in the military in October 1918 and thus needed to be demobilised once the armistice was declared the following month.[10] By the end of the year – that is, in less than two months – the number of men in German uniform had been reduced by half; by the middle of January 1919, all the German soldiers from the West had returned; and by March, the military demobilisation had been completed (leaving in enemy captivity roughly 800,000 German POWs, most of whom returned to the Reich during the second half of 1919 and 1920). This amounted to an incredibly rapid transformation of German society, from a wartime society in which there were millions of soldiers (the majority of whom were in the field) to a postwar society in which there were millions of ex-soldiers. Wartime militarised society was replaced by a postwar society in which there were relatively few serving soldiers, but huge numbers of former soldiers who now had to find their feet in civilian life.

In other major combatant powers, the main thrust of the transformation was similar: vast numbers of soldiers had to be brought home quickly and returned to civilian life. In the French armed forces, as of the beginning of November 1918, over four million men (about two-thirds of the German total at that time) faced demobilisation in the coming months.[11] At the end of the Great War, the British armed forces had to demobilise almost as many, nearly four million, and the United States almost two million.[12] Different countries faced different challenges: the path back to the Reich for German soldiers in the East was longer and slower than for those in the West, and shortages of shipping to bring their men back across the Atlantic posed a significant problem for the Americans.

While the challenges of reintegrating millions of demobilised men were substantial for the Western powers, compared with the challenges elsewhere – in particular in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe – they were relatively straightforward. Consider the complicated nature of demobilisation in newly-formed postwar states whose male populations had served on opposing sides during the war and who consequently were demobilised from different directions. Thus, for example, in postwar Yugoslavia, men who had served in the opposing Serbian and Austrian armies both were released into Yugoslav society. In postwar Poland – which not only suffered occupation and widespread destruction during the war, but also where some 800,000 Poles had served in the Russian army, about 300,000 had served in the German armed forces and an equal number in the armed forces of the Habsburg Empire that crumbled in 1918[13] – the process of demobilisation was no less complex. New, postwar multinational states had somehow to integrate veterans who had fought on opposing sides, and in economic conditions that were hardly auspicious.

The need to return the soldiers of the First World War was not limited to the European continent, the United States and Britain’s white dominions. What we think of as the “Third World” also had been drawn into the conflict, sometimes on a massive scale. Perhaps most striking is the case of India. During the First World War, up to the end of December 1918, the British recruited 877,068 combatants and 563,369 non-combatants in India; altogether, 1,381,050 members of the Indian army were sent for service overseas, from Baghdad to the Western Front in northern France.[14] The French, too, extracted soldiers from the colonies: over 150,000 were transported from West Africa to the Western Front, and tens of thousands more were recruited from Morocco and Algeria.[15] When one includes the whole of the French colonial empire, stretching from West Africa to Indochina, more than half a million of her non-European colonial subjects served as soldiers and a further 200,000 as workers.[16] Altogether, “more than a million African soldiers had fought on various fronts, and even more Africans served as porters or bearers”.[17] They, too, needed to be reintegrated into their home societies once the war was over.

Postwar societies were inundated not only with the soldiers demobilised in relatively short order once the fighting had finished; they also absorbed hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war who returned home more slowly. It has been estimated that altogether between 6.6 and 8.5 million soldiers were captured during the First World War (roughly 10 percent of all the men who had been mobilised), with far larger numbers taken captive in the East (where the front was more fluid) than in the West (where the front was more static): At the end of 1918, there were roughly 322,000 soldiers in British captivity and 350,000 in French captivity. By contrast, estimates of the numbers of soldiers in the captivity of the Habsburg Empire range from 1.2 to 1.86 million, and there is reason to believe that the actual total may have approached 2 million or more; even more found themselves in the hands of the Russians (roughly 2,250,000) and the Germans (roughly 2,520,000 in October 1918).[18]

Looked at from the other end of the telescope, i.e. the number of one’s own soldiers captured, it was the Eastern powers that had had the highest numbers of their soldiers taken prisoner (and, therefore, to be returned subsequently to postwar societies). The major combatant power whose armed forces had the highest proportion of its soldiers captured was Austria-Hungary, more than a quarter of whose troops were taken prisoner; for the Russian armies, the figure was more than one in six.[19] In the West, a smaller proportion had been taken prisoner. When the war ended, 712,000 German soldiers found themselves in Western Allied captivity.[20]

The reintegration of hundreds of thousands of returning prisoners of war often proved difficult, not least because many arrived home well after the majority of the war veterans had come back, after jobs had been taken. Many had suffered during their captivity, particularly those who found themselves in revolutionary Russia and whose return came long after that of men who had been taken prisoner in the West. Thus, while most of the German soldiers who were prisoners of the Allies in early 1919 returned to Germany during late 1919 and early 1920 – with those in British and American captivity handed back in September and October of 1919 and those in French hands between January and March 1920 – the return of prisoners from Russia did not get under way until mid-May 1920.[21] As a consequence of revolution and civil war, many Russian prisoners in Germany, as well as German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Russian camps, did not return home until 1922, and then only with the help of the League of Nations and the International Red Cross.[22]

While postwar societies contained huge numbers of former soldiers, they also tended to be societies with rather small numbers of serving soldiers. The defeated powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary – had to demobilise their armed forces rapidly and were not permitted subsequently to maintain a large military establishment. In Germany, whereas immediately before the war the army numbered just over 800,000 men, including roughly 29,000 officers,[23] during the Weimar period (from the beginning of 1921), the strength of the Reichswehr was limited to 100,000 men. The victorious Allies also reduced the size of their military, by choice rather than due to outside pressure, and the demobilisation of the wartime armed forces also was rapid. In France, altogether roughly 4.5 million men were demobilised between December 1918 and September 1919.[24] The British army, which numbered roughly 3.8 million men at the time of the Armistice, numbered less than a quarter of that total a year later, and in 1922 its strength stood at only 230,000.[25] By the beginning of August 1919, more than four-fifths of the American Army had been demobilized, and on Armistice Day 1919, General John Pershing (1860-1948), Commander of the American Expeditionary Force in 1917-1918, could declare that “our armies have been demobilized, and our citizen soldiers have returned again to civil pursuits”.[26]


It was not just the sudden return of millions of soldiers that lent societies a peculiar character after the First World War. The postwar populations of countries that had suffered substantial military losses were composed disproportionately of women, adolescents and the elderly. Postwar societies were haunted by the missing: not only the millions of men killed while in military service or whose fate could not be determined once the guns fell silent, but also the millions of children not conceived. With millions of young men away in the armed forces, births in combatant countries plummeted during the war, leaving the age cohorts of those born between 1915 and 1919 disproportionately small.[27] In France, where 1.4 million, or over 10 percent of the active male population in the country, had died, “it was estimated that during the years of carnage, 1,400,000 souls had been left unborn”; whereas in the years immediately before the outbreak of war in 1914, roughly 660,000 people reached their twentieth birthdays annually, between 1935 and 1939 the comparable number was only 400,000.[28] In Germany, according to the census of 1925, there were more than 2.5 million fewer children aged between five and ten years in the country (within its 1925 borders) than there had been in 1910 – a decline of nearly two-fifths.[29] This altered the shape of families throughout the postwar years, and would affect the numbers of men available for conscription during the 1930s, on the eve of the Second World War. Beyond Europe, too, the effects of the war – not least wartime nutritional deprivation – led to declines in the birth rate.[30]

After the First World War, the populations of combatant countries contained huge numbers of widows and orphans. Millions of women had lost their husbands, lovers, sons; millions of children had lost their fathers. Millions of women remained single who otherwise probably would have married between 1914 and the mid-1920s, had the war not taken the lives of potential partners. In France, whereas the numbers of men and women between twenty and forty years of age had been roughly equal before the war, with about 6,000,000 of each sex, in the mid-1930s, there were a million more women than men in this age group. In Germany, according to the 1925 census, there were 1,451,835 more women than men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five; in 1910, the comparable number on the same territory had been a mere 52,226.[31] Consequently, postwar societies tended to be disproportionately female; they became, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the scale of war casualties, societies with large numbers of women left on their own.

This was not simply a matter of numbers, or of the cruel calculus of children left without fathers, mothers left without husbands and the elderly left without sons to support them. It also was a matter of culture, for the culture of postwar societies was in many respects a culture of death.[32] This was particularly true of France. Eugen Weber (1925-2007) described this poignantly: “For a generation France was submerged by the dark weeds of mourning, the veils of the grand deuil, the crepe of demi-deuil, the somber-colored hats, gloves, shoes, dresses of widows and orphans and parents and kin either inconsolable or unable to afford more cheerful garb.”[33] The colour of postwar society was black. France may have been something of an extreme case in this regard – roughly half of the approximately 1.4 million French soldiers killed in the First World War left wives behind, as compared with about a third of British and Italian soldiers and about a quarter of German[34] – but in all the major combatant countries, there existed a dark cloud of the mourning of lost husbands in the wake of the First World War. Even in the United States, whose forces were involved in combat for less than a year, the war left behind some 33,000 widows.[35] Of course, some managed to marry again, but many did not. In Britain, for example, in 1936, while 117,000 war widows had remarried, 129,500 war widows’ pensions still were being paid.[36]


More visible than the women and children widowed or orphaned as a result of the war were the men who returned scarred, often for life: the war disabled. Altogether, they numbered roughly eight million worldwide, with just over 750,000 in Britain and twice that number in Germany.[37] Their disabilities varied enormously: some had lost limbs; some had lost their sight; some had suffered damage to internal organs such as their lungs or stomach. In developed Western countries at least, they were able to claim state support to varying degrees. But whether or not they received financial help from the state, they had to live with the consequences of the war on their bodies for the rest of their lives. This affected not only their physical well-being, but also their relations with those around them and their attitudes towards the state and wider society. To take one, rather strident, example: of an angry German veteran who had lost his teeth in a grenade attack and was refused extra financial help for dental treatment. As a war victim with a recognised 40 percent disability, he had been in receipt of a relatively generous monthly disability pension of RM 57.50. Nevertheless, in October 1931, he fired off a “flaming protest” to the Prussian Minister for Welfare:

With glowing devotion I volunteered to defend my Fatherland. With smashed limbs and a broken body I stand, thirteen years after the end of the war, with the question still on my lips: Will anyone help me, give back my health? Where are the homesteads we were promised? Where is employment, bread, fraternity?[38]

Then, after lifting phrases word-for-word from a resolution presented a few months earlier at a demonstration of the Reichsbund der Kriegsbeschädigten, Kriegsteilnehmer und Kriegshinterbliebenen (Reich Association of War Disabled, War Veterans, and War Dependents, which was anti-war and had been founded by Social Democrats), he threatened that if he did not get satisfaction, he would take his case to the National Socialist Reichstag Deputies Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and Wilhelm Kube (1887-1943).[39] This angry petitioner was but one of millions whose health suffered for years as a result of the war, and his protest illustrates how this issue poisoned public discourse due to the gulf between expectations and the realities of what was available from postwar welfare states, such as they were.[40]

Not surprisingly, given the destruction of infrastructure and the disruption of food supply and food production, the war had deleterious effects on the health of millions of people. In many, but not all, combatant countries, there had been measurable increases in morbidity and mortality due to illness, even before the great influenza epidemic, the most virulent phase of which coincided with the end of the war, caused many more deaths worldwide than did combat in the First World War.[41] Nevertheless, like the long-term trend towards smaller families, mortality and morbidity soon reverted to the long-term improvement that had been evident during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Germany, October and November 1918 saw the highest civilian death rates of the entire war, although by 1919 and 1920, despite continued food and fuel shortages, these had returned to pre-war levels (and from 1921 fell below pre-war rates and thus continued the long-term improvement that was to characterise German peacetime mortality generally over the 20th century); in Germany at least, the high wartime mortality among civilians due to disease – not just to influenza, but also to tuberculosis and diphtheria – declined fairly rapidly during the early 1920s.[42] In Britain, where morality rates continued to decline after the war, the effect of the war on health in the postwar period even may have been positive, as Jay Winter has suggested.[43] In any event, it is apparent that positive prewar health trends in Britain, e.g. the steady decline in infant and child mortality,[44] continued unabated after the 1914-1918 conflict (as deaths due to common infectious diseases, tuberculosis, diarrhoea and enteritis continued to fall significantly). However, when one looks further east, in regions which continued to be plagued by violence and where healthcare systems were less well developed, disease and malnutrition remained substantial threats. In Russia, in the wake of the October Revolution, the deaths resulting directly from civil and foreign wars were accompanied by epidemics of infectious diseases and famine: between 1913 and 1922, the population in what became the territory of the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic) declined by more than one in eight, from 87 to 76 million.[45] The great scourge in the immediate aftermath of war was famine, most notably in India during 1918-1919 (coinciding with the influenza epidemic)[46] and in Russia and Ukraine during the civil war. One contemporary observer went so far as to assert that “the Russian famine surpasses all such catastrophes the world has ever seen”.[47] The Russian famine, described subsequently as “unequaled since the time of the Thirty Years’ War, was accompanied by cholera, dysentery, malaria, typhoid, typhus, and relapsing fever” as “epidemics followed the lines of railways and waterways” in a land flooded with refugees; a typhus epidemic in 1919-1920 saw nearly five million cases; in Ukraine, a cholera epidemic broke out at the end of 1920 and again in 1921; and in Poland, typhus reached epidemic proportions in 1919 and 1920.[48]

The needs of millions who survived the First World War – the widows, the orphans, the wounded, the disabled – created enormous pressure for the expansion of state social welfare. Postwar states were confronted with popular expectations for increased welfare provision and huge financial requirements for war-related pensions. In Britain, war pensions accounted for 8.7 percent of the entire national budget in 1924/1925, and in 1931/1932 it still absorbed 5.9 percent.[49] In France, the burden was greater: “in 1931-1932 war pensions, indemnities, and the like represented 13.5 percent of the nation’s budget”.[50] In Germany, where payments were somewhat more generous (but nevertheless not necessarily generous enough to satisfy the recipients), the proportion was greater still: in 1928, the cost of war-related pensions was more than double the total cost of unemployment relief and unemployment insurance, and comprised over 18 percent of the entire Reich (national) government expenditure;[51] in 1931/1932, war pensions took up more than a fifth (20.9 percent) of the Reich budget.[52] In Britain, where pensions first had been paid just five years before the outbreak of the war, the government paid three million war pensions.[53] The explosion of the numbers of war-related pensions was not limited to Europe. For example, the state also faced substantial war-related claims on its resources in Australia, where it has been estimated that between 70,000 and 80,000 incapacitated soldiers received a pension during the 1920s and 1930s; when Australia’s war widows and children were added, the number was roughly a quarter of a million.[54] For a country whose total population at the time was less than six million, the costs were enormous.

The War after the War

Enormous though the challenges faced by postwar societies in states such as Australia, the United Kingdom or even France may have been, they were far greater across much of Central and Eastern Europe, and further east and south, where the fighting did not necessarily end in 1918. There, in countries that had been on the losing side in the 1914-1918 conflict, the population suffered what has been described as “war in peace”.[55] The collapse of the multi-national Habsburg, Ottoman and Romanov empires, and the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary conflicts that followed the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia, created what Robert Gerwarth has described as “an extensive arc of post-war violence [that] stretched from Finland and the Baltic States through Russia and Ukraine, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Germany, all the way through the Balkans into Anatolia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East”.[56] The human cost of the post-First World War conflicts between November 1918 and the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 was staggering, with more than four million people killed in civil wars (including the Russian Civil War) and inter-ethnic conflict, and millions more having fled or been expelled from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe. This continuing violence and social upheaval during the years immediately after the First World War make it difficult to speak of “postwar societies” at all in these areas – areas where communities already had been smashed during the 1914-1918 conflict. Many of these regions already had seen whole populations forcibly removed from their homes during the Great War. It was in the East, particularly with the Russian “Great Retreat” from April to October 1915, that the greatest numbers of people had been uprooted: at least 300,000 Lithuanians, 250,000 Latvians, at least a half a million Jews and between 750,000 and perhaps a million Poles were deported to the Russian interior.[57] The scale of human displacement in the Russian Empire was huge: over 3.3 million refugees by the end of 1915, and more than six million – roughly 5 percent of the Empire’s total population – by the beginning of 1917.[58] This suggests that, even before revolutionary Russia exited from the First World War, stable “society” already largely had been destroyed across vast swathes of Eastern Europe.

It also was in the East and South-East that societies had suffered proportionally the greatest military losses. Although we are accustomed to picture the slaughter of the First World War as death in the trenches of the Western Front, proportions of soldiers killed in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe were greater than in the West: of all the nations that fought in the war, it was the Serbs who lost the highest proportion of soldiers, at 37 percent, while about a quarter of the Romanians, Turks and Bulgarian servicemen died; by contrast, the Germans and French lost roughly one in six, and the British one in eight.[59] What is more, civilians in the East were far more likely to be killed or injured than were civilians in the West, where, except during the initial and final stages of the 1914-1918 conflict, the front was largely static; on the Eastern Front, the war was more one of movement, stretching over – and devastating – vast areas. In what became postwar Poland, for example, a succession of offensives during the First World War, and then the Polish-Soviet War that followed, meant that when combat finally ceased in 1920:

“90 per cent of the country had been directly touched by the war, and, of this, one-fifth had been the scene of heavy fighting. […] By 1920 55 per cent of the bridges, 63 per cent of the railway stations, 48 per cent of the locomotives, and 18 per cent of the buildings in the country had been destroyed.”[60]

This trail of destruction left large sections of the population without access to rail transport and without adequate housing – hardly an auspicious framework for (re-) constructing postwar society. Across much of the eastern half of the European continent, society had been blasted apart. Most notably for Russia, the idea of “postwar society” after the First World War is a difficult one. Although the Russian Empire suffered more dead and wounded than any other combatant of the First World War, in many respects for Russia, that war was overshadowed by the civil war that followed. The civil war, together with the revolutionary upheavals that it paralleled, fundamentally altered society – as a result not only of combat casualties and mass starvation, but also the physical destruction of large areas of the countryside, and the precipitous depopulation of the largest cities. Between May 1917 and 1920, Moscow lost half of its population of two million, and the population of Petrograd fell from 2.5 million to 700,000; the population of Kiev also experienced decline, from just over half a million in 1910 to 366,000 ten years later, a drop of roughly 28 percent.[61] Postwar society in Soviet Russia was, initially, much less urban than the Russian Empire had been on the eve of the First World War. This meant, in effect, that the urban working class, which had provided much of the support for the Bolshevik revolution, was reduced drastically in size by the time that the Bolsheviks were able to cement their power.

Migration/Population Movements

The transformations outlined above also meant that hundreds of thousands of former urban dwellers in effect became refugees in their own country. Yet that was only one aspect of a phenomenon that affected postwar societies across the European continent and beyond: the presence of huge numbers of refugees. In particular, the violence that followed revolution in Russia – civil war and deadly pogroms in Ukraine – created a massive refugee crisis: it has been estimated that between the October Revolution of 1917 and the end of the Civil War in Russia in late 1921, “between two and three million subjects of the former tsarist empire departed the lands of their birth”.[62] Large numbers found their way in particular to Germany (where, according to the American Red Cross, an estimated 560,000 had settled by 1920), to France, Austria and Poland, as well as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; others fled to and through Turkey, to China, to Canada and the United States (aided by the American Red Cross) – some even as far as Argentina and Australia. After the defeat of the Whites in Crimea in 1920, a mass evacuation across the Black Sea brought an estimated 170,000 subjects of the former Russian Empire to Constantinople by 1923.[63]

Generally, the First World War and its aftermath saw an explosion in the numbers of people forced from their homes, whether as a result of military action, campaigns of forced removal, flight from ethnic conflict and massacre, or postwar border settlements that ran roughshod over the complex patterns of ethnic settlement that had characterized the European continent. After the First World War, the removal of people because of the language they spoke, the faith they held or the ethnic group with which they identified accelerated. Actions that, at least in Central Europe, had been almost unthinkable before 1914 became seen as an obvious solution to the supposed problem of ethnically-mixed populations once new borders were drawn after 1918. Thus, after the defeat, many Germans who had lived within the prewar Reich found themselves compelled to leave their homes in what now were in France or Poland (together with smaller numbers from border areas ceded to Belgium and Denmark). Altogether, according to the 1925 census, there were 769,733 people in the Reich who before 1914 had lived in territories subsequently lost to Germany, including nearly 470,000 from the provinces of Posen and West Prussia, 132,000 from Alsace and Lorraine, and 90,000 from Upper Silesia.[64] Austria at the end of the 1920s housed more than three-quarters of a million people, over a tenth of its entire population, whose places of birth lay outside the borders of the postwar republic.[65] Altogether, by the mid-1920s, probably no fewer than 9.5 million people in Europe had been re-settled, deported, compelled to flee or expelled from their homes in order to place them on the “right” side of the border.[66] Ethnic homogeneity and perceived loyalty to the nation state trumped the right to remain in one’s home. Consequently, while many postwar societies remained ethnically mixed, they often were less so than before the war and, at the same time, were plagued by tensions and conflicts far greater than had been apparent before 1914.

Postwar migration was not only forced removal. In addition, huge numbers of people migrated voluntarily or semi-voluntarily within Europe during the postwar years. The 1920s saw a fundamental change in migration patterns as they affected Europeans, as the United States largely closed its doors to Southern and Eastern European migrants when a restrictive immigration regime was introduced that more or less remained in force until the 1960s. In the place of virtually unfettered immigration from Europe – the restriction of Chinese immigration into the United States had been introduced in 1882 – a regime of quotas that favoured northern Europeans, tough border controls and the removal of illegal aliens were put in place. The restrictions introduced during the first year of the Harding Administration and then the 1924 US Immigration Act[67] were part of a global trend towards strict border and passport controls, a new postwar regime that left hundreds of thousands of people – refugees and stateless persons – without a national citizenship.[68]

This exacerbated the plight of postwar refugees, not only those who had fled Soviet Russia after the revolution and civil war, but also those made homeless as a consequence of the postwar dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The break-up of the Ottoman Empire led to the transfer and flight of hundreds of thousands of people: the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 stipulated the transfer of roughly 400,000 Turks from Greece and 1.2 million Greeks from Turkey, making Greece the country with the highest proportion of refugees in Europe during the 1920s. According to the Greek census of 1928, the settled population in Greece of only 5,016,889 inhabitants had had to absorb 1,221,849 Greek Orthodox refugees.[69] One contemporary observer noted:

In the two years since their arrival in Greece the refugees have been living in schoolhouses, theatres, town halls, exposition buildings in the cities, even in the old royal palace at Athens; in the suburbs and in the country districts they have maintained a fox-like existence in tents, wooden barracks, shelters of twigs or of turf, even in caves.[70]

This was what “postwar society” looked like in Greece during the 1920s.

The closing after the First World War of the transatlantic escape valve for European economic migrants occurred as countries within Europe had to repair the damage caused by war, most notably postwar France. The devastation caused by four years of fighting in northern France – millions of hectares of farmland ravaged, nearly 300,000 houses destroyed and another half million damaged, 4,800 kilometres of railway track and 58,000 kilometres of road needing repair, and 22,900 factories to rebuild – created the stage for what became the world’s largest building site during the 1920s.[71] The gigantic task of reconstruction required enormous numbers of workers, in a country had lost 1.4 million soldiers and contained another 900,000 invalids, and which had had chronically low birth rates for decades. Much of the needed labour, which in effect took the place of the fallen soldiers, came from beyond France’s borders, as the French state allowed more than a million foreign workers to enter the country between the end of 1919 and 1924.[72] During the first half of the 1920s, the main period of accelerated immigration, France thus “became the second-highest population-importing country in the world after the United States”.[73] Altogether, during the 1920s, France registered a net gain of 1,333,340 foreigners (with 1,895,006 entering the country from 1920 to 1930, as against 561,666 leaving); as of 1926, there were 760,116 Italians living in France, 326,654 Belgians, 322,590 Spaniards, and 309,213 Poles – a total of 2,505,335 foreigners altogether.[74] While immigrants were nothing new in France, the number and composition of the foreign population were: “The main novelty consisted of the 400,000 Poles who came to swell the battalions of workers in the mines or in the fields.”[75] Another novelty was the surge in immigrants from Asia and Africa, a mere 4,500 in 1911, but who numbered more than 150,000 in 1931.[76] In 1930, 15 percent of the working class in France was foreign; in mining, in 1931, 42 percent of the workers were foreign (as against 6.5 percent in 1906) and in heavy metallurgy foreigners comprised 38.2 percent (as against 18.4 percent in 1906).[77] These foreign workers were predominantly male (in a French postwar society which was disproportionately female);[78] however, many also brought their families, and they made a substantial mark on postwar society in France, where the proportion of foreigners in the population more than doubled, rising from 2.9 percent in 1911 to 6.6 percent in 1931.[79] (When the number of naturalized citizens was included, their proportion of the total population in France in 1931 rose to 7.6 percent.)

In this regard, postwar Germany provides a contrast. There, the First World War was followed not by an increase in the numbers of foreigners in the country, but rather a decline. (Most of large numbers of refugees fleeing Soviet Russia moved from Germany to France and often then further afield during the inflation; some 50,000 settled in Paris).[80] During the war, the Germans had brought in 715,770 registered foreign labourers altogether, supplemented by roughly 200,000 not formally registered; when prisoners of war are added, the number of foreigners working in the German wartime economy was over two million; by 1924, however, the number of foreign labourers in Germany had fallen to a mere 174,000.[81] There, the influx of Germans from territories ceded to Poland, France and Denmark after the war effectively made up for the loss of labour due to the deaths of soldiers, and the extreme economic dislocations of the early postwar years hardly made Germany an attractive goal for foreign migrants. Whereas in France, postwar society became less “French”, in Germany, postwar society became more “German”.


Postwar societies were shaken not just by the loss, disablement and displacement of millions of people, but also by war-related economic dislocation. While the main Western economies recovered during the course of the 1920s – by the end of that decade, the French economy had exceeded prewar levels of activity by 38 percent and the American economy by 70 percent, and even the German economy had reached its prewar levels[82] – economic developments during the immediate postwar years were extremely disruptive. In many countries, and not only in the former combatant states, the postwar years saw soaring inflation and mass unemployment. Even in the victorious industrial countries, the sudden shift from a war economy to a peacetime economy – with the need to shift production from supplying the military to producing goods for civilian needs – at the same time as millions of soldiers were returning to the civilian job market, was massively disruptive.

Away from the industrialised world, the disruptions caused by the war and the postwar economic convulsions also undermined people’s lives and livelihoods – particularly in East Africa, where the fighting had been most bitter and where “the regional consequences of economic and social disintegration were most extreme”.[83] In central Tanzania, a terrible famine between 1917 and 1920 was triggered when drought “followed hard upon both German and British war-time requisitions that had drained the arid region of men, cattle and food”[84] this claimed tens of thousands of lives, as “livestock seizures drove cattle-based societies into poverty, and undermined social practices that revolved around the ability to exchange cattle”.[85] Elsewhere, wartime disruption to markets and trade patterns, alongside the imposition of government controls, led to severe food shortages that sometimes erupted into violence, as in the southeast Asian rice crisis of 1919-1921 (e.g. in the riots in Malaya of June 1919).[86] Postwar social and economic disruption was a global phenomenon.

In the developed world, the beginning of the 1920s saw a sharp postwar economic depression and huge numbers of people without jobs. In Britain, the postwar depression saw the rate of unemployment suddenly shoot up to 12 percent in 1920-1921. After the short-lived economic boom once the war ended, this heralded a fundamental change in the nature of the British labour market, which then was characterised by high rates of unemployment through the interwar period.[87] Although the effects of the increased levels of unemployment were mitigated somewhat by the postwar expansion of the British unemployment insurance system, the threat of joblessness was among the most important sources of postwar social insecurity. In Germany, the end of the war was followed by a rapid upsurge in unemployment at the very end of 1918 and first four months of 1919 as soldiers were demobilised. However, the proportion of unemployed trade-union members never exceeded 6.6 percent at that time, and joblessness remained low until 1923 and 1924, when hyperinflation and then currency stabilisation created conditions that threw millions out of work.[88] (Increases in unemployment also followed currency stabilisation after hyperinflation in Austria, Hungary and Poland during the mid-1920s.[89] Postwar France was something of an exception in this regard. There, as we have seen, the problem after the war was not a surplus of labour, but rather the opposite – chronic shortages as a result of wartime losses (almost twice those of the British), a long-term history of low birth rates, and the need for large numbers of workers to rebuild the north of the country (where, as noted above, the slack was taken up by immigrant labour).

The consequences of postwar inflation and hyperinflation – most notably in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Soviet Russia – for the lives of people in postwar societies can hardly be exaggerated. Inflation undermined accepted cultural values and relationships, the belief that hard work would bring rewards, and a sense of stability. Where price controls were put in place, the move gave rise to thriving black markets and drastically altered the relative costs of various necessities – for example, making controlled rents ridiculously cheap, while the prices of food (often available only on the black market) skyrocketed. It was estimated that by the spring of 1919, one-third of all the food sold in Germany was purchased on the black market.[90] At the same time, rents in Germany plummeted in real terms: whereas rent had taken up more than a quarter (27.1 percent) of the expenditure of a three-person household (middle-ranking salaried employee) in 1913/1914, by 1921/1922 it comprised a mere 2.3 percent.[91]

That is, of course, if one could find a dwelling to rent. Rent controls shielded tenants from inflationary rent rises, but they could not shield the population from the effects of severe housing shortages – a result of the almost complete cessation of house-building during the war, the surge in the establishment of new households after the war, and low levels of house-building during the inflation (due not least to lack of expected returns as long as rents were controlled). While rent controls put sitting tenants in an advantageous position, enjoying low rents and having scope for profiteering by subletting rent-controlled flats and pocketing the difference, it left many newly married couples out in the cold.[92] In inflation-plagued postwar societies, the challenge was more often gaining access to a dwelling than paying for it.

Housing shortages had another, related consequence for postwar societies: namely that large numbers of newly-wed couples found themselves unable to set up households on their own and had to live with parents and in-laws. The increases in the numbers of marriages (and births!) that followed the soldiers’ return from wartime military service coincided with tight housing markets. The consequences of the lack of house-building during the war and, in areas where there had been fighting, the destruction of dwellings, increased tensions within many households, and the arrival of children frequently made already cramped living quarters yet more difficult to negotiate. This, too, was an important aspect of everyday life in postwar societies.


Surveying postwar societies after the First World War necessarily reveals a social landscape scarred by war – a landscape characterised by economic and social dislocation, geographical displacement and the smashing of communities, homelessness, disease and disability, loss and mourning. Yet, at the same time, we should not overlook the huge sense of relief that millions of people felt (to be sure, more so in the West than in the East) at having survived and being able to look forward to daily life no longer convulsed by war and to enjoying themselves. Despite all the difficulties that millions of people faced in the postwar years, for many, living in “postwar society” meant that their lives no longer were punctuated and threatened by war. Having survived, now they wanted to enjoy life. In 1921, the French philosopher Alain (the pseudonym of Émile-Auguste Chartier (1868-1951)) published a sketch entitled Qu’as-tu appris à la guerre? (What did you learn in the war?), in which he wrote:

I learnt to appreciate better the joy of being alive. I eat, I drink, I breathe. I sleep with pleasure. Through this precious good humour I am inclined not to worry much about minor matters. […] I learnt to like broad shoes and soft collars because for a long time I wore poor man’s clothing. Finally, I have lost that bourgeois habit that I used to have, of wanting to impress by appearances. It’s one less thing to worry about.[93]

Postwar societies were societies caught between fervent desires to return to “normal”, i.e. to peacetime conditions as they had existed (or as people imagined they had existed) before the First World War and to leave the war years behind, and the heightened tensions and challenges that had been generated by war and that meant there could be no going back. To return to the famous quotation from David Lloyd George with which this article began, it appears that the First World War was a deluge that in many countries led to postwar societies very different from those in existence before 1914. While this was true in particular for Eastern and Central Europe, perhaps ironically it probably was less so for the country that Lloyd George was addressing: Britain. For in Britain, once the deluge of the First World War receded, underlying social and political stability meant that many aspects of social life had proved themselves to be remarkably stable. Altogether, many of the consequences of the First World War – particularly when one looks at demographic trends or family structures – appear to have been relatively short-term. However, in other respects – in particular many of the economic and cultural consequences of the war – the effects of war were enduring, and in that sense we are living still in what might be regarded as postwar society.

Richard Bessel, University of York

Section Editor: Robert Gerwarth