Heads Exploding

by I.A. Isherwood

I won’t lie: I have a hard time teaching the causes of the First World War. This probably sounds weird, but it is an earnest declaration that deserves some slack-cutting. I certainly know I am not alone in this and I think that it is a good problem for a teacher/scholar to have. Over the last five years or so, I have tried a number of different approaches, but each time I walk away from a ’causes’ lecture, I feel slightly uneasy about our conversation. Usually, I end up repeating it back to myself, step by step, to make sure that we covered the right points. Rather than this being a sign of insecurity, I think it is a sign of the vibrancy of the field that new interpretations have revealed so much nuance on a question that is so historically important. It also shows that students are, contrary to popular belief, interested in the nuances of WWI.

Students crave answers and not just thought experiments from their teachers. I feel a keen sense of professional obligation to present evidence that leads them to their own conclusions, not just to give them my opinions on history. The latter is the stuff of dogmatism, not knowledge, and I think students learn material better if it comes from within a classroom discussion where they/we develop their/our ideas. So what concepts did we workshop yesterday?

Long Term Causes 

  • Imperial Rivalry/Imperial Decline: Specifically great power rivalries at the turn of the century and the imperial fault line in the Balkans.
  • Nationalism and Rising New Nations: Specifically, we looked at Germany’s position in central Europe and Serbia’s position in the Balkans. Each ‘new’ state created tensions with their neighbors and we discussed those tensions especially relating to the above.
  • Alliances, Militarism, and War Planning: We discussed whether alliances, militarism, and war plans contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914 and the ways that historians measure such impact.

Short Term Causes

  • Diplomatic Divisions: We talked briefly about the Moroccan Crises, the Bosnian annexation, the Balkan Wars, the Anglo-German naval rivalry, and how these events exacerbated international tensions.
  • The July Crisis: We went through the events of the July Crisis so that students understand the timeline. I tried to add some nuance on the Balkan question largely in light of Christopher Clark’s analysis of Serbia in his thought-provoking book The Sleepwalkers.
  • National Motivations: We then went through motivations for war of two nations – Germany and Austria-Hungary. On Wednesday we will examine France, Russia, and Britain.  The emphasis here was on the willingness of the Central Powers to go to war in 1914 even if war against Serbia led to a wider conflict. For the historiographic background here, I reexamined Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig’s Decisions for War, a book that I find enlightening each time I return to it.

We also covered issues such as the role of the press, Social Darwinism, fatalism, etc., which as Hamilton and Herwig indicate, are important things to take into consideration when examining the individual decision makers and their reasons for going to war.

I think what makes this material difficult for many American students is the vast ‘learning curve’ between what they learn in high school and where the state of the field is now. I don’t want to sound curmudgeonly on this point, but Alliances, Nationalism, and the Lusitania(!) are not enough to make sense of the outbreak of war in 1914 (especially the latter). College professors face a real uphill battle. That being written, we still had a good conversation yesterday, but one that I got the distinct feeling led many to be overwhelmed by the many parts that began moving during the July Crisis.  Still, I would much rather have informed confusion over reductive coherence any day.