Leaping into the dark, Bethmann-style (Teaching WWI in Real Time)

As the realization of what I committed to with my World War I In Real Time fall course starts to dawn on me—centennials will do that to you, I suppose—I figured the anniversary of the Sarajevo assassinations would be an opportune time to share what I’ve been doing in preparation for the course, as well as what I’ve learned, not so much about the War but about prepping a new, and highly specific, course.

  1. This is going to be a lot of work. (Shocking, right?) I suppose this dawning realization is also apropos, at least with respect to the war itself; committing to this course was a leap in the dark, so to speak, one taken with no small amount of blind enthusiasm, but I don’t think I’ll be quite so regretful as Bethmann Hollweg was after his. <fingers crossed>
  2. I’m almost relieved that, on the first day of class (28 August), we’ll be past the July Crisis. Sure, the immediate sparks of the war can be found there, and I won’t be able to make proper use of “Take me Out” by Franz Ferdinand (h/t YL), but I have a sense that I’d be as impatient as Germany waiting for Austria to get off the blocks—and spending too much lecture time on pre-war crises than I really want.
  3. It’s too bad that the Battle of the Frontiers will have just ended, but the day of the 28th is fraught with contingency, choice, and uncertainty—-the perfect stuff, I think, of a first lecture. German armies have crashed through neutral Belgium, hoping to achieve a modern-day Cannae on a massive scale, only to be lured into turning south too soon, foregoing the envelopment of Paris while chasing the possibility of eliminating the French now in the field. General Joffre, on the other hand, has come to the conclusion that attrition might be the only way to win the war, and his famous General Instruction No. 2 will have just gone out, precipitating a massive retreat and repositioning Allied forces so as to set up what would become known as the Battle of the Marne—the moment(s) when Moltke’s version of the Schlieffen plan would be dashed for good, and when the Western Front would begin to settle into what we all know it, now, to look like. 28 August also sees Joffre meeting with Sir John French, trying to keep the British Expeditionary Force in the line, setting the stage for years of (what I, at least, think are) fascinating intra-coalitional politics. With plans wrecked, opponents adjusting, and the strategic picture in remarkable flux, what will the generals, the soldiers, the statesmen, and the home fronts do in response? Forgive me if that’s a goosebump moment for me; I can’t wait to give this lecture.
  4. Lengthy geek-out aside, I’m assigning Max Hastings’ Catastrophe,  which pretty much covers the war from August to the end of the semester—and which I hope my undergrads find to be sufficiently readable. (Well, those that read enough to judge readability, I should say.) As for the other readings…well, up in the air at this point, apart from this (which, if you’ve not read it, is excellent). Had thought about Herwig’s book on The Marne, which I’m finishing now, but the timing is all off. At any rate, you’ll hear more about this decision shortly.
  5. And, finally, I think I’ll be able to sketch out some simple game-theoretic models for many of the topics we’ll consider, from the high politics of diplomacy, statecraft, and intrawar bargaining, to military strategy, to labor-management tensions at home, and to the dynamics of resistance and reprisals behind the front, etc., which should lend some unity to the whole thing. Let’s hope so, at least. Again, fingers crossed.

Broadly, I think that we can learn a lot from the war—sure, maybe not much about some things on which it’s an outlier—but specific instances of general trends can be awfully illuminating when we place them in theoretical context, and my hope is that the anniversary fever for the seminal tragedy in modern history can be put to good use (translation: my students are going to get ambushed with more science than they expect). Keep an eye on this space in the coming weeks and months as I try to figure out how to do just that.

 

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5 thoughts on “Leaping into the dark, Bethmann-style (Teaching WWI in Real Time)

  1. Just myself, I understood the Marne a lot better after Tyng’s book than Herwig’s — but maybe not for undergrads.

    • Thanks for the tip! Will be sure to check it out. I’m about to read a book focused on the Eastern Front in 1914 (the title eludes me at the moment), but will definitely be doing reading prep right until the semester starts…

  2. Good luck with the course – what’s the WW1 equivalent of the Bataan Death March? 😉

    The Tyng book is Sewell Tyng, The Campaign of the Marne (1935), an oldie but goodie.

  3. Pingback: Teaching World War I, 100 Years Later | Department of Government

  4. Pingback: Fighting “unwinnable” wars (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 10) | The Wolf Den

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