Teaching World War I, 100 Years Later

August 28, 1914. On the western front, the Germans capture Fort Manoviller. September 6, 1914, the Battle of the Marne begins. October 5, British naval brigades reach Antwerp. This year marks the centennial of World War I, and this semester students in Scott Wolford’s course, “World War I in Real Time,” will be doing just that, following the events of the First World War as they happened 100 years ago.

A big goal of the course: to impart in students that history is a product of people’s choices. As Wolford wrote on his blog while prepping the course over the summer, “With plans wrecked, opponents adjusting, and the strategic picture in remarkable flux, what will the generals, the soldiers, the statesmen, and the home fronts do in response?“

A key objective is for students to grasp theoretical concepts to apply to everything they learn as the war proceeds. Wolford applies a game-theoretic model to the unfolding war, often resulting in a canvas on which is painted a picture of combatants facing tragic incentives with few good choices. This is found to be particularly true regarding World War I’s horrifying images of attrition and trench warfare.

Through their study, students will gain insight into the dilemmas of strategic behavior and interaction. In the case of trench warfare, Wolford finds that while horribly tragic, if one side were to let up, the other side truly would have been able to break through, and therefore, militarily, it was the best response.

The course, being taught for the first time, seeks to give students a broad view of politics through the lens of one big, important case. As students read the history, Wolford will put forth puzzles for why something happened, setting up simple, game-theoretic models for what happened, with an eye toward presenting a unified theory of politics – theoretical tools that can be used to simultaneously explain military decisions in the field and domestic labor bargains being struck at home.

Ultimately, the study of the war is a device to teach students about numerous aspects of international relations and theories of politics, all while gifting a deeper appreciation for history and a more organized method of sorting and framing historical facts. Three written exams will test students’ understanding of the theories under investigation.

But, one might ask, can we really use the seemingly most unique historical event to teach students general theories of politics? Wolford insists the answer is yes. He points out, for example, that the war began with an assassination by cross-border militants, and in that sense is disturbingly modern.

“World War I is an outlier with extreme values, but at its core, it is not much different from the rest of politics; the forces at work are the same,” he says. “Ultimately,” he continues, “I want students to break with one way they maybe think about history. Nothing about war is inevitable. Nothing about politics is inevitable. History is contingent. Outcomes are always a product of choice. And it is harder to judge what people have done as a mistake or malevolent if you look seriously at the options they had.”

The class meets Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and was born out of discussion among colleagues following the Department of Government’s monthly international relations workshop, where faculty and graduate students present working papers. Wolford’s book, The Politics of Military Coalitions, is under contract with Cambridge University Press.