by Sarah Masih
On July 28 the Great War was declared 106 years ago in 1914. On this special occasion, I had the honor to speak with Professor William Keylor, one of the most accomplished historians in the country. He is Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University.
Professor Keylor has authored nine textbooks on history including The Twentieth-Century World and Beyond: An International History since 1900 (2011) and The Legacy of The Great War: Peacemaking 1919 (1997).
He has served four consecutive terms as Chairman of the Department of History at Boston University (1988-2000), Acting Chair, Department of International Relations (2009), and Director of the International History Institute since 1999.
Q1. The assassination of the heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary sparked off The Great War. Why was Franz Ferdinand assassinated? How did it lead to the declaration of war?
A man named Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz and his wife. His death outraged Austria-Hungary, and then along with Germany, they declared war on Serbia. Soon after, Germany declared war on Russia, was supporting Serbia- then France was invaded through Belgium, which all led to Britain declaring war on Germany.
Then, Germany drowned a few American ships, which angered Congress, and eventually, the war was declared.
Q2. The war was fought with the Central Powers on one side and the Allied Forces on the other. So, who were the participants of this war? What were the reasons for the other countries to join the war?
Germany, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, known as the Central Powers, went to war against Great Britains, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States, the Allied Powers.
When the war started a secret agreement was signed between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. However, Italy didn’t show up, and later during the war, Italy joined the opposing side.
The U.S wasn’t originally involved in the war, however, when German submarines started sinking American ships, Congress declared war on Germany.
In the meantime, the Russin Royal House had been overthrown. This movement was led by Alexander Kerensky, a Russian lawyer, who was born on May 4, 1881, and died in June 1970.
However, he also taught a graduate program at Standford University, where I got to meet him.
At the same time, uprisings were happening in India. This was when India was still a British colony. Germany asked for India’s support, however, they refused. Mahatma Gandhi knew they would benefit more if they supported Great Britain.
Q3. Your book, The Legacy of The Great War: Peacemaking, 1919, starts with the Paris Peace Conference where the Treaty of Versailles was drawn up. What was discussed at this conference? Why was this conference so significant?
The Treaty of Versailles was drafted by the Congress of Versailles. However, while the United States President Woodrow Wilson personally signed the treaty, the Senate refused to ratify it.
Two years later, the United States formally ended its argument with Germany. Along with the treaty, countries also came to form the League of Nations, which similar to modern-day United Nations. However, the United States never officially joined the League of Nations, due to opposition from Congress.
(Follow up question) Could you also elaborate upon Article 231 of the treaty which resulted in the Central Powers paying heavy war reparations?
Article 231 also known as the War Guilt Clause held Germany responsible for all the damage that had been caused because of World War I. It forced Germany to pay reparations for recovery.
Q4. The book also tells about the heads of states (like Georges Clemenceau of France) of the participating countries. Could you tell our readers about their stances and what they were seeking as reparations?
Countries like France suffered terribly, so they pressed hard for reparations. The Germans did pay some money, but not very much. The Prime Minister of Great Britain on the other hand wasn’t very forceful. Since Britain was an island, it wasn’t damaged much, therefore he only asked for a small amount of money.
Q5. If you had to summarise the ‘legacy of the war’, what are some of the most important impacts that this war had? What lessons did we learn from it?
This war gave people hope for the future. With the amount of destruction, money-loss, and deaths, people thought that this would be the last war ever. A term called “World to end war” was commonly used to describe this war. Little did they know, just 21 years later World War 2 would start.
At the end of the war, there was an Influenza outbreak. This epidemic was known as the Spanish flu. This was so that neither side would be blamed for the disease in future years. Spain was neutral between both sides, so calling it the ‘Spanish Flu’ wouldn’t cause conspiracy theories about either side in the future.
Q6. We see more books and movies nowadays throwing light on the Second World War. What made you interested in writing on the legacy of the first world war?
I was born in August 1944 near the end of World War II, so I don’t have a personal connection with WWI. Though, my father fought in World War II.
I am a historian, so I like studying in the past. Initially, it was the Great War that caught my interest. I was fascinated by optimism in that era. There was so much hope, that wars had ended for good, which seems naive today but it held great significance to people of that time.
Q7. Your book is a part of a series- “Problems in European civilization”. Could you give our readers a brief about the series? What is it all about?
The series were collections of essays or short stories talking about issues in Europe. His book was on World War I. Though, I never got a chance to read the other books, they’re probably on similar topics.
Q8. As a historian, what message or advice would you like to give our readers and the historians of tomorrow reading this article from across the world?
Do what you can, in your little way to prevent another war. I think that if another World War happens, it is almost inevitable that countries like the U.S, Russia, French, etc will use nuclear weapons. Those nuclear weapons could destroy human civilization the way we know it. Therefore, we must prevent war and conflict in the ways that we can.