Toward the Age of Peoples’ War: The Civil War to World War I

neiberg
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army War College

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Michael Neiberg, the newly appointed, inaugural Chair of War Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA.  An internationally recognized historian of World Wars I and II, Dr. Neiberg formerly served as the Henry L. Stinson Chair of History in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College.  His scholarship focuses on the American and French experiences in the two world wars and seeks to make the history of warfare and international relations relevant to policy makers and practitioners.  He is the author of numerous monographs, including Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (Harvard University Press, 2011, named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top five best books ever written about the war) and Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe (Basic Books, 2015).  His most recent work, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016.

CWI:  How did warfare change (militarily, politically, and/or culturally) between the American Civil War and World War I?  What were the impacts of those changes on the respective home fronts?

NEIBERG:  The biggest change involved the industrialization of war, which enabled exponential expansion in the scale and scope of war. I think one of the biggest impacts of this slow, evolutionary change was that most people on the home front didn’t see it happening. Thus when the battles of 1914 produced exponentially higher casualties, home fronts were both stunned by the price of war and insistent that their governments achieve something worthy of that cost.

CWI: In what ways did the Civil War contribute to/anticipate the heightened levels of bloodshed during World War I and what many now refer to as the “modern era” of warfare?

NEIBERG: This may be a sacrilegious thing to say to CWI, but I don’t think that it did. Few Europeans really paid attention to the American Civil War and, as I said above, the scale and scope had vastly increased. Most Europeans were more focused on wars like the Russo-Japanese War where, they thought, casualties had been high, but decisive battles were still possible. The American Civil War suggested attrition, something few Europeans saw as a war winning strategy in 1914.

CWI:  What similarities and/or differences do you see in how the Civil War and World War I have been remembered (or mis-remembered)?  What do you think accounts for those similarities and/or differences?

NEIBERG:  In both cases, history and memory have blended with politics and the events that have come since. For the U.S. I think this has meant a divided memory between the north and south. In a generally unifying Europe, by contrast, it has led over time to a shared continental memory that undercuts the regional and national ones.

If you are interested in hearing more from Michael Neiberg and other distinguished historians, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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