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Essential Video: Understanding the First World War

June 28, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky

world war 1

Anniversaries of world events can get a little tiresome. I can’t help but wonder, do we really need to exhaust ourselves every time 10, 15, 25 or whatever amount of years go by to take stock of all the “lessons learned?” However, even if numbers are a human creation, there is something about the number 100 that carries a lot of weight. And there are few events that carry more weight than the start of the First World War.

Though it’s a little dated now, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is still an indispensable telling of 1914 and the events that led to Europe’s long nightmare – one which did not truly end until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Despite what one might expect, there actually isn’t an obsessive focus on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Tuchman instead offers more of a detailed assessment of where each of the major European powers stood as war crept ever closer to reality. One of the more dazzling aspects of the book is its engaging narrative structure, one which eschews simple chronicling of events in favor of rich storytelling and character development. This includes some colorful quotes from some of the most important figures in history, including this gem from Bismarck, containing what could be considered the understatement of the century:

 “Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” Bismarck had predicted , would ignite the next war.

But of course, if you want to get a good idea of the subject matter in short span of time, there is of course a video companion:

There are some who accuse the book and the video of an outright anti-German bias. While there may be some truth to this, particularly in the clown-like caricature of the Kaiser, I don’t think this should sink the book or the documentary in terms of historical value. But if you are looking for a broader view of how the war started, I highly recommend watching the first part (and all subsequent episodes) of the 2003 miniseries The First World War, based on the book by Hew Strachan. In this documentary, the outbreak of war is shown in a truly global context. The series shows what many other assessments tend to forget: its effect on the borders of the Middle East, the further militarization of Japan, the implications on nationalism in the Balkans (particularly Serbia) and a variety of other factors. Note the extensive use of primary sources such as journals and official edicts and memoranda.

Many people simply think of World War I as a mud-soaked precursor to the second one, but to think of it in such a limited way is a mistake. Others tend to see the war as a failure of liberal democracy to keep the peace which had been preserved in the era between 1871 and 1914 (which Barbara Tuchman also addresses in her book, The Proud Tower). I also see this as a mistake, as most of Europe outside of France and Britain where still ruled by autocratic regimes, or at least ones with only minor legislative checks on power (Germany being a good, albeit complicated example).

Today, there are some writers challenging the notion of the war as a meaningless imperialist slaughter, like Frank Furedi of Spiked (where else):

So when you are inundated with wall-to-wall commentary about the incomprehensible slaughter on the battlefields of Europe during the years 1914-1918, just remember that such statements say far more about our current moral and political predicament than they do about what occurred a century ago. The refusal to understand, far less empathise with, the sentiments and passions that provided the cultural underpinnings of the Great War does not make for a more enlightened world; it simply deprives living generations of the opportunity to appreciate the dangers inherent in politicising culture, as was done a century ago, and is still being done today.

Still, there is a frustrating sense of futility about much of the war, particular in such horrendous battles like Tannenberg and The Somme. And few authors really could capture the sense of “Futility” better than Wilfred Owen did in his poem of the same name:

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 30, 2014 10:01 pm

    Perhaps the best recent reflection on WW1 was in the Bloomberg Businessweek Mag

    The whole article is short and worth reading, but here is the pith:


    By the time World War I ended in 1918, roughly 17 million combatants and civilians had died, with nothing to show for their loss…

    Now as then, fights over small places whose names belong on a quiz show threaten to embroil the world’s most powerful armies. The powder kegs are in place….

    What can be done to avoid a recurrence of the Sarajevo Syndrome? The First and Second World Wars offer different lessons. Those of World War I are clear: Keep local conflicts local; communicate; avoid escalation, even if that means letting down a putative ally….

    We are closer to the world of 1914 now than we were during the Cold War, which lasted from the 1950s to the ’80s, or during the decade or so when the U.S. emerged as the lone superpower. Once again the world is multipolar. Nuclear weapons seem to have lost their power to freeze potential combatants in place. China is on the rise, fueled by its manufacturing might and resentment over a history of foreign colonialism. Russia may be on the wane economically and demographically, but President Vladimir Putin is punching above his weight. Even U.S. allies are exerting independence: Japan is going nose to nose with China over the Senkakus in a way that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

    Another echo of 1914 is the instability wrought by failed states. Today we worry about Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and other nations that are or threaten to become power vacuums and havens for terrorists and criminals. In 1914 the long decline of the Ottoman Empire had created a rush for territory and political influence in the Balkans that drew in Italy, Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Greece, and others. Europe compounded the crisis by tying the entire continent’s fate to a conflict in its most volatile corner. Mostly forgotten now is that World War I was immediately preceded by the First Balkan War (1912-13) and the Second Balkan War (1913).


    A recent article on Paul Craig Roberts’ website shows the danger of provoking nuclear war with Russia over an issue vital to their national interests and extraneous to ours, the Ukraine. This is another short article worth reading in its entirety:


    Thus, most people do not know that a single strategic nuclear weapon can easily ignite a massive firestorm over 100 square miles, and that the US and Russia each have many thousands of these weapons ready for immediate use.

    Meanwhile, neoconservative ideology has kept the US at war during the entire 21st century. It has led to the expansion of US/NATO forces to the very borders of Russia, a huge mistake that has consequently revived the Cold War.


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