The Puzzle(s) of the Great War (Teaching WWI in Real Time, Lecture 1)

So the day has finally arrived: I’ve just finished the first lecture of the semester in World War I in Real Time (syllabus here). The buildup’s been long, the conversations with friends and loved ones likely one-sided and (for them) tiresome, but now it’s all going to be targeted at my students.* (Sorry, folks.)

Today’s lecture is really about setting the table; we won’t be digging into anything just yet. The first task will be to situate us on 2 September 1914, when

  1. The German armies reach the River Marne after crashing through neutral Belgium, though the right wing has managed to turn ever so slightly too soon….
  2. The French government, sensing the vulnerability of their capital, flees Paris for the relative safety (not the wine) of Bordeaux, while the Army (with a little help from its British friends) effects a grand retreat of its own.
  3. Austro-Hungarian armies fall back in the face of a Russian onslaught in Poland and Galcia, allowing the latter to capture (what is in 1914 called) Lemberg (but will go by Lvov and Liviv at different times in the coming decades).

We’re about a month into the war, with France, Russia, and the UK squaring off against Germany and Austria-Hungary in a war that The Economist on 8 August has already described as “perhaps the greatest tragedy of human history.” Many thousands already lay dead, and many millions will go on to die in the coming years.

The questions we’ll then pose in the course are how we got here—where “here” means a world with all the Great Powers (save one) at war—and why the war looks the way it does, both at the front and behind the lines.  As I’ve noted before, we’ll use the sparest tools of game theory to think about how goals, means, and incentives (where the latter two have something to do with others’ goals, means, and incentives) add up to produce outcomes that are non-obvious, sometimes surprising, and, surely in the context of 1914, very often tragic.

Next up, a class of tool-building, where we talk about our core concepts of strategy, equilibrium, and tragedy.

* Really. I couldn’t help myself, even at APSA: “Hey, you study repression, right? How interesting is it that the German army’s treatment of civilians was so bad in Belgium, but it virtually stopped once they got to France? Right? Right?” And who could forget, “You study roads and counterinsurgency, eh? Did you know that the Russian rail network in 1914 was intentionally bad in places to stem a feared German invasion? Can you guess how that played out when the Russians needed to attack to the west? Can you?” To the targets of these outbursts, I say: you’re welcome.


2 thoughts on “The Puzzle(s) of the Great War (Teaching WWI in Real Time, Lecture 1)

  1. Pingback: strategy, equilibrium, and tragedy (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 2) | The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: A look back on exam day (WWI in Real Time, Exam 1) | The Wolf Den

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