Why do Europeans obsess about World War I?

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". When it comes to World Wars it's World War II that captures American imaginations. Maybe it's the passage of time, but it just seems that World War I is hard for Americans to get excited about. In popular memory, the First World War is bookended by the colossal sacrifices of the Civil War and the heroism of the greatest generation of World War II, not to mention so many recent troubles to process. Can we really cope with memories of a bygone war? In Europe though it's different story where the war began a hundred years ago this summer. In a couple of minutes we'll hear a story from Belgium where the nation is going all-out on commemorating the First World War. But first to The World's history guy, Chris Woolf. He's here to help us get a handle on why the First World War is such a big deal. Why do you think, first of all, there are these different takes about the importance of World War I, Chris?

Christopher Woolf: Well, first of all, Marco, it's a bit difficult for me to generalize about two continents' points of view. There's so many competing narratives. So I'm going to give you a bit more of a personal take, and it really comes down to three big things. Scale, obviously it was much bigger in Europe, much more European participation than American. The losses were so much more in Europe. The kind of memory of the kind of futility of it and the nature of the fighting and what was going on, and just then the huge transformation of everything from popular culture, language, society, economy, politics, borders, and identity. Just think in terms of English, the change in their language that you have, suddenly using phrases like "going over the top", "stuck in the trenches in no man's land", or just "being left hanging".

Werman: Well, I know "stuck in the trenches in no man's land". What's "left hanging"?

Woolf: You're left hanging on the barbed wire. You're stuck in no man's land. You're in a bit of a pickle.

Werman: You know, talking about war, we should also talk about peace because it strikes me when I was watching Downton Abbey there are all these references to the boys injured coming back to England and there's a real kind of transformation of people saying, "War is not good."

Woolf: Yeah, I think it's like one of those transformative events is this perception of war as, let's not beat around the bush, it's a bad thing. Before World War I people were saying, "It's great. It's patriotic. It's manly." You look at the literature of the time, it's very Rudyard Kipling, [??] Empire and all that. And then after the war it's a complete change. You're looking at he war poets, the kind of "all quiet on the western front" genre of literature that kind that of is across Europe and very much less-present in America just because Americans were so much less involved.

Werman: So when you say "pointless" I think it goes to that kind of sense that, again back to Downton Abbey, it really does kind of pick up on the sense of "War is futile. What are we doing this for?"

Woolf: Yeah, I mean it has accentuated in World War I because at that time military technology favors the defensive, so it's really hard to break through and move the front line. So basically that means in large parts of Europe, not everywhere, men are pretty much fighting over the same ground for month after month, year after year, and I don't want to unsettle people's minds, but just think what that means. The casualties are still all around you for months and years.

Werman: And as anybody who's ever visited Flanders in Belgium knows, those casualties are still right underneath your feet.

Woolf: Yeah, acre after acre of them.

Werman: The World's Chris Woolf. Thank you.

Woolf: You're welcome, Marco.