The War That Changed Everything by Interim Head of Upper School Michael Denning
Twenty-five years ago, I was a graduate student studying international relations. The massacre at Tiananmen Square had just happened and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union were right around the corner. Between lunch and dinner conversations about the amazing events that were transpiring around us, my colleagues and I found ourselves working through what seemed like mountains of research on the origins of the First World War. Indeed, in spite of the fact that they represented different nationalities, political camps, scholarly disciplines and intellectual schools of thought, our professors all seemed to share the view that in addition to being tragic, World War I was really important—a watershed in international relations. I remember many lectures and seminar discussions including some version of the following: “If you want to understand and positively impact international relations and foreign policy, you need to study World War I because inasmuch as we believe we know when and why World War II started, we are still not sure why the first one happened…and World War I changed everything.”
A quarter century later, we have arrived at the 100th anniversary of this conflict that changed, if not “everything,” much of what millions of people (living in thousands of places) knew of the world. And as the history of the 20th century shows, World War I’s terrible impact did not begin and end with its more than 10 million battlefield deaths and the untold number of civilians who perished during the conflict. The mass suffering of 1914-1918 marked the beginning of a second “thirty years’ war” and contributed to ideological conflicts that have plagued us throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Yet, in spite of this war’s lasting legacy—and the likelihood of the claim made by the historian John Langdon that there are 25,000 books and articles on the First World War—there is still no consensus on its origins and new histories are appearing at a prodigious rate.
Of course, a driving force behind the writing and publication of some of this literature is undoubtedly demand brought about by World War I’s centennial anniversary. Would Downton Abbey be as popular if it were not the First World War’s 100th birthday? Nevertheless, while taking note of the proliferation of books and articles and the entrée of a new generation of scholars into this conversation, I have been struck by three ideas I believe to be germane to our conversations about the importance of our school’s mission and commitments to promoting diversity, EXCEL initiatives and the liberal arts:
We now have a good understanding of what a complex place the world of 1914 was. Indeed, the political and economic systems, challenges and conflicts of 1914 were much more global and interconnected than most people at the time seemed to realize, and this contributed to the war’s outbreak, conduct and devastating legacy. Are today’s interconnected political systems, ideologies, conflicts and economies similarly misunderstood? In 100 years, how will scholars describe our level of prescience and the impact of our interconnectedness?
In more recent years, scholars have looked much more closely at peoples of the former Ottoman, British, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires who were often missing or marginalized in previous analyses of not only the Great War’s outbreak but also its conclusion and legacy. There is a lot more information out there than ever before, and this is a very good thing. But why did it take so long—in some cases nearly a century—before scholars turned their attention to some of these more unheard voices? Are their histories too inconvenient or, perhaps, politically and emotionally incompatible with more conventional, western-focused narratives? Moreover, as parents and teachers, do we know what we know (and teach what we teach) because of an empirical record or do we know and teach what we were taught (and taught to believe)?
There are a lot of smart, learned analysts who identify similarities between the international (or perhaps I should say global) conditions and challenges of the summer of 1914 and those that we are trying to understand and manage in the summer of 2014: internecine conflict; corrupt, collapsing regimes; arms races; nascent, powerful technologies; new weapons of mass destruction (and their proliferation); terrorism; food insecurity and poverty; economic inequality; disease and epidemics; nationalism; racism; ideological extremism and intolerance; and economic interdependence. While concerns about presentism and history’s misuses are important to consider, I would suggest that many of these comparisons are not so easily dismissed.
Considered in light of these three points, our mission to inspire “leadership for the public good” is as important and as challenging as it has ever been. There are a lot of complicated, dire problems to be identified, managed and solved, and our students will have to be part of an international community that succeeds where other generations have too often failed. Are we not obligated to do our best to prepare them for the challenging work that lies ahead?