On Sunday, we marked the centennial of the end of World War I. Many history teachers in 2018, however, may be tempted to bow to student preferences and rush through the “Great War,” devoting more time to World War II. This would be a mistake. While the Second World War looms much larger in our national imagination, our modern political landscape is more a product of the First World War than the Second. It’s also far less well understood, as President Trump’s failure to understand why he should have braved rain to pay respects to America’s World War I dead vividly demonstrated.
To truly understand how World War I influences our present geopolitical situation, we must go beyond Europe. World War I helped trigger the collapse of European empires, ushering in a mid-century wave of African independence movements. The reordering of the world began not in 1945 but in 1918, setting the stage for the global order that today is shifting under our feet.
The collapse of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire, which reshaped the Middle East, is among the least well-known consequences of the war. The current Advanced Placement World History curriculum is woefully inadequate in this regard, with almost nothing on Pan-Arabism or nationalistic movements in the post-Ottoman period, leaving young Americans with little understanding of how the modern Middle East emerged, and why U.S. interest in the region remains so central to American foreign policy.
In 1916, two years into the war, both France and Britain became increasingly confident that they would defeat the Ottomans in and around Palestine. Hoping for victory, the two powers secretly divided spheres of influence in the region, with the assumption that they would fill the power vacuum left by the fading Ottomans. This Sykes-Picot Agreement essentially gave the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine (later Israel) their contours, for reasons having little to do with natural boundaries or creating logical states that could coexist harmoniously.
By the end of 1917, the British had made multiple promises about the region without a unified policy: to British and Middle Eastern Jews, public support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; to the Arabs of Palestine, a guarantee that their rights would be maintained; and, less publicly, to Sharif Hussein, the head of an anti-Ottoman Hashemite clan in the Arabian Peninsula, his own state in return for support against the Ottomans (while conspicuously leaving out any specific mention of Palestine).
The breakup of the Ottoman Empire and its reorganization by the victors fractured an entire region, with homelands for some and diaspora or displacement for others. Many of the intractable conflicts in this region stem from the formation of states without a grand vision for building a politically healthy region. Instead, the European powers thrust peoples together according to British and French interests and promises that paid little heed to the needs of indigenous populations.
For the student of history, to blame the current state of affairs in Iraq and Syria on Sykes-Picot alone is too far too simplistic. But the rise of modern terrorism and the region’s many wars cannot be fully comprehended without this context. While Americans tend to assume that Arab problems are exactly that, it is impossible to understand the modern Middle East without first reckoning with the long, troubled shadow of imperialism.
Understanding World War I also allows students to move from seeing history as most people see it — simply chronicling “what happened” — to how historians see the past: as a matter of interpretation and reinterpretation. This is critical, because engaging these past moments enables students to see present developments in a new light and to ponder the complex decisions that led to major turning points in history.
Nowhere do students gain a better grasp of this way of thinking than from pondering competing interpretations of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, which extracted reparation payments from Germany at the expense of its postwar economy and sought to stymie its military rebuilding efforts. In the famous War Guilt Clause the victorious powers claimed that Germany alone was responsible for the war, but historians have long debated who was actually to blame.
This discussion allows students to explore various interpretations of the rise of Nazism, which had many complex causes, despite Nazi propaganda blaming the War Guilt Clause for what Hitler called the “serfdom” proud Germans had to endure. These complicated, multifaceted explanations for historical change are critical for seeing how history shapes the present. They also prompt students to reflect on the power of widespread, racialized victimhood to unify people against an imaginary enemy — something all too prevalent in American politics today.
As an additional benefit, studying World War I allows students to see an alternative to the all-too-common focus on the perceived heroism and nobility of war. This is crucial to understand before focusing on the Second World War, since students should avoid unbridled valorization of that global battle’s violence. World War I’s tragic combination of Napoleonic-era tactics with modern technology, resulting in the devastations of trench warfare, produced such profound and widespread brutality that many began to rethink this conception of warfare.
In a 1917 letter to his mother, Wilfred Owen, the poet and soldier who died a week before armistice, directly confronted that which broke the soldier:
Reckoning with war’s violence to body and soul is crucial in an era when war has become distant and impersonal for many Americans. I want my students, soon to be voters, to reflect on and obsess about that which Owen called “the pity of war.” Young Americans need a healthy respect for the horrors of warfare to be good citizens in an era of technological weaponry that can be so destructive at such a remove.
All of these crucial pieces of knowledge — and methods of thinking — about the world today, not in the past, come from the study of World War I. European imperialism in the Middle East created problems that are still driving conflict and bloodshed in 2018. Understanding the complex relationship between the Treaty of Versailles and the rise of the Nazis provides critical insight into the ways in which white nationalists, and the leaders who make them comfortable, rely on their perceived victimhood to gain political power in the mainstream.
Learning about the war’s intricacies may not excite students beforehand, but teachers must continue to prioritize exploring the war, even though — in fact, precisely because — many Americans have come to see it as remote and not pivotal to comprehending the modern world.
In 1993, Robert Shaw, the legendary conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, was searching for words to express the nature of his responsibility toward music and its history as he prepared for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s 1962 “War Requiem.” Britten’s magnum opus famously combines the Latin requiem mass for the dead with Owen’s haunting, jarring poetry. Shaw settled upon the phrase: “Involvement and responsibility are the price of understanding.”
This lesson perfectly encapsulates why today’s students and tomorrow’s citizens must understand the Great War: It is essential to understanding their own world and taking responsibility for it.
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