First Day

by I.A. Isherwood

I just finished my first day of teaching History 219: The Great War.  The class has 25 students and we meet in one of the dug-out rooms of Plank Gym, a fitting location.  I began the class by talking a bit about war in the nineteenth century and challenges to the notion of peace in an age of industrial change, state formation (and rising nationalism), and imperial rivalries.  It is important to realize that war was not an enigmatic condition in 1914 and that state tensions and violence was a part of the diplomatic world order.  The nineteenth century wars of unification, the Eastern Question, imperial conflicts and settlements, nationalism, etc., were all challenges to the notion of peace over the century and important to address before we jump into conceptualizing the causes of the war.

On Wednesday, the class is reading Gerd Krumich’s essay from John Horne’s Companion to WWI on ‘The War Imagined’.  We will be trying to get at the way that Europeans conceptualized the notion of a future war before 1914 and social/political factors immediately before the July Crisis.  So for those of you in the class, think about the following:

  • Social movements, common beliefs, and the causes of war.
  • War plans the the acceptability of violence.
  • Predicting/imagining future wars.
  • Responsible vs. irresponsible diplomacy.

There are lots of other themes that we can discuss, but these are a few obvious ones from the reading.  The key thing is to try to imagine how a war was possible in 1914 as a means to understanding why the war came about. Historically reconstructing the decades immediately before the war is essential to understanding how the July Crisis led to a general European/Imperial war.

The big picture here is that the war’s causality is usually taught in ways that are far too reductive and it is our job in the next two weeks to understand why leaders risked war in 1914 and what they thought war was going to look like.  Only then can we really understand how it changed, at a fundamental level, the way people thought about war itself.