The how and the why …

by I.A. Isherwood

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.