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Eric Bergeson

Down on the Farm: World War I, lost in the mist

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Down on the Farm: World War I, lost in the mist
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November 11 is celebrated as Veteran's Day in the United States today.

The date originally was known as Armistice Day to mark the end of hostilities on the Western Front during World War I. Why do we hear so little about World War I?


Tens of millions died, both civilian and military. The world map was forever altered. On the first day of battle in World War I, 52,000 British soldiers died, almost as many Americans as died during the entirety of the Vietnam War.

The unbridled slaughter continued for years. Eventually, many European nations lost 10 percent of their male population. Yet, today we almost never hear of what was once called the Great War.

Filmmaker Ken Burns has treated both the Civil War and World War II at great length in fantastic documentaries. He also took on the entire history of baseball. But Burns shows no inclination to take on World War I.

Out of World War I came the Soviet Union. Eventually, World War I's botched settlement would give rise to the Nazi Party. The same settlement, the Treaty of Versailles, created Iraq. It also created Yugoslavia. And Czechoslovakia.

After the war, Germany was assigned total blame. Not only that, the Germans were to pay for the entire cost of the war, a sum which exceeded the amount of their currency in circulation.

Reparation payments not only prevented the German economy from recovering from the war, but sent it into a horrific tailspin, a crisis which an angry Adolf Hitler promised to resolve.

An equally angry German nation allowed Hitler to seize power. World War II and yet another slaughter of millions became inevitable.

Although some of Germany's World War I debt was wiped clean after World War II, Germany made its last payment of $94 million to World War I reparation bondholders in 2010.

In other words, World War I had a huge impact on our world today. Yet, most of us barely know what it was about. Why? Because even historians can't agree what World War I was about.

The question "What were the origins of World War I?" is probably the most loaded and unanswerable junior-level European history essay question possible.

I studied World War I history under Dr. Gordon Iseminger at the University of North Dakota about twenty-five years ago. Each morning, Dr. Iseminger strode into the lecture room with a stack of six to eight books. Each book bristled with book marks. During his impassioned lectures, Professor Iseminger read excerpts from the books.

Dr. Iseminger preached about the horrors of the war, about its origins, about its development, about its results. If anybody was going to get me to understand World War I, it was Dr. Iseminger.

I sat there in complete bewilderment. To this day, I can't say I really understand the event.

Another historian, Winston Churchill, played a part in the war as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was in charge of the mighty British Navy. But after one of his half-baked ideas ended in military disaster, he resigned.

After the Great War ended, Churchill wrote a six volume history of the event. The clarity of Churchill's Nobel Prize-winning memoir of World War II is nowhere evident in his writing on World War I, where the reader is still left wondering why the whole thing had to happen.

Sixty percent of Americans polled during the 1930s felt that entering World War I had been a mistake by President Wilson, even though we won. The British public was so convinced of the folly of World War I that it flat out refused to prepare to fight World War II until Nazi planes attacked London. The American public was so convinced of the folly of World War I it was completely opposed to entering World War II until Pearl Harbor. So, it is no wonder nobody talks much about World War I.

It is no wonder our memory of what the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" meant to an earlier generation have dimmed.

For unlike the clear moral purpose which leads hobbyists to study with relish the Civil War and World War II, World War I remains lost in the mists. It shouldn't, for World War I is the more typical war.