As part of the new LSE History podcast series, Professor David Stevenson spoke with LSE PhD student Artemis Photiadou on his latest book 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, discussing why the First World War lasted as long as it did, why it ended, and why 1917 is a pivotal year. This is the first installment of the International History Blog’s In Conversation series.
AP: In your latest book, you look at the end of the war and take an interesting approach in that you look at a single year and the events that took place. Has the way that you think about the end of the war changed in recent years?
DS: Not radically – I wrote the book partly because I wanted the opportunity to personally answer questions that are long-established in the agenda of the war but also to bring out the interconnections between them. One of the challenges, if you like, of writing about a single year is that it was a very crowded year in which a great deal happens; there were stand-out events – of course the two Russian revolutions and American intervention, but also Chinese intervention which would have a very big impact on the development of Chinese history and Chinese nationalism. This is often overlooked from a Europe-centered account. There’s a tremendous amount going on.
One of the things that I did want to look at was the question of why the powers on both sides remain committed to offensive strategies, even three years after the war began, when there was abundant evidence that offensives usually ended indecisively with huge casualties. 1917 is a good year to look at from the point of view of evidence. There was much more debate in 1917 before the major offensives took place, leaving documentary record from which we can reconstruct some of the forces that persuaded military commanders to recommend continuing offensives and in the light of which governments persuaded themselves that they had no alternative but to keep approving them.
AP: You mentioned the huge casualties by 1917 – the death rates weren’t unknown so why do people keep supporting the war?
DS: So this is the trap – by the time you’ve got into 1917 millions of people have been killed on both sides, hundreds of thousands of casualties. One of the problems for governments at that stage was if they’re going to end it by some sort of compromise – how are they then going to persuade their publics that their husbands and sons have died in enormous numbers and the achievement is only a compromise?
Another thing that’s very important is that people didn’t know at that time how long the war was going to go on for or what the final casualty bill was going to be. Given you’ve already had enormous casualties, the question is whether you go on for another six months in the hope that the next offensive will finally deliver the breakthrough that’s promised.
AP: Of course, American entry was essential, but you also say that Woodrow Wilson did not want a ‘smashing’ Allied victory – why was that?
DS: Wilson was extremely reluctant to get drawn into the war and part of this is because he was personally a humanitarian. He had been brought up in Georgia and remembered the Union troops devastating the South of the United States in 1864, so he had a personal horror of war. He had a Christian conscience about all of these things. Therefore, we have a lot of examples of him telling everybody around him how much he hated the prospect of taking the country to war, thousands of young men being killed, and American households being bereaved. So, it was a last resort for him. But one of the things that reconciles him to American entry is the idea that if America comes into it, they’ll have a seat at the peace conference table. This could produce the kind of peace he wants to see, one geared toward international organizations, the League of Nations, disarmament, and open diplomacy. A number of things were necessary to change what he saw as an evil balance of power system to reduce danger of another war.
AP: Was a seat at the peace table the reason why the other countries that you talk about in the book – China, Greece, Brazil – entered the war?
DP: It was very important for China because what the Chinese had to worry about is Japanese encroachment. The Japanese had entered the war on the Allied side in 1914 and a principal reason for that was to take control of the territories Germany had previously occupied in northern China. The Chinese wanted them out, so that’s one of the reasons they wanted representation at the conference table.
Greece is rather similar. Venizelos was the key personality as the Greek Prime Minister who was in conflict with the King. He wanted to keep Greece neutral but had extensive ambitions for Greek expansion in the Aegean, so Greece having a seat at the peace conference table is vital.
Brazil is not so clear. Brazil was more remote from the conflict but were brought in essentially as America was brought in – as a result of German submarine attacks on neutral shipping. Several Brazilian steamers are sunk and there were casualties, so they eventually decided to go into the war largely because of these attacks. But once they become involved, peace conference attendance became quite important. And, Brazil has a founding role in the formation of the League of Nations.
AP: Do you think that there are big questions that remain to be answered when it comes to the military history of the Great Powers or have we moved on?
DP: Some of the less well-known theatres of war still need a lot of research. For example, the Caucasus, where the most serious defeats of the Turkish Empire happened. Of course, that defeat is going to have major consequences in the Middle East. There’s still more work to be done on the Russian front and the Eastern Front using Russian archival materials.
I think the thing that really needs to be done, as I see it, is the economic history of the war and its political economy – just why exactly does the German home front collapse in 1917-18, what is the impact of the blockade, how much is it due to the blockade, how much is it due to inflation and mismanagement of the German war economy?
There are big questions that I don’t think have been satisfactorily answered. But even in Britain work still needs to be done – how was the ‘production miracle’ achieved? We know the outline of the story but there’s a lot of detail that needs to be filled in.
AP: What should we keep remembering from the war now that the centenary is over?
DS: Answering from a British perspective – yes, it is over 100 years and, of course, all the participants in the war have now died, so we don’t have that direct personal connection the way we once did. So you would expect that at some point it will become more like the Crimean War, the Napoleonic Wars – these are things that are still remembered but not on the same scale or with the same regular public commemoration. But, I don’t think we’re there yet. I think that it will be interesting to see what happens in 2019 and 2020, whether the November commemorations are attended on such a scale as they have been between 2014 and 2018.
I suspect the diminution of public consciousness will happen quite slowly. A part of the reason for this is that the. 1914-1918 experience is one of the worst things that’s happened in modern British history. It affected almost every household in the British Isles and part of the interest in the war has come from below. Many members of the general public became more interested generally in their family history and as soon as people get into their family history, pretty quickly they find that something terrible happened between 1914 and 1918.
As long as people remain interested in the history of their communities, I think there will continue to be a lot of interest in this subject.
Professor David Stevenson is the Stevenson Professor of History at @lsehistory.
Artemis Photiadou is the Managing Editor of @LSEpoliticsblog and a PhD Student and Teaching Assistant at @lsehistory.