Why the Great War?

March 31, 2004

I just finished writing up lecture notes for this afternoon's class on The Guns of August - I am stealing Barbara Tuchman's title for my class lecture. One of the students commented last month that their previous (high school) history classes tended to skip over World War One and focus on World War Two. I am going the other way. We have three lectures on the events of 1914-19 (The Guns of August, The Great War, Reds) and two for the Second World War (Gathering Storm, Second World War). Why? I do believe that the first was the more significant conflict. It destroyed the 19th century empires, approved Nationalism as the dominant justification for state organization, and opened the door for Communism. The second war, despite its far greater human cost, was in many ways the second act of a three act play.

When I cover the great war in US surveys students have trouble imagining the network of interlocking alliances and mobilization schemes that led first one and then another Great Power to declare war, much less do the grasp the joy that came with the declarations of war. Why go dancing in the streets at the thought of marching off?

The answer, of course, is that for many people in 1914 War meant a brief clash of arms, some marching, and a return home covered in glory. There had been a great many short wars, most of them victorious colonial wars, and no one imagined what was to come.

Posted by Red Ted at March 31, 2004 09:24 AM | TrackBack