McMaster’s War: Research into the Causes of World War I

While working on the papers of pioneering U.S. historian John Bach McMaster this past month, I found myself combing through a section of research material he used while writing about World War I: specifically, a series of documents produced during the lead-up to the American decision to join the side of the Triple Entente against the Central Powers. Although World War I occupies only a small part of our national imagination—certainly as compared to the gigantic position of World War II—this year, the hundred year anniversary of the Great War’s end, seems a particularly timely position from which to assess the causes and effects of the war, and the dialogue which grew up around it—and John B. McMaster, one if the first historians to embrace social history, provides an excellent perspective from which to examine them.

One of McMaster’s pioneering contributions to American history was his use of newspaper material to provide social context for political changes. This sort of source is so commonplace now that it hardly seems revolutionary, but for McMaster, writing about the U.S. entry into the Great War barely a few years after the event in question, providing material from the daily papers that his readers might have read themselves must have seemed remarkably forward-thinking. And the newspaper clippings showing how the war was communicated to readers at home are certainly remarkable, especially the detailed maps describing the various offensives:

But, for all the historical value that might rest in examining the maps that the American people themselves examined during the war, I was particularly interested in a much different sort of map that I discovered among McMaster’s research material: one far less interested in accurate reportage:

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From the pages of Life, this highly partisan and often hilarious (Weinerschnitzelplatz? Heidelbergapolis?) map of what might happen to the United States if it didn’t enter the war on the Allied side gives a sense of how highly mobilized the pro-war propaganda effort was in the lead-up to America’s final  decision.

(The use of a Germanized map of America also has disturbing resonance with the later harassment of German-Americans, who made up a large percentage of the American population, and, especially in the case of many Midwestern farming communities, gave their settlements Germanic names.)

Much of McMaster’s research file is geared towards America’s entry into the war and, more specifically, the various arguments marshaled by the Triple Entente and the Central Powers to place blame on each other for starting the conflict. Some, like this omnibus publication of national statements from the New York Times, strained to maintain some sense of objectivity, at least in presentation.

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Although the papers inside of it did not, as this bold German pamphlet makes clear. (The delightful nicknames which the rulers of Europe gave each other gives this a kind of gossip-roundup flavor: the “Willy,” “George,” and “Nicky” correspondence.)

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But some publications were more nakedly partisan in their intentions, like this oh-so-scarlet pamphlet produced by the Entente, which purports to parse the overwhelming evidence of wartime wickedness amongst the Teutonic hordes.

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That being said, the amount of public debate regarding the preparation for war contained here is remarkable, not for its virulence (which would not be out of place today) but for its nuance. Even publications one might have expected to be partisan, like the Illustrated London News, presented several subsets of war reporting in their initial “War” issue that might seem counter-productive to national mobilization efforts, like a section on the “war cloud” over international finance and a spread on the might of the German navy.

 

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Though a photo calling the German emperor a “war lord” might foreshadow the growing nationalist propaganda to come. (After all, the Kaiser had been relatively pacifistic in the lead-up to the war, and complained that he only heard about a major attack on Verdun from the newspapers; the myth of a uniquely belligerent and autocratic Germany would only grow after the armistice.) But even here, note the precise description of the federal military system within the German empire: clearly the readers of the Illustrated London News wanted a firm grounding in the particularities of wartime statecraft!

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Overall, these materials reflect how the onset of World War I reflected a mass readership eager for as much information about the war as the newly muscular mass media could provide. Some of it was crudely propagandist, but—especially in the opening years of the war—much of it expressed a level of nuance nearly unthinkable in our current age of hyper-partisan, image-first media saturation.

Perhaps McMaster’s interest in the newspaper as a historical source reflected the state of print journalism as he was coming into his own as a historian. Certainly this small repository shows the wide variety of social and historical conclusions one could draw from the print sources of the time, especially when they trained their collective powers on the first great military conflagration of the modern era.

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