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The Great Crack-Up, Then and Now

The Great War laid waste to the economic and political foundations of Europe, but did not establish a new international order, thus setting the stage for the disasters of the 1930s and 1940s. As the world approaches another period of vast economic and political change, the lessons of the interwar interregnum are more relevant than ever.

NEW YORK – Many now fear that we are witnessing the disintegration of the liberal international order, which has for decades ensured peace and prosperity in the West and many other parts of the world. That order was established after World War II, but it is worth remembering that its origins lie in the period following World War I.

WWI was a staggering conflagration with far-reaching consequences. Beginning as a confrontation between the Triple Entente – France, the United Kingdom, and Russia – and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the war quickly engulfed all of Europe, with the exception of Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. In time, it dragged in the Ottoman Empire, Japan, the United States, and various members of the British Commonwealth. And, eventually, its impact was felt as far afield as Latin America and Asia.

Needless to say, WWI was immensely destructive: approximately ten million people died, and perhaps three times as many were injured. By 1918, Europe was shattered, exhausted, and demoralized. And just as the war was ending, a global influenza pandemic struck, eventually killing perhaps 50 million more people. The world that had existed before the war was gone forever.

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