Column: Historian Jay Winter: The five things Americans should know about the Great War

The First World War ushered in the 20th century’s industrial-scale death practices, yet in the U.S. it’s remembered mostly as a warmup to World War II; Yale historian Jay Winter tells Patt Morrison why.


A chauffeur’s happenstance wrong turn down a back street in Sarajevo 100 years ago this week ended in the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Habsburg empire. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s murder was the catalyst for the Great War that haunts the cultural memory of Europe a century later but has made a less visible mark on American society — just count the World War I films versus World War II movies. Jay Winter, a Yale historian, has spent his adult life trying to figure out the war that didn’t end all wars but opened the bloody gates of 20th century industrial slaughter.

Why is a war this devastating barely a blip to Americans?

The war did not affect the United States in fundamental ways. It’s not written into family history. What people remember is the crossing of family history and global history. The United States was at war for 16, 17 months, and it suffered a bloody nose. Most of the major [European] countries suffered a wound that to some degree has never healed — 1.4 million Frenchmen killed, 1 million people who wore British uniforms killed. In French and British family life, everybody had somebody who was wounded or killed in the First World War. The American Army lost 100,000 men in the First World War, and half of them died of the Spanish flu.


Do any of our present-day political entanglements parallel the ones that tripped up the so-called Great Powers then?

I don’t see any analogies to today. The only thing that would in some sense be parallel is the massive increase in economic power of China, an analogy with Germany before the First World War. It was a massive economic power, and military power went along with it, so it was a destabilizing element. I don’t think what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin did in the Crimea can be compared in any way. He’s acting out of weakness — a country humiliated time and again over the last 20 years. He aims to recover a bit of his national self-respect; that’s completely without parallel to 1914.

World War I seemed to result in bigger social and political shifts than World War II, and there’s a sense of the loss of innocence. Am I misperceiving it?

In the First World War, the violence Europeans normally practiced on African and Asian [colonies] came home to roost. The export of European violence to the periphery of the world — in 1914, it came home. What was tolerable when it was Africans, black men or yellow men, becomes intolerable when it has to do with white Europeans. The imperial system allowed for absolutely appalling behavior in the periphery.

This is an American story too. In the Philippines, the first concentration camps were set up [by the U.S.], imitated rapidly by the British in South Africa.

Hence “innocence” is the last word I’d use for Europeans in 1914. Radical exploitive racists, how about that?


What was world-changing about the war?

First, the transformation of the technology of warfare. Eighty percent of the men who died — and there were 10 million of them — were killed by artillery fire. That’s a function of iron and steel and chemicals, the second industrial revolution. War became lethal in a way it had never been lethal before.

Secondly, the artillery war ground into the dust the bodies of the soldiers who were killed, so that half of those who died have no known graves. That’s the same percentage of people who died on 9/11 [with] no trace whatsoever. The disappearance of bodies meant there had to be commemorative sites where names took the place of bodies. The cultural practice of naming spans the 20th century. The best example is Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial.

The number killed is so extraordinary that it indicates a certain kind of numbing of sensibilities, a change in the legitimacy of states to promote mass death as a normal phenomenon. Without the Somme and Verdun, there wouldn’t have been Auschwitz. Bodies stacked like matchsticks — soldiers saw that in the First World War.

[The war also] ended the first age of globalization. Before the First World War, [the world] was transnational — there were investments, inventions, technical innovations, and it just came to a bitter end. The second phase really only got started after the Second World War.

It’s called “the war to end all wars,” but now only ironically.

That was H.G. Wells during the war itself. The idea was to make it impossible [to repeat]. The term “never again” originated in the First World War, not [with] the Holocaust. [Postwar policy was] about destroying the German military, so everyone understands nations don’t go to war just for the purpose of aggrandizing their power. It was an experiment in controlling the aggression of nations. It was what I would call a noble failure.

There’s an illusion of the 11th of November 1918 as the end of the war. There was no end to it on the eastern front, no peace treaty. There was the Russian revolution; violence carried on for the next three to five years. There were uprisings in Egypt, in India, in Korea and China. Once set in motion, the destabilizing effects of warfare can’t be turned off. Brush-fire violence happened all over.

Historian Paul Fussell wrote about the war creating an “immense intellectual, cultural and social shock.” Did people at the time realize how profound that shock would be?

No. I think most of the soldiers who fought did so because they wanted to go home and go back to the old ways. There wasn’t a full recognition that fundamental elements of political and social life had changed.

Was the war such a rupture that it ushered in modernity?

I have a different view. While the First World War ushered in the modern, it also ushered in the very old. There’s a revolution toward modernism and a revolution against it. What modernists didn’t do was give millions of people the language with which to [mourn]. For that they sought out religious and romantic and classical forms. There are many instances where the world went backward.

The war did give an enormous boost to spiritualism, an enormous increase in the interest in the occult and the psychic, contact with the dead, for simple reasons: half of the 10 million men who died had no known graves. You can’t use religious custom to mourn if there’s nowhere to go. Conventional churches were overwhelmed, they didn’t know how to provide a language for that mourning.

The U.S. rode in like the cavalry in the last reel.

The United States became the dominant world power because of the First World War. Before the war, Britain was a creditor; after the war, it was indebted to the United States. So the strength of the American economy pulled the the United States to a position of dominance; the Second World War shows how there was no choice but for the United States to have a global leadership role.

World War II seems to have been unavoidable; what about World War I?

I spent 50 years studying the first war, and I have no idea what possible justification there was for unleashing the violence that happened. There’s a disconnect between the moral pygmies who led the war and the moral catastrophe that resulted. Every one of the major powers could have stopped it. None of them did.

I am struck much more by the decency of the men who fought. The German army was not Hitler’s army.

[And yet] was Hitler or the Nazi regime thinkable, or possible, without the First World War? My view is, not. The first war opened the door. The first genocide of the 20th century was the Armenians [in 1915]. Hitler saw it, and he did it again.

Why did you choose to study this war?

In 1965, I had an undergraduate seminar at Columbia with a great German historian. And the Vietnam War was hotting up; it looked a bit like the First World War — massive violence for no evident purpose. And I come from a family of Holocaust survivors, so it was a way of looking into the antechamber of the Holocaust without looking at the Holocaust, which was too difficult for me. The First World War is the prelude.

What handful of things should Americans now know about the First World War?

There was a genocide that prepared the ground for the Holocaust. It [showed] the way the war erased boundaries between civilians and military. Second, weapons of mass destruction were used for the very first time, and all sides did it through poison gas. Third, half of those who died have no known graves; war was a vanishing act. Fourth, the war was ended in Russia by the only successful antiwar movement, the Bolsheviks. They weren’t pacifists, but they got Russia out of the war.

And I suppose the fifth is, Europeans have a reluctance to engage in enterprises like the Iraq invasion because they know something in their family histories that Americans frequently don’t, and that is that the best way to deal with war on this scale is not to practice it at all.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.

Twitter: @pattmlatimes