- Turning Points of World War I: An Interview with Ian F.W. Beckett
AS WE APPROACH THE CENTENARY OF THE OUTBREAK OF World War I, there will be no dearth of books dealing with the conflict. And in these pages we will be highlighting some of the best of these, especially those that look at the war in a new light. In The Making of the First World War (Yale University Press, 2013) Ian F.W. Beckett discusses twelve pivotal moments that not only changed the outcome of the war, but also the global history of the 20th century. Senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed Beckett in January 2013.
Would you provide our readers with a summary of what you are doing inThe Making of the First World War?
I was asked to comment on a manuscript suggesting various turning points in the Second World War. While they were clearly significant, the chosen events were all either political or military, and of immediate impact. I suggested that one should look beyond purely political and military episodes. I was then invited, or rather challenged, to show what I meant in terms of the Great War. Accordingly, I am trying to illustrate a broad range of events between 1914 and 1919 that might be considered important turning points or pivotal moments, not just at the precise moment they occurred but also for the future unfolding of historical events. I also wanted to illustrate social and cultural themes, and to be consciously global rather than purely Eurocentric in my choices.
How did you go about selecting the episodes you discuss in the book?
I began with a fairly long list and whittled it down in the end to twelve illustrative episodes. Some events of lasting global significance had to be included, such as the fall of the Romanovs, the division of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East—I deal with Turkish entry to the war in 1914 as well as the Balfour Declaration in 1917—and Woodrow Wilson’s impact on peacemaking. I felt that what might be termed “decisive battles”—and even more so the opening days of prolonged campaigns— were a cul-de-sac to avoid. Consider the continuing popular British obsession with July 1, 1916, the opening day of the battle of the Somme. This has had a cultural impact in Britain, but only since the 1960s; the Anzac landing on Gallipoli in April 1915 had a cultural impact at the time, and it continues to this day in terms of Australian perceptions. I also wanted to illustrate aspects of the “totality” of the war such as economic mobilization and the ways in which civilians became legitimate targets for attack. I wanted to choose some less obvious events, such as the Belgians opening the floodgates to close off the last open sector of what was to become the Western Front in 1914. The symbolism of the death of Emperor Franz Joseph also seemed an interesting case to examine. Above all, I wanted to provoke a debate on what constitutes historical turning points that might be useful for students as well as interesting to general readers.
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What prompted you to write this particular book on World War I?
I had more or less decided that I had written enough on the First World War after completing the second edition of my general text, The Great War, 1914–18, in 2007. But it is such a fascinating and complex conflict that I though it worth revisiting one more time, and it seemed a way perhaps of reaching an audience that would not have been necessarily exposed to some of the academic revisionism that has revolutionized historians’ views of the war in the last decade or so. In Britain in particular there is still this popular image of futility that needs to be challenged.
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