WWI: An Interdisciplinary Perspective: Highlights & Parting Words

  1. It’s extremely difficult to understand the past, in part because it’s complex, surrounded by lies, and difficult to imagine. Thus, the photograph below (courtesy of John Sharp) tells us more about WWI than all presidential statements of the last century tell us about anything.
  2. You can learn more about the present from a single good history book than from a lifetime of watching news, listening to radio, and reading newspapers. Thus, because you have just taken a history class (assuming you were here and honestly tackled the assignments), you have a better understanding of the current situation in Afghanistan than most journalists on the ground in that country do!
  3. World War I was claimed to be a war to end all wars, a war for democracy. It wasn’t. These slogans were used to deceive Americans, and to weaken German resolve to go on fighting. As such, they worked wonders. But, like all other wars, WWI was a play for power and money among the ruling classes of the combatant countries. As usual, the winning rich got richer and the poor died.
  4. The United States has always claimed to hold the high moral ground in its wars—but so did Germany, and France, and Russia. They are all liars. With very few exceptions, the rulers of all these nations have always been self-serving manipulators.
  5. One can take 10 history classes in our schools and universities and still know almost nothing about the past. History, everywhere, is being doctored. (In the process, they also take all murders, deceit, heroism and excitement out of history. Indeed, most people have been led to the fantastic notion that history is dull!) In a world like the present, in which nationalism is king, historical scholarship withers; history, all over the world, is a captive discipline. But historical scholarship is not dead. The trick is separating wheat from chaff, CIA books from courageous quests for the truth. So you can’t just pick any book (or magazine or movie or newspaper or radio program). Instead, you must dig hard and unearth those rare books, internet sites, and teachers whose business is truth.
  6. WWI is one long tale of incompetence on the part of English, French, Italian, Austrian, and Russian rulers. While Germany was politically just as foolish, its military leaders were competent, won most battles, and lost comparatively fewer men than the Russians, French, and English. French rulers towards the end of the war were forced by their own soldiers to become smarter, but the English and Russian ruling classes were not so encumbered and learned almost nothing from their mistakes, thereby causing the needless butchery of the millions of young men who trusted them.
  7. Only the USA can claim competence in both the military and political spheres. As a result, at the end of the war, the United States emerged as the strongest military and economic power in the world. It is partially because of WWI that America can now devastate any country on this planet with impunity. WWI thus explains in part why the world is now manipulated by a single country. While that country, like all others, pursues the selfish interests of its ruling bankers and oilmen, it can make the claim of being no less immoral and indecent than any world empire has ever been. The only unusual danger Pax Americana poses to the world, when it is compared to such former empires as the Athenian, Roman, or British, is irreversible environmental destruction, which may, possibly, lead to human extinction on earth within the next 200 years. It is for this terrorism against the biosphere—not for its crimes against the minds and bodies of its own poor and middle class, nor the genocide of Native Americans, Iraqis, East Timorians, Philippinos . . . —that the United States may eventually be remembered as the world’s most irresponsible and suicidal empire (if anyone’s left to remember anything).
  8. It’s important to distinguish among the various causes of WWI.  On the first level there is the famous assassination of the archduke (even on this level, we know whose interests this assassination served, but not yet who pulled the strings).  Beyond that, there are the gradually developing antagonisms of the major combatants; their military plans; German and Italian territorial ambitions; a ruling German class drunk with power, racism, jingoism, and, arrogance; a viciously astute English ruling class bent on checking German power and getting all the world's oil for itself; balance of power considerations; greed; and so on. This is where most historians stop, and that’s why most professional historians have no understanding of history: they only see the puppets, not the puppeteers. Such disciplinary historians fail to explain, in all their books (of which The End of the European Era excerpts in your coursepack is one example) the universality of war. WWI was fought, in the final analysis, because people murder each other as a matter of course. That is what people have done, everywhere and always. WWI was fought because people can be brainwashed, and can be led to uphold such unmitigated evils as cannibalism and nationalism; indeed, people can be manipulated to worship flags! Psychologists are quick to remind us that we are horrible conformists, that we are too obedient to authority figures, and that, once somebody plants a notion in our heads, we cling to it no matter what (as someone said, we bray what the media and history textbook whisper in our ears). Biologists remind us that we are merely a kind of chimpanzee (chimps are closer to us than they are to gorillas), and that chimpanzees fight wars too. Creative writers such as Shirley Jackson and Willa Cather make the same point. Fearless political scientists show us that our democracy is more or less a joke, and that the decisive factor in winning elections is support from the 1% who own 41% of this country, and who want to keep doing so (they maintain their unnatural, privileged, position by giving money to politicians they like, by threatening to withhold ads from the media, and by actually owning the mass media. Every time you watch the news, it’s the one-percenters’ contrived version of reality you’re watching).
  9. So, at the end of a WWI class we must ask: Is there any hope for humankind? Sure, you and I may make it to old age, unmolested and out of prison, but what about our great-grandchildren? Will we ever learn? Will we ever pay more than lip service to the teachings of Christ, Buddha, Quakers, or Bahais? It doesn’t appear likely at the moment, but if history (and Ray Bradbury) teach anything, it’s precisely this: today’s unlikely event is tomorrow’s reality. So, if history gets you down, remember those English and German boys in the trenches (see below). The story is true.  They courageously disobeyed orders and loved their enemies on Christmas day, 1914. With enough luck, and time, and holistic education, we may all learn to do just that, every day, forever!

Enjoy the Break!

Christmas in the Trenches
by John McCutcheon
My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht." "Tis 'Silent Night'," says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
"There's someone coming toward us!" the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same

fww0556.jpg (9044 bytes)

German and Russian soldiers together on the Eastern front, Christmas 1914.

You can listen to an interview with the author of a book (Silent Night) on this incident at: www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4246639


 Go to WWI: An Interdisciplinary Perspective