Category Archives: Historiography

The problem is less one of forgetting the past and its meaning than of remembering the wrong things about it and drawing the wrong lessons from it. The characterization of “Greatest Generation” is a good example of a myth that, in Walter Lippmann’s phrase, is well meaning but unmeaning.

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America in World War II

 

Time for a New Field: World War Studies

British infantry at El Alamein, 1942

British infantry at El Alamein, 1942

The study of the world wars is defined in most British Universities as “War Studies”

It is time that we in the US begin to recognize the importance of the wars as an independent field of study that incorporates American History, European History, World History, Military History, Economics, and Political Science. The war was a nexus that fundamentally altered all fields, and it deserves its own discipline. For lack of a better phrase, I prefer “World War Studies,” and will use that as a working phrase going forward.

Now that we have given it a term, we need to define scope. World War Studies (WWS for brevity’s sake) should certainly encompass the entire First World War, from the period preceding the war (in which are rooted its primary causes) to the treaty at Versailles. Likewise, it should encompass the period between the German-Soviet invasion of Poland through the signing of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.

But is that enough?

What is too often convenient for we Americans to forget is that the conflict did not end when the guns on the Western Front went silent on November 11, 1918. Indeed, out of the physical, human, and psychic wreckage of The Great War and its aftermath emerged a series of conflicts that set the stage for War Two. A partial list of the conflicts raging between the World Wars would include:

  • Greater Poland Uprising (1918-9)
  • Polish-Ukranian War (1918-9)
  • Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919)
  • Polish-Czech War (1919)
  • US Border War (1916-1919)
  • Estonian War of Independence (1918-20)
  • Lithuanian Wars of Independence (1918-20)
  • Franco-Syrian War (1920)
  • Iraqi Revolt (1920)
  • Turkish-Armenian War (1920)
  • Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-21)
  • Silesian Uprisings (1919-21)
  • Irish War of Independence (1919-21)
  • Polish-Soviet War (1919-21)
  • Franco-Turkish War (1920-1)
  • Russian Civil War (1917-22)
  • Turkish War of Independence (1919-22)
  • Sheikh Said Rebellion (1925)
  • Cristero War (1926-9)
  • Ararat Rebellion (1927-30)
  • Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1931)
  • Chaco War (1932-5)
  • Second Italo-Abyssinain War (1935-6)
  • Chinese Civil War (1927-1936)
  • German Annexation of Austria (1938)
  • German Remilitarization of the Rhineland (1936)
  • Spanish Civil War (1936-9)
  • Arab Revolt (1936-9)
  • German Invasion of Czechoslovakia (1939)
  • Slovak-Hungarian War (1939)
  • Soviet-Japanese Border Conflict (1932-1941)
  • Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)
  • Finnish-Soviet War (1939-40)

Viewed against the full panorama of the interwar era, the importance of seeing that period as more than just a pregnant pause between the two wider wars becomes evident. Neither the First World War itself, nor the Armistace, nor the Versailles Treaty resolved the issues between the combatants. Indeed, those events instigated two decades of civil, local, and regional fights that coalesced and escalated between 1939 and 1941 into a global conflagration.

What we are left with, then, is a global conflict that began in 1914 and continued at different levels of intensity and great-power participation until at least 1945. For the nonce, then, this is how we will approach our study, seeing them all as a single integrated conflict.

At the moment we shall refrain from including the Cold War in WWS. I’ll explain why in a later post.

A Thought to Start the New Year

Given that history – and historiography – as we know them – were really only developed in the 18th century, on what basis do we judge histories composed before that time?

I know that’s not particularly relevant for this site, but it has come up lately, and it makes on think: how do we futureproof our histories against the evolution of historiography?

A revisionist wants to know…

 

The Tyranny of the Main Effort

Visiting the National Air and Space Museum last month, we were surprised to see a new film about D-Day in the Museum’s IMAX Theater. Opting for a double-feature with “Mission to Hubble,” we bought tickets for “D-Day 3D: Normandy 1944.” The fill was was well-produced, as you would expect from IMAX, and served as a fine general introduction to Operation OVERLORD for those only vaguely familiar with the events on and around June 6th, 1944.

The film itself – along with the more recent remembrances around the 70th Anniversary of the landings – struck a bit of a raw nerve, one that drives this blog and has not yet been fully articulated. Let me explain.

The popular history of World War II – and, really, of modern conflict in general – suffers from what I call “Main Effort Disorder,” which I define as our innate desire to capture a single linear narrative and use it to describe or explain an entire conflict. For WWII, we have two separate but interlocked main-effort narratives. The first is what I will call the “Second Front Narrative,” that runs from the Fall of France, to the Battle of Britain, to the fight against the Afrika Korps in North Africa, the Invasion of Sicily, Anzio, D-Day in Normandy, the Bulge, Hürtgen Forest, to the Rhine and German Surrender. The second narrative, the War in the Pacific, starts with Pearl Harbor, goes to Midway, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Micronesia, Leyte, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Okinawa, and Hiroshima.

Now, if you are like me, you are probably already sitting up and hollering “but what about…” Indeed. But there you have the problem. The thrust of our history attempts to explain the entire war in the course of about 20 to 24 major events or campaigns. Of course that is oversimplified: this was, in fact, a World War. The narratives themselves are not wrong per se, and even awareness of thee events is discouragingly rare among those who never lived through it (read: anyone born after 1944.)

But we are in danger of allowing future generations to oversimplify, misunderstand, and misinterpret the conflict that forged the modern world. We cannot allow that: such misinterpretation invites the repetition of mistakes that we as a nation and as humanity can ill-afford to make.

For that reason it is time for us to stop repackaging into neat two-volume sets the entirety of World War Two, much less the entire twenty-one year spasm that wracked the planet between the Guns of August and V-J Day. As historians we have to stand up and say that World War II was neither simple nor boring. Its corer narratives offer a brilliant story, but the real insights come from the incredible stories and events that happened off the beaten path.

This is essential: anyone who understands the Churchillian story of the Second World War can look at the Main Effort narratives and still be utterly mystified that the world turned out the way it did. The key to understanding the events that followed in the four decades after 1945 does not lay in the main effort: rather, it lies in the stories that are almost always overlooked when someone talks about World War Two, and an argument can be made that these things return to bite us precisely because we have forgotten to talk about them, to understand the history, and to address where it took the region.

If those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it, we have failed as a people to understand World War Two, and some form of incremental repetition awaits. Our Job as historians is to head that off. And so we embark on exposing the bits and pieces of the grand conflict that add understanding to the world we live in today.