Intellectuals and World War I

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Course Description: 

On the eve of the Great War the educated classes of the Habsburg and Romanov Empires remained a tiny elite, even if the universities had begun to facilitate upward social mobility, and more functions for the "intellectual" were gradually taking form. This course explores themes connecting intellectuals and the formative experiences of the wider European war. The "mobilization of intellect" involved more than literary figures offering patriotic rationales for victory. We seek to understand how the war accelerated prior trends or initiated new ones in various cultural domains, and what legacies the war had for intellectual life after Trianon and Brest-Litovsk.

In this course we will spend most of our time on the "home front." It is true that many intellectuals became cannon fodder at the front, and on occasion this would later feed into growing popular cynicism about how the war was being prosecuted. But intellectuals qua soldiers are marginal to our enterprise here, while at the same time we need to understand that their domestic roles extended beyond sustaining (or, more rarely, criticizing) ruling and/or popular views of the war. The war haltingly facilitated new forms of expertise, even if it did not yield a total mobilization in this respect. But insofar as the war contributed to our understanding of the role of the intellectual in modern society, we shall cast our nets widely.

A few caveats: political, diplomatic, and military history are marginal to this course. And even insofar as our focus is on culture, I take it as crucial to the objectives of this course that we study more than "high culture" and the avant-garde. Our focus will be on Central and Eastern Europe, and reference to the British and French experiences will largely be limited to any historiographical lessons we might take from the vast literature on the Western Front. The German (not to say Austrian) case will loom somewhat larger for pragmatic reasons, if only because a larger secondary literature in English can provide us with points of entry for topics still inadequately represented in English for the regional languages that concern us. There will be a slight bias toward the Romanov Empire due to the instructor's particular expertise, but Czech, Polish, Austrian, Hungarian, and (resources permitting) Ukrainian readings are also crucial to the scope of the course.

List of topics:

  1. Generations
  2. Mere intellectuals
  3. Purity, utility, and unity: Scientist and citizen in the modern state
  4. Timekeeping and military logistics
  5. We alone are the face of our time
  6. Art must be unexpected
  7. Beyond "the ideas of 1914"
  8. Beyond "the ideas of 1914" (II)
  9. Philosophy militant
  10. Raw materials and total war
  11. Geologists at war
  12. The chemists' war
  13. The war in the air hydrodynamic fluids
  14. On the medical front
  15. Trauma
  16. Measuring public opinion
  17. Radical engineers
  18. Spenglerism
  19. Mass production and mass culture
  20. Amerikanizm
  21. The economic consequences of the war
  22. Managing the managers
  23. Mental labor and intellectual property
  24. All quiet on the Eastern front?
Learning Outcomes: 

Students will gain a working acquaintance with the role of a variety of forms of expertise in the depiction and prosecution of the first world war, with special emphasis on intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe. Our aim is to introduce students already familiar with the main outlines of the immensely rich historiography of the Great War to fresh avenues of approach that can contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of the intellectual legacies of this conflict. 

This is a graduate seminar with an emphasis on the interpretation of primary sources and intensive analysis of diverse approaches to the writing of intellectual history. The broad scope of the course is reflected only incompletely in the selected readings, and we will have limited recourse to survey texts, so a portion of every session will be devoted to establishing broader historical contexts for the works under discussion. Upon completion of the course students should have a broader functional understanding of the kinds of primary sources susceptible to historical interpretation, as well as a richer grasp of the relations between modern warfare and the social roles of the educated classes.


Requirements and assessment: 12-15-page (double-spaced) research paper (50%); class presentation (20%); class participation (30%)