World War I began in 1914 in the age of biplanes and the Model T – before even radio, much less the Internet. Yet its effects were massive and are still being felt today.
So how do you make a history-altering, century-old conflict meaningful for students?
One idea would be bring them to Vienna, where the decision to go to war was made. That’s what political science professor John Vasquez did last summer, when he took a small group of students to the city for a four-week course examining “one of the most complex cases in history”– how the war came about.
“There is nothing quite like living, learning and studying a historical event in the place where it occurred,” said Vasquez, an expert on war and peace and crisis diplomacy. “Its ghosts still walk the streets.”
In Vienna, Vasquez said, they could feel the past glory of an empire that would be the first to declare war, and then was destroyed by it. They could visit the state archives and see the original documents that initiated the conflict, and also see special anniversary exhibits.
And there was the special perk for students of presenting their final papers at a conference in Schloss Leopoldskron, a palace famous as a setting in the film “The Sound of Music.”
If you couldn’t take students abroad, however, you could still immerse them in the period and in the conflict, taking advantage of broad expertise both within the Illinois faculty and beyond. That was the approach of history professors Tamara Chaplin, who teaches modern France, and Peter Fritzsche, who teaches modern Germany.
Their class this fall, “World War I and the Making of the Global 20th Century,” would include 10 guest lectures, about a third of the total. Among the on-campus experts would be a military historian who would describe the strategies and horrors of industrial warfare, an art historian who would discuss war posters and propaganda, a medical historian who would explain shell shock, and a Russia historian who would discuss the Russian Revolution that grew out of the war.
Off-campus experts would include two prominent historians, one discussing Germany and Russia, and another the Armenian genocide, as well as a literature professor and a poet, who would each talk about the powerful work of the war’s soldier-poets.
Because the class also was part of a campuswide commemoration of the war this fall, students would be required to attend an exhibit of war posters and photos, as well as a musical about the war.
Chaplin said she hoped the class would instill in students an understanding of how profoundly this “massive, cataclysmic and global” event had influenced everything that came after. “So many things that students take for granted in the world around them were shaped by the war,” she said.
In Vasquez’ class, the focus was on trying to understand what caused the conflict, something academics continue to debate. For Moksha Muthukrishnan, a sophomore political science major from Naperville, the course inspired her to see beyond the usual timeline of causes and effects. Instead, she came to appreciate the importance of key individuals and their mindsets and strategic thinking, and “the fact that decision-makers’ choices were what led to the war.”
On the other end from those decision-makers were the anonymous men in the trenches who died by the millions. Chaplin, in the history course this fall, found a way to make that personal for students on the first day. “Most of the young men who died in this conflict were your age,” she said.
For Michelle Gong, a junior in political science and communication from Chicago who took part in the Vienna experience, Vazquez’ class “definitely made me realize just how complicated and difficult it is to pinpoint the exact cause, if any, to the war,” she said, as well as why, even today, “we don’t know how to prevent war.”