So, How Would You Teach a Course on World War I?

A friend teaches at a State University. He is going to be teaching a one credit course on World War I, which he has never taught before. He described his students as moderately smart but not very knowledgeable about history. He plans to use All Quiet On the Western Front as his main text and a bunch of articles and excerpts, plus lectures. I offered my thoughts about how I would teach such a course. Since our readers seem to like posts which recommend books, I thought this might be of interest.

A course on World War I taught to moderately intelligent undergraduates, using All Quiet on the Western Front, and some short articles or excerpts for the rest of the readings, could be done very nicely. Even a very limited intro to WWI will do any kid a lot of good. You cannot understand the modern world without understanding something about WWI.

A number of thoughts spring to mind, especially Lord Acton’s timeless dictum, “study problems, not periods”. So, World War I should be taught as a tangle of problems within a framework of known facts (names, dates, locations and events, which WILL be on the test). Assuming twelve classes, here is my seat of the pants take on what I would do. Further mulling would of course lead to revisions, but this is what occurs to me.

The comment you made about the war, which I agree with absolutely, would be the theme of the class: This is where it all went wrong.

I would have the first class on the background of the countries, what they were about, covering France, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Ottoman Turkey. A sketch of each, since the kids will know nothing. Put up a big map of Europe in 1914. Describe the alliance system that formed, how Bismarck’s nightmare of encirclement ensued. The basic lesson will be that the empires could not stand the strain of modern war, and that the disintegrated remnants of these empires became more backward, violent, disorderly places, leading to further conflict and much harsher tyranny, which we lived with to this day. �Progress� did not ensue merely because the old order was swept away. Oddly, under all this strain, the democracies survived. What secret strength did they have? Remind them that Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire and has known little peace or order since WWI, etc. Background reading, Istvan Deak Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918

The second class would be about the British Empire and the world trading order that existed at the time, and the fact that up to 1914 we were experiencing “Globalization I”, and that the war destroyed all that. The reading I would give them for that would be the two chapters from Herbert Hoover’s memoirs, first volume Years of Adventure, the one about the coming of war, and the next one about the Americans in London dealing with the thousands of people stuck in Europe due to the war. These chapters are beautifully and simply written, and the kids would be able to understand them Hoover views the scene from a senior leadership position in the pre-1914 globalized world economy, and what it looked like as that world order went to pieces. The other thing I might give them is the chapter on trans-oceanic telegraphy, which the British controlled, from Headrick’s The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century . Show them a map of the British empire in 1914. Show them the naval bases at Plymouth, Gibraltar, Suez, the Cape, Aden, Singapore. The worlds trade was done in British ships, guarded by the British navy, financed by British and other capital channelled through the City of London, insured by Lloyds of London, and the entire global economy was controlled from London, though New York was rising as a challenger. Background reading — Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Phenomenon. You might give the kids the chapter on the Kaiser from Churchill’s Great Contemporaries.

The third class would be rise of the Anglo-German antagonism, the battleship race, Britain wrapping up its conflicts with France and Russia and entering the entente in 1904. Talk about four centuries of British policy of preventing any European hegemon from arising. Talk about Britain’s empire and its tradition of small constabulary armies, and its aloofness from European power politics, and how it got sucked in more and more. And ask the question, why did conventional deterrance fail in 1914? Background reading, Zara Steiner, Britain and the Origins of World War I and Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance, Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle.

The fourth class would be about military technology, what was going on the 19th C and what the thinking was prior to WWI — metallurgy, chemistry, internal combustion, railroads, etc. The old model, that the generals were oafs, is wrong. See e.g. Robert Citino, Quest for Decisive Victory: From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899-1940. The real horror is they knew a lot, did their best, and still had a bloody mess on their hands. Michael Howard’s essay “Men Against Fire” from the Makers of Modern Strategy is good, as you mentioned. You might also look at Bruce Gudmundsson’s Storm Troop Tactics, which is a very influential book. For the countervailing wisdom see Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack, 1916-18, which shows the German’s were not supermen, and the British were constantly improving in their performance. (Junger, I’ll note, shows no disdain for the British – someone is being blown to bits by British artillery on virtually every page of his book)

The fifth class, the curtain rises on that intensely studied episode: the Summer crisis of 1914. The old binary question. Tuchman‘s thesis, cybernetic determinism? Or Fritz Fischer‘s thesis, Germany wanted war? I’m a Fischerian. But lay out both.

The sixth class, the opening battles, mobile warfare stagnates into trench warfare in the West, meanwhile the massive struggle in the east, the kesselschlacht at Tannenberg, the Russian steamroller is derailed, and the first deep cracks in the foundation of the Czarist regime.

The seventh class, the nature of trench warfare, the various technological attempts to break out of it (gas, tanks, stormtroop tactics), the daily struggles of trench raids and artillery bombardment, mud, hunger. The huge clashes of Verdun and the Somme, Paschaendale and the Nivelle offensive. Show how the entirety of the human and material resources available to the warring states were sucked into the struggle. Perhaps assign Junger’s chapter from Storm of Steel where Junger�s men fight some Indians. The query, Junger’s query, how is that these Rajputana Lancers have come halfway round the world to bash their heads against the Hanoverian Grenadiers? Talk about how the vast resources of the larger, extra-European world were being drawn into the fray by means of the Anglo-American command of the oceans.

The eighth class would be about the other theatres. A few words on Italy, Gallipoli and the Middle East and the fall of the Ottomans. The main focus would be on endgame on the Eastern front, the destruction of the Czar’s armies, the German decision to introduce the �bacillus� of Bolshevism by shipping Lenin to Russia, and the Russian Revolution. Norman Stone’s book on this is the best background reading.

The ninth class could be on Submarine warfare and the entry of America into the war. David Kennedy’s book Over Here is good background reading.

The tenth class could be the crisis year of 1918, the German near-victory in the Spring, the Allied recovery, the British Empire offensive (see Griffith, op cit) and the American contribution. For this you might assign the chapter from Junger on the March 1918 attack, how the attackers lost momentum because they stopped to ransack the British food baskets. The Germans had been living on turnip soup and black bread. The little known fact that a war of movement was restored at the end, and the question of why our memory of the war is so shaped by the first years and not how it really ended. Mention that the main British offensive was led by Canadians and Australians, Monash and Currie, and why no one knows this. He who writes the history shapes what is remembered.

Eleventh class — the disintegration of the Empires, the collapses of German resistance, Versailles. As you mentioned, Nicolson. Also Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace. Lewis Namier has a good short essay on the dissolution of the Habsburg empire.

Twelfth class — the consequences of World War One and the historical memory of the war.

I had a few follow-up emails.

Note this short review by Eliot Cohen:

British Fighting Methods in the Great War. Edited by Paddy Griffith. Portland: Frank Cass, 1996, 191 pp. $42.00. Despite the writings of a few defiant historians outside the mainstream, the popular image of the British Army in World War I is one of soldiers exhibiting great valor sacrificed to the near-criminal stupidity of their high command — “lions led by donkeys,” in a memorable phrase. The current work makes an important contribution to a different view. The editor is a prolific and provocative historian of tactics, a subject disdained by too many students of strategic affairs, and he has assembled a group of thoughtful colleagues to explore the ways in which the British army adapted to the challenges of trench warfare. The reader comes away with two unsettling questions. If the British (and presumably other) European armies changed their approaches to war as quickly and well as is suggested, was the slaughter of World War I simply unavoidable? And if historians are only now unraveling the workings of battle in 1914-18, how certain can today’s experts be that they fully understand the workings of modern warfare?

I had an email exchange with Griffith, and he responded:

“If historians are only now unraveling the workings of battle in 1914-18, how certain can today’s experts be that they fully understand the workings of modern warfare?” = Still right on the button.

Absolutely right. The final lesson for anyone examining World War I, from any angle, is humility.

I also mentioned this older post

Here’s one more I had on an important WWI point — the peaceful transfer of power from the British Empire to the USA. This single event rebuts most of conventional “Realist” IR theory, since we the transfer of hegemonic power to a rising power without a great-power war. Note the excellent quote from Max Beloff.

I suggested this book as well:

You may also want to look at this very brilliant book by Stephen Biddle called Military Power. Biddle points out that WWI was the hinge moment where the modern form of warfare emerged, in which the “radical lethality” of weapons forced armies to work by concealment and stealth and combined arms suppressive fire, etc. The battlefield was so swept by metal that previous tactics were literally suicidal. The early part of the book contains an extraordinarily good description of how this change occurred and how militaries responded to it. It would have good soundbites for a lecture.

Finally, I mentioned one other remarkable example of unintended consequences and how happenstance sometimes drives historical events.

Technology is driven by war and war is driven by technology, with unforeseen consequences, sometimes of massive importance.

If World War I had started even a few years earlier, which was possible, Germany would have run out of ammunition. Explosives require nitrates. Prior to 1913 there was no efficient way to extract nitrates from the atmosphere. The only source was animal waste, and the only large-volume source of animal waste sufficient for industrial scale manufacture of explosives was guano, and the only large sources of guano were on islands in the Pacific controlled by Britain and the Royal Navy. The naval blockade of Germany meant no more guano.

The Haber-Bosch process was developed in 1913, a year before the war started. It allowed liquid ammonia to be made out of atmospheric gas. Ammonia is an efficient feedstock for production of both explosives and for fertilizer.

No Fritz Haber, no Haber-Bosch process, Germany is out of bullets and shells in a few months, no WWI.

The massive expansion of facilities using the Haber-Bosch for munitions led, in effect, to a gigantic investment in improving and disseminating the technology. Nitrates, of course, are also a necessary form of fertilizer. This wartime investment in technology was the foundation of the population explosion of the 20th century, since about half of the world’s population could not be fed if it were not for nitrate fertilizer that comes from this technology.

No Fritz Haber, no food for billions of people now living.

(Note that my suggested “background reading” is for the teacher, not the students. I am a realist.)

Two other posts about World War I are here and here.

Update: Jim Bennett writes:

Paul Fussel on the novelty of the continuous stress of trench warfare and the failure of the command to appreciate this; Solzhenitsyn’s first chapter of his August, 1914; maybe a chapter of Niall Ferguson’s Pity of War, maybe the final roundup.

41 thoughts on “So, How Would <i>You</i> Teach a Course on World War I?”

  1. Don’t forget John Keegan’s The First World War (Random House, 1999). It includes an explanation of the diplomatic failures that actually makes sense, and a cogent critique of the Schiefflin plan. As a turning point for alternative history, imagine that the Czar had not changed his mind for a second time and mobilized his army.

  2. “The Road Back,” by Remarque…a better book than his “All Quiet.” Deals with a group of German veterans after their return home. I think this is an essential work for anyone who wants to understand the 20th Century, particularly the discontinuity between generations.

  3. I think the untold story of WWI is that is represented the last desperate attempt by the ancient military aristocracies to maintain their relevance in the world of capitalism.

    The war began with a conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire. Then the Prussian dominated Germany joined in. The war occurred because the the military caste dominated all three empires. The leadership defined national problems in terms that could only be solved by military conflict purely in order to maintain their own position and relevance.

    The inclusion of the capitalistic democracies of the west was just a diplomatic accident in my opinion. I think the idea that WWI represented a systemic failure of Western society and culture originated entirely from the Marxist who sought to exploit the war to advance their own concept of historical inevitability. If the war represented not the sins of capitalism but rather the last gasp of the pre-industrial world then it could not be used to advance the cause of socialism.

    Had Germany been dominated by the West German capitalist instead of the East German (Prussian) militarist history would have been much different.

  4. Mitch, I agree that the Keegan book is a good overview. There are many, many “what ifs” about World War I, especially the Summer crisis in 1914.

    David, I went to Bookfinder and ordered a copy of “The Road Back”. It sounds like my kind of thing. I would also suggest looking at Ernst Junger’s Copse 125 : A Chronicle from the Trench Warfare of 1918 , which discusses the responses of the experienced soldiers to the less disciplined younger troops coming up to the front by the end of the war. Avner Offer’s book, cited above, discusses the breakdown of social discipline in Germany due to the food shortages, which made black markets and stealing endemic especially among protein-starved teenage boys, who were then supposed to go fight with the same discipline and enthusiasm of the young men who grew up in the highly disciplined and affluent pre-war society.

    Shannon, I think there is a large element of truth in what you say. It is consistent with the “democratic peace” theory, also. The idea that World War I was a systemic failure of capitalism is a Leninist myth, as you correctly note.

  5. My grandfather was not very political in his conversation, but he did comment a few times over the years about WW1 and, especially, Pres. Wilson. As I recall, he felt the entire enterprize was an enormous waste of men and resources, and was glad he had stayed out of it.

    His opinion of Wilson was summed up as “That fool who went over to France and got took.”

    Anyway, I would add to the reading list the books by Barbara Tuchman which include “The Proud Tower”, about pre-war Europe, “The Guns of August”, about the immediate political and military run-up to the war, and “The XYZ Affair”, about the German-Mexican diplomatic plotting that so enraged Americans.

    These books are very well written, which is not always the case with history, and combine readability with scholarship.

    One of the barriers to students’ enjoyment of the unfolding of historical events and the detective work needed to unravel how things happened is the leaden style of many texts.

    Many history books are accompanied by a sound track consisting of a series of thumps heard as the students’ head repeatedly hits the desk as he passes out from boredom. Economic and legal texts also produce this syndrome, but in those cases, it is inevitable. With a well written history book, it can be avoided.

  6. If you’re going to introduce the Haber process then you can’t ignore Weizmann’s acetone process that enabled England to produce cordite. Without cordite, England would have been hard pressed to continue the war.

    Weizmann’s acetone led directly to the Balfour Declaration, which in turn, led to Israel.

  7. Another vote for Fussell: “The great war and modern memory,” which is a very broad treatment of the influence of WWI on literatory and rhetorical forms, and really on how people think about the world in general.

  8. Tat—I agree, and I would also add Helprin’s “A Soldier in the Great War” if it weren’t fiction.

  9. Oh well, if we are going into fiction, there is plenty of British and French stuff around. Not as entertaining as “The Good Soldier Schweik”, of course, but quite as moving as anything by Remarque. There is (deep breath) Siegfried Sassoon – the Sherston trilogy, starting with “Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man”; Roger Martin du Gard’s “The Thibault Family”; Robert Graves’ “Good-bye to all that”; Henri Barbusse’s “Le Feu”; R. C. Sheriff’s “Journey’s End”, recently revived in London with huge success; and don’t forget the poets, who created a vision of that war. You cannot begin to understand what that ghastly war meant to Europe unless you read some of the literature. Oh yes, one more thing: Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” for the run-up to the war in the Habsburg Empire. The first novel of Alexei Tolstoy’s rapidly disintegrating trilogy “Calvary”, “The sisters” is quite good on the usually forgotten part of the war: Russia. OK, I shall stop. Those kids will never read even one tenth of all that is being recommended here.

  10. Off topic post WWII anecdote I read a long time ago: On the night table, along with numerous cigarette butts & next to the bath room, in which feathers from a pillow floated in the tub, lay The Good Soldier Svejk. This was the room from which Jan Masaryk took his “suicidal leap” from the window (backwards). Clearly Hasek’s strategies had their limitations when faced with certain thugs.

    Sorry to be extraneous; this is certainly a rich post & thread.

  11. Helen, thanks for the suggestions. I have read Siegfried Sassoon’s first volume of the Sherston trilogy, “Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man”, which is very good. I did not know of Roger Martin du Gard’s “The Thibault Family”. Graves’ “Good-bye to all That” is of course a classic — though I thought it was more a fictionalized memoir than a novel? I have heard of Henri Barbusse’s “Le Feu” wich is supposed to be very good. I have not heard of Sheriff’s “Journey’s End”, so that is one more to add to the list. And we won’t forget the poets: Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg.

    I have long wanted to read Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”. I had not heard of Alexei Tolstoy’s trilogy “Calvary” which I take it contains a section called “The sisters”. I agree that the Eastern Front in World War I is too little known.

    And of course the kids won’t read all this. This discussion is for the benefit of people who can appreciate it. The kids will get Remarque and some other good readings and good lectures and I hope they get something out of it.

    Ginny, I agree with the limitations of the Svejk approach, however entertaining the book may be. I don’t know for sure, since I have not yet read it. It is one thing to goof off and talk about the futility of war generally if you are in the Habsburg Empire, which seemed outdated and nonsensical in its final days. But the fate of the former Habsburg peoples was absolutely disastrous in the 20th Century, much worse than anything the Habsburgs would ever have dreamed of inflicting. The Nazis and Communists who soon came along would have had a slacker like Svejk dig his own grave and shot him in the back of the head without a second thought about the matter. It is easy to have a contemptuous attitude toward the apparent hypocrisy of relatively free societies, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to have sophisticated disdain for these communities. It is much harder to see how very much worse things can get, and that hypocrisy is a minor vice compared to forthright, shameless murderousness. The Czechs have not fared well as a small country all alone. Let us hope the current situation stays good for them. But small, wealthy, indefensible countries do not fare well, historically. They usually get eaten up by somebody sooner rather than later. Some may chuckle, “such things no longer happen in Europe”. I say, “wait and watch”. History is not over.

    Veryretired and Tatyana — I assure you, every book I referred to is anything but boring. All are gripping reading. Really. History is the most interesting thing there is, at least that you can find in books. School books may have the perverse genius of making history boring, but the stuff I cite? Good stuff!

  12. I don’t have much to add to the lists above. But, I do have an observation. Americans don’t have any feeling for how much emotional damage the Great War (to give it its proper name) did to Europeans. The Civil War here may have had the same sort of impact, but I am not sure.

  13. “Americans don’t have any feeling for how much emotional damage the Great War (to give it its proper name) did to Europeans”

    Robert, I agree. But I will go farther, much farther. The vast majority of Americans have no idea when World War I occurred, who was in it, what happened, who won, or anything else. I find that amongst even people with what are considered good academic credentials, there are two kinds of people. The vast majority who know essentially nothing about history and consider the topic boring, and a very small minority, less than five percent certainly, who are interested in history. Of this small minority, the vast majority recognize that they have no time to pursue the interest, watch a few history shows on TV, read a book now and then, and that is it. The number of people I have met in my life who like history and read it with some devotion is very, very small. And of those, most are academics, who have their own axes to grind, and have to be very, very guarded about what they can and cannot say.

    A sad state of affairs, but the blog is some relief, since you can find other people who read books through it.

  14. Sorry, Lex, I shouldn’t have bombarded you with all those books. I agree with your and Ginny’s take on “Schweik”, fan though I am of the book. What happened after 1918 in that part of the world is anything but a joke and you will find a lot of people in Central Europe who will agree with that. Even for the more disadvantaged people and nationalities in the Habsburg Empire life was considerably better than it became on its collapse. I am not sure it was all that outdated. Had it not been for the war it would have continued for a while.

    The greatest tragedy is Russia and the great might have been if it had not been destroyed by that war. Tolstoy’s trilogy is fascinating in that you can trace the disintegration of a talent (not great but pretty good) as a result of selling it to a hideous ideology. The first novel “The Sisters” is rather good in its description of Russia in the war. The second part, whose title escapes me, about the revolution and the civil war is still readable, though not as good as the first. The third part, “Grey morning” is utterly ghastly – sheer Soviet propaganda about the beginnings of the great Soviet experiment and unreadable. Tolstoy sold himself body and soul to the system and wrote nothing of any value after the mid-twenties. A formidable punishment, I think.

    Musil is very well worth reading – gives a much better idea of the Habsburg empire in its last year than “Schweik”

  15. Lex: Thanks for some interesting additions to be “to read” list.
    I’d suggest that as background for the tenth class, Martin Marix Evans’s 1918: The Year of Victories might be useful.
    And an interesting argument against some established opinions on the conduct of the war is Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory : The First World War – Myths and Realities

    And I’d be inclined to include a bit more on the role of naval strategy and warfare in the origins and course of the war, if only to recommend two good books: Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War and Castles of Steel : Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea.

    Query: when you say “suggested “background reading” is for the teacher, not the students. I am a realist” I’m a bit suprised. Enlighten an ignorant Brit: what share of a student’s coursework over a year would a one-credit course take up?

    Shannon: That’s one of most penetrating short analyses of the origins of the Great War I’ve ever seen. Kudos.

  16. Helen, your suggetions and thoughts are greatly appreciated. I need to get to Musil. Eric Voegelin thought very highly of Man Wihtout Qualities, as I recall.

    John, thanks for those suggestions. The recent revisionism on the Allied military performance in World War One is an interestng phenomenon. The final offensives are too little known. The Massie books are reputed to be good. As to the amount of work these kids will be required to do, I am not an expert either. I think a one credit course is just part of the summer. So, it is not as much as a full semester course. Moreover, this is a university where the kids are of moderate academic capacity, and hence it is not realistic to assign too much reading since they won’t do it. The teacher, however, is a friend whom I know to be very smart and well-read, though perhaps not as deeply as I am on World War I. I put this post up on the blog much more to see what our readers thought of it, and to see what books they suggested in turn, and I have been pleased with the results, as I knew I would be.

  17. Sorry, Lex, can’t agree with you – either on Svejk the book, or on my suggestion of it as a cure for boredom.

    First, the book was written in 1921, by an author who was accustomed to widely held notion of civilized Europe and couldn’t foresee what will happen to it in the future (besides, he died in 1923 of TB). Second, surely, he’s not to blame for any action or inaction done by the readers of his book, I mean Masaryk. Everyone interprets the text the way it suits him best – you’re not an exception, even admitting to NOT having read the book, you feel free to interpret its meaning! – how you even be sure Masaryk didn’t misread the book? That is, if to take for granted the premise that it was the Hasek’s book that influenced Masaryk policies, which is dubious, putting it mildly.

    I didn’t mean your course or the reading list is boring, Lex. I only responded to *veryretired musing on how to make the subject more emotional and engaging for students, and I don’t know better way than introducing this very humane satire into their reading, to balance statistical/economic/political data.

    Tolstoy: the book is called The road to Cavalry, it’s part of the trilogy “Sisters”, that follows the history of one family through years before and after the War, October revolution and Russian Civil War. Not to be confused with Anton Chekhov’s play “Three sisters” or writings of Leo Tolstoy.
    I would “divide in 2”, so to speak, anything written by the Soviet Count, as he was known (in other words, be very careful in believing what he’s saying); it’s not an accident the book was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1943.

  18. Oh, and as far as I recall from my assigned HS reading, Barbusse become a Soviet-style communist and later, a Stalinist who died in Moscow (lucky-in his own bed).
    UnlikeHasek,who joined the Bolsheviks while brainwashed in the Siberian camp, but he quickly retracted (in 2years).Unlikemany intellectuals, he saw right thru the BS.

  19. Well, the fellow teaching the course is giving them All Quiet on the Western Front, which is at least as much an “anti-war” book as Svejk, but set on the main front in the West and dealing with the main national actor in the war, Germany. And, of course, this shows that my teacher friend agrees that the students would find a work of fiction to be engaging in a way that factual books, however presented, would not. And I don’t disagree with this decision, and if I were teaching the same course to the same students, I’d do something similar.

    So I am not sure that we disagree very much about anything.

    And no, I have not yet read Svejk. But I have read many references to it, I am aware of the theme and thrust and tone of the book, and I have read the first chapter or so, and I am waiting for the current translation which is being prepared to be finished. So, it is very much on my radar. I’ll get to Svejk.

    The fact that Hasek could not foresee the disasters coming along is not his fault, of course, since no one can do that. But the larger fact is that people had it relatively good in the Austro-Hungarian empire and they did not have the imagination to see thatn at the time. The Czechs in particular were the most vehement about breaking it up and getting their own country, and they did not end up having a good 20th Century. This teaches a larger political lesson, that the seemingly intolerable is often the best of a bunch of bad options. Most people most of the time don’t want to hear that.

  20. Don’t mean to hijack this very interesting and informative thread (I always look for recommendations for my own book reading), so leat’s put it in the “aside” category.

    Monarchy, Austrian or Russian, was performing badly and overstayed their welcome in their countries. Changes were inevitable; why the society was so easily stirred towards violence and not towards liberal democracy is a matter of endless speculation (and might be an interesting topic for an university course). One thing I’m sure of: you can’t stop desire change intolerable situation in fear that the process might turn for the worse. How people would ever progress, than?
    Besides, your example with Czechs isn’t convincing. I think they are, in fact, did very well for themselves in the end of 20th century, exactly because they have learned the lessons of the past – don’t rely on the Big countries, don’t ASK for your freedom – work for it yourself, or you’ll end up a pawn in the game of your “betters”, be it Britain or Russia.

    In my eyes – freedom is always better than serfdom. Yugoslavia, a concoction of British and French diplomacy, is better off UN-united. Poland is better off as an independent state, not a part of Austrian and Russian empires. So is Ukraine and all other former SSSR republics. So the political lesson is probably the opposite one then what you speak of.

  21. Lex said: “…. The vast majority who know essentially nothing about history and consider the topic boring, and a very small minority, less than five percent certainly, who are interested in history. Of this small minority, the vast majority recognize that they have no time to pursue the interest, watch a few history shows on TV, read a book now and then, and that is it….”

    The quote that applies is (something like) “those who do not have historical knowledge essentially remain children”. Wish I could recall the author, sorry.

  22. Other way round with Tolstoy, Tatyana. Surely, you remember.

    Spelling out the Russian:

    The trilogy is called “Khozhdeniye po mukam”; first part is called “Syostri”, can’t remember the second part but the third one is “Khmuroye Utro”. Story of the two sisters, Katya and Dasha, and the two men they end up with in the end.

    This is me being thoroughly pedantic.

    As for the Czechs, and, indeed, other East Europeans, they may have done well for themselves by the end of the twentieth century but just a few decades of rather unpleasant experience intervened between 1918 and 1989. Freedom was not precisely part of it most of the time.

  23. Tatyana, you are not hikacking anything.

    I agree that freedom is better than serfdom. But that is a false dichotomy. The people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were not face with those options. I have to disagree that the monarchy was performing poorly. Sound currency, secure property, good economic growth in a large free-trade zone, inter-ethnic peace, increasing levels of political freedom, a trend toward a federal-type solution for the regions. Had the war not come there is no reason to think these trends would not have continued.

    Let me get my lawyer in here to cite some authority. Tom, how did you put that?

    Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    OK. So, as always with politics, it is a question of making a prudential judgment about what is better, the status quo, including the trends embedded in the status quo, and working within that framework, or something else — to decide when things are no longer “sufferable”. I don’t think you can reasonably say that the Czechs, to stick with them, in the 88 years after 1918 to today — including Nazi and Soviet occupation, had a better time of it than they did in the prior 88 years. Sometimes — rarely — the way to stop being oppressed is to take up arms and throw off the current regime. This always seems appealing when you read about it. Sometimes it is to push the existing system, like the pre-war Czechs were doing, by boring incremental steps. This has the virtue of getting few people killed.

    I do not think that there is any real analogy between resisting the communist regimes after 1945 and the Habsburgs. The communists were far, far worse, and risking life and limb to oppose them was probably the correct course all along. Their rule was not “sufferable”, it was intolerable, and it showed no sign of moderating and evolving into something better. You seem to be putting those things together. I don’t really see any comparison.

    As to whether Yugoslavia is better off broken up, I suppose the hundreds of thousands of dead people have to be calculated into the analysis of whether it is better off ununited. Should there never had been a Yugoslavia? Maybe, but that is not really relevant to whether it should have been broken up, or how it should have been broken up.

  24. Interesting recommendations; I actally prefer Gilbert’s The First World War to Keegan’s equivalent problem. Keegan’s the better military historian, but I think Gilbert does a much better job of getting the overall theme right: after about September 1914, WWI became a sort of self-perpetuating phenomenon, where the sole focus became defeating the other side, not the accomplishment of some politico-strategic goal. Basically, a great killing waste. I also thought Keegan ended poorly… it’s as though he thought he had a year to write it, then after he finished 1916, found out he had 3 months left instead of 6. Mosier’s Myth of the Great War seems to have largely been written in response to Keegan’s Anglophilic treatment, and it’s certainly interesting reading, even if it was BADLY in need of a good copy-editor or 20.

    If he wants something of a more scholarly bent for the reading list, Martel’s Origins of the First World War and Robson’s First World War, both part of the Seminiar Stuides in History Series, are both not too bad and relatively short.

    As to Massie, Dreadnought is excellent on the personalities and grand forces at play in the Anglo-German naval race. I was less impressed with Castles of the Sea, on the war itself, primarily because, when you get down to it, there simply weren’t very many battles between surface combatants. The maps in Castles also stink; I couldn’t make heads or tails of the maneuvering in the Battle of the Falklands, and simply putting a little circle on a map near the Falkland Islands wasn’t any help.

    All this WWI stuff really reminds me I still need to get to Ferguson’s The Pity of War. Pity.

  25. Yeah, I have to think not discussing some of the recent “revisionist” thinking about WWI and it’s origins would be remiss. Ferguson springs to mind.

    And I think concentrating solely on the British Empire view is a big mistake, the French too took vast casualties and also had their own empire hauling in colonials to feed into the fray, and their own (In my opinion, insane) agenda.

    Looking at the war fromthe other side of the hill is very instructive.

    Also I think something must be made of the limitations of command and control. Once the mobilizations started, no one could afford not to follow suit and implement war plans. To stop would have left countries at mercy.

  26. “Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum.”

    — Cicero

  27. Helen:
    I’m well aware of the title of the trilogy and its characters (the second novel is called “The Eighteenth year” and describes the Civil War). Searching for the link to give to Lex, I found out the title in English translation became Road to Cavalry| – don’t ask me why – and that’s what I sited, see my link above; no reason to direct people who do not read in Russian, to a Russian book. True, I haven’t open it myself for good 30 years, and I intend to keep it this way. Soviet Count disgusts me. (link in Russian)

    sorry for being unclear, but I don’t see (after rereading 3 times) how anything in what I said above made you form your impressions.
    -I didn’t equal Habsburgs and Eastern bloc.
    -I didn’t compare the history of Czechoslovakia under Habsburgs and Soviets at all. I don’t know how I “seem to be putting them together”.
    -I didn’t advocate violent revolutions, you don’t need to explain to me that gradual change is better than bloody violence.
    -I was responding to your words “But the larger fact is that people had it relatively good in the Austro-Hungarian empire and they did not have the imagination to see thatn at the time”. I would imagine some British oficial would say the same about those crazy American colonists – they don’t know how good they have it under the Crown, they just riot without having foresight to see the grief it will bring them in the future.

    Every nation has a right to be independent. The size of it is irrelevant. No Big Boss has a right to forcefully keep people with national identity and desire to be independent in the bondage of Empire. [I’m afraid to bring in example of Chechnya – can’t imagine what you can read into that! But yes, same with Chechnya – they have a right to separation.] If Czechs wanted their independence, they surely had a right to get it.

    Thousands of deaths after the break-up of Jugoslavia is a direct result of artificiality of the federation. You can’t keep all these animals in one carriage if all they had dreamed of, for the duration, to break apart! Jugoslavia wasn’t a melting pot, it was a pressure-cooker on the high flame, with steam-valve pushed down.
    I was talking a week ago to a friend of mine, Croatian living in Brooklyn. “They are all on frendliest terms in Ljublyana now”, she said, “now – when they got what they wanted for centuries: separation”.

    Are you a monarchist, Lexington? I don’t understand this apology for the Empires. I am confident that monarchy was dead by 1913. At least in Russian Empire. I would even go further and say that wherever monarchies exist now, they are mostly decorative – if by some reason any king or princess decided to evoke their powers and make real political decisions, their days would come to the abrupt end – sentimental admiration of tradition, drawing crowds at ceremonies notwithstanding. I see it as direct result of WWI.

    OK, rant’s over. I took too much space already – and too far away from the topic of the post.

  28. No, not a monarchist, a Burkean conservative. I have no particular animosity toward monarchies if they are preserving civil peace and political freedom. Britain, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Japan seem to be doing fine as constitutional monarchies. There is a lot to be said for having a monarch, so long as the monarch is not too powerful, and subject to the rule of law. More specifically, compared to the alternatives, the Habsburgs were a good deal, and were heading in the right direction. Ethnic and linguistic nationalism was a negative force, it led to a balkanized and impoverished and authoritarian central Europe after the war. I don’t see how that was an improvement.

    I also don’t agree generally that the monarchies were falling apart in 1914. Russia had excellent economic growth in the decade before World War I. The war destroyed the Empires. Had there not been a horrendous war, there is no saying how they would have carried on, maybe until today. Germany, of course, was the wonder of the world, despite having a crazy government. How it might have evolved if the Kaiser had been rational, or if the war had ended sooner, cannot be answered. But the mere fact that these countries were monarchies is not, in my view, a strike against them.

    “Every nation has a right to be independent.” I can’t agree with this. What group of people constitutes a nation? Can that ever be agreed upon? Woodrow Wilson thought there was a “right to national self-determination”. This was consistent with the advanced liberal views of the day, but it led to a lot more trouble than it was worth.

    There is a saying in the law is “no right, no remedy”. The reverse is true, to “no remedy, no right”. There is nowhere for a “nation” to get its “right” recognized, except through political bargaining, or rebellion or revolution. It is not a question of rights, except on a rhetorical level. It is about political prudence. Nothing is gained by talking about rights in this context.

    I don’t think you are off point, or saying too much. Long comments that are intelligent are appreciated.

  29. I think one of the lessons of WWI should be the danger of not finishing the job. Setting up Weimar and going home gave us WWII. Staying there and building a solid democracy would likely have given us a more peaceful century.

  30. WW1 was the last great aristocratic war. Many of the participants’ leaders were autocrats, the military leadership was over staffed with hereditary nobility, and the tactics displayed a contempt for the lives of the common soldiers that is utterly mystifying after the clear lessons of the American Civil War and the earlier war of 1870.

    It is also worth remarking that the ferocity of the deadliness of these staid, outmoded tactics destroyed several ruling groups, and the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians, every bit as effectively as the later, more technologically and tactically advanced efforts of the belligerents in WW2.

    The poisonous effects of WW1, however, which led directly to the rise of marxism, fascism, and nazism in Europe, and the popularity and widespread experimentation with various collectivist forms of governmental structure around the world, are still reverberating through, and damaging, the course of world social and cultural development to this day.

    It has only been within the past few years, almost the other end of the century, that the last of the gruesome experiments with totalitarianism finally came to an end.

    Ironically, it was the “new utopia” that ended as the poet predicted—“not with a bang, but a whimper”, while the much reviled commercial social order of the West flourishes as a global phenomenon.

    I apologize. I think this has drifted off topic even more than I usually manage to do in my wanderings.

  31. Karl, the problem is that the Allies, after losing millions of men, were not ready, willing, or able to “finish the job.” Occupying Germany was not an option. The collapse of Weimar was not due to the Allies failure to occupy Germany, it was due to Germany’s failure to work with what they had. The Germans wanted an authoritarian government, and they got one. Their decision. Not someone else’s fault.

    David, there is some truth to that summary. But it leaves some things out. For example, you look at the enormous French losses in 1915, in local attacks which history does not even attach names to. And you think the French were crazy. But then you realize, they were terrified that the Germans would finish off Russia, and they wanted to help the Russians, who were getting clobbered, so they continued the attacks. Same thing with the Somme. The British thought their artillery would crush the German defenses. But whether it did or not, their ally France was bleeding to death at Verdun, and needed help. There is a lot more tragedy and a lot less stupidity in the management of World War I than we like to believe.

    Veryretired, I largely concur with your musings, especially as to the long term destruction which is still not fully played out.

    No harm in repeating the famous passage from the beginning of AJP Taylor’s English History, 1914-1945:

    Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

    All this was changed by the impact of the Great War. The mass of the people became, for the first time, active citizens. Their lives were shaped by orders from above; they were required to serve the state instead of pursuing exclusively their own affairs. Five million men entered the armed forces, many of them (though a minority) under compulsion. The Englishman’s food was limited, and its quality changed, by government order. His freedom of movement was restricted; his conditions of work prescribed. Some industries were reduced or closed, others artificially fostered. The publication of news was fettered. Street lights were dimmed. The sacred freedom of drinking was tampered with: licensed hours were cut down, and the beer watered by order. The very time on the clocks was changed. From 1916 onwards, every Englishman got up an hour earlier in summer than he would otherwise have done, thanks to an act of parliament. The state established a hold over it citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the second World war was again to increase. The history of the English state and of the English people merged for the first time.

  32. lex…I have in mind stupidity at the tactical level, like British generals who refused to allow their men to use cover (because they thought the common sort were both too dumb to do so properly, and too cowardly to get up again and continue the advance) and the French generals who insisted that men in the attack carry the normal 70-pound load (which included things like bundles of firewood for use in camp after the longed-for breakthrough had happened.)

    Given the balance of technologies that existed at the time, WWI would have been dreadfully bloody in any cases, but the lack of imagination of all too many senior officers–coupled with their unwillingness to “go and see”–made things a lot worse than they needed to be.

  33. David, the depressing thing is learning from the recent books just how much tactical innovation the armies were trying to do. It was just really, really hard to make any headway against the power of the defense at the time.

  34. I am an admirer of A. J. P. Taylor’s and that book is, in many ways, brilliant. But, but, but. That quotation, always being trotted out, is not entirely correct. Even by his own admission the state was interfering in ever more aspects of everybody’s life. In particular, it had taken over education (most children had been educated before the Foster Act of 1870 but its proponents chose to lie about it). Yes, the war’s effects were colossal, though not as great as on the Continent. But liberalism was being vanquished by the corporate and ever more powerful state from the end of the nineteenth century.

  35. Yes, agreed, Taylor overstated the case, a type of exaggeration meant to make his larger point. Still, he was more right than not when comparing pre-1914 with post-1918. By 1889 F.W. Maitland was writing that the great change came with the Reform Bill of 1832, and that by his day:

    We are becomng a much governed nation, governed by all mannder of councils and boards and officers, central and local, high and low, exercising the powers which have been committed to them by statute.

    Maitland was looking back to the living memory of true laissez faire. But if Taylor overstated the smallness of the State’s role before the war, he did not exaggerate the vast expansion it experienced during the war.

  36. Quick note: If you are thinking of purchasing Keegan’s book on WW I. you may want to get the illustrated version.

    And I can’t even imagine trying to teach the history of the war using only a great, but entirely one-sided, novel.

  37. Thanks to Simon Kenton for help with the quote (in Latin above).

    “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. ”
    Marcus Tullius Cicero

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