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World War I: The "Great War"

World War I: The "Great War"

Course No.  8210
Course No.  8210
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

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.

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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.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    The Century's Initial Catastrophe
    The opening lecture presents the main themes of the course, beginning with the concept of total war. Other themes include the role of ideology, the meanings ascribed to the war by different sides, and the war's legacy. x
  • 2
    Europe in 1914
    This lecture examines the state of Europe and the world before the onset of the war in 1914. The emergence of the German Empire created strains in the international balance of power, as divided among Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. x
  • 3
    Towards Crisis in Politics and Culture
    Even among those who expected war, there were widespread misconceptions about the nature of the conflict to come. In this lecture you explore the prevailing ideas and attitudes in Europe and then turn to the premonitions noted by contemporaries of coming disaster. x
  • 4
    Causes of the War and the July Crisis, 1914
    This lecture analyzes the immediate events that led to war, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary at Sarajevo in June 1914 to the diplomatic chain reactions that followed in the July Crisis. x
  • 5
    The August Madness
    Hysterical celebration known as the August Madness greeted the outbreak of war between the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Allies (France, Great Britain, and Russia). You analyze new research that questions how widespread this emotional outburst really was. x
  • 6
    The Failed Gambles—War Plans Break Down
    This lecture follows the unfolding of the German Schlieffen Plan, which envisioned quick victory on two fronts, and the French Plan XVII, which aimed to recover lost French territories. Both were thwarted. x
  • 7
    The Western Front Experience
    The Western Front soon froze into static trench warfare and horrific slaughter from attempts to break this deadlock. Generals on both sides sought a breakthrough that would allow sweeping offensives and glorious cavalry charges. These never came. x
  • 8
    Life and Death in the Trenches
    This lecture gives a detailed overview of the trench landscape from the perspective of ordinary soldiers: the elaborate fortifications, the omnipresence of death, and the codes of behavior such as the Christmas fraternizations between the trenches in 1914. x
  • 9
    The Great Battles of Attrition
    Once the new dynamics of industrial war had been recognized, there followed a series of months-long battles of attrition. You examine the battles of Verdun and Somme in 1916, and in 1917 the French Champagne Offensive and the Third Battle of Ypres, also called Passchendaele. x
  • 10
    The Eastern Front Experience
    This lecture illuminates the unfamiliar clash of empires in the East, beginning with the Russian invasion of German East Prussia and the ominous disasters of the Austro-Hungarian war effort. The Germans achieved victory against the Russians at Tannenberg in 1914 and followed up with the "Great Advance" of 1915 into Russian territory. x
  • 11
    The Southern Fronts
    Turkish entry into the war expanded its scope. Allied landings in Gallipoli in 1915 were repulsed by Turkish defenders. Italy entered the war on the Allied side but met disaster against Austria-Hungary at the battle of Caporetto. x
  • 12
    War Aims and Occupations
    What goals did the Allies and the Central Powers pursue from the outset of the war? How did these goals change? After examining these questions, you turn to the experience of military occupation and how it affected civilian populations. x
  • 13
    Soldiers as Victims
    Historians estimate that half of the soldiers mobilized in the war were killed or wounded, and some suggest that nearly half of surviving soldiers experienced psychological traumas. This lecture seeks to convey the immense scale of this carnage. x
  • 14
    Storm Troopers and Future Dictators
    Attempts to break the immobility of trench warfare produced storm troopers, fearless warriors habituated to the trench landscape to a disturbing degree. Two ordinary soldiers seemed to enjoy the war too much: Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. x
  • 15
    The Total War of Technology
    An important element of World War I was the expanding destructive potential of technology. This lecture covers such developments as the machine gun, poison gas, and the submarine, as well as the economic weapon of ersatz materials. x
  • 16
    Air War
    While the war in the air was not yet decisive in World War I, it was a frightening portent of what future conflict would hold. This lecture surveys the rapid improvement in early airplanes and the growth of the myth of the fighter ace. x
  • 17
    War at Sea
    Like the land forces, the opposing navies also reached a stalemate. The Battle of Jutland in May 1916 was the only large-scale British-German naval clash, and it ended indecisively. The naval blockade imposed by the British on Germany was of far greater effect. x
  • 18
    The Global Reach of the War
    This lecture surveys fighting in the European colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The diplomatic sparring for the sympathies of neutral states is also examined, along with the economic dimension of the global war. x
  • 19
    The War State
    Total war put new demands on the state to mobilize populations and economies for victory. For example, Britain broke with earlier liberal traditions to give the government increased power over the economy and political speech. x
  • 20
    Propaganda War
    This lecture examines the increasing sophistication of official propaganda. You also study the phenomenon of spontaneous propaganda produced by citizens, which could take the form of rumors, myths, and stereotypes of the enemy. x
  • 21
    Endurance and Stress on the Home Front
    The home fronts in all the warring countries met privation, shortages, and surveillance with both endurance and signs of growing stress. The British blockade led to severe hunger in Germany, and the employment of women in war industries disrupted social traditions. x
  • 22
    Dissent and Its Limits
    A range of voices spoke out against the conflict as it deepened, including workers, pacifists, and even a decorated British officer, Siegfried Sassoon. At the same time, radical socialists saw in the war an opening for world revolution. x
  • 23
    Remobilization in 1916–1917
    Increasing war-weariness led all the combatant powers to attempt to reinvigorate the war effort. In France and Britain new civilian governments took the lead in this effort, while in Germany the de facto military dictatorship inaugurated a new propaganda campaign. x
  • 24
    Armenian Massacres—Tipping into Genocide
    World War I saw the launching of what is considered the first full-scale modern genocide: the 1915 Armenian massacres in Ottoman Turkey, in which between 500,000 and one million men, women, and children of the Armenian minority were killed or died from abuse. x
  • 25
    Strains of War—Socialists and Nationalists
    This lecture explores the growing divisions in wartime societies, which produced revolts such as the 1915 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland, the French army's mutinies in 1917, and the growing alienation of subject nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. x
  • 26
    Russian Revolutions
    The Russian Empire was the first to break under the pressure of war. In March 1917, the tsarist regime abruptly collapsed. Months later the liberal-led provisional government itself collapsed when Lenin's Bolsheviks seized power and inaugurated a new Communist state. x
  • 27
    America’s Entry into the War
    In this lecture you follow the path that led the United States to join the Allied cause against Germany in April 1917. America's entry gave the war a larger ideological character, articulated by President Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points. x
  • 28
    America at War—Over There and Over Here
    World War I had a profound impact on American society. You explore the sophisticated propaganda campaign launched to rouse the nation to arms, the massive economic mobilization, and the encounter of American doughboys overseas with the "old continent." x
  • 29
    1918—The German Empire’s Last Gamble
    Hoping to win the war before the massed arrival of American troops, the Germans marshaled their reserves for a final offensive in March 1918. They advanced to within artillery range of Paris before being stopped by an Allied counteroffensive. x
  • 30
    The War’s End—Emotions of the Armistice
    When the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, many Germans found it difficult to accept that they had lost the war. As a crowning horror, a worldwide pandemic swept the globe: the Spanish Influenza killed an estimated 50 million people. x
  • 31
    Toppled Thrones—The Collapse of Empires
    The defeated Central Powers saw their empires and political structures come crashing down. This lecture outlines the startling internal collapse of the Central Powers and the question of what new order would replace the extinct regimes. x
  • 32
    The Versailles Treaty and Paris Settlement
    The peace settlements ending World War I were beset with contradictions. Should the treaties reconcile enemies or punish the defeated? Were they meant to repair the prewar balance of power or abolish it? This lecture considers the resulting treaties in depth. x
  • 33
    Aftershocks—Reds, Whites, and Nationalists
    In the turmoil after the war, intense ideological conflict arose. Partisans of international Communism heralded by Soviet Russia (labeled Reds) battled counterrevolutionary forces (called Whites). New nation-states also collided repeatedly. x
  • 34
    Monuments, Memory, and Myths
    Vigorous debates surrounded the question of memorials to the fallen. This lecture analyzes such monuments as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Also investigated are myths that arose in the wake of the war, including the "Stab in the Back" legend in Germany. x
  • 35
    The Rise of the Mass Dictatorships
    World War I showed the power that could be mobilized by states organized for war. This experience provided the model for postwar totalitarian movements, including Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, and Communism in the Soviet Union. x
  • 36
    Legacies of the Great War
    This concluding lecture confronts the largest and most difficult question: What were the true meaning, legacy, and significance of World War I? You examine the economic, social, and political impact, as well as the individual human consequences of this disaster. x

Lecture Titles

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Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius
Ph.D. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius
University of Tennessee

Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Liulevicius served as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. Professor Liulevicius has won many awards and honors, including the University of Tennessee's Excellence in Teaching Award and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. At the university he teaches courses on modern German history, Western civilization, European diplomatic history, Nazi Germany, World War I, war and culture, 20th-century Europe, nationalism, and utopian thought. Dr. Liulevicius has published numerous articles and two books: War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I and The German Myth of the East, 1800 to the Present.

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