Michael S. Neiberg
It is a surreal and unnerving feeling to be an historian of Europe’s wars and watch a war in Europe unfold before your very eyes. As a profession, historians tend to share two traits at moments like these. First, we get frustrated with the facile or simply inaccurate historical analogies that pundits use to make a political point rather than to illuminate the current problem. Second, we try above all not to make predictions. As the great British historian Sir Michael Howard wrote, “Historians have seen too many confident people fall flat on their faces to lay themselves open to more humiliation than they can help.”
The last few weeks have put me in mind of what the historian R.G. Collingwood said, notably in 1939, about the role of historians in times of crisis. He compared historians to expert woodsmen walking through a forest alongside novice hikers. The historian, he wrote, cannot see through the forest perfectly but, like the woodsman, he or she can spot areas of lurking danger or menace where the hiker only sees trees.
Historians try to look backward for a bit of wisdom and maybe a few echoes of the past that might suggest where we might soon be headed. For years, I have told students that we must not confine the people of 1914 to what I sometimes call “The Idiot Box.” Our instinctive response to see the people of that fateful year as uncommonly stupid or bloodthirsty provides us comfort that we are too smart or too sophisticated ever to make the mistakes they made. But, of course, we are not.
Similarly, I have over the past twenty or so years tried to convince hundreds of high school teachers to abandon the MAIN (Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, and Nationalism) method for teaching the causes of the First World War because it, too, provides false comfort. If we can convince ourselves that those four MAIN factors either no longer exist or are no longer an existential danger to peace, then we can go to sleep at night in the belief that the horrors unleashed in 1914 really do have nothing to teach us.
As I sit here watching the Russian war against Ukraine, however, I am more convinced than ever that 1914 has a great deal to teach us. Indeed, it might provide the best guide we have to where we are now and where we might go in the future.
First, this war, like the one that began in 1914, seemed to come out of nowhere and over causes hard even for experts to pinpoint. There had been little international tension in the weeks between the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28 and the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum on July 23. Then events began to spiral out of control very quickly, leaving people stunned and bewildered. Within a week a continental and imperial war had, to almost everyone’s amazement, begun. Similarly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed to come out of the blue, calling to mind the observations of people in 1914 who described the war as a bolt of lightning in a clear sky. As in 1914, those in the West today have concluded that the only possible explanation for such an unfathomable breach of the peace must be that a deranged leader was leading an unwilling people into war based on lies, deception, and a near total control of power inside his state. On the other side, President Zelensky is playing the role of Belgian King Albert I, courageously leading his people against all odds, and putting a human face on a national movement of resistance.
Second, the immediate and heartfelt sympathy in the West for the brave Ukrainians resembles the intense outpouring of sympathy in the United Kingdom and the United States for Belgium in 1914. Concern for the plight of the Belgians does not explain why the British entered the war, but the deeply felt sense of support for Belgium helped to crystalize a sense in both Britain and the United States that one side was clearly right and one side clearly wrong. The Russian shelling of hospitals and malls and the destruction of Mariupol have produced that same sense in 2022. As in 1914, this feeling of support will bring with it (indeed it already has brought with it) a desire for justice for the victims of aggression that may complicate reaching a peace deal.
Third, we can already see the related problem of sunk costs. The astonishingly brave men and women who have died to defend Ukraine, the families who have fled their homes, and the feeling of unity and patriotism the war has engendered cannot have been for nothing. Ukraine and its supporters will want to ensure that the country comes out of this war in a better and safer place than when Russia invaded. That desire has already led to calls for a security guarantee from western states, membership in the European Union, and a demand for either reparations or war crimes trials. All of these factors complicated the process of peacemaking in 1918-1919 as well.
Fourth, we may have already come to the point where there is simply nothing to debate in this war. As in 1914, the rhetoric has quickly developed into a Manichean Right vs. Wrong, Good vs. Evil. Wars can quickly become about something far different than their original causes. This war is no longer really about the future of the Donbas or whether Ukraine can join the European Union or NATO, any more than by late 1914 the First World War was about Serbian agitation inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire or who was responsible for the assassination of an archduke. The Ukrainian flags one sees everywhere, the outpouring of emotion on social media, and the extraordinary events in Europe in the last few weeks suggest that the Ukraine war has already become, as Sir Hew Strachan wrote of 1914, a war of Big Ideas. It is already a kind of prism, reflecting and refracting whatever colors one wants to see in it.
Together, it seems to me that these four factors make it much more difficult for us to negotiate a peace than it might have been just a few weeks earlier. As in 1914, there is no clear end in sight. Talk of “off ramps” and “end games” seem just as naïve now as they did then. Even if Mariupol fades from memory as some of the sympathy for Belgium did, the core problem will remain. How can the two sides find peace if the conflict takes on ever deeper and more symbolic meanings, not only for Russia and Ukraine but for the entire world?
In late September 1914, the German artist Käthe Kollwitz wrote a letter in which she grasped the key conundrum of war: “One cannot hold on to any illusions anymore. Nothing is real but the frightfulness of this state, which we almost grow used to. In such times it seems so stupid that the boys must go to war. The whole thing is so ghastly and insane. Occasionally comes the foolish thought: how can they possibly take part in such madness? But they must! They must!” Even though she hated the war and would soon lose a son to it, she had come to realize, even in the war’s first weeks, that Germany had gone too far to back down. That same conundrum remains with us today, making it hard to see how any peace negotiations can produce anything like the stability of the period before the Russian invasion.
There are some more frightening echoes of 1914 that we must listen for even as we hope that they will never come to pass. Wars have a “contagion effect,” drawing in other states either because they hope to gain something or because they no longer see neutrality as a viable option. How much longer can the states to Ukraine’s west and north remain non-belligerents while they continue to supply and support Ukraine? If the Russians sink a ship carrying American munitions, will we arrive at a Lusitania moment? If they commit an act of sabotage or cyber war on our soil, are we at a Black Tom moment? Is it outrageous to think that they might try to work with Cuba or Venezuela to put pressure on the American homeland itself just as the Germans tried to do with the Zimmermann Telegram?
I am, of course, not predicting that any of these terrifying scenarios will come to pass. Historians fail as often as anyone else when they try to predict. But, as Collingwood said, historians do their best service when they remind inexperienced travelers that forests contain far more dangers than one can see with the naked eye.
This article has been initially published by the National WWI Museum and Memorial: https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/ukraine-and-wwi
- Michael S. Neiberg is Professor of History and Chair of War Studies at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Army War College, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the United States government. ↑
- Michael Howard, “Interview Transcript, This interview took place in the Institute of Historical Research”, University of London School of Advanced Study The Institute of Historical Research (London: June 5, 2008), https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/interviews/Howard_Michael.html ↑
- Giuseppina D’Oro y James Connelly, “Discussion of Collingwood’s aesthetics”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2020), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/collingwood/ ↑
- National WWI Museum and Memorial, “The Outbreak of War in 1914: New Ways to Think About the ‘Road to War’ – Michael Neiberg” Youtube 39m 23s (July 13, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WecvcEFjGk ↑
- “King Albert I”, The Royal Family The Belgian Monarch, https://www.monarchie.be/en/royal-family/history/king-albert-i ↑
- Prologue Magazine, “George H. Nash, An American Epic Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I”, The National Archives Museum (Washington, DC: May 30, 2019), https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1989/spring/hoover-belgium.html ↑
- Mstyslav Chernov, “20 days in Mariupol: team that documented city´s agony”, Associated Press News (Mariupol, Ukraine: March 21, 2022), https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-europe-edf7240a9d990e7e3e32f82ca351dede ↑
- Pierre Briancon, “Ukraine should be rebuilt without Russian money”, Reuters Breaking International News & Views (London: April 6, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/breakingviews/ukraine-should-be-rebuilt-without-russian-money-2022-04-06/ ↑
- Natasha Bertrand, “The US and its allies are weighing security guarantees for Ukraine, but they’re unlikely to give Kyiv what it wants”, cnn politics (April 1, 2022), https://edition.cnn.com/2022/04/01/politics/ukraine-security-guarantee-discussions/index.html ↑
- “The Great War and today’s world”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation News video 53m 50s (August 2, 2016), https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/great-war-today_hew-strachan/7659260 ↑
- Biographical data of the artist, “Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)”, Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln (2022), https://www.kollwitz.de/en/biography ↑
- Harper Montgomery, “Käthe Kollwitz”, The Museum of Modern Art (New York: 2004), p. 93., https://www.moma.org/collection/works/69684 ↑
- History Resources, “Theodore Roosevelt on the sinking of the Lusitania, 1915”, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/theodore-roosevelt-sinking-lusitania-1915 ↑
- “Black Tom 1916 Bombing”, Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI, https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/black-tom-1916-bombing ↑
- The Zimmermann Telegram, The National Archives Museum (June 2, 2021), https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/zimmermann#background ↑