In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Post World War I Demobilization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Austria-Hungary and the Successor States
  • Britain
  • France
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Russia and the Soviet Union
  • United States
  • Global
  • Paramilitarism and the Rise of Fascism

International Relations Post World War I Demobilization
Adam R. Seipp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0099


The end of war is not an event, but a process. Historians know a great deal about how societies mobilize their populations for war in the modern world but have spent surprisingly little time thinking about the process of demobilization, which here refers not just to the return home of troops, but to the whole or partial withdrawal of the legal claims of a warring state on the human, economic, and cultural resources of that state. Demobilization, then, has military, economic, bureaucratic, and cultural components that can be seen quite clearly in the literature on demobilization after 1918. World War I was a massive conflict involving millions of soldiers on the “combat” front and millions more noncombatants, including women, working under the tight control of the state on the “home” front. Beginning in 1917, most combatant states dramatically intensified their propaganda apparatus in an effort to “remobilize” their populations. The war was also broadly popular across many combatant societies for a remarkably long time, a fact that has been lost to later generations, who have been influenced by the war literature of disillusionment that emerged in the decade after 1918. Finally, the experience of the Russian Revolution introduced a new language of militancy into postwar debates over social and economic reform. Ironically, states that emerged from the war ostensibly victorious were more vulnerable to claims that they were not willing to live up to the promises made to their populations during the war. The studies reviewed in this article deal broadly with four themes: the planning for and execution of military and economic demobilization, contests over the memory and memorialization of the dead, the influence of the war experience on postwar politics, and the persistence of political violence by those who refused to demobilize at the end of the war.

General Overviews

The studies in this section examine different aspects of the history of demobilization from a transnational, or comparative, perspective. A collection of essays by distinguished French historians, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker 2002, suggests some of the ways that historians can meaningfully consider the impact of demobilization. Some works examine the political (Gerwarth 2007), military (Förster 2002), or cultural (Mosse 1990) impact of the end of the war in Europe and the United States. Seipp 2009 offers comparisons of the British and German experiences of demobilization; Cohen 2001, of the care of disabled veterans; and Jahr 1998 and Watson 2008, of the ability of the armies to keep fighting during the final offensives of the war in 1918.

  • Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane, and Annette Becker. 14–18: Understanding the Great War. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002.

    A series of essays by two of France’s finest scholars of the war, this slim and provocative volume suggests, among other things, that our knowledge of postwar demobilization is “sketchy” and needs to be expanded by serious research.

  • Cohen, Deborah. The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914–1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

    Comparative study of the relationship between states and the most visible living symbols of the war’s destruction. Cohen brilliantly uses these veterans to help elucidate the successes and failures of postwar reconstruction.

  • Förster, Stig, ed. An der Schwelle zum Totalen Krieg: Die militärische Debatte über den Krieg der Zukunft, 1919–1939. Krieg in der Geschichte. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh, 2002.

    Collection of essays that remind the reader that military institutions continued to think about war even as the rest of combatant societies struggled to find a new peacetime order. World War I loomed over the heads of military planners both in former combatant states and in those that did not take part in the conflict.

  • Gerwarth, Robert, ed. Twisted Paths: Europe, 1914–1945. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Comprehensive and well-written synthesis that traces the implications of the war through the interwar period and into the terrible events of World War II. Very useful in an undergraduate classroom.

  • Jahr, Christoph. Gewöhnliche Soldaten: Desertion and Deserteure im deutschen und britischen Heer, 1914–1918. Kritische Studien zur Geschichtswissenschaft. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1998.

    Influential comparative study that finds important commonalities and differences in patterns of desertion and military justice in the British and German armies. Contradicts other historians, chiefly Wilhelm Deist, who point to a collapse of discipline in the German army in 1918.

  • Mosse, George L. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

    One of the most insightful books ever written on the subject of war and its aftermath. Mosse contends that World War I led to a “brutalization” of European culture and society, ultimately producing the much greater horrors of the next conflict. Ideal for graduate and undergraduate classes.

  • Seipp, Adam R. The Ordeal of Peace: Demobilization and the Urban Experience in Britain and Germany, 1917–1921. Birmingham Studies in First World War History. Farnham, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.

    Comparative study of demobilization that argues for a “crisis of reciprocity,” in which local and national governments in Britain and Germany articulated, and then failed to produce, fundamental social and economic reform in the wake of the war.

  • Watson, Alexander. Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale, and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914–1918. Cambridge Military Histories. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Interesting comparison of soldier “resilience” in the British and German armies. Watson disagrees strongly with Wilhelm Deist, suggesting that German troops staged an “order surrender,” during which they continued to follow their officers.

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