Wednesday, February 22, 2017

World War I On My Mind

At my school we have five short terms instead of two semesters, which allows more room for short electives. I'm teaching a class starting tomorrow on World War I, at long last.

World War I was the historical event that first got me into history. I picked up a book about it at the school library at the age of 9, and I was shocked and intrigued by the images. Some of them still stick with me, like Gavrilo Princip being mobbed after his assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, with quaintly dressed police with swords and fezes in the shot. 

Or a photo of a corpse with its face eaten away, but its hand held up to shield from certain death.

I was a morbid child, what can I say? 

It is an event that still fascinates me above all others, even if I never ended up making it the subject of my dissertation. As my course prep has shown me, too much time spent in this world of useless death and suffering makes me too depressed. I am not capable of immersing myself in the trenches with any sense of emotional remove.

In this year of our Lord 2017, I also feel the pull of World War I in different ways. It was a truly cataclysmic event, one that broke empires, inspired revolutions, and sent Victorian notions of culture and propriety to the grave. It was the ultimate catalyst for the 20th century in all its feats and horrors. I feel that I am now living in times more tumultuous than I have ever witnessed in my lifetime. To paraphrase Marx, all that is solid is melting into air. The post-1945 international order looks doomed. Our president is a kleptocratic ruler (not office holder) who does not adhere to the norms of democracy. Nationalism of the worst kind is on the march around the world, from America to Russia to France to India. 

I can feel the tectonic plates of history shifting, as surely as the Red Guards felt them in Petrograd in 1917 or the Arab army when it took Damascus. I do not know where it will end, and I seriously don't feel like I have any control over it. We have been cast into the whirlwind, I only hope it will be without as much bloodshed this time.

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