Tuesday, May 26, 2015

World War I morsels by ear

When offered nearly 19 hours of recorded lectures on World War I: The Great War on sale for less than $7, I could hardly resist during this 100th anniversary. I had never heard of the "Great Courses" series this came from, but I'm glad I took the small risk.

Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius of the Universally of Tennessee provides a solid thematic survey in 36 half hour lectures. Oddly, each is prefaced and ended with the sound of an audience clapping. I don't ever remember applauding in any of my large lecture classes as an undergraduate, even for that famously spellbinding lecturer Carl Schorske. This survey is much stronger than it might have been because Liulevicius is a German speaking specialist in eastern European developments, just what most English speakers tend to underplay.

Some thoughts and themes from the lectures -- nothing new, but still interesting, at least to me:
  • At the beginning of the war in August 1914, all the belligerent parties insisted that they were acting in self-defense, even as they moved to set in motion war plans that put them on immediate offensives. Then as now, when public opinion matters at all to governments, wars must be sold as defensive, however absurd that might be in any rational calculus. Does anyone else remember when Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada to defend medical students on the Caribbean island?
  • The war became fully global because the Allies (France, Great Britain, and czarist Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) found themselves bogged down, particularly in the trenches on the Western Front in France. Neither side was winning. Hence the scramble to open new fronts as at Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey) and carry the war to imperial outposts all around the world. This created something like bidding wars to attract additional allies that usually carried with them territorial or other promises. Many of these had to be kept secret from the peoples whose futures were being traded about cavalierly.
  • Insofar as the core combatants pursued imperial designs through the conflict, these war aims contradicted their public declarations of fighting in righteous self-defense against aggressor enemies. In the multi-national states (Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) both victories and defeats unleashed pre-existing national tensions.
  • Despite popular fury over German U-Boat attacks on U.S. ships, it was not really possible to sell to the war to the U.S. population as necessary for defense of the homeland. Hence the war was marketed as a struggle to promote democracy. Interesting how durable that trope turned out to be ...
  • Once the U.S. joined the fray, the industrial strength of the Allies and their success at blockading German ports ensured their victory. By 1918, except for the United States, all the belligerents were near collapse. Russia and Austria-Hungary had already disintegrated. The German state was teetering -- and Britain and France were also depleted and broke after their immense exertions. The 1918 armistice was a measure of continental exhaustion; the German invaders in France were never dislodged, feeding the myth that Germany could somehow have fought on if leftists hadn't stabbed the state in the backed. The victorious Allies in the next war in 1945 were well aware of this dynamic, so from early on insisted that they would only accept total victory and unconditional surrender.
  • Liulevicius points out that for many eastern European national groups -- Poles, Czechs, Serbs, etc. -- the memory of the war is of the moment when they acquired sovereignty, at least for a few decades. Armistice Day (November 11), when the guns stopped firing on the western front, is still celebrated as Independence Day in Poland.
Lots to think about here and certainly worth 19 hours of listening.

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