The Economics of World War I

Lead Commentaries

Nicholas Crafts, 27 August 2014

It is well-known that World War I was expensive for Britain.  The indirect economic costs were also huge.  This column argues that the adverse implications of the Great War for post-war unemployment and trade – together with the legacy of a greatly increased national debt – significantly reduced the level of real GDP throughout the 1920s.  A ballpark calculation suggests the loss of GDP during this period roughly doubled the total costs of the war to Britain.

Patricia Clavin, 03 August 2014

Today’s international institutions have roots in the tenuous interwar peace. This column details the importance of Austria as a prototype for international aid and development. In the case of Austria, the interwar powers realized the inefficacy of a punitive peace, and instituted a system by which private credit markets would assist development in a mutually beneficial relationship. The Austrian ‘success story’ is key to understanding today’s international relations.

Harold James, 09 July 2014

The 1907 panic affected the world, demonstrating the fragility of the international financial system. This column discusses the steps the US and Germany took in fortifying their financial systems following 1907. There is a link between the financial crisis and the escalation of diplomatic relations that led to war in 1914. And this link has implications for today as the world is recovering from the 2008 crisis.

Drew Keeling, 23 June 2014

When nations declared war in 1914, migration policies changed. This column describes some of these changes and how they affected later migration incentives and patterns. Before 1914, migration had been peaceful and driven by market incentives. Since 1914, it has been shaped by politically determined quotas, legal restrictions, and flights from wars and oppression.

Mark Harrison, 03 June 2014

The Great War offers lessons for today. But this column argues from recent research that many so-called lessons are misunderstood. Secretive, authoritarian regimes become dangerous when they fear the future. Deterrence matters. Other aspects also demand re-evaluation.

Timothy J Hatton, 09 May 2014

The height of today’s populations cannot explain which factors matter for long-run trends in health and height. This column highlights the correlates of height in the past using a sample of British army soldiers from World War I. While the socioeconomic status of the household mattered, the local disease environment mattered even more. Better education and modest medical advances led to an improvement in average health, despite the war and depression.

Avner Offer, 19 September 2014

Victory in World War I relied on three types of energy: renewable energy for food and fodder, fossil energy, and high explosive. This column argues that the Allies had a clear advantage in manpower, coal, and agriculture, but not enough for a quick decision. Mobilisation in continental economies curtailed food production, occasionally to a critical level. Technical competition was a matter of capacity for innovation, not of particular breakthroughs. Coercive military service and rationing of scarce energy and food had egalitarian consequences that continued after the war.

Hugh Rockoff, 04 October 2014

World War I profoundly altered the structure of the US economy and its role in the world economy. However, this column argues that the US learnt the wrong lessons from the war, partly because a halo of victory surrounded wartime policies and personalities. The methods used for dealing with shortages during the war were simply inappropriate for dealing with the Great Depression, and American isolationism in the 1930s had devastating consequences for world peace.

Stephen Broadberry, 11 November 2014

In the massive circumstances of total war, economic factors play the deciding role. Historians emphasise size in explaining the outcome of WWI, but this column argues that quality mattered as well as quantity. Developed countries mobilised resources in disproportion to their economic size – the level of development acted as a multiplier. With their large peasant sectors, the Central Powers could not maintain agricultural output as wartime mobilisation redirected resources from farming. The resulting urban famine undermined the supply chain behind the war effort.