Q&A with history professor on World War I

Memorial Day figures to be special this weekend as Americans commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

Locally, many UI students took part in the war, and the university's own Memorial Stadium was given its name to commemorate the men and women who took part in the conflict.

To mark the occasion, staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with University of Illinois history professor Peter Fritzsche, who will be teaching a new class on the war this fall with Associate Professor Tamara Chaplin.

Fritzsche talks about how the war got under way, the lessons to be learned from World War I one century after the fact, how UI students reacted to the war and why the war remains relevant today.

Q: Could you tell us about the new class you will be teaching this fall?

A: This will be a general education course. With the 100th anniversary coming, several of us got together to discuss whether the University of Illinois do something about it. So Tamara Chaplin and I decided we would team teach this course with other guest professors. We are doing the military and political aspects, but also the cultural and psychological effects. We will also talk about the way the war has been commemorated and remembered, whether in film or novels or TV. So it's not just military history. The class fulfills requirements that all undergrads have for history.

Q: Since it has been 100 years, could you tell us how the war got under way?

A: The Austrian-Hungarian Empire had a nationality problem. There were restive nations inside that empire. These included Slavs, Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians. And those peoples became the objects of national agitation from the independent state of Serbia, which wanted to organize its own enlarged independent south-Slav state, which is what Yugoslavia means. The Austrians had what the Austrians considered was a terrorism problem. The cause of these nationalities within the Austrian Empire was then promoted by Serbia. The Russians, who were a Slavic people themselves, became very suspicious of Austrian influence in the Balkins as the Ottoman Empire was receding. Finally there was a geopolitical dimension, in that Austria wanted to maintain its influence while Russian wanted to increase its influence. Germany was interested in making sure that Austria didn't lose face, and France was committed to helping Russia. The states were willing to ramp up what was an easily resolvable 1914 conflict and use this as a moment not to lose face or to show influence. Germany was very aware that Russia has been industrialized enormously over the previous 10 years. Germany was aware that France now had an army in which the conscripts had increased from two years to three years. Germany felt isolated because of an alliance system that had been tightened up. Great Britain felt under pressure to show it was a reliable ally to France and to some extent, Russia.

Q: So when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo, all the dominos fell into place?

A: Right, but nobody would have predicted it. Very quickly Germany backed Austria. Austria believed it would be able to beat the Serbs without Russian intervention or with limited Russian intervention. But the Russians decided that limited intervention against Austria wasn't going to work, and it had to go against Austria's ally, Germany. And Russia's general mobilization caught Germany by surprise. Once Russia and Germany were at war, France was also going to be at war. Germany had to fight France and Russia and had to knock one of the two out quickly, so it went through Belgium. And that guaranteed that England was coming in the war.

Q: Could all this have been avoided?

A: It could if there had been better signals. This was a moment in time when the telephone was not yet common, and you still had telegrams. And people were on vacation. A lot of people were not considering the possibility of bluffing. When similar circumstances took place in the 1962 Cuban Middle Crisis, the question of bluffs became factors in people's minds, and Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to diffuse that. That's not what happened in 1914. Everybody was either gung ho or else not paying attention, thinking this could possibly happen. And then it very quickly did happen.

Q: In what ways do you believe World War I changed the world?

A: Without World War I, there would not have been a Russian Revolution. And that means the institutionalization of a Communist regime would not have occurred, and certainly not so quickly in Russia. That is a legacy that remained a global phenomena until 1991. Without World War I, it is difficult to imagine that the empires in central and eastern Europe would have crumbled so quickly. World War I, like all wars, was a great leveler. In the end, the democratic and social welfare movements, including women's suffrage, were able to gain much more legitimacy after World War I. And don't forget the arts. This was the age when film really established itself, and radio was around. There were glossy magazines and music hits. The biggest effect of World War I was the establishment of a growing doubt about concepts like civilization, heroism, sacrifice, will, masculinity, determination and grit. Tens of thousands of people would die in a single day. One man dies in June 1914, and four years later 10 million people were dead. That is a drama of unintended consequences that is the basis for irony. From then on, the drama of war became the little guy vs. the war or the little guy vs. the generals in the rear. They realized the enemy was the war, not France or Germany.

Q: How does World War I measure up to previous wars?

A: In World War I, more than 90 percent of the dead were, in fact, in the military. It was, by far, to that point, the biggest concentrated killing in modern history. World War I was the first war in which most soldiers die in combat. They don't die of disease or dysentery or infections. In the case of World War I, more than 50 percent of them died from shells, otherwise bullets and gas.

Q: How did World War I compare with the Civil War?

A: In World War I; 50,000 Americans died in one year. In the Civil War; 250,000 people died in four years. So more people died overall in the Civil War, but Americans died at a comparable rate per day in World War I. Incidentally, the Americans lost more men to influenza in 1918 than to World War I. And in the year 1918 more people died of influenza around the world than to World War I. The influenza jumped No Man's Land.

Q: Now that the World War I generation has passed away, why is it more important than ever for historians to tell the story?

A: The destruction of the common people by the governments of Europe is a story that needs to be told. Germany was a country of 60 million people, and one in 30 Germans died. World War II can't be understood without World War I. The Nazis, the Communists and the ideological brutalization of Europe comes directly out of World War I. There was a kind of melancholy the people don't feel any more. Fpr many of the decades of the 20th Century, World War I left orphans, cripples on the streets and a real kind of sadness that would not be diffused until the 1950's. It's a real tragedy. We can't touch it any more. I think the human condition, the condition of men, and how they survived, is a story to be told. How did they survive? There were people who sacrificed, people who helped their comrades. Because of World War I, we acted differently during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Because of World War I, we acted differently with the Russians during the Cold War. We were much more careful.

Q: Locally, Memorial Stadium was named after the people of World War I. What do we know about the involvement of University of Illinois students in the war?

A: There were draft boards, and many UI students either enlisted or were drafted. Before 1917, the war divided many people in the United States. Immediately, once war was declared, there was a consensus for the war. That's all you saw. When you look at the newspapers in Champaign-Urbana during that time, you see a superficial patriotism. There were big war bonds campaigns. Did the people of Paxton give enough money vs. the people in Urbana? There was pressure to get people to contribute to the war effort. There was patriotic paraphernalia in the stores. There were fund raisers and the like. There were war poems and war songs. The government also acted harshly to dissuade people from speaking against the war. We had 4.8 million Americans drafted or took part. That's a very large army for 1914. The naming of Memorial Stadium here and of Soldier Field in Chicago was a great commemoration of the young people.

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