Share This Article
In the United States, the war remains the least-understood and most-ignored major event in history

HISTORIANS HAVE A LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP with major anniversaries of historical events. An anniversary like the centenary of the start of the Great War in 1914 does on the one hand bring increased book sales, more attention to their work, and more frequent academic conferences on their subject. The 90th anniversary of 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, took me to conferences in Australia, Israel, and France in the span of a few months. Those gatherings gave me a chance to meet likeminded scholars from around the globe and expand my knowledge of facets of the First World War that I had not fully considered. Anniversaries can inspire a whole new generation of scholarship, especially when they mark an event as fundamental to the history of the modern world as the First World War.

But such commemorations can also be frustrating to scholars. People inevitably ask them to sum up in a few lines the complex subject they have been studying most of their professional lives. All of a sudden, journalists, politicians, and even other academics discover a deep interest in a subject that specialists have always found fascinating. The newly enamored may even be inspired to write books and articles, despite their temporary interest. Indeed, the bookshelves and blogosphere have been filling rapidly with work by people now calling themselves historians of the First World War—all because the observed anniversary has a couple of zeros at the end.

So far, to no one’s surprise, most of the attention to the centenary has arisen in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In the United States, we may either commemorate the war in 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of American entry into the war, or let it pass altogether. Unlike its counterparts across the globe, the United States government has done little planning for the event beyond asking the Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp and forbidding the construction of a World War I memorial on the National Mall in Washington. The serious thinking about the anniversaries has come from the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, from private groups with links to the war, and from academics hoping to influence the discourse about what this most critical of all wars means 100 years after its outbreak.

Modern politics tend to interfere with and distort societies’ anniversary commemorations. Frequently, historical events are used for political gain or refracted through the prism of the present. Thus did the 50th anniversaries of World War I revolve around a revulsion toward the elites of 1914 and all they stood for. That period produced the scathing British play (later made into a movie) Oh! What a Lovely War and a resurgence in interest in the supposedly antiwar British trench poets, even though that label does not exactly describe most of them.They were antiwar in seeing it as a waste and a tragedy, but they all wanted their side to win and were willing to keep fighting to achieve that aim. The retrospective stereotypes obfuscate more than they clarify.

The brevity of American involvement in World War I doesn’t fully explain our amnesia about it, nor does its awkward occurrence between two larger conflicts, the Civil War and World War II

Anniversaries are far less likely to revolve around actual history than around a memory of the event based on its impact on the present. Here in the United States, where the war remains the least­understood and most-ignored major event in our history, we lack a clear and common understanding of what we are commemorating. Students of history who live in Europe and the former reaches of empire are far more likely to have had (and to be able to identify) an ancestor who served, or was killed, in the war. They are likely to have seen World War I battlefields on school trips or with family. They also live every day with monuments, cemeteries, and buildings named for World War I heroes. In Canada, parents can drop their children off at the Earl Haig Family Fun Park in Brantford, Ontario, named for a famous field marshal.

Not so in the United States. Our experience with the war was, of course, briefer, but there is no shortage of fascinating events and people of the era to engage the imagination. The nation’s most costly act of terrorism before September 11, 2001, occurred in Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 30, 1916, when German spies blew up the “Black Tom” railway terminal, causing an explosion equivalent to a 5.4 magnitude earthquake, shattering windows in Times Square, and frightening people as far away as Philadelphia. Today, there is only one sign, poorly worded, in a neglected corner of Liberty State Park, across from Ellis Island, to inform visitors about what happened there. Nor could most Americans recall much about the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, then by far the largest battle in American history. And if there is a John J. Pershing Family Fun Park somewhere, I haven’t seen it.

The brevity of American involvement in World War I doesn’t fully explain our amnesia about it, nor does its awkward occurrence between two larger conflicts, the Civil War and World War II. Rather, I think lack of understanding has more to do with how we have approached the war and what it meant to the world and the United States. Is there any war that has been taught in such boring fashion? Consider the focus on the trading rights of neutral nations, on President Woodrow Wilson’s background, or American loans to the Allies. Then compare those dry narratives of World War I to the Civil War’s drama of slavery and emancipation. Or to World War II’s narrative of the Nazi threat of global conquest, America’s rise to world power, and the start of the Cold War. Or even to Vietnam’s narrative of overreach, hubris, social discord, protest, and countercultures. What about World War I’s out-of-control militarism? The tragic incompetence, bloody follies, and, yes, the immeasurable courage, heroism, and sacrifice?


THE COMING CENTENARIES, IF THEY ARE TO HAVE ANY VALUE, should offer new ways to think about World War I and new narratives to debate. Americans, for example, need to understand their country’s part in the war in ways that do not simply attach it to the final act of the British and French war. One hundred years is more than a round number; it is also enough time for historians to gain perspective about the war in grand historical terms. As we look back from a century, we can see more clearly how the war fits into the broad sweep of history, even if scholars are unlikely to agree on the details. A century is also long enough to open previously closed records, and for a generation of scholars and readers to emerge who have scant personal connection to the war or those who fought it. Our historical remove provides new vantage points.

We can learn much about World War I by looking for parallels to the present. Professional historians wisely caution against drawing too close an analogy between the world of today and that of a century ago, and anyone who claims that the world of 2014 is like the world of 1914 is oversimplifying a very complex picture, but our centennial study of the First World War proves Ralph Waldo Emerson’s adage that the years teach us much that the days never knew. As we move away from the days of the Cold War, with its bipolarity and the odd stability provided by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, we can see how abnormal those years were in the larger context. That era has given way to one of declining and rising great powers, complicated minor allies who could well drag the great powers into a war not in their interests, and moments of terrorism that may or may not have state sponsors. Thus, our world shows some compelling similarities to the world of 1914. Certainly, it looks more like 1914 than, say, 1964 did.

To many observers, Europe today seems to be moving away from the internationalism and continental integration of the Cold War and back toward older national or even ethnic identities. The 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia had more than a few echoes of the instability and great-power involvement that characterized Europe in the early years of the 20th century. From this perspective, the First World War presents a cautionary tale of minor allies dragging their senior partners into major wars, the inherent instability of a multipolar world, and the risk of a small incident in a relatively obscure corner of the globe to lead to worldwide calamity. Think of the current situation in Syria or the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

A tour of such modern global hotspots will reveal the need to understand the world shaped by the Great War. The Middle East is the most obvious: As a result of the war, the British and French redrew the post–Ottoman Empire map, and with little regard for the people living there. We are still trying to sort the conflicting claims in the area created by wartime British promises: In the Balfour Declaration (November 1917), the British pledged to give the Jews Palestine as a homeland, while leaving it undefined; in the so-called Hussein-McMahon agreement (correspondence, 1915–1916) they backed the notion of a single Arab state covering most of the Middle East, including Palestine; and in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) they divided the region with the French—intending to control the Middle East from London and Paris. The modern political history of this region and others in South Asia and the Caucasus dates directly to the war. China, too, traces the origins of its modern nationalism to the May 4th Patriotic Movement of 1919, a series of riots and demonstrations inspired by Chinese rejection of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, in which the Allies awarded Chinese territory to Japan.

Scholars have linked the First World War to the creation of the modern world in myriad ways. Even those not particularly interested in the war itself often begin or end their studies in 1914 or 1918, implicitly admitting that something fundamental and basic was different before or after those dates. Scholars who do understand the connections between the war and the subsequent course of history have linked it to everything from the end of imperialism to the rise of democracy and even to the massive environmental problems we face today.

The diplomats and generals misplayed their hands, often without realizing it, until they had created a situation from which they could not escape


ANNIVERSARIES LIKE A CENTENARY provide a literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring new attention to a critical historical moment. Whatever happens, we must be sure that this opportunity does not pass us by, and we must push for a fresh understanding of the war that does not simply reinforce old stereotypes.

So, what should we be asking?

First, it is worth asking when this war started. The easy answer (the answer producing the commemorations) is, of course: in the summer of 1914. But that date privileges the experiences of the great powers, especially the British, French, and Germans. The war, however, started in the Balkans, where many people then and now have linked it to the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Indeed, one could well understand the war that began in 1914 as an extension of the Third Balkan War to the great powers. They had managed to stay out of the first two conflicts, but could not avoid the third. Other historians, then and now, see World War I taking shape in Russia’s defeat by the Japanese in 1905 or the Italian war against the Ottoman Empire for control of Libya in 1911.

Second, one might ask when the war ended. Again, the easy answer, November 11, 1918, privileges the armistice signed between Germany and its three main enemies, France, Great Britain, and the United States. But the world did not stop fighting because of signatures in a railroad car in France. Even then, Russia was involved in a civil war that may have killed more Russians than the First World War did. That war also involved the Americans, British, and Japanese, all of whom risked a wider war by deploying combat forces to Russia to support the tsarist “Whites” against the Bolshevik “Reds.”

At least two more wars in Europe arose directly out of the flawed peace settlement of 1919. The newly re-created state of Poland fought a war against the Soviet Union to determine the border between them. Western leaders saw Poland as a state of brave warriors, keeping the Bolshevik menace at bay; Britain and France sent all the aid they could and Westerners hailed Poland’s triumph at the 1920 Battle of Warsaw as “the Miracle on the Vistula,” an event as historic as the eighth-century defeat of the Moors at the Battle of Tours. At the same time, Greece and Turkey were fighting a bloody war that forced the relocation of hundreds of thousands of people. To see 1918 as the end of the military violence is to be very short sighted indeed.


THIRD, SOME SCHOLARS HAVE ASKED RECENTLY whether dividing the 1914–1945 period into two world wars is also too short sighted. Instead, they would see the entire period as another Thirty Years War, fought within the same dynamic and only briefly punctuated by an uneasy peace—a total war that cannot be neatly separated into a first and second act. Others go further, arguing for a so-called Long War that ended only when the Soviet Union, itself a product of the detritus of the First World War, collapsed.

Finally, why did this war start? There are hundreds of answers to this question and precious little agreement among scholars. For simplicity’s sake, we can group the answers into three large categories.

In one category is the argument that the war emerged from excess nationalism in early 20th­century Europe, fueled by ancient rivalries, a competition for markets and empires, or unresolved tensions from more recent events such as the Balkan Wars or the Franco-Prussian War. To some Europeans, mostly politicians, this story ends on a happy note, as the European Union and other methods of integration have at long last solved the nationalism problem, leaving Europe a relatively peaceful place today. To historians more inclined to pessimism, those ancient rivalries appear to lurk beneath the surface, awaiting their moment to rise again.

A second category argues that seismic shifts in Europe’s geopolitical power balance caused the war. A rising Germany, a Russia recovering from its humiliation at the hands of Japan in 1904–1905, and the declining Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires created too much instability. Projected onto a larger scale, some people now see our world as resembling that one, with a rising India and China, a declining Europe, and a United States in transition. The ability of minor powers such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria to cause dangerous friction in this system threatens the great powers just as Morocco, Serbia, and South Africa did in the early 20th century.

The third and most complex type of analyses looks at the domestic political situations in each of the great powers and concludes that the war resulted from a perfect storm of political and military incompetence, misjudgment, and bad luck. The war, they argue, did not need to happen. Rather, the diplomats and generals misplayed their hands, often without realizing it, until they had created a situation from which they could not escape. By the time they realized what they had done, it was too late to stop the chain of events they had set in motion.

As the First World War gains more attention in its anniversary years, it is important to think through these issues carefully. How we answer questions about the war will tell us much, not only about what that conflict—arguably the most important event of the 20th century—meant at the time, but also, and per­haps more important, what it means today.


Michael Neiberg’s published work specializes in the First and Second World Wars, notably the American and French experiences. His most recent book on the First World War is Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (Harvard University Press, 2011). In October 2012, Basic Books published The Blood of Free Men, his history of the liberation of Paris in 1944.


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue (Vol. 26, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: What a Century!


Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!