Closer Readings Commentary

Leadership and Legacy in WWI

Last week, we wrote about resources available to teachers and students who want to explore WWI in some depth. Because National History Day’s 2015 topic is “Leadership and Legacy,” we’re devoting this week’s blog to some ideas for the upcoming school year. NHD has developed a list of 100 figures in world history—and more than a few of them can be related in one way or another to the causes, the course, or the consequences of the Great War.

Let’s begin with a salient quote from the author of a new book, The War that Ended the Peace: historian Margaret MacMillan. In a related essay for the Brookings Institution, The Rhyme of History, she writes: “With different leadership World War I might have been avoided. Europe in 1914 needed a Bismarck or a Churchill with the strength of character to stand up to pressure and the capacity to see the large strategic picture. Instead the key powers had weak, divided, or distracted leaders.” (Emphasis added.)

In the above quote, this distinguished historian has given us a kind of key to understanding crucial aspects of political leadership: “strength of character” (or political courage) and big picture “strategic thinking.” These moral and intellectual qualities are not ones that students normally read about in their history textbooks though they are the stuff of good biographies. In her study , MacMillan shows the importance of good and bad political leadership yet warns that due to the complexity of events there are limits to what even the most prudent and far-sighted human beings can foresee and achieve through politics and war.

ABC’s of leadership: Atatürk, Bismarck, and Churchill

There are any number of relevant historical figures whose leadership students might choose to study, many of whom, such as Otto von Bismarck and Winston Churchill appear in the Chronicling America database or EDSITEment’s vetted websites such as The Churchill Centre.*

In Chronicling America, one can find articles about the role the memory of Otto van Bismarck’s leadership played in the minds of German war soldiers. Students will be astonished to learn that Bismarck predicted that if Europe went to war it would be over “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.” While according to Macmillan, he had the courage and the foresight necessary to avoid antagonizing Germany’s neighbors, Russian and France, he was also removed in 1890 from office by the young Kaiser Wilhelm, who then proceeded to establish a foreign policy of Weltpolitk (World Policy) that only succeeded in antagonizing the other great European powers.

Power was understood in terms of naval superiority in those days. One of the most influential books on the subject The Influence of Sea Power Upon History by the American historian Alfred Thayer Mahan was devoured by world leaders. One of the Kaiser’s goals was to build a navy to rival that of Great Britain’s, which led to a worldwide naval arms race.

Winston Churchill, a rising star of the Liberal Party, served in the British war cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1915, he hatched a daring plan to break the stalemate on the Western front by invading Turkey through the straights of the Dardanelles. The poor implementation of his plan at the Battle of Gallipoli was such a disaster that it almost ended his political career. Imagine what that might have meant for the future of Europe! Without Churchill’s “blood, sweat, and tears” leadership in WWII, would the British nation have stood up to Hitler?

It was in that same Gallipoli campaign that undid Churchill (at least for a time) that a Turkish officer led his army to victory. Mustafa Kemal later called Atatürk (“father of the Turks”) became such a legend for his victories against the Western powers in WWI that he rose to fame as the founder of the Republic of Turkey, the first secular Islamic state.

These are but a few famous examples of leadership and legacy, however. Another way to study this theme in WWI would be by looking at the coverage in Chronicling America of the political leaders: Woodrow Wilson (United States), Lloyd George (Great Britain), George Clemenceau (France), Czar Nicolas (Russia), and the Vladimir Lenin (Soviet Union)—any one of whom would make excellent subjects for a yearlong project. There are also the great military figures such as John Pershing (United States), Marshall Foch (France), and T.E. Lawrence, the legendary “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Tune in for more blog posts from Closer Readings on the Great War during its centennial. In the meantime, we thought to end with a burst of multimedia pizazz, the new mini-sites: The Great War: A 100 Year Legacy of World War I from the New York Times and Legacies of World War I from the Wall Street Journal.

*A note on searching historical resources: Student need to be aware that in addition to the statesman, there was also a very popular contemporary American novelist named Winston Churchill. To complicate matters even more, the statesman Winston S. Churchill wrote one novel, Savrola, and many nonfiction books and articles.