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History professor reflects on the start of WWI - 100 years later
World War I officially started on July 28, 1914. Melissa Byrnes, assistant professor of history at Southwestern, helped put the 100th anniversary of the start of this war in perspective with a piece that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman July 27, 2014:
On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary formally declared war on Serbia in response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the imperial heir, one month earlier in Sarajevo. By December, the great powers of the European continent were deeply mired in the trenches, trapped in a miserable defensive standoff. When the armistice finally came in November 1918, the world had changed significantly.
Three major empires were torn apart (the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman). Poison gas had debuted on the western front, while to the east the genocidal tactics of the next world war were well rehearsed. More than 16 million people (including civilians) had died, with another 20 million wounded. An entire generation would be deemed “lost” and turn-of-the-century dreams of modernity, progress and civilization were shattered.
But 100 years ago, on that July day, no one had any idea of what was to come. One of the great challenges in trying to understand history is remembering that people at the time had no way of knowing how things would end — no more than we can see our own futures. So what indeed was it like to be in Europe during that summer of 1914?
In many versions of this history, we learn that the opening of the First World War was celebrated, welcomed. Some have even suggested that the war was caused by an overzealous desire for battle (usually blame falls heaviest on the Germans). In reality, reactions were much more complex.
Certainly, there were cheerful demonstrations in Berlin and other cities following the initial declaration on July 28. Young men, in particular, brought a festive spirit into the summer evenings. Rates of military volunteering weren’t quite so high as mythic retellings would have it. At the same time, the opening scenes of schoolboy exuberance in Erick Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” (excellently interpreted in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film version capture a partial truth: there were many who embraced the war as an opportunity both to further expand Germany’s power and to renew its cultural glory. On the other side, there were those in France and Britain who welcomed the opportunity to put an upstart Germany back in its place.
And, of course, let’s not forget the weather. All accounts agree that the summer of 1914 was sun-drenched and idyllic. While 1913 and 1915 had had cold, wet summers, 1914 invited the peoples of Europe out into the open air. The people who flocked to demonstrations and summer evening revels had their own agendas, however, and we cannot assume that these crowds were uniformly clamoring for war. Still, the scattered embers of nationalist bellicosity across the continent were crucial to propaganda efforts, and all governments regularly reminded their citizens of these enflamed passions once the horrific reality of the trenches became known.
Yet, perhaps the most common feeling in the lead-up to the war itself was one of disbelief. Folks assumed that, once again, diplomatic maneuverings would prevail. As large as June 28 looms in our memory, in the moment it barely made a ripple in the newspapers. The previous years had seen crisis follow crisis in North Africa and the Balkans. Since none of these had led to all-out war, few considered the Sarajevo assassination liable to push the great powers over the brink. If anything were to come of Austria-Hungary’s anger, people expected a small, regional skirmish. Certainly, their lives — in Germany, France, Britain — would not be affected.
Read more here.
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