Friday, July 8, 2011

Kaboom! The Legacy of World War I

Randall Stephens

The past is never dead. It's not even disarmed.

Among the many legacies of World War I: the unexploded bombs that still litter Europe. (This
is also a major inheritance of the Second World War. See the DW clip embedded here.) The Christian Science Monitor's Randy Dotinga discusses the problem in a brief review of Adam Hochschild 's new book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin, 2011). "I had my own encounter with an unexploded shell in 2006," says Dotinga, "during a tour of World War I battlefields and cemeteries in the region of Belgium known as Flanders. We dropped by an archaeological site in a field next to a gas station and found volunteers who'd just uncovered an unexploded German shell. You can see it in the accompanying photo. The date on the shell, which was about 20 inches long, is 1916. Holding the shell – carefully – was probably harmless. Banging it with a hammer, however, would have been a very bad idea."

In the June issue of Historically Speaking, Sean McMeekin–who teaches diplomatic history in the department of international relations of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey–considers the enormous impact of the Great War and the ongoing scholarly discussion/debate surrounding it. I excerpt a portion of that essay here.

Sean McMeekin, "Jihad-cum-Zionism-Leninism: Overthrowing the World, German-Style"

It is often said that the First World War marks a watershed in modern history. From the mobilization of armies of unfathomable size—more than 60 million men put on uniforms between 1914 and 1918—to the no less mind-boggling human cost of the conflict, both at the front and beyond it (estimated military and civilian deaths were nearly equal, at some 8 million each), the war of 1914 broke all historical precedent in the scale of its devastation. Ruling houses that had endured for centuries—the Romanov, Habsburg, and Ottoman—shook, tottered, and fell, unleashing yet more misery as these precariously assembled multiethnic empires were wracked by internecine warfare. As the war of 1914 spread beyond Europe into the Balkans and Middle East, racial and religious score-settling and reprisals led inevitably to large-scale ethnic cleansing, with millions of civilians uprooted from their ancestral homes, which most would never see again. Even the victorious Western powers, France and Britain, suffered a collapse in cultural confidence that arguably has never been repaired. After centuries of progress had brought the West to a position of unparalleled domination of global affairs, it took only four years for the whole glittering edifice of European civilization to fall apart.

If 1914–18 marked an epitaph for Old Europe, we may usefully ask: Was it murder or suicide? Popular historians have usually leaned toward the latter verdict, viewing the catastrophe of 1914 as a tragedy of miscalculation, the idea being that no European statesmen were truly guilty of intending the war, at least not the horrendous global war of attrition that it turned into.1 Since the Fritz Fischer debate of the 1960s professional historians have generally favored the former explanation, explaining the war’s outbreak in terms of German and/or Austrian premeditation, coming down with a verdict of, if not outright homicide, then at least civilizational manslaughter. The German decision for war in 1914, Holger Herwig writes in a recent scholarly collection on the conflict, was not quite Fischer’s aggressive and deliberate “bid for world power” but rather “a nervous, indeed panicked ‘leap into the dark’ to secure the Reich’s position of semihegemony on the Continent.” In the new “consensus” interpretation, Berlin still bears primary responsibility, no longer for premeditated imperial aggression in the sense implied by the Versailles Treaty and by Fischer, but for an impulsive preemptive strike to ward off incipient strategic decline, with further mitigation in that the Germans received a strong assist in unleashing the dogs of war from their equally panic-stricken (and equally pessimistic) Austrian allies.

This sort of moderate academic consensus is usually welcomed. Now that so few historians have a real personal or patriotic stake in the controversy (as many Germans with memories of both world wars still did in the 1960s), scholars working in the field today are spared the bitter acrimony of the Fritz Fischer years. Even on the level of practical politics, with the centennial approaching, there is now a sense of “goodbye to all that”—literally, as the last German reparations payment was finally processed in 2010!>>>


Chris Gehrz, Bethel University said...

I'm new to blogging, so I hope this doesn't come off (too much) as shameless self-promotion. But for those interested in the history of WWI... I'm currently about a third of the way through a series taking readers day-by-day through my planned 2013 travel course on WWI. I'd love to hear comments and suggestions from colleagues!

Randall said...

Sounds like it will be a terrific course! I made a second visit to the WWI museum in KC this past weekend.