WWI: The War of the Century

Our question this week: How do we like living in the world that the Great War made? Leave us a message. This week we’re talking about the guns of August, fired one hundred years ago this month.

And we’re wondering what kind of century we inherited from the First World War. Alongside power politics and industrial killing, there was a revolution in art, in the novel, in music and in antiwar ideas in exhausted Europe and over here. This week, we’re talking with the historians about the causes and consequences of what you might call the war that poisoned a century. We’re still putting out fires that were set in 1914 — and it’s tempting to imagine that it could have gone differently.

Guest List
Stephen van Evera
The MIT historian of great powers and author of The Causes of War.
Isabel Hull
Historian at Cornell and author most recently of A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law During the Great War. 
Adam Tooze
The Yale historian of the political economy of war and author of The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916 - 1931, available now for preorder.
Reading List
Still in the grip of the Great War
The Economist
The Economist surveys the memoirs, novels, and satire that emerged from the trenches following the First World War and different take on the roots of the conflict. Read their take on the "war that poisoned a century" argument here.
100 Years, 100 Legacies
The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal counts one hundred things that came out of the Great War: from Pilates to prosthetics to mass production (and 97 more).
World War I in Photos
Alan Taylor
Alan Taylor, of The Atlantic's "In Focus" photo blog, gathered some of the most haunting, surprising, and revealing images captured during the First World War — see more here.
The Causes of the First World War
Tony Barber
Tony Barber reviewed three books debating the causes of the war in the Financial Times. The authors have their differences, but there's a general consensus that the war was far from "inevitable" as some historians have claimed:

Could the immense tragedy of 1914-18, in which 65m men fought and about 8.5m were killed, have been avoided? By July 1914 most of Europe’s political and military leaders felt the defence of national power and honour was worth the risk of war. Yet as MacMillan concludes, those who were against war could have stood up more firmly against those who denied there were other choices. “There are always choices,” she writes.

Related Content

  • Cambridge Forecast

    World War One, Hitler, Now

    One penetrating “searchlight” on this question is given by Professor Ian Kershaw in his two-volume masterwork, “Hitler” with Volume I called “Hubris” and Volume Two, “Nemesis.”
    Kershaw writes (from memory, I don’t have the text in front of me):
    “The First World War made Hitler possible….Without the war, a Hitler in the Chancellor’s seat that Bismarck sat in would have been unthinkable.”
    Volume I, “Hubris”, Section 3, Chapter 1, “Elation and Embitterment”, page 73, paperback, 2000, Kershaw book.
    Since the decolonization of the Third World, Israel, Cold War, Space race, computers, rockets, jets, nuclear power, emanate from Hitler’s War, one can say that August 1914 and August 2014 are echoes and historical “isomers.”
    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Versailles Versus Brest-Litovsk 1918/1919 and the Consequences
    of the Peace Accords: An Argument without End

    Brest-Litovsk Compared to Versailles:
    Germany won the war on the Eastern Front in WWI and extracted a partial dismantling of Russia in its peace terms at the Brest-Litovsk Conference. This is described in the classic by John W. Wheeler-Bennett in his classic work, “Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace 1918.”

    The borders of Eastern Europe, as drawn up in Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
    confirm this radical punitiveness:

    After the Central Powers launched Operation Faustschlag n the Eastern Front, the new Soviet Government of Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany on 3 March 1918. This treaty ended the war between Russia and the Central powers and annexed 1,300,000 square miles (3,400,000 km2) square miles of territory and 62 million people.[15] This loss equated to one third of the Russian population, 25 per cent of their territory, around a third of the country’s arable land, three-quarters of its coal and iron, a third of its factories (totalling 54 per cent of the nation’s industrial capacity), and a quarter of its railroads.

    The Treaty of Versailles (French: Traité de Versailles) was one of the peace treaties at the end of World War I. It ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

    After the Treaty of Versailles, because Germany was allowed to remain a united country, French General Ferdinand Foch declared
    “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years”. His words
    proved prophetic: the Second World War started twenty years and 65 days later. (Prof. Hew Strachan’s classic book on WWI describes this in more detail).

    The French felt that The Treaty of Versailles was much milder than
    the German Brest-Litovsk precedent imposed on Russia in its weakened state.

    Mantoux Versus Keynes on Postwar Vindictiveness and Harshness:

    Étienne Mantoux (5 February 1913 – 29 April 1945) was a French economist,
    born in Paris. He was the son of Paul Mantoux. He is probably best known for his book The Carthaginian Peace, or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes published two years after it was completed and one year after his death. In it, he sought to demonstrate that much of John Maynard Keynes’ beliefs about the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles for Germany as expressed in The Economic Consequences of the Peace were wrong.

    In opposition to Keynes he held that justice demanded that Germany should have paid for the whole damage caused by World War I, and he set out to prove that many of Keynes’ forecasts were not verified by subsequent events.
    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89tienne_Mantoux

    This is probably what the great Dutch historian P. Geyl called an “argument without end” but the ROS listener and comment reader should be aware of this deep geopolitical impasse. History partially turns on such “arguments without end.”
    Richard Melson

  • J. Lee Paul

    You missed a big one. Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” series of podcasts on WWI. They’re like several audio books worth of interesting stuff you might never have heard before concerning this war. Free to download, but requesting donations. http://www.dancarlin.com//disp.php/hharchive

  • JoshuaHendrickson

    So, it’s the one hundred year anniversary of the end of the world. I’ve long thought of WWI as the big dividing line between the past and the present (although there certainly are others, e.g. the renaissance, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the French revolution, WW2, etc.). Too many reasons for this to recount now, but they should be obvious to the intelligent and educated listeners and commenters at ROS. I appreciate the time being taken to address this truly major watershed in human history.

  • Trod

    How about mentioning Woodrow Wilson’s own blindness in addressing Ho Chi Minh’s call for America’s support for Vietnam’s independence. In my view Wilson in the end was as much suffering from the same myopic delusion of his European counterparts

  • hurley

    Any discussion of the pre-war firmament, artistic, philosophical, musical, even astronomical– the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910 — should include this overlooked book, which explores the expressionist prelude to the war and, by extension, the modernism that followed:


  • Cambridge Forecast

    War Hysteria from Above or Below?
    WW I analysts like Jack Beatty say in their WWI writings and radio commentary that “Joe Average” in France and Germany were not pushing for war and that WWI must be laid at the feet of shadowy cliques and pressure groups and operatives behind personalities like Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorf and
    Leopold Berchtold of Austro-Hungary, Austro-Hungarian foreign minister whose ultimatum to Serbia (July 23, 1914) was followed (Aug. 1) by the outbreak of World War I.
    Interestingly, the 1969 satirical British movie, “Oh What A Lovely War” shows Berchtold and his clique maneuvering for war, in the spirit of Jack Beatty-type analyses.
    This whole view is sort of refuted by the famous Russian writer Fedin, in his book “Cities and years,”1924, who was in Germany in 1914 where he studied German:
    CITIES AND YEARS by Konstantin Fedin (1924)
    The cities are Berlin and Moscow, the years those of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the theme enduring: what role should the intelligentsia play in the inevitable revolution looming over society? Konstantin Fedin’s intense exploration of war and its aftermath focuses on Andrei Startsov, an intellectual who must wrestle with his ambivalence toward the convulsions in his homeland and with his love for the rebellious and fiercely independent Marie. A respectful confrontation with the giants of nineteenth-century Russian literature–Tolstoy above all–and an experiment in narrative technique reminiscent of Joyce or Dos Passos, Cities and Years reflects the sensibility of the modernist Serapion Brotherhood to which Fedin belonged.

    ISBN 0-8101-1066-0

    German 1914 War Hysteria in the book Cities and Years by Konstantin Fedin:

    “They have some beers in a restaurant, and the student expounds on various topics. He says that, despite appearances, there is such a profound feeling of impatience among the German people that a volcanolike explosion is inevitable.”
    From “Cities and Years” CHAPTER ABOUT 1914
    See: https://cambridgeforecast.wordpress.com/2008/09/page/2/
    It’s not clear whether war hysteria goes from the cliques and warmongers to the “man in the street” or whether the influence goes fundamentally the other way.
    Certainly these feedback loops could be causing each other but the Jack Beatty view that “Francois and Ludwig” are completely conduits for eelite warmongering seems dubious based on Fedin’s eyewitness account. In this account, street-level war hysteria is something that cliques “ride” and channel and “pipe” and is the tone also of the classic WWI book “Rites of Spring” by Professor Modris Eksteins.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast

    WWI and the Shockwaves Hitting Jewish Poland:
    The Case of Isaac Bashevis Singer

    Pondering the 1990’s wars and massacres in Bosnia, somebody made the evocative comment that “the twentieth century went from Sarajevo to Sarajevo.”
    In I.B. Singer’s short stories collected in “In My Father’s Court,” this Sarajevo shot and resulting earthquake convulse Jewish Poland and the Isaac Bashevis Singer family too:
    “The Shot at Sarajevo.”:
    World War I, the most important historical event in the book, breaks out just
    after the Singers move from 10 to 12 Krochmalna Street. From this point onward, the decline of family, Jewish, and Polish fortunes parallels the course of the war.
    The Singers reach the brink of starvation in their freezing flat, Jews are
    forced into the Russian army and prosecuted as “spies,” and Poland is torn asunder by competing military powers. In 1917, with typhus and typhoid raging in Warsaw, the Singer family separates,
    Pinhos-Mendel and Israel Joshua remaining in the German-occupied city, Isaac
    and younger brother Moishe departing for Bilgoray with their mother. Singer’s
    father sees WWI as the battle of Gog and Magog.
    In My Father’s Court treats the period from 1908, when Singer’s father
    established his court in Warsaw, to 1918, when the end of World War I seems also to mark the end of Isaac’s boyhood. The city remains the setting for the greater part of In My Father’s Court; only in the last eight episodes does the scene shift to Bilgoray, the girlhood home of Singer’s mother.

    (In his autobiography, Love and Exile, Singer remembers how his father complains to God about World War I.)

    Singer shows how Sarajevo convulses imperial, national, and personal worlds.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast

    World War I and Social Disintegration:
    Hermann Broch’s Novel “The Sleepwalkers”

    The Sleepwalkers (original title Die Schlafwandler, 1931–32) is a novel (or a novel trilogy) by the Austrian novelist and essayist Hermann Broch. It is considered along with Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” and Thomas
    Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”, to be a masterpiece of modern German prose of the first half of the 20th century.

    According to Broch, “sleepwalkers” refer to a gap between the death of an ethical system and the birth of another, as much as a somnambulist finds himself in a state between sleep and awake. The novel reflects the disintegration of values in Germany between 1880 and 1920, the psychological
    distress and disorientation of interwar Germany in which Nazism set its foot. Broch views the Renaissance as the starting point of disintegration of a
    unified Christian world into a multifaceted society with no ethical roots.

    Broch’s trilogy is the chronicle of the evolution of Germany in particular and the whole of Europe in general between the years 1888 and 1918.

    The book is also mentioned in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film ‘La Notte’ (1961), where the novelist Pontano, (Marcello Mastroianni) finds the book lying around the mansion where a party is being held, upon which he asks his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) perhaps ironically, “Who is reading The Sleepwalkers?”.

    The last part focuses on several characters (including Joachim von Pasenow, Esch and his wife Gertrud) in a little town on the Mosel River during the last year of World War
    The well-ordered way of their lives is disrupted as deserter Huguenau
    arrives in town and pretends to be a businessman and publisher. While Esch
    fulfills himself through a sect, Huguenau cheats him out of his newspaper and
    attempts to insinuate himself into the favour of Major von Pasenow, the military
    commandant of the town.

    The third novel contains parallel stories of Hanna Wendling, a young woman alienated from her family; of shell-shocked and mutilated WWI soldiers and field hospital nurses; and that of a Salvation Army girl in Berlin.
    The plot of each chapter determines the genre used (occasional verse for the
    story of a Salvation Army girl, journalistic style of the hospital chapters,

    The outstanding element of the third novel is the essay titled “The Disintegration of Values”. While prosaic or balladic chapters refer to fictional characters and their attitudes to the community and ideas of their social role, the essay deals with the transformation of values in society theoretically.

    The finale takes place during the last days of the war; in the total chaos Huguenau murders Esch and violates his wife, then legally leaves the town and soon becomes a respectable businessman in Lorraine.


    This disintegration of values, a la Broch, might be a thread connecting the various ROS shows on WWI.

    footnote: Christopher Lydon mentioned Broch’s
    “Death of Vergil” novel, in passing, many shows ago, if memory serves.

    Richard Melson

  • Eric Skoglund

    I’m deeply surprised that Prof. van Evera is pushing the discredited Fischer Thesis still, so many decades after its been discredited.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Was there a Belle Epoque before WWI?

    Might one find a succinct description of the “world we have lost” as a result of WWI?
    Consider these words from the great British historian, A.J. P. Taylor, describing British life before the cataclysm of WWI:

    “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman.
    He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without limit or restriction. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police.
    Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service…..
    The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly 200 million pounds in 1913-1914, or rather less than 8% of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditures on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.
    All this was changed by the impact of the Great War.”
    (Taylor, “English History” 1914-1945, Oxford paperback, 1970, page 1)

    Many writers and commentators talk about the “douceur de la vie” (sweetness of life) of the years before August 1914.
    Certainly for the “Leonard Bast” character and his girlfriend “Jackie” in the novel “Howard’s End” (set in those years before the war), life seems to be an “anxiety machine” due to social-economic insecurity. The characters depicted in Musil’s masterpiece, “The Man Without Qualities,” set in Austria in 1913 have a kind of free-floating despair about them (one of the chapters in the Musil novel is called “A Sort of Unreality Prevails”) and the “masses and the classes” in the movie, “The Shooting Party” with James Mason, are building up to the larger “shooting party’ called WWI without knowing it but perhaps sensing something.
    A full social and national accounting of “douceur de la vie” which includes “spiritual wellbeing” eludes us (per capita Gross Domestic Sweetness of Life is not readily quantifiable) but the “Belle Epoque” before WWI was named that for some reason beyond blind nostalgia perhaps. (remember the French girl in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” who hungers to return to that epoch in preference to the 1920s.)
    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    When we think of WWI, we often have movie images in our minds such as the story of Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack Kipling, getting himself killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915 and devastating his parents as depicted in the movie, “My Boy, Jack”. You might also think of WWI scenes in “Legends of the Fall” where the Ludlow boys go off to fight and die in the Battle of Ypres, vowing to “bring back the Kaiser’s helmet,” and one of the boys (sons of Anthony Hopkins’s character in the movie) sensing astutely that WWI was shaping up to be a turning point in world history. There are innumerable examples, of course.
    An even deeper question would be: how could such a calamity affect man’s view of life, meaning, destiny, existence itself. Andre Malraux, known principally for his 1933 masterpiece, “Man’s Fate”, spent his whole life wrestling with this philosophical question and his last novel, “Walnut Trees of Altenburg” is about this. The high point of the novel describes a German gas attack on the Russian front in 1915. Characters in the novel, like Vincent Berger, try to rethink all of life in the light of this abyss.

    The final impact of WWI is perhaps encapsulated here in the book, on an outer limits of optimistic bleakness note:

    – “The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between
    the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our own nothingness.‎”

    Some more of these Malraux/Berger ruminations from the novel are given here:

    “The Walnut Trees of Altenburg” 1943
    André Malraux
    University of Chicago Press, 1992

    -” A MAN that had six mortal wounds, a man Violent and famous, strode among the dead; Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone. Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree As though to meditate on wounds and blood.
    A Shroud that seemed to have authority Among those bird-like things came, and let fall A bundle of linen.‎”

    – “The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our own nothingness.‎”


    – “Well, you know, whatever happens, if I had to live another life again, I should want none other than Dietrich Berger’s.” Both these events pierce through the thin film of the quotidian, the horizontal surface on which most of human life is spent, and disclose the vertical depths of the contingency of human existence and the anguish of human liberty. ”

    -” Propped against the cosmos like a stone . . . Yet she smiles, a slow, pensive, delayed smile; beyond the football-pitch with its solitary goalposts, beyond the tank-turrets gleaming with dew like the bushes camouflaging them, she seems to be viewing death at a distance, with patience and even — oh, the mystery of those fluttering eyelids, the sharp shadows in the corner of her eyes! – even with irony.‎”

    -” If mental structures disappear forever like the plesiosaurus, if civilizations succeed one another only in order to cast man into the bottomless pit of nothingness, if the human adventure only subsists at the price of a merciless metamorphosis…‎”

    – “Let the mystery of man only emerge from that enigmatic smile, and the resurrection of the earth becomes nothing more than a pulsating backcloth. I now know the meaning of the ancient myths about the living snatched from the dead. I can scarcely remember what fear is like; what I carry within me is the discovery of a simple, sacred secret.‎”

    – “We know that we did not choose to be born, that we would not choose to die. That we did not choose our parents. That we can do nothing about the passage of time.‎”

    – “We know that we have not chosen to be born, that we will not choose to die. That we have not chosen our parents. That we can do nothing against time. That between each of us and universal life there is … a sort of gulf. When I say that each man experiences deep within himself the presence of destiny, I mean that he experiences — and almost always tragically, at least for certain moments — the world’s indifference vis-a-vis himself.‎”

    – “Man knows the world is not on the human scale, and he wishes it were.
    To me, our art seems to be a rectification of the world, a means of escaping from man’s estate. The chief confusion, I think, is due to our belief — and in the theories propounded of Greek tragedy, it’s strikingly clear — that representing fatality is the same as submitting to it. But it’s not, it’s almost to dominate it. The mere fact of being able to represent it, conceive it, release it from real fate, from the merciless divine scale, reduces it to the human scale.‎”



    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast

    WWI And the “Chaos of Experience” Argument

    George Mosse was a firstrate German-Jewish refugee historian of interwar Europe and introduces the following “chaos of experience” before WWI argument in his excellent book, “Fallen Soldiers.”
    Mosse writes:
    “But in 1914 changes in perceptions brought about by advances in technology were relatively more important in influencing those who articulated the ideals of the generation of 1914—signs of a modernity to be accepted or rejected.

    New inventions like the motorcar, the telephone, the telegraph, and the cinema—all present at the turn of the century—seemed to revolutionize time itself. A single reality or an absolute space no longer seemed to exist, and instead many men and women confronted a “chaos of experience.” Those who first used the telephone at the beginning of this century felt that now one could be at two places at once, while the new speed of travel with its constantly changing landscape threatened to destroy the stability of nature herself. Men and women could ignore labor unrest, anarchist bombs, or riots—all frequent before the war and all localized—but they could not escape the new speed of time which seemed to threaten chaos.”
    (“Fallen Soldiers”, George Mosse, Oxford 1991, paperback, page 54)

    Interestingly, there are two famous dissents from this line of analysis:

    1. In his seminars with the French poet, Jean Beufret, Heidegger says that he disagrees with the position put forward by the analyst Daniel Halevi, that “history itself was accelerating”.
    2. The historian Peter Fritzsche, in his excellent “Stranded in the Present” (Harvard University Press) tries to show that many world and society-watchers of the world before the twentieth century (such as Goethe in the 1820s) were bemoaning a world they saw as being in a convulsive state of unprecedented upheaval.

    The WWI “chaos of experience” (followed by the experience of chaos) intuition would have to be modified and weighed in light of these two counterarguments.

    Richard Melson