First World War: Total Warfare and the Remaking of Society and Economy

European Residents at Abadan Airport 1920's
European Residents at Abadan Airport 1920’s


Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]


WWI transformed the world[46] by “mark[ing] a true watershed between the 19th and 20th centuries”, precipitating a social and economic revolution in all spheres of life[47]. Continental Europe, Britain, Iran, India, the Middle East, and Persian Gulf region certainly emerged as different places at the end of the carnage. The changes in Britain came as a result of several factors: the war itself, which was the first instance of total warfare, involving entire populations and new technical means of destruction; second, the mounting crisis of capitalism (especially after the 1890s) and the transition to a new regime of accumulation; and third, the far reaching and slower consequences of what has been called ‘the second industrial revolution’[48]. I will discuss each in turn and link them to what took place in Abadan.
Militarily, WWI was the culmination of the industrialization of warfare under mounting capitalist competition and technological development. It brought to an end the somewhat ironically labeled “long peace of the 19th Century”, when major European powers directly fought each other only on a few occasions on the continent’s soil, while constantly engaging in colonial skirmishes and wars elsewhere[49]. By the end of the 19th century industrial technology had already transformed the nature of warfare with railroads, steamships, synthetic chemicals[50], and telegraphs, making possible total warfare involving whole populations. Instead of long marches or limited troop transport by sailing ships, these technologies allowed rapid and coordinated mass deployments of soldiers, and created fronts instead of skirmishes and isolated battles[51].
Prussia had initiated the re-organization of its military by professionalizing the officer corps and ordinary troops, whose effectiveness were proven in the 1871 Franco Prussian War. On the other hand Britain received a shocking realization of its comparative military and industrial shortcomings during the second Boer War (18991902). Its troops proved unfit physically, and their general level of education fell short of allowing them to function as effective soldiers in a modern army[52]. Its advanced military equipment also performed poorly, casting doubt on the quality of the national technological and engineering abilities. For example, the army’s optical range finders failed to function properly with the artillery losing much of its effectiveness[53]. Eager to enjoy the spoils of a highly unequal war against the tiny population of Boer farmers in resource rich South Africa, British speculators and politicians had counted on the post-victory spoils of an easy skirmish that they estimated would cost at most £10 million. Instead, the cost of the resulting fiasco spiraled to £250 million and created a profound sense of unease and national decline[54].
The ensuing malaise established a clear link in political culture between national performance in war and social policy. It was felt that the empire’s destiny was in the hands of the masses of the people, who needed to be better educated and more physically fit[55]. Schumpeter situates the roots of this malaise in the great depression of 1873-1898, when a combination of rapid industrial development and rising poverty created a “Paradox of poverty amidst plenty”[56]. Rapid industrial change after the end of American civil war, electrification, the opening of new markets, and new trade roots such as the Suez Canal, further accelerated the ‘annihilation of space by time’ that railroads had begun earlier in the century[57]. Greatly expanded productive capacities flooded far away markets, precipitating a crisis of overproduction[58]. Cheap and plentiful American wheat and cotton flooded European markets, causing an agrarian depression there (as well as in Egypt, by then the mass supplier of cotton to British textile industry)[59]. The paradox was that the industrial expansion had substantially improved real wages, thus creating and entirely new standard of life for the masses in western Europe; but at the same time they also caused massive dislocations within the existing agrarian, artisanal, and older industrial structures and economies everywhere.
The combination of insecurity caused by the new poverty and destitution, with the improved standards of life for those engaged in the new industries caused a reaction against the results of laissez faire and free trade. It led to the ‘double movement’ of the radicalization of masses, and a general desire for social reform among some middle class liberals and utilitarians, as well as significant segments of, ‘The business class increasingly willing to adapt its enemies’ views and compromise, just as the hostile forces were increasing…Economic liberalism thus became riddled with qualifications that sometimes implied surrender of its principles. Political liberalism, from the 1880s on, lost its hold upon the electorates much more rapidly than appears on the surface…In England the strength of [their] existing political organizations and leadership was so great as to make it possible for them to win victories on radicalized programs [of major social reforms]”[60].

However, the moves toward policies of social reform were protracted and by no means immediate or straightforward. Improved public health, municipal reforms, universal education, and various schemes of social insurance were proposed and weighed by some segments of the political elite as necessarily measures to address debilitating poverty, but without much result[61]. The hegemony of liberal ideology against government interference in the economy and social affairs proved simply too entrenched, even though significant breaches were beginning to occur within the ranks of political figures as well as intellectuals, activists, and academics. This was in part a consequence of the historical organization of state administration in Britain. Contrary to France, for example, where local government and social policy were by now in the hands of paid bureaucrats accountable to the central state, Britain at the time had a polity that can be described as a weak central state, where local government was run mostly by an independent gentry[62]. It is important to note that until the turn of the 20th century liberals across the continent envied the British model of a decentralized state and autonomous landed elites, supported by a bourgeoisie of industrial entrepreneurs, financiers, and merchants. The British model was considered highly successful because the hierarchy of the social pyramid seemed to overlap with the political hierarchy. Compared to France, for example, landed property and wealth in Britain were far more concentrated[63]. In contrast to France, the institutions of the central state administration were more feeble in Britain: at the turn of 20th century France had a central bureaucracy of 400,000, four times Britain’s. French liberals envied what they saw as the British model of deep rooted and organic connection between the gentry and their vested interest in local improvement, contrary to the centrally appointed French functionaries who owed their loyalty to the state[64]. In Britain, the autonomous gentry and the economic elite had an inordinate influence in the parliament and law making and felt such costly reforms were best left to the existing poor laws and private charity[65].
At the same time the importance of propaganda and molding public opinion were becoming evident, as was the conviction that the empire needed to invest in military technological innovation. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and the emergence of Japan as a new rival to British colonial interests in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, together with German military advances, prompted a costly arms race, especially in building new heavy battleships (called Dreadnoughts, after the first prototype built)[66]. Ironically, the tremendously costly battleships never played a major role in actual sea battles, but their technological innovations became a major conduit for the ascendency of petroleum as the preferred fuel, and of internal combustion engines as the new primary means of locomotion.


46. Polanyi argued that WWI was the terminal point of the “one hundred year peace”, and marked the breakdown of the international system that was built around high finance. Written in the 1940’s London amidst the WW2 he short shrifts “the conservative 1920s and the revolutionary 1930s”. As I will demonstrate the 1920s were far more radical than Polanyi’s cursory dismissal suggests. See Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 3–34.

47. C. H. Feinstein, Peter Temin, and Gianni Toniolo, The European Economy Between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21.

48. A number of English and American historical sociologists have atempted to systematicaly catalogue and neatly classify the institutional dimensions of historical transitions. Giddens, for example, argues that modern society is based on the ‘structuration’ of five institutional clusters: information storage (authoritative resource to structure social systmens); surveillance (control of information and surveillance of others’ activities); military power and the means of violence; capitalism and class conflict; and technological change and forces of production. Michael Mann, on the other hand, investigates the historical changing configuration of “four sources of social power”: ideological, economic, military, and political. As is the case with most Weberian categorizations, these ideal types are suggestive and informative in providing a useful prism to describe the status quo, but when it comes to explaining their instability and ephemerality they tend to be less analytically rigorous and convincing. See Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pre s, 1993); Anthony Giddens, The Nation State and Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992).

49. Betw en 1803 and 1901 British tr ops were continuously fighting in some 50 colonial wars. Giddens, The Nation State and Violence, 223.

50. The industrial production of synthetic chemicals increased from negligible figures at the turn of the 20th century, to four million compounds by 1980, at least 60 thousand of which currently are in common use. Mitchell, Rule of Experts, 21.

51. Giddens, The Nation State and Violence, 223–232.

52. Asa Briggs, A Social History of England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983), 251.

53. Mari Williams, “Training for Specialists: The Precision Instruments Industry in Britain and France, 1890-1925,” in Education, Technology and Industrial Performance in Europe, 1850-1939, ed. Robert Fox and Anna Guagnini (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 1993), 230.

54. Pat Thane, “Government and Society in England and Wales: 1750-1914,” in Cambridge Social History of Britain: 1750-1950, ed. F.M.L. Thompson, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 51–52.

55. Briggs, A Social History of England, 251–252.

56. Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 760.

57. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

58. I discuss the impact of the great depression of 1890s on the devaluation of silver, and its significant impact on the Iranian economy, and on British-Iranian relations in chapter 2. See also Peter Avery and S. Simmonds, “Persia on a Cross of Silver: 1880-1890,” Middle Eastern Studies 10 (1974): 259–86. The impact of the global depression on the Middle East, and the subsequent rise of mass politics throughout the region is analyzed by Joel Beinin, Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

59. Roger Owen, The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800-1914 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1993); Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, 760; Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, TechnoPolitics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 54–121.

60. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, 761, see also 800–802.

61. Thane, “Government and Society in England and Wales: 1750-1914.”

62. Marion Fourcade, Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 41. On the development of local state institutions under the Third Republic see Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford University Press, 1976).

63. In 1873 some 80% of all agrarian land in Britain was held by 38,000 families. The richest 2000 families owned more than a third of all agrarian landed property. By contrast, in France, the economic elites were more feeble due to religious and sectarian conflicts, revolutionary upheavals, smaller landholdings, and the gradual parcellization of land and wealth after each generation due to [more egalitarian] inheritance laws. See Christophe Charle, “Légitimités En Péril: Éléments Pour Une Histoire Comparées Des Élites de L’état En France et En Europe Occidentale (19e – 20e Siècles),”
Actes de La Recherche En Sciences Sociales, no. 116/117 (1997): 44.

64. Christophe Charle, Les intellectuels en Europe au XIXe siècle: essai d’histoire comparée (Paris: Seuil, 1996), 43–47. For a critical perspective on the nation state formation in Britain seen as a process of internal colonization of the Celtic periphery see Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development (New Brunswick, N.J.: University of California Press, 1979).

65. Hobsbawm su gests that reliance on the captive colonial markets encouraged this inertia. S e Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 148–149.

66. Roger Adelson, London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 56–62, 83–108.


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