Friday, December 3, 2010

The Great War in Modern Memory

I find myself becoming more and more interested in World War I recently.

This is an inexplicable thing. Most people do not suddenly seize upon a 95-year-old conflict and begin to read up on it for the fun of it.

“Oh,” you say, “but you are a historian. You are not most people. You often seize upon things that nobody today really pays any attention to and begin to read up on them for the fun of it, so long as those things happened in the past. This is one of the reasons why you do not get invited to parties very often.”

True enough.

But, it must be said, World War I has hitherto not been one of those things. Mostly I have confined my random history seizures to things like 18th-century American political culture (my chosen field), 17th-century England, modern America since 1960, or World War II (which, along with the Civil War, is the gateway drug of American history – the thing that snags people when they are young and impressionable and draws them in deeper and deeper until finally they are out on the streets hawking their furniture to pay their library fines.)

World War II is a harsh mistress.

Part of this fascination for World War I is no doubt the fact that I have just been covering it in my Western Civ II class. The "Roots of World War I" lecture is my favorite of the semester, as it covers a 50-year period of Europeans carefully setting up tripwires guaranteed to create a cataclysmic war, and then in one afternoon in Sarajevo in 1914 they all go off. It’s fun to set it all up and watch it all fall down like that.

Part of it is also my long-standing love of all things Tolkien. JRR Tolkien was a soldier in the Great War, a man who saw combat on the Western Front and survived the war largely because he came down with trench fever and had to be shipped home before his unit was annihilated. I just finished reading a book that covers this sequence of events, though whether this is a cause or effect of the current fascination is debatable, as it was an interesting if seriously flawed book.

There are probably other reasons behind this as well, should I care to explore further. But in truth, I don’t. That would probably lead me to questioning the whole enterprise and losing interest, and I think I’d rather just focus on the history and enjoy it.


Eric said...

But it's such an interesting war, and if you really wanted "probably other reasons" (I know, you don't), wouldn't that be a sufficient other reason, anyway?

It's an under-studied and under-appreciated set of events, and I should spend more time on it myself, if I ever see myself clear. As the last major war of the 19th Century* and perhaps the second or third (if not fourth or more) war of the 20th Century, it was the major turning point between those two eras, and the fact that it straddles both so bizarrely and horrifyingly is itself such a fascinating thing. The intricacies of the arms race that provoked it! The last rounds of The Great Game and all it entailed with its dishonorable gentlemen and ethical rogues! The emergence of the modern powers from obscurity and fragmentation while the remaining giants of the Age Of Exploration tried to pound the hypos full of adrenalin into their own chests!

And all against a cultural backdrop that often gets overlooked, as well, as the West tried to cope with modernity and all it brought. Let me put in my little plug for Edwardian lit, which sometimes drags, but at its best manages (appropriately enough) to be Victorian and Modern at the same time--experimental but traditional, cynically optimistic, struggling to get into its own head without committing gross improprieties while doing so.

Sorry. I get a little starry-eyed when I start raving about it. It wasn't even my concentration twenty years ago when I was a student, but 1898-1918 (give or take--I'm tempted to go to 1925) is just an amazing time, it's hard not to get all "Oo! Oo! Oo!" over it. And the bloody black hole of 1914-1918 is the big gravity well it all whirls around and is absorbed by.

I don't know if it's possible to lose interest once you start picking at the threads and unspooling them, but everybody's mileage varies, I know (if you'll forgive the mixed metaphors and Internet cliches).

*Except can you call it the "last" war of anything if it didn't really end until 1945, which is itself a plausible argument! Maybe what makes the Great War such a damn marvelous tragedy to study is that it's perhaps the essence of the fact that History is without beginning or end, a continuity that we break up into mostly-arbitrary chunks for our sanity's sake!

Eric said...

But why '25, he asked himself as he was walking to the car. That's a bit arbitrary. Maybe '29, then, for the Wall St. Crash, but that seems too late. '33 would be even better for the collapse of Weimar, except that's even later.


David said...

I don’t know if it is the last 19th century war or not – it is the result of a long list of 19th-century failures (notably forty years of rigid treaty diplomacy, the German war plan built from that, the fatal weakness of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, rising Serbian nationalism, and Pan-Slavism in Russia), but in actual conduct it was the first real 20th-century war, being a war of massed machinery, an industrial war of attrition, in a way that did not really define 19th-century conflicts. I think a good case can be made for it being the opening phase of The Second Thirty Years’ War, and I do bring that up in class.

If I had to define a period that encompassed all of WWI and its roots/consequences, it would run generously from 1871 (the unification of Germany in the aftermath of the failure of the Metternich System) through The Second Thirty Years’ War in 1945 and the achievement of Wilson’s dream at Versailles with the UN (though 1945 was not 1919, alas). I might make an argument for including the decolonization of the 1950s/60s, undoing the scramble for empire that also contributed to 1914. I might even extend it as far as 1991, when the final vestiges of the Russian Revolution collapse. You could call it "The Crisis of the 20th Century," to bookend The Crisis of the 14th Century that I start my Western Civ II class with.

Periodicity is such a fun topic to debate.

I enjoy your enthusiasm. :)

Eric said...

The mechanization and attrition are why it has a quality of being one of the early wars of the 20th Century, along with the fact that it is a crucial point in the rise of the 20th Century powers--unified Germany, Japan, the United States and Russia--and the decline of the 19th's--including Britain, France and (managing to sit in both columns thanks to that revolution!) Russia. That isn't to say that Britain and France wouldn't continue to play crucial roles as world powers over the course of the next 31-40 years, but WWI is the obvious high water mark of the decline of the remaining colonial powers that would be finalized in 1945 (or 1954, if you want to use the French withdrawal from Indochina as a marker; '54 is my own preference, though there are other dates one could reasonably propose).

The failure of the 19th Century Great Game of diplomacy, espionage and a cold war of military brinksmanship and escalation is part of the reason I'd call it the last 19th Century war, along with the fact that early tactics attempted (poorly and with much bloodshed) to adapt 19th Century tactics and objectives to a wholly different game: massing forces and measuring strategic goals in miles were very Napoleonic and not suited for a future when weapons of mass destruction (in the generalized sense: not merely nonconventional weapons like gas but the first deployment of Maxims and other fully automatic weapons for a purpose other than mowing down uppity natives in the colonies) made casualties and attrition the markers of strategic success--could the enemy be forced to surrender, regardless of whether troops had advanced or merely pulverized the enemy from a distance?

The asterisk to that last paragraph being, of course, that the Americans had already learned how to fight a trenched war of attrition/total war by the middle of the American Civil War. Europeans, perhaps, weren't paying attention to internecine squabbles in the boonies.

I think the point is important because I don't think it's sufficient to place the Great War in one century or the other: in my view what created the conflict and led to the massive loss of life and contributed to the cultural shocks and changes to the world order was that the War unhappily straddled the past and future, terminating the old order and unveiling the new. I wouldn't and couldn't say the War was the "last war of the 19th" without emphasizing that it was (at least) the third significant war of the 20th (the other two I am counting are the Spanish-American (yes, technically a 19th Century war) and Russo-Japanese, for essentially the same reason: they were harbingers of what WWI wrote in large letters for everyone: that the Great Powers of the previous three centuries were on their way out and these peripheral, obscure states were on their way in, that the dominance of Europe was being replaced by a redistribution of power to the New World and Far East).

Or that's my layman's take, anyway. :)

David said...

A layman’s take is as good as a professional’s when you support it with that kind of evidence. :)

I would agree with you that WWI marks a hinge point between centuries – I will have to consider your “harbinger” argument further. It’s a great way to tie up some things that otherwise flap loose. I would probably go further and argue that WWI marks the true beginning of the 20th century, though you can push that back to the breakdown of 19th-century certainties exemplified by Freud and Einstein, too. In either event, it definitely divides time into a Before and an After. It is the end result of the breakdown of a lot of things in the 19th century, and nothing that happens in the 20th century makes sense without being put into its context.

Some events are rocks in the river – you put them in, you take them out, the river flows on regardless. Other events are dams – they change the way the river flows. Arguing over which category to put something in is always fun, but you can’t dispute that WWI was a dam.