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Deaths in World War I

Created by Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

Narrator: As you might imagine, World War I was one of the bloodiest events in, frankly, all of human history. I was thinking about putting some pictures here, and I encourage you to do a web search for actual photographs from World War I of mass graves and people starving and soldiers dead in trenches. It will make you feel ill. It's probably a good thing to look for those images because it will remind you how disgusting and gross and crazy wars can be. Sometimes we abstract it when we look at it in hindsight and we just talk about the numbers. World War I was gruesome, especially because this was the first time that industrialized weapons were really put to use in a war context. There was far more bloodshed than I think any of the fighting powers actually believed there would be. Just to put things in to numbers, and these are huge numbers, and these are frankly abstract numbers; numbers that are hard for us to comprehend. We don't know the exact numbers, as you can imagine, it's not easy to take a census. The military's have a better count of who might have been killed or who might be missing. The civilian casualties are almost impossible to count. You have people who are inadvertently killed by a bomb, you have people who are dying of starvation, who are dying due to famine. These are very hard numbers to count, but there is some consensus on the rough estimates on the total casualties in World War I. In particular, I'm going to focus here on the deaths, when people talk about casualties that often will also talk about injured. Just the deaths alone, the estimates I've seen, and I encourage you to look up your own and try to figure out what consensus you could get to, but the estimates I've seen have on the order of 16 million, million deaths during or due to World War I. If we were to break down those deaths, we have 8-10 million in the military. So, directly military these are death of soldiers, so this is the military. It was roughly, based on the accounts that I've seen, about 60% of these deaths were amongst the Entente, and about 40% were amongst the central powers, but in either case, we're talking about millions on either side of World War I and then the rest, if we're talking on the order of about 6-7 million were civilians. (writing) 6-7 millions civilians. The estimates I've seen were about 1 million plus that were directly due to military action. This is military action impacting civilians. This was disproportionately felt on the side of the Entente, on the side of the allies. If you look at where, especially the western front was fought, it becomes clear and also much of where the eastern front was fought. The eastern front, a lot of it was fought on Russian land, or what was controlled by the Russian Empire at the time and on the western front, much of the, or most of the battle was in France and in Belgium and also in Italy, that was also where you had a significant amount of the battle actually going on. So, this is why the allies, the Entente, felt a disproportionate number of the civilian that's directly due to military casualties. But then on top of that, the rest of the civilian count, this is what's, frankly, very hard to get an exact number on, this would be due to famine, starvation, disease. (writing) disease. We've talked before about the blockade of the central powers. You had definitely people not being able to kind of eat properly, you had the Spanish Flu. It was just an all around ugly situation and then to make matters worse, and this is what the history books often forget, you often had an explicit extermination of peoples' trying to happen during World War I. In fact, the, I guess, most notable, but often forgotten was the Armenian genocide. There was actually an explicit campaign on the part of the Ottoman's and this actually started before World War I, but it kind of hit full pace during World War I where 1 to ... I've seen estimates of 1 million to 1.5 million Armenian's were systematically ... I'm talking about men, women, children, systematically killed by the Ottoman government. War is ugly and it brings out the worst in people and you see it just from these numbers. Just to give a context of all this is ... it's very easy for us just to abstract these things, but I really wanted to sit in how horrible this was, but just to kind of bring it all into focus. This right here is a passage from The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 129 that was published in 1922 and it's a passage on Joseph Tumulty's book. Joseph Tumulty was the Private Secretary, what is now called the Chief of Staff, of President Woodrow Wilson. This is about his account of being with Woodrow Wilson after the war was declared in World War I. It's fascinating because it applies, frankly, to most wars, or all wars. The War President and the War. "At the time of delivering his far-echoed "war message, in April 1917, the President was "cheered by dense multitudes thronging the streets "as he passed from the White House to the Capital "and back again. "This is from Tumulty's," that's Woodrow Wilson's Chief of Staff, or it was called Private Secretary then. "This is from Tumulty's own description of the return: 'For a while he,'" and we're talking about Woodrow Wilson, "'For a while, he sat silent and pale in "'the Cabinet room. "'At last he said, 'Think what it was they "'were applauding.'" "'My message today was a message of death "'for our young men. "'How strange it seems to applaud that.'"