Ukraine and World War I
By Michael S. Neiberg
via the National World War I Museum and Memorial web site
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.
Read the entire article on the National World War I Museum and Memorial web site.
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