Yale Remembers World War I: Historian Jay Winter on the conflict's centennial

On a warm evening in the city of Liege 100 years ago this week, German forces opened fire on a Belgian fortification — the opening salvo of what is now known as the First World War.

Belgium had sworn to remain neutral in the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, spurred by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. What followed, however, was a tangle of alliances that escalated into a full-blown world war.

Soldiers pose with the statue of Nathan Hale on Old Campus. (Courtesy Manuscripts & Archives)
When Germany invaded Belgium on Aug. 4, 1914, Great Britain entered the war in defense of its ally, bringing with it Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa. France was already in the fray; Japan and Italy would soon join the fight against Germany. It would be almost three more years before the United States would enter the conflict.

The world had never seen death and destruction on such a scale. World War I saw the introduction of airplanes, tanks, and poison gas in warfare. Less than 100 years earlier, infantry weapons like the muzzle-loading musket could fire off four shots a minute. Now, machine guns could release 600 rounds in 60 seconds. More than 16 million troops and civilians died; 20 million more were wounded, though many survived in part due to new medical innovations such as blood transfusions and the Red Cross battlefield ambulances.

During the month of August, YaleNews will highlight aspects of “The Great War” through conversations with Yale faculty and a look at rare materials in Yale collections and archives. We will also feature one of the university’s biggest contributions to the war — the First Yale Unit, a group of pioneering young men who would become the country’s first naval aviation unit.

First up is a conversation with Jay Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History and editor of the recently published three-volume “Cambridge History of the First World War.”

— Amy Athey McDonald

Yale historian Jay Winter: War is a Pandora’s Box

Jay Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History and editor of the recently published three-volume “Cambridge History of the First World War,” recently spoke to YaleNews about how WWI has impacted the 20th century, what lessons can be learned from the conflict, and the emergence of a global history of the so-called “Great War.” The following is an edited version of that conversation.

One of your areas of study is the remembrance of war in the 20th century, such as memorial and mourning sites. What led you to study this topic?

My mother’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust, and its shadow haunted my childhood. Writing about mourning practices in the aftermath of the First World War was an indirect way of confronting indirectly part of my childhood.

What lasting impact has World War I had on the 20th century?

The Great War, as the British term it, turned war from a killing machine into a vanishing act. Half of those who died in the war have no known graves — that is five million people. Hence, the cult of names emerged in the war, since all that is left of these people are their names. And that cult of naming after the 1914–1918 conflict has extended to the 6 million victims of the Holocaust, the names on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial wall, the names of the “disappeared” in Latin America, and the names of those killed on 9/11. Here is but one way in which the Great War has shaped the last century and this one as well.

What lessons from WWI can we bring to present-day conflicts?

Jay Winter (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The first lesson is that war is a Pandora’s Box. Once opened, it cannot be contained.  Politicians are more inclined to overestimate their power to control the violence of war. The military know better, but frequently get trapped in wars that cannot be controlled or easily ended.

What new research led to the publication of “Cambridge History of the First World War”?

Since the 1980s, a group of historians have emerged who are “trans-national historians.” These are people who are born in one country, trained in another, and frequently at work in a third. Thus a national perspective on the war has given way to a comparative perspective, in which the state is not the focus of research. This has been productive, since the war was bigger than all of the states that waged it. It was truly global, and a global history of the war has emerged to reflect its revolutionary character.

As a scholar on the subject, what is especially meaningful to you about the 100th anniversary of World War?

The anniversary of the outbreak of the war has buried the word “celebration.” We don’t celebrate the war; to do so has a taste as of ashes. We see it as a global catastrophe, which opened the door to the Second World War and the Holocaust. Hence, commemorating the Great War necessarily has a pacifist character. No cause justified the slaughter of 10 million men and the mutilation of another 20 million.

What is on the horizon for research and scholarship about World War I?

The next phase of research is to shift the focus of study from Paris and Berlin to Warsaw and Istanbul, then known as Constantinople. The history of the Eastern front and the Middle Eastern upheavals associated with the war and its aftermath are still to be written.

In recognition of the centennial of the beginning of "The Great War," Judith Schiff, senior research archivist at Yale University Library, discusses how Yale's participation and losses in World War I are commemorated on campus.
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