World War I

Yesterday I asked how I could integrate the consumption history I’m learning into my teaching, and I pointed to a couple examples where it’s already there. But I missed a glaringly obvious one: the Great War.

Consumption is a vital part of the story in Gerald Feldman’s classic Army, Industry, and Labor in Germany, 1914—1918 (1966), insofar as the purchasing power of labor was inextricably linked to Germany’s social and political stability and, therefore, the country’s ability to produce sufficient armaments to continue fighting. The point is more accessible in Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914—1918 (1998 and 2004), which I have used in a course on the Great War and will use again next fall in one on modern Germany. There is also Belinda Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000), which I will be using in a graduate course on war and society this summer.

I also usually bring up a much earlier aspect of consumption history when I address the Enlightenment and the public sphere: coffee houses. To make this point, there is a delightful reading from before the Enlightenment on the Internet Modern History Sourcebook: “The First English Coffee-Houses, c. 1670—1675.”

Of course, none of this is informed by a specific historiography of consumption history, but it does point out how this topic is already in my teaching. But there’s a difference between including a topic and addressing it systematically. To think about war and society in Europe, I can at least draw on the periodizing nomenclature of cabinet war, people’s war, and total war to help describe the level of societal involvement in interstate conflicts over the past few centuries (Stig Förster et al.). If such language and periodization exists for understanding consumption history, I have not yet learned it.

Perhaps the main point is to recognize modern consumer societies as having a history in the first place, instead of taking them as a direct reflection of human nature and, hence, rendering them ahistorical, as too often happens in simplistic political rhetoric that opposes capitalism and communism—rhetoric that invariably finds its way into student spoken and written comments. I sometimes try to do this with economic thought in the early modern period, but historicizing capitalism should be a central historiographical problem for the modern era, too.

It seems silly to keep my dissertation, “Wilhelm Groener, Officering, and the Schlieffen Plan” (2006), locked up on databases only accessible via research libraries, so I’ve made it available as a PDF document via Google Docs. I still reserve all rights on the thing, but I might as well make it more accessible to people without a university affiliation.

If you want to know more, before you view a 1 MB document, here are just the abstract and table of contents.

And here are two short blog posts on the topic:

Finally, in historiographic terms, a very short article I did is relevant: “Particularistic Traditions in a National Profession: Reflections on the Wilhelmine Army Officer Corps” (2000).

Where does the journey go from here? Since the Schlieffen Plan debate is still going on, I should update my findings on that issue and write an article accessible to broader scholarly audiences. Maybe a couple other scholarly articles are possible too; however, I am not contemplating a monograph at the moment, as my editing job and adjunct teaching are keeping me pretty busy.

Update, Feb. 12, 2012: For more posts on Wilhelm Groener, the Schlieffen Plan, and German war planning, please visit my new blog, Stoneman’s Corner.

I’ve made a little more progress in my Great War course thanks to the early deadlines for book orders. We can’t cover as many books as I might have liked because of the compressed time period: three three-hour meetings per week for one month. I can’t fill all that time with lectures either, for then the main question would be who succumbs to fatigue first, me from speaking or the students from listening. More depth and less breadth is my goal, though the reading schedule will remain rigorous.

We’re going to do four major units with six books. First, there will be the origins question with July 1914: Soldiers, Statesmen, and the Coming of the Great War by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. and Russel Van Wyk (Bedford/St. Martin’s 2003). We’ll supplement this documentary history with the first chapter of The First World War by Hew Strachan (Penguin 2005) Second, we will use several classes to cover the course of the global conflict using Strachan’s survey together with the personal narratives in Intimate Voices from the First World War by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis (HarperCollins 2005). Third, we will use Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Anchor 1990) to consider the cultural impact of the war. Finally, we will look more closely at the war in two countries with Imperial Germany and the Great War by Roger Chickering (Cambridge 1998) and France and the Great War by Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker (Cambridge 2003).

I might add some articles or online sources when I write the syllabus, and students will get a broader feel for the literature through brief oral book presentations at the end of the semester.

Because students will need a little time to begin reading in the first place, I will begin the class by looking at a selection of classic films. There could also be a lecture at the beginning on broader trends in war and society, although I’m tempted to forego that in favor of students raising related questions during discussions.

Incentives for students to read will be not only the subject matter and two short papers, but also a midterm and final exam. While I am no big fan of exams in history courses, many undergraduate students seem to need this carrot and stick. They might even appreciate it, though I would expect none to admit as much.

What happens during classroom time will depend largely on class size. The theoretical upper limit is 45, but I’m told 25 is more usual in the summer. Even that would be too large for meaningful discussions, so I’m thinking about what kind of discussions among small groups of students could occur within the larger classroom, with the groups then reporting results to the class as a whole. I have little experience with this setup in history; however, I regularly use the technique when teaching English to non-native speakers. I believe that this student-centered approach could be applied to history, in which learning historical thinking and a new topic is also about doing. Students need to read, think about, and discuss history in order to make it their own. Discussions in small groups could significantly increase the amount of practice that each student gets in a larger class.

Integrating these student-centered discussions into classroom time should also help with the pacing of each three-hour evening session. There will be more variety for everyone, and time usually passes more quickly for students when they are actively engaged in the class.

I still need to work out the details, but here’s my catalog description for one course I am teaching this summer:

Hist 388-C02 – The Great War

Some 9 to 10 million people lost their lives in the Great War between 1914 and 1918. Most of the dead were soldiers; however, the war affected the lives of nearly everyone, not only because of the mass mourning it inspired, but also because of its economic, social, cultural and political consequences. Why did Europe’s great powers go to war? Why did they keep fighting? How did soldiers and civilians experience the war? What were its consequences? This course seeks to explore the First World War, a total war, from as many angles as possible, including politics, diplomacy, strategy, tactics, economics, class, gender, generation, and nationality. The course will center on discussions of assigned readings, which will feel heavy during this short term. We will also consider some films. Grades will be based on class participation, two short papers, a short book presentation, and a midterm and final exam.

The particular challenge with this course is the intensive summer format George Mason University uses. The course meets for about three hours, three times per week for one month.

(click images to enlarge)

These stereoptic cards offer a tale of war reduced to two basic elements: soldiers on parade at home followed by the unburied corpses of soldiers on the battlefield. How should we read this story? At first glance, it seems to be about the gap between dreams and reality in war: the transformation of men from objects of admiration in society to a meal for rats, bugs, worms, and microbes in a foreign wasteland. In other words, the pictures seem to tell a story about the utter senselessness of the First World War. But does that interpretation do justice to the lives of these men? Does it tell us why they wore the uniform and sacrificed their lives? Does it tell us about their experience of war? And what about the politicians and generals who sent millions to their deaths? Can we write them off as insane or incompetent fools? Or should we take them seriously and try to fathom their mental universe? Finally, what lasting effects did this violence and loss have on the societies that fought this war? These are some of the questions that inform my interest in military history.

I obtained these images on the following two pages of Wikimedia Commons: top, bottom.


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