Posts Tagged ‘World War 1’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

When we hear about violence between the Israelis and Palestinians marring the Middle East, it is common to view the situation as ahistorical, or even timeless.  The news media sometimes plays this game by painting the troubles of the Holy Land as having ancient roots, as though this fight has been going on for 3000 years.  Though this may seem to be the case to outside observers, Umujyi-wa-Gaza-uri-kuraswa-nindege-za-Israel1this is most definitely a false belief.  The seemingly unending disputes in the region stem from the very recent past (relative to the history of the land where the fighting is taking place.)  To understand the crisis, we need to cover a century’s time; a drop in the chronological bucket for the ancient world of Palestine.

To grasp the complex situation, we could investigate many formative years of the crisis: 1936-1939, 1948, 1967, 1973, etc.  But, to get to the heart of the matter, we must look at the year 1917, and the war that was changing the world at that time.

In 1917, the First World War was entering it’s 4th year.  Millions had already died on battlefronts all over the globe, and the carnage did not seem to be abating.  In February of that year, Revolution struck Russia, the Czar fell, and a provisional reform government gained power, vowing to continue the fight against Germany.  France still had German troops on her soil, and fr-trenchwas facing mutiny from disaffected frontline troops who had been sent into the meat-grinder one too many times.  Britain was feeling the strain of the Kaiser’s U-Boat attacks, and was concerned that their new ally America would not get troops over to Europe quick enough to help in the war effort. 

Nonetheless, these struggles did not stop British and French policymakers from planning a new postwar order. In 1916, the two nations agreed upon dividing Mideast Ottoman holdings between themselves, with, of course, the assumption that the war was to be won.  Such plans would be moot if Germany won the war.

Victory was precarious, but oh so colonially valuable; the beginning of 1917 was the ‘now or never’ moment for the Brits. As the French were slowly crumbling, the little Island nation needed to assure themselves of allies. 

Ironically, it would be an anti-Semitic stereotype that would influence British policymakers in their quest for war assistance. Many within the halls of power in London held old, quite often offensive, and generally apocryphal notions that the Jewish communities of Russia and the United States had disproportionate power and influence. Hence, London was looking for a way to please these mythical Jews in the hope that their supposed power would ensure Russian continuation in the war, and absolute American military and financial involvement. 

Thus, with their plan of controlling Palestine after the war, the British government decided to make a promise to the Jewish people, and the Zionist movement in particular.  If Britain won the war, and gained Palestine as a holding, the Jews would be given a home land in the Holy Land.  This was the so-called ‘Balfour Declaration’, named after Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary. The declaration, which was in the form of a letter, read:

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

Of course, for the Zionist movement, this letter embodied opportunity and hope.  The letter seemed to grant 220px-Balfour_Declaration_in_the_Times_9_November_1917the future promise of a national state. However, for the Arabs already living in Palestine, who the British understood as being a backward, controllable people, this letter would quickly be interpreted as a imperialistic tragedy.

According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Balfour Declaration, and future statements of the British government in the years immediately following WWI illustrated that Palestinians ‘were seen as insignificant “natives” and usurpers, whereas the incoming Jews were viewed both as Europeans and as the rightful owners of Palestine.”

‘The rightful owners of Palestine’:  Can any words be more loaded? 

One hundred years on, the decisions made for the sake of ending the “War to End All Wars”  continues to spark bloody conflicts.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. June 28th.  A prominent date in the history of the world. To be more precise, June 28th, 1914.  100 years ago almost to the day. If you don’t recognize this date, and if it doesn’t ring bells like December 7th, July 4th, or September 11th, let me explain. On June 28th, 1914, a young Serbian terrorist by the name of Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the

Artist's drawing of the assassination.

Artist’s drawing of the assassination.

Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  This assassination set into motion the foreign policy decisions of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France and England that led to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. The Great War was in no way a ‘good war’.  Greatness signified scale, not quality.  The horror of the war made people hope that it would be the ‘war to end all war.’  In fact, the opposite was the case. The Great War would in actuality be overshadowed 20 years later by an even more extreme conflict in the Second World War.   But to understand the Second, we must investigate the First, because without it, the Second would not have taken place. With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the The First World War approaching, I think it only right to put together a series of blogs devoted to this catastrophe of  human folly.


There are only handful of people living today who were alive during the First World War, and most were tiny children at the time. All those who fought in the war, and lived to tell the tale, have long since passed on.  For the vast majority of us today, the war lives on only in written memory and cultural imagination.  Ironically though, the war can seem completely unimaginable.   The sheer scale of the war for anyone under 80 years old (who can remember the even more massive Second World War) is beyond  reckoning.  Since 1960, the Western way of war has become localized and specialized; like much else, war has become professionalized, mechanized, and corporatized. For my generation of Americans who have not been a part of the military (the vast majority of us), war can seem remotely distant; both geographically, and emotionally. Statistics can paint the picture. Numbers will provide us perspective.

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American soldiers fighting in Fallujah

In the Second Iraq War, the ‘Second Battle of Fallujah” was the largest battle fought.  In this battle American, British and Iraqi forces attacked insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallajuh. The coalition forces fought with 13,000 men. They outnumbered the 5,000 insurgents within the city.  The battle lasted a little over a month. It was deadlier than most engagements.  Coalition forces lost over a hundred killed in action, and 600 wounded, and the insurgents lost about 1500 dead. These numbers should not be belittled. But, when put into relation to the First World War, Fallujah illustrates the extreme horror of 1914-1918. Let’s compare Fallujah to the worst of The First World War; The Battle of Verdun.  The Battle of Verdun took place from February 1916, until December 1916.  The

French soldiers at Verdun

French soldiers at Verdun

battle began when German forces attacked French positions east of the ancient fortress city of Verdun.  On the morning of February 21st, the Germans inundated the French lines with over 150,000 men.  In the lead up to the attack, the Germans rained down 2.5 million shells on the French forces.  For 10 months, the two armies slugged it out over terrain that slowly became more and more nightmarishly pock-mocked.  With the dead everywhere, constantly being violently disinterred by artillery, Verdun was often described as a giant charnel house. Being sent into the battle’s front line was understood to be close to a death sentence.  Here is how two different French soldiers described the experience:

You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead. People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means.

After almost a year of incessant fighting, both the French and Germans lost roughly 350,000 men each.  In this one battle alone, 700,000 men died.  To put that into perspective,

Aerial photo of Verdun fort before and after battle.

Aerial photo of Verdun fort before and after battle.

that is about the number of Americans killed in The American Revolution, The War of 1812, The Mexican-American War, The First World War, The Second World War, The Korean War, The Vietnam War and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan….COMBINED. One battle, Ten months, 700,000 dead.  The First World War would have a thousand more battles, and would rage for over 40 months more.  Those men who died at Verdun would be joined by 9 MILLION others. It is difficult to wrap your mind around such suffering. This war’s blood-letting would form our world. In the coming weeks, we will see how.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I was having a conversation with the inimitable Dr. Peter Stern.  I don’t really remember what we were talking about, but I made a claim that, the more I thought about it, seemed more and more true.   Simply as an aside, I said that from the years 1890-1945 Europe produced an inordinate amount of human brilliance.  As Peter and I pondered, we both felt that this statement was undeniable. Just take a look at the vast array of influential figures who were living, working and thinking during that first half century of the twentieth century.

Novelists/Writers: Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Knut Hamsun, D.H. Lawrence, Andre Gide, James Joyce, Hermann Hesse, Italo Svevo, Vladimir Nabakov, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Roth, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Bertolt Brecht, etc, etc.

Philosophers: Hannah Arendt, A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, Martin Heidegger, etc, etc.

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Bohr and Einstein

Social Scientists/Psychologists/Economists: Freud, Jung, Adler, John Maynerd Keynes, Freidrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, William James, Peter Kropotkin, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, etc, etc.

Physical Scientists: Albert Einstein, Neil Bohrs, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, Nikola Tesla, Max Planck, Ivan Pavlov. Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schroedinger, etc, etc.

Musicians/Dancers: Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Mahler, Shostakovitch, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, etc, etc.

Painters/Artists: Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Matisse, Cezanne, Munch, Kandinsky, Klimt, Marc, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, Beckmann, Dix, Kathe Kollewitz, etc, etc.

This is a small list that I came up with on the quick, and it is by no means complete.  The point is, for the population of Europe at this time (about 300-400 million), the number of brilliantly influential figures is inordinate; perhaps even incredible.

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, this era also gave birth to the modern world’s most horrifically violent ruptures: The World Wars.  And so, this list has an air of tragedy about it as well.  How much brilliance was annihilated in the years 1914-1918, and 1939-1945?

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Salinger in the military

During the First World War, roughly ten million young people lost their lives, almost all of them men. Many were already promising cultural figures; the vast majority, however, never had the opportunity to effect the world. A generation later, this ‘War to end all Wars’ would be overshadowed, and dwarfed by the Second World War.  In Europe, roughly 40 million people were killed from 1939-1945.  Unlike the First World War, the majority of the dead were civilians.  Males and females, both old and children,  were killed in the Nazi Holocaust, 300px-matisse-open-windowSoviet reprisals and repression, American and British bombings of Axis cities, and old ethnic conflicts rekindled by the war.

These wars annihilated millions of unheard voices that may have been the next Picasso, or Wittgenstein, the next Proust or Einstein.  I recently learned that the famously private American author, J.D. Salinger landed in France on D-Day carrying numerous chapters of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in his rucksack. How many soldiers lost their future cultural glory to an anonymous shell fragment?  How many children died in the gas chambers of Birkenau with color schemes in their mind’s eyes that would have put Matisse to shame?

It was truly an era of brilliance. It was truly an era of tragedy.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A couple weeks ago, I covered the First World War in my American History, and Western Civilization courses.  The First World War has always been an event that has obsessed me, and I really love to teach it since Americans generally know very little about it.  Since these are introductory courses, I usually portray the war as a definitive cataclysmic event that left enduring scars on the twentieth century. This standard narrative of the conflict draws a line between the Victorian, 19th century world, and the modern, 20th century world.  The old world died in 1914.  A new world was born in 1918.

Though this narrative of the war has been challenged by many over the years, there is no denying that the world of 1914 seems distantly foreign from the rest of the twentieth century.  Though, again, it generalizes the complexities of this era too much, it is easy to see the world before the war as a time of innocence, perhaps even naivety. A famous example of such cultural innocence is what happened in many European capitals once war was declared in the late summer of 1914. During the first week of August, thousands of Europeans of all ages, and all classes, flooded into the streets in evident war euphoria, cheering the outbreak of a continent wide conflagration.  I showed my students the photos below of those early August, 1914 days of excitement:

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Crowds in Paris

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Berlin

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Students off to Enlist

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London

Historians now realize that this evident war euphoria didn’t infect everyone.  Many Europeans were nervous, anxious, dreadful or apathetic about the outbreak of war.  However, there is no denying that the thousands of people in these photos are revved up for what they believed would be their nation’s inevitable victory (each national community felt they would win victory quickly, and cleanly.) These photos make the informed student crack an ironic smile, since he/she knows that the next four years of war would be anything but quick and clean.  The young men were cheering their generation’s death sentence. The First World War killed 9 million soldiers, made empires fall, and still is the epitomizing symbol of the absurdity and destructiveness of modern conflict.

For 21st century Americans, even those knowledgeable of WWI, the fact that people would be cheering for the outbreak of war is absurd.  War in our world is not something to cheer; it may be unavoidable, but any self-respecting American will solemnly swear that ‘war is hell,’ and it should be avoided at all costs. We are more likely to see people in the street, shouting for the end of wars, than cheering for the outbreak of war.

So, why were these people in 1914 so excited?  Why would they want war?   When I asked these questions a couple weeks ago, I got a familiar answer from my classes. Like some in previous classes, one student shouted out that people want war because it is “good for the economy.”  In response, I politely pointed out that these people were not cheering for an economic windfall. After a couple minutes of thinking, and some hints from me, my students gave responses closer to the truth.  They realized that these men had lofty expectations for the war. War was thought to provide glory. War could produce honor. War created adventure, and the opportunity for true manliness.  Many cheered for war simply following their friends, trying not to be left out.  Some believed fighting the war was their duty. Most felt the war was necessary to protect their families from enemies.

So, why does it take my students some time to come up with these answers?  Why is ‘the economy’ often the first response I get? Simply put, my students are 21st century Americans, and many have the typical worldview that goes along with that identity.  Since their youth, they have been inundated with a simplistic materialist ideology that points to the national economy as the most important social issue. How could they not think that economics make the world go round, since media, pop culture and schools have constantly reinforced this belief.  As a result, they often misinterpret human motivations as misinformed psychologists, thinking that people make all their decisions as if they were homo economicus.  It is my job to try to dispel such beliefs, because the notion that human beings live and die for the strength of an economy has dire consequences for our understanding of the past and present. The human story is not always based upon the direction of the Dow Jones Industrial.