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Why Study World War I?

Portrait of Corporal Adolf Hitler during his stay in a military hospital, 1918
Adolph Hitler in 1918

In an evaluation of my class “History of International Relations” (taught 48 consecutive semesters at The Institute of World Politics) one student wrote that “Professor Tierney spent too much time on World War I.”

This was meant as a “negative” review, as “too much” was literal and, by definition, a complaint. As usual in such cases, I took the complaint in stride as characteristic. Upon reflection, however, the student (anonymous) probably had a perspective that was shared throughout the culture, if not the world.

The American Perspective on History

Americans have been labeled as either “a-historical” or “anti-historical,” the first meaning “indifferent;” the second “hostile.” Either way, the famous slogan of industrialist Henry Ford probably summarizes best the way in which the country approaches the subject: “History is bunk.” Synonyms of “bunk”, in order, are: balderdash, baloney, bogus, bullshit, false, garbage, gibberish, hogwash, hooey, horseshit, humbug, poppycock, rubbish, trash, twaddle.

Upon reflection, again, the student was probably quite polite in assessing my class, as none of the above appeared in the evaluation. But, on the other hand, he/she also reflected the “mainstream” in American culture in “perspective” from historical appreciation.

That is to say: none.

Upon reflection, again, again, this should come as no surprise for anyone alive in contemporary America, as follows: a culture that is dominated by historical “revision,” that symbols of the past are to be destroyed, that the birthday of the country is arbitrarily moved to another time and date, that the beliefs that held the country together over time, including civil war and economic depression, were “bogus,” that the people that created both the practical and theoretical designs of the whole were now dismissed as elite “supremacists,” that ideological “isms” defined the substance of a nation once the symbol of political virtue (liberty), and that “diversity” had replaced “unity,” that “equity” had replaced “achievement,” and that “inclusion” had replaced the “individual.”

This above list is “for starters;” what about World War I, the original point? Was the student right?

From his/her perspective (as it goes), probably so. Inside a political culture in which nearly everything of value is either dismissed or challenged, what on earth does any war (for that matter) mean compared, say, to George Floyd, Harvey Weinstein, or the American police force? In purely “Judicial” terms, the entire society is labeled “suspect,” under “interrogation.” As in standard police work, these words are preliminary for “guilty” pleas. So with the country as well.

Just wait.

In nearly a full year alone (2018), the entire political culture went hysterical over the behavior of a Supreme Court nominee at a High School booze party. World War I was “different.”

The Significance of WWI

On July 1, 1916, as a contrast, 20,000 British soldiers were killed (mostly by machine gun) by 2 PM on the first day of the “Battle of the Somme.” The Battle of the Somme ended on November 18, with 92 (yes, 92) more infantry attacks reminiscent of Day One. The Somme was but one of approximately twenty-five more such “slaughters” of men and material that characterized these four years (1914-1918). For the most part, each action gained little more than 4 or 5 miles of ground, with Berlin still a distant target (not occupied until 1945).

But “slaughter,” as in most wars, is probably insufficient to separate societies in war vs. those at peace. The First World War, unlike any since or before, is best remembered for how it changed both internal societies and external politics as well. In short, it was, and still is, a “watershed.”

Perhaps the British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, characterized the ultimate effects of the war when he told his staff the day Britain declared war against Germany (August 4, 1914) that “the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall never see them lit again in our lifetime.”

This was probably the most prophetic sentence in world history, but neither Grey, his staff, nor any of the leadership, Generals, Admirals, Kings, Prime Ministers, soldiers, and sailors from all the continents could have possibly realized it. The full implications were so distant that all societies, from both the Triple Entente to the Central Powers to America and the British Commonwealth, fully expected, as the saying went, to be “home by Christmas.”

They never made it; nor did the world.

What, upon reflection, were these “implications” that extinguished the “lamps” in Grey’s words, beyond the 10 million dead soldiers, the 30 million lost or injured: World War II (1939, as an extension of the First),  a globe that saw the beginning of America as nascent “superpower,” the permanent decline of Europe after centuries of dominion, the rise of Fascism, Communism, Socialism, and Democracy as global ideologies, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Imperial Japan, Pearl Harbor, the end of centuries of Colonial rule all around the globe, the rise of conflicts embedded in the histories of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, the birth of Israel, the eventual Cold War, Ronald Reagan and the end of Soviet Communism, the “return” of “Russia” as a country and, last but not least, the return of Russia invading neighbors.

In other words, everything! All from 1914 and the assassination of an obscure Austrian Archduke (June 28, 1914): the day that both ended everything before and started everything since.


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