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New Scholarship on World War I, 2000–2014: The Spirit of 1914 Debate

By Frederic Krome

The Spirit of 1914 Debate

The old conventional wisdom that men across Europe enthusiastically flocked to the colors has been overturned by two decades of scholarship.  Dissent, it turns out, was a palpable force in the summer of 1914 (and throughout the war years), and the numbers of those who embraced war were often exaggerated.  However, it is not enough merely to overthrow the old gods; they must be replaced by a new understanding, for there is still the fact that many men did volunteer and endured years of hardship without breaking.  Jeffrey Verhey’s The Spirit of 1914: Militarism, Myth and Mobilization in Germany was one of the earliest books to confront the myth, and it reveals some startling facts about German militarism—in particular, that it was most popular among university students.  Catriona Pennell, in A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland, considers how the diverse areas of the British Isles responded to the war, and in the process demonstrates how comparative history can be done effectively.  For a Europe-wide perspective, Michael S. Neiberg’s Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I is essential reading.  Neiberg’s analysis is in line with the previously mentioned studies, but he provides a broad European context.  Recent research indicates a lack of war enthusiasm, challenging previous interpretations but also requiring students of history to ask why men volunteered, and why they endured for so long.

Works Cited