Closer Readings Commentary

The 100th Anniversary of the Great War

June 28 is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a young Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This terrorist act started a series of events which, over the course of 37 days, led to the greatest conflict between the European powers that the world had yet seen. To commemorate the centenary, we are dedicating this entry to the first of what we hope will be a series on the causes, course, and consequences of the war pointing out exemplary resources, old and new, and EDSITEment lesson plans, as appropriate.

An authoritative starting point and overview

Students will encounter many sites on the Internet that contain information on the war, but some are clearly better than others. It’s important for them to begin with an authoritative overview, one that covers the most important facts and interpretations, is well organized, visually appealing, and guided by sound scholarship. The NEH-funded website, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, based on the award-winning, eight-part television series, gets high marks in all these categories. (The entire series is available from various channels on YouTube.)

Straight off, students will learn an important fact about nomenclature: that WWI was called the European War at the beginning and then the Great War. It was not until WWII that this terminology changed.  

On The Great War website they will be able to access multimedia maps and battles, a glossary containing the important academic vocabulary of the subject, an annotated scholarly bibliography and a range of historians speaking from diverse national and international perspectives. Careful review of this site will broaden and deepen their understanding of the context and significance of this event which diplomat George Kennan called the “great seminal catastrophe of [the 20th] century—the event which … lay at the heart of the failure and decline of this Western civilization.”

Five easy pieces from Chronicling America

Once students have been enlightened by the website, they can turn to Chronicling America database,a site supported by a long running partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress to digitize millions of pages of historic U.S. newspapers.

One easy way to introduce your students to this free, electronic database is with the five articles below, which range from the assassination that sparked the war, through the U.S. entry in 1917, to the war’s official end.

A suggested selection of articles on WWI includes:

Chronicling America also has a cool feature, “100 Years Ago Today,” which can be used to follow the course of the four year long war. And if that’s not enough, students can also read about the six-month Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Woodrow Wilson’s leadership at that conference, and his ill-fated attempt to rally support for the Versailles treaty and the League of Nations.

The shaping of public opinion in Chronicling America

Present day students might be surprised at the role public opinion and the medium of newspapers played in the war in both Europe and America. Newspapers of this period, often called the “Golden Age of Journalism,” have very distinct and pronounced editorial points of view. Some were highly partisan, yet others strove for as much objectivity as possible.

Public opinion, in so far as we can know it, was reflected and shaped in these newspapers and because Chronicling America is so rich in local and state newspapers helps students to see what was national and what was local in the way news was reported.  Students should be directed to the “about” feature for each newspaper. Here they will find a capsule profile of the paper’s history and editorial policy written by the historians and archivist. (To access this feature, click on the hyperlink title at the top of any newspaper page. The “about” section appears in the right hand column.)

To show the major positions of American public opinion, EDSITEment has published a new Common Core-aligned lesson, Chronicling America: Uncovering a World at War. This lesson provides students with the tools to analyze primary source newspaper articles printed from 1914 through 1917, enabling them to better appreciate and understand the role of public opinion and newspapers regarding the U.S. entry into WWI from multiple perspectives and to practice thinking critically about the variety of opinion available in this medium.

Coming next week: Leadership and Legacy in World War One