Great War Writing

The how and the why …

We have spent the last four classes in #history219 The Great War discussing the way that historians approach the causes of the war. The point of examining approaches (rather than providing answers) is so that students can understand/appreciate the subject and its vast historiography and develop a sense of intellectual caution when investigating issues of causality. Discussing approaches, also, helps to develop student participation in the classroom as we dissect the ways that others have interpreted the events of 1914. One of the advantages of teaching this class several times before is that I have a good idea what I don’t want from our discussions. I don’t want prescriptive thinking and I don’t want students to think that any one cause (or any combination of causes/magic formula) is sufficient for our understanding. Confusion (and frustration) helps us to work through these problems together.

Most of the students in the class have studied the First World War before so we were able to take some concepts in which they were familiar – nationalism, alliances, militarism, imperialism, etc. – and muddy the waters a bit. This requires a bit of balance, I think, since it is easy to get discouraged by complexity. Knowing that it is okay to not have all of the answers (and that one never will) is an essential part of this task. We are all limited by our sources, but also, by our own intrinsic way of looking at things, and we can only get so close as we try to answer “the how and why” empires went to war in 1914.


Franz Ferdinand looking chipper. Wikipedia Commons.

Yesterday we had a debate/discussion about the causes. I broke the class into groups of 4/5 students and asked them to discuss for ten minutes in their groups the factors that they thought were most important to understanding “the how and why”. Then we reconvened and discussed the subject as a class.

They took the group discussions seriously. I walked around and heard some really heated conversation, which to be honest, I wasn’t expecting. Some of it was about ‘the blame game’, but mostly they were trying to get a narrative down in their groups, while layering complexity in their discussions. When we reconvened, the discussion focused on some broad concepts. Here were the big ones:

  • Escalation of war in a globalized/imperial world
  • The importance of effective international systems to arbitrate crises
  • Responsible diplomacy and irresponsible actors
  • Geographical fault lines and small state nationalism
  • Fears of imperial/national decline and prestige

This was the first time that I have taught a ‘causes class’ where we spent most of our debate actually discussing how war came about and did not place emphasis on war guilt or play the blame game (we did a little, but mostly in jest). In part, I think this was because they watched a lecture by Christopher Clark (The Sleepwalkers) that placed emphasis on this line of thinking. But I couldn’t help to also think that our current state of political events was informing the discussion (how could it not?). The class overwhelmingly saw the war’s outbreak in 1914 as a cautionary tale of how quickly a world war could come about from a localized crisis and they kept hammering home on the importance of responsibility, by states and their leaders, to keep peace.

Teaching the causes

This is the fourth time that I have taught a course specific to the First World War. Each time I’ve offered it, I have changed the way I have taught the causes of the war, hoping for some sort of perfect blend between coverage and specificity. This semester, I have ceded defeat in this task: we could spend the entire semester on the causes if we wanted to and that’s not why they signed up for History 219.

So this semester I’m focused more on interpretation and offering them the opportunity to exercise some mental flexibility in the way that they approach the subject. The one thing I don’t want them to do is to emerge from the first three weeks of class believing that they have a formula for understanding causality. What I do want them to be able to do is to 1) understand something of international relations in the late 19th and 20th centuries; 2) be able to distinguish between structural (systemic) causes and intentionalist causes of the war; 3) to be able to understand the July Crisis and the events that led European empires to war.

We’re not going for mastery here – which is impossible – but we are learning how to examine causality and touching upon the complexity of July 1914 without drowning ourselves in scholarship/historiography on the subject.

To complement this approach, I have assigned a paper on the causes in which they pick a nation and dissect their decision for war (or non-decision if they pick a neutral nation, an option I suspect that a few might take). My hope is that by examining a specific case study, they can take the general information garnered from the secondary literature read for class and apply it. In other words, I hope that they can connect the structural causes to the intentions of those making the decisions for war.

The classroom dynamic has been very lively, much more than I figured it would be at the start of the semester. Usually the first week is an awkward period of adjustment for both sides of the desk. My teaching style is for a participatory lecture, where I have key points outlined on a power point (no more than five slides usually) and then we work the material together through exposition on my part and layers of complexity (and questions) coming from them. Or, I write the draft of the narrative, but they supply additional research and help me revise the draft. About half the class is participating with consistency (about 12-15 students), which sometimes means more raised hands than I have time to call upon.

Here’s an example. Yesterday, we were discussing nationalism as a cause of the First World War. This is trickier than it sounds as it involves a concept that doesn’t, in itself, lead directly to conflict unless a bunch of other factors are considered. So we tried to tease out some of those other factors and the (long) conversation became a little heated, in part, I suspect, because the term itself has resurgent meaning. We kept the conversation about the past, but I think the present was on a lot of minds.

I am not saying, exactly, that the current political situation in the USA and growing instability in the world is having an impact on the classroom, but I do think there might be a connection between the enthusiasm expressed from learning about the causes of a cataclysmic world event and growing insecurity outside of the classroom. Is this professorial paranoia? I don’t believe it is. Earlier in the week, we discussed a basic question on why the First World War matters. Overwhelmingly, the answers focused on using the past as a blueprint or warning for the future, an approach that is problematic in its application, but one that certainly got my wheels turning a bit about the way we see the past in the present.

Students, feel free to comment.

What we’re reading this semester

For the last three years I have taught a First World War survey course at Gettysburg College. I proposed the course because it is my academic area of interest, but also because I thought it would be nice to offer a FWW course during the centenary for undergraduates who might not know that much about such an important world event. In a small way, the course has been a way of trying to demonstrate the significance of the war’s ‘long shadow’.

I first walked into a college classroom as an instructor ten years ago (more on this anniversary in a future post). The last decade has seen an explosion of historical materials available online, which has been a great boon for student research, but also has made the task of sifting through materials a bit daunting. Still, students now have more resources at their fingertips than they did a decade ago and, in theory, it would be entirely possible to teach my First World War course without requiring students to buy a single book.

That’s not the approach I’ve taken this semester, not entirely, but I have adjusted my syllabus to take into account the cost of books and to take advantage of online resources freely available to my students. They still have a core textbook – this semester I am using Hew Strachan’s one volume history of the war – but I have supplemented their core reading with entries from the International Encyclopedia of the First World War. The latter is a fantastic resource that offers peer reviewed articles on hundreds of topics, each with sources, hyperlinks, and recommendations for further reading. In addition to the above, they will be reading some other articles and viewing some films/online lectures.

I have assigned a few other books so that students can get a feel for some current research and develop their skills reading and evaluating longer works. This semester, they will be reading Michael Neiberg’s new book on the American response to the war in Europe – The Path to War – as well as Emily Mayhew’s book on medical care during the war, Wounded. Throughout the semester, they also will read Ernst Jünger book Storm of Steel, to understand one soldier’s perspective on combat. Rather than assigning the latter in one chunk as I’ve done in the past, I have broken the memoir into sections that correspond to the changing nature of the war. So when we discuss the western front in 1915, they will read Jünger’s experiences that year, when we discuss the Somme, they will read about his fighting at Guillemont, etc. We will be using the memoir as a supplemental source rather than evaluating it strictly as a work of literature (though there will be some of that too).

Long story short, I’m trying a more blended approach to student reading than I’ve done in the past, a very small but logical concession to modernity.

Break Over (I think)

I took a break from blogging last semester. I did so because I started a new job and I wanted to concentrate my efforts in that direction. I also wanted to spend a little less time online. Like everyone, I have found myself to be more and more focussed on my phone/social media and it made me a little sad to be spending so much time staring at a screen.

There was something else, though. I have been giving students a lot of advice of late about taking breaks and about the benefits of saying no to things and I realized (not for the first time) that I’m a huge hypocrite. So I wanted to cut myself a little slack and give myself some time to think by cutting out some other obligations.

In not blogging, I went through all of the stages of guilt that comes from setting something up and not following through with it, which seemed unforgivable, regardless of whether anyone was actually reading or would care whether I wrote something. Moreover, I found myself actually missing writing about teaching. Blogging kept me focused and helped me articulate what worked and didn’t work in the classroom. It kept me critically focussed on pedagogy and reaching students. These are good things.

So this coming semester, I’ll try to write a little more and get back into online musing (or blogging). I am teaching two classes – “Aftermath: The Experience of War and ‘Modern’ Memory” and “The Great War”. The former is a class that compares the experience(s) of the American Civil War with that of soldiers in the First World War and introduces students to memory studies (or the way in which wars have been remembered). The latter is what it seems to be – a survey course on the First World War. So I hope to give you a glimpse of what we’re doing this semester and feature a bit of my students work/insights in the process.

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