For those born after WWII, that war seems to dominate our view of 20th century history. It was only after I read some scholar’s comment that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc from 1989-1990 was the final echo of World War I, did I begin to study WWI in earnest. What spurred my interest still further was the realization that the map of Europe after the collapse of the Soviet bloc is almost identical to that of Europe prior to WWI!
If you look at the world depicted in James Cameron’s Titanic, you get a glimpse of the world prior to WWI – a world in which monarchies and the aristocracy still exerted significant influence; every nation with the exception of France initially involved in the conflict were either absolute or constitutional monarchies. The world was so drastically changed as a consequence of WWI that I believe future historians might identify WWI as the significant geo-political event of the 20th century. Not only did it put paid to hereditary monarchies and aristocracy, but it further entrenched the concept of modern “total war” which has been the pattern of warfare ever since, including the activities of current global and local terrorist organizations. (Commander of the WWI German Zeppelin Corps, Peter Strasser stated “We who strike the enemy where his heart beats have been slandered as ‘baby killers’ … Nowadays, there is no such animal as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare”)
In literature, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a must-read. However there are two excellent and highly complementary documentaries readily available that have helped to fill in the blanks in my knowledge of WWI.
The first is a 10-part 2003 series, The First World War produced by the BBC and based on the book by Oxford professor Hew Strachan. This series does an excellent job of portraying the truly global nature of the conflict, rather than concentrating on the trench warfare in Europe.
The second series is World War I – The Great War, a 26-episode 1964 joint production of the Imperial War Museum, the BBC, and the Canadian and Australian Broadcasting Corporations. This production bears more than a passing resemblance to the 25-part BBC documentary The World At War, in no small part because it was made when many WWI participants were still alive and could provide first-person eyewitness accounts of the events of the war. In addition this series gives great emphasis on the public attitudes and the social and economic forces of the combatants that all played a part in the conflict.
Both documentary series are available in their entirety on YouTube.