Sunday, July 6, 2014

Voices: Almost everything you know about World War I is wrong

Voices: Almost everything you know about World War I is wrong
Rick Hampson, USA TODAY 9:28 a.m. EDT July 6, 2014

Partly because most of us have never even known an American veteran of World War I -- the last, Frank Buckles, died three years ago at 110 – most of what we know about the war we learned in school.

If you're like me, you were taught that the war was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; that the U.S. was neutral "in thought as well as in action," as President Woodrow Wilson put it, before entering the war; that we eventually fought, Wilson said, to "make the world safe for democracy;" and that the harsh terms imposed on Germany after the war assured the rise of Adolf Hitler.

These, I've come to learn, are misimpressions about the Great War that historians are still trying to dispel, 100 years after it began.

Myth: The war was caused by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a Bosnian Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Reality: The shooting began a chain of events that led to war, but it neither caused the war nor made it inevitable, says Doran Cart, senior curator at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.

War could have been avoided if Germany, Austria-Hungary and other big powers didn't want to fight. World war did not become irreversible for at least a month after the shooting; Germany, France and Britain did not declare war on each other until the beginning of August, five weeks after the assassination.

Myth: The U.S. was neutral before entering the war.

Reality: To call America "neutral" before April 1917 is to stretch the word's meaning.

The U.S. decision to insist on the right to unfettered sea trade disproportionately benefited France and Britain , says Mike Vietti of the World War I Museum.

In addition, U.S. capital helped finance the Allied effort, and many U.S. leaders were Anglophiles. J.P. Morgan, whose bank handled a massive amount of Anglo-American war business, gave his estate in England for use as a British military hospital.

Myth: America fought for democracy.

Reality: Most of our allies were not democracies in the pure sense, and sometimes not in any sense, notes Cart.

When the war began, Russia was a Czarist dictatorship; when it ended, Russia was on its way to becoming a communist dictatorship. Belgium and Italy were monarchies. The United Kingdom had a mostly hereditary upper Parliamentary body, the House of Lords.

"What strikes us today about (Wilson's claim) is the sense of naiveté,'' says Tim Garner, who teaches high school history in Ankeny, Iowa. "We're weary after Iraq and Afghanistan. I can't imagine any politician now saying what Wilson said with a straight face.'''

And in some ways Wilson, a Democrat, wasn't much of a democrat. As James Loewen and others have shown, he was an outspoken white supremacist who promoted segregation of the federal workforce even as he championed the cause of national self-determination abroad.

Myth: The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, including reparations, were so harsh that they ensured the rise of Nazism in Germany.

Reality: The terms weren't exceptionally punitive -- no more so than those that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, notes Chris Mauriello, a Salem (Mass.) State University historian.

But to justify the staggering human and financial cost of the war, French and British leaders exaggerated the treaty's severity for domestic political consumption. So did the Nazis, who used resentment of the treaty to help seize power.

Which shows that while we all may share the same history, we put it to different uses.

Hampson reports for USA TODAY from its New York bureau.

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