From August 1914 to November 1918, an unprecedented catastrophe gripped the world that continues to reverberate into our own time. World War I was touched off by a terrorist act in Bosnia and all too quickly expanded far beyond the expectations of those who were involved to become the first "total war"—the first conflict involving entire societies mobilized to wage unrestrained war, devoting all their wealth, industries, institutions, and the lives of their citizens to win victory at any price.
The cost was ghastly: Altogether, at least nine million soldiers died. Twenty million were wounded, seven million of them permanently disabled. Some estimates put the civilian deaths at almost six million. And countless survivors suffered from psychological trauma for decades after.
The world itself would never be the same. Governments had been given broad new powers to marshal resources for the battle to the death, and these powers have persisted ever since, even in peacetime. Another legacy can be seen almost daily in today's headlines, as border disputes, ethnic conflicts, and ideological arguments smolder on, almost a century after they were first ignited in the Great War.
Riveting, Tragic, Cautionary
World War I: The "Great War" tells the riveting, tragic, and cautionary tale of this watershed historical event and its aftermath in 36 half-hour lectures delivered by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius of the University of Tennessee. Professor Liulevicius has a gift for cutting through the tangle of historical data to uncover the patterns that make sense of complex events. And few events are as complex as World War I, which pitted the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman Turkey, later joined by Bulgaria, against the Allies, principally France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and, after 1917, the United States.
Most narratives of the war focus on the Western Front in France and Flanders, with its mazelike trenches, gas attacks, constant shelling, assaults "over the top" into withering machine gun fire, and duels of dog-fighting aviators in the sky. Professor Liulevicius devotes great attention to this theater, which has become emblematic of World War I in the popular imagination. But the war had other important arenas of engagement that you will also explore in depth, including:
- Eastern Front: In his writings Winston Churchill called this theater the "Unknown War," and its battles throughout Eastern Europe were much more fluid than those in the West—but certainly equally bloody.
- Southern Fronts: In a disastrous attempt to break the stalemate in the West, the Allies landed troops at Gallipoli in the Turkish Dardanelles in 1915. Major action also raged in the southern Alps, Serbia, and northern Greece.
- War at Sea: The war introduced submarines as a potentially decisive strategic weapon, particularly as deployed by Germany against Allied shipping. On the Allied side, Great Britain used its naval supremacy to blockade German ports.
- Arab Revolt: Aided by archaeologist turned intelligence officer T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the British encouraged Arab attacks against Turkish forces in the Middle East, feeding the cause of Arab nationalism.
- Communist Revolution: A battle-exhausted Russia succumbed to the Bolshevik seizure of power in the fall of 1917, introducing a new factor into world politics: the ideologically guided utopian state, which would cast a dark shadow over subsequent history.
- Armenian Massacre: The war formed the backdrop for the first full-scale modern genocide: the 1915 Armenian massacres in Ottoman Turkey, in which as many as one million men, women, and children of the Armenian minority were killed or died from abuse.
- Spanish Influenza: As a crowning horror in the concluding stages of the conflict, a worldwide pandemic swept the globe. The Spanish Influenza killed an estimated 50 million people, exceeding the war itself in lethality.
What You Will Learn
Professor Liulevicius combines chronological and thematic approaches for a sweeping survey of World War I's many dimensions. In Lectures 1–6 he depicts the state of Europe and the world in 1914 as the war approached. In Lectures 7–9 he examines the Western Front and the horrors of trench warfare. Then in Lectures 10 and 11 he covers the Eastern and Southern Fronts.
Lectures 12–15 are devoted to various war themes: the military and political objectives of the combatant nations; the experience of those living under foreign occupation; the wounds, psychological suffering, and medical treatment of ordinary soldiers; the fate of prisoners of war; the phenomenon of storm troopers and other enthusiasts for battle; and the technological advances that produced ever greater bloodshed through innovations such as the machine gun, poison gas, and recoilless artillery.
Lectures 16–18 explore the battleground in the air, at sea, and around the globe. Lectures 19–23 investigate issues on the home front: how different nations reacted to the war; the effects of propaganda, privation, and stress on the civilian populations; popular dissent; and the efforts of war leaders to remobilize domestic support in the last years of the struggle.
Lectures 24–28 examine some of the dramatic departures in world history brought about by the conflict: the Armenian massacres; the Communist revolution; and the entry of the United States into the fighting and how this affected life in America and the war's outcome. Lectures 29–33 cover the path to peace and the aftershocks worldwide.
Finally, in Lectures 34–36 Professor Liulevicius looks at the deeper and lasting impact of the war, which some scholars have called a civil war, or even a suicide attempt, of Western civilization.
You will also explore these themes:
- The surprising eagerness of all parties to plunge into mutual slaughter
- The unexpected endurance of societies undergoing total war
- The radically different hopes and hatreds that the war evoked, with remarkable contrasts between Western and Eastern Europe
- The meanings that the different sides ascribed to the war, both during the conflict and after
- The way the war normalized previously unparalleled levels of violence, including against civilians
- The role of various ideologies in the war's course and conduct.
World War I Is Still Part of Us
World War I has left its mark in many ways, both small and large. Mundane objects such as trench coats and wristwatches were popularized to meet the practical demands of the front lines. Expressions such as "in the trenches" and "No Man's Land" also trace to this experience. The war gave us Daylight Savings Time and the staple Western civilization courses in American colleges, introduced to inculcate young minds with the values that Americans were fighting to preserve.
The British royal family is now called the House of Windsor because during the war hostility to all things German led them to change their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The same trend in the United States led to a temporary substitution of the word "liberty" in expressions that had quite innocent German associations. Hamburgers became liberty sandwiches. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage. And German measles became liberty measles.
On the most significant level, the war led to changes in the status of the state, society, and the individual. Ironically, the widespread disillusionment engendered by the war produced an ideological style of politics with extremist views brooking no neutrality that culminated in the even worse disaster of World War II. Important figures in that conflict were molded by their experiences in the Great War, including Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Harry Truman.
World War I is still part of us. Paradoxically, the totality of the war is difficult for us to grasp precisely because our own identities, our own understandings of ourselves in the world, have been shaped by the experience of that total war and the totality it revealed.