1914 and all that

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To most Americans, even those with some appreciation for history, the centennial anniversary of the start of the First World War may not resonate very strongly. After all, the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917, a year before it ended. But especially for those in Europe, and many other parts of the world as well, the year 1914 symbolizes seismic changes, and not for the better.

Those who seek neatly packaged narratives within the course of history may find the First World War elusive and tragic. Historians continue to debate how it all started. And rather than being sharply defined by epic battles, stories of the fighting in WWI often converge on the horrors of trench warfare, with two sides murderously slugging it out over the same patches of bloodied landscape. The war’s end came suddenly, and historians can’t agree on the reasons behind that, either.

Perhaps we could find some solace in that suffering if it had led to a lasting peace, but this was not to be. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying things, it’s fair to say that the unfinished business of WWI created diplomatic, economic, and military waves that culminated in the start of the Second World War some two decades later.

While every war involves horrific suffering, WWI specially captures a deep sense of sorrow and no small amount of sheer folly. Understandably, we might be tempted to look away, but that would be a mistake. Rather, the First World War presents lessons to be learned, however painful. In fact, this 100th anniversary has been marked by many assessments noting the similarities of the international landscape of today with that of 1914, on the eve of the war’s outbreak.

If you want to learn more, there are books, documentaries, and movies galore, with a pipeline to follow during the next four years. I’ve included pictures of some of the items in my library. In particular, if you’re unfamiliar with WWI and its emotional and physical toll, you might want to watch the Academy Award-winning classic from 1930, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” If you feel a haunting sense of tragedy after a viewing, then you’ve started to scratch the surface of what the war did to the generations who experienced it.

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