Category: World War I

    Ringing in the New Year: Peace and War, Hope and Fear

    1. Puck cartoon marking the new year in 1914. A young man (the New Year) in a smoking jacket and a vest labeled 1914 says to the old year, dressed as Uncle Sam, "Have something on me, old man! Whatll it be?" The choices are two whiskeys, one marked "hope" and the other "fear". They are in a well-furnished upper middle class salon with an overhead electric lamp lighting their faces. Source: Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011649657.
    2. Cartoon sketch by John T. McCutcheon titled "Is that the best he can wish us?," published in the Chicago Tribune on December 31, 1917. It portrays an old man, 1917, disappearing into the annals of history (literally pages, one marked "history") as he wishes a younger man with a globe for a head ("The World"), "Scrappy New Year!" The new year is dressed as a soldier and is weighed down by infantry kit as well as a few artillery tubes and merchant ships. Source: Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010717171/.
    3. Red, white, and blue New Year’s poster with Baby 1919 flanked by Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. Behind them is a big red sun with the text, “World Peace with Liberty and Prosperity 1919.” Europe was still in turmoil and experiencing violence, but Americans had reason to be optimistic. Thus, this lithograph from United Cigars (logo at Liberty’s feet) seems apropos for the time. Source: Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003652819/.

    Red Cross Poster with Christkind, circa 1917

    See accompanying text.

    "Christmas collection of the Bavarian Red Cross for our men in field gray" reads the caption of this Red Cross poster from Germany during the Great War. The angelic Christkind it features shines bright yellow in the dark Christmas night as she delivers parcels wrapped in field grey to men on the front. Stars twinkle above her, and there is snow underfoot. To her left is a sled heavy with more parcels, and to her right is a dependable, mustached soldier, pipe in mouth, a freshly delivered parcel in his hands.

    A photograph taken in Louisville, Kentucky the same year, shows a similar effort by the American Red Cross: women preparing Christmas parcels for American soldiers.

    Repository: Library of Congress.

    Russian Anti-Austrian War Propaganda, 1914–15

    A peasant woman dressed in red, appears like a giantess in comparison to the terrified Austrians coming over the hill. She is merry, healthy color in her face, and a soldier scewered on her pitchfork.

    “An Austrian went to Radziwill and came right on to a peasant woman’s pitchfork,” Russian print by Kazimir Severinovich Malevich, 1914–15, New York Public Library Digital Collections. The library has digitized five more prints in this series.

    WYCA Poster, ca. 1918

    Young woman in a blue uniform at a field switchboard; in the background are countless men at arms, and, even further back, fire. The text reads, 'Back our girls over there' and 'United War Work Campaign'.

    WYCA Poster, ca. 1918, Library of Congress.

    War Savings Stamps Poster, 1917

    Poster showing a dozen people at a ticket window with a sign reading 'W.W.S. For Sale Here.' The clerk is Uncle Sam with his hat hanging on a hook next to him. The poster bears the captions 'Buy United States Government War Savings Stamps' (top) and 'Your money back with interest from the United States Treasury' (bottom).

    I find this 1917 poster interesting because it seems to target urban, working-class immigrants.1 Besides the dress of the people waiting in line to lend Uncle Sam some money, there is the American flag held by the child, whose enthusiasm attracts the attention of the adults around her.

    Children, whether immigrants themselves or native born, seem to have played a special role in immigrant families, mediating in different ways the adults' encounter with the culture and institutions of the new country. Certainly the authorities saw such potential in these children.2


    1. World War I poster advertising savings stamps for the war effort, via the Library of Congress↩︎

    2. On this last point, see Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (Fall 2016): 29–32. ↩︎

    'Near East Relief' Appeal, 1919

    'Hunger knows no armistice--Near East Relief', woman with two children on ground against a brick wall, stark emotional expression on their faces
    Poster from 1919. Repository: Library of Congress.

    'Dead, but the remains are still with us'

    Mars, the god of war, from late 1918. Repository: Library of Congress.

    Terence Zuber, Military History, and Culture

    Officers on foot and horseback posing for a picture at one of the big annual maneuvers held for the emperor.

    Officers, some on horseback, at a Kaiser Maneuver in 1898. Source: Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg.


    I recently noticed that the English translation of Der Schlieffenplan: Analysen und Dokumente, edited by Hans Ehlert, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Groß, is now available from the University Press of Kentucky under the title The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I. Interestingly, Terence Zuber, who sparked much of the debate on German war planning prior to the Great War, declined to allow his chapter from the German original to be included in this English translation.1 It wasn't his best piece anyway, far more peevish than usual, and there is plenty of his work on the supposedly nonexistent Schlieffen Plan already available in English. Be that as it may, if Zuber's thesis about Schlieffen's war planning has been conclusively disproven, the assumptions underlying his work have received less attention.2 That matters because his work on Schlieffen continues to be widely read and discussed, having made a big splash when it first came out. Moreover, he continues to write and publish books on German military history.

    Continue reading →

    Digitized Resources for World War I Research

    At Portal Militärgeschichte, Markus Pöhlmann reports that a joint German-Russian digitization project has made available a substantial number of World War One–era German military documents at the Russian defense ministry's central archive. There is also a digitized collection of the German secret services from 1912 to 1945.

    Additionally, the multi-volume Der Weltkrieg 1914-1918 (The World War), published by the Reichsarchiv in excruciating detail, is now available digitally thanks to the Upper Austrian State Library in Linz. As Pöhlmann points out, this work continues to be essential for operational history because it was written on the basis of documents that were largely destroyed in World War Two.

    Finally, the Austrian-Hungarian counterpart has been digitized in Linz too: Österreich-Ungarns letzter Krieg 1914-1918 (Austria-Hungary's Last War).

    'Not a Military Historian'

    At a recent lecture on the Great War, Roger Chickering said, “I'm not a military historian.”1 The phrase stuck in my mind because he said it two more times during the course of the lecture and discussion. I’m sure he was trying to avoid letting the discussion get sidetracked by narrower debates about military operations, which was fair enough in the context of his talk about a series of common structural elements in Germany’s, France’s, and Great Britain’s wars. Nonetheless, his words bothered me.

    Of course, there was nothing surprising about the statement. And Chickering really can’t be called a “military historian” in the narrow sense of the term. Nor can I, his former student. But if stating that one is “not a military historian” makes sense in terms of the prejudices of too many academic historians, it also cedes the ground of professional competence to those historians who only focus on the battlefield.

    As legitimate as narrower operational and tactical studies of warfare are, their authors cannot be allowed to enjoy a monopoly on the interpretation of the more military-technical aspects of warfare. The broad expertise and perspective of the historian who studies war’s manifestations away from the violence is also needed for the battlefield and everywhere else that people were killing or being killed for ostensibly political aims.


    1. Roger Chickering, “Imperial Germany’s Peculiar War, 1914–1918,” Georgetown University, October 23, 2014. 

    Who Should Groener’s Schlieffen Plan Matter To?

    As I try to write an article about Groener’s understanding of war, which led him to write about Schlieffen’s supposed “recipe for victory,”, I have to keep asking myself, so what? I don’t mean this is in a negative way. I haven’t tired of this topic. But I’m not always sure why it should matter to other people.

    If I look at the Schlieffen Plan debate carried out mainly in the pages of War in History, it is clear that Groener’s perspective has something to offer that audience, because the man who initiated the debate, Zuber, accuses him of having "invented" the Schlieffen Plan. That is reason enough to bring up the issue, at least for those interested in the military planning that helped cause and shape what George F. Kennan once called “the great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century.

    When I shift my perspective to understanding the German military’s role in the outbreak of World War One, I find the more nuanced perspective of German military thinking worthwhile for its own sake, but the basic story line of an inflexible plan that offered no diplomatic wiggle room and helped to ensure that Germany played the role of aggressor remains the same. So why should anyone but a specialist in military history care? Why should it matter to a general historian of modern German or European history?

    The answer to this question seems to relate to our image of German history and World War I more generally. Do we blame that war on elites wedded to outdated notions about war? Do we turn them into alien “Others” who are impossible to understand in anything but stereotyped terms along the lines that we see for Britain in the wonderful comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth?

    Or do we open our eyes to a less comfortable thought? What if World War I was not an aberration, but rather part and parcel of European (and Western) modernity? And what if the officers who developed and later justified Germany’s war plans were not defenders of a premodern monarchical system nor simply protecting their own reputations after Germany’s defeat, but instead were modern military professionals whose attitudes and efforts might have relevance for our understanding of modern militaries far beyond 1914?

    The latter point of view could make the question of Groener’s Schlieffen Plan relevant for modern militaries and, therefore, interesting for a readership like the Journal of Strategic Studies has. But does this story only have something to tell scholars of military history and strategic studies? What about historians of Imperial Germany? I think an answer could relate to the modernity of the officer corps, the Great General Staff, and the war itself. It might also help us to understand a story whose chronological boundaries transcend political regimes, insofar as this one reaches from Wilhelmine Germany until close to the end of the Weimar Republic, if not further.

    As I think along these lines, however, I see a journal article grow into something too big for the format. I would like to keep thinking about why Groener's Schlieffen Plan might matter to general historians of Germany, but maybe I first need to concentrate on a narrower, more specialized audience. I have to write a lot more before I can know.

    Refuting Straw Men and Explaining What Happened

    In a recent German History forum, Paul Lerner offers an interesting aside: "I used the medical Sonderweg as more or less a straw man in my 2003 book on German psychiatry, but I found that even as I refuted it, the need to explain the unique path of German medicine kept arising."1 These words speak to me, because I used Groener's biography to refute the rather untenable interpretation of a "feudalized" bourgeoisie in the Kaiserreich, even in the officer corps, but taking down that straw man hasn't offered a satisfying answer about the meaning of Groener's middle-class cultural orientations for our understanding of the Imperial German officer corps.

    I also used Terence Zuber's interpretation of Schlieffen's doctrine and war planning as a foil against which to compare what Groener knew about war before 1914, as well as what he experienced in the opening acts of World War I. In this case, I was somewhat more successful in saying what actually happened and why, but far too much of the analysis and narrative was aimed at Zuber. That was still necessary in 2006, when I completed the thing, but now I am not so sure. At any rate, it can't be the only point of an article about war planning and conceptions of war in the Great General Staff.

    Although it is relatively easy to demolish straw men, I can't stop there. I also need to offer more viable explanations in their place. I have a fair idea of how to do that in the case of Imperial German war-planning, but I'm less certain about the indirect relationship between class and professionalism that led me to challenge stereotypes of the Wilhelmine officer corps in the first place.


    1 Cornelius Borck et al., "Forum: The 'German Question' in the History of Science and the 'Science Question' in German History," German History 29, no. 4 (December 2011): 631.

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