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Revisiting the Great War

By Gregg Sangillo

In his new book, American University history professor Eric Lohr discusses Russia’s involvement in World War I.

In his new book, history professor Eric Lohr also analyzes WWI's critical technological advances, including barbed wire and trench warfare.

June 28, 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which sparked a chain of events that led to the cataclysmic First World War. Today, there's general agreement that World War I was an unmitigated global catastrophe, engulfing numerous countries and claiming the lives of at least nine million soldiers. Yet the tragic circumstances surrounding the war are still heavily debated among historians, necessitating new research and analysis.

American University history professor Eric Lohr is now planning two significant contributions to the scholarship of World War I. Lohr is co-authoring a book with Lafayette College history professor Joshua Sanborn titled Russia's Great War, 1914-1918. He's also editor of the forthcoming book The Empire and Nationalism at War.

Lohr is widely recognized as one of the leading scholars of Russia's World War I experience, authoring many articles and document publications on the subject. He authored the 2003 book Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens during World War I.

Turned on Its Head

In Russia's Great War, 1914-1918, Lohr and Sanborn plan to re-evaluate crucial aspects of Russia's role in the war. "A lot of the mentions of Russia's involvement with World War I begin with the presumption that Russia was hopelessly backward—that Russians went into battle without enough rifles and waited for people to die so they could pick up rifles," he says. "We're not starting from the presumption of 'Why was Russia so backward and why did it fail so badly?' But rather, 'How did it keep fighting for two and a half years in total war?'"

Lohr says that, in many ways, World War I was disastrous for Russia. Yet the country had some surprising military victories. "They actually won quite a few battles. And they fought long and hard, and quite effectively for a very long time. So we're kind of turning the question on its head."

Spread of Violence

In their book, they will also re-assess the Russian Revolution in a time of war. It's not simply the actions of revolutionaries, but how the state was collapsing and losing its capacity to function. And violence became democratized. "Millions of soldiers, 13 million people, got first-hand experience killing and using weapons at the front. And you can draw a pretty straight line between that experience, and then what happens in 1917," he says. Soldiers mutinied, quitting the army and returning to their villages to launch an agrarian revolution. "There's also just this general spread of the use of violence to broader and broader circles of the population, which becomes hugely important in the Civil War that started in 1918."

The Great War

The "war to end all wars" was sadly a harbinger for even more man-made destruction. The post-war Treaty of Versailles in 1919 created significant German resentment, and some experts believe this contributed to the rise of the Nazi party and World War II.

Lohr discusses the enduring legacy of World War I. "It was the most important moment in modern history. World War II is in many ways a continuation of World War I," he says. "The pre-World War I world was so totally, utterly different from the post-World War I world. It was such a turning point. The Great Depression was a direct result of World War I. The international monetary system was destroyed by the war. All the great empires of Europe fell apart in different ways."

He also analyzes the war's critical technological advances. Warring nations underestimated the strength of trench warfare, which gave military defenses the upper hand. As the war progressed, however, new types of weaponry—such as tanks and airplane warfare—swung the advantage back to the attacker. "Some technology was remarkably more effective than anyone imagined, such as barbed wire and machine guns," he says.

Reading War and Peace

Lohr has been a Russophile since adolescence. He remembers raiding his father's bookshelf to devour Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. During his undergraduate years at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1980s, the Soviet Union was dominating newspaper headlines and Mikhail Gorbachev had risen to power.

"My first trip to Russia was in 1987," he recalls. "That really sealed the deal, and I started studying the language." By the 1990s, he was spending every summer there.

He still maintains an interest in cultural treasures, such as Russian film. He's currently Susan Carmel Lehrman chair of Russian history and culture at AU. Lohr served on the Russia/Europe advisory group for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2007-2008, and he closely follows contemporary Russian politics.

Time magazine recently labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin a "czar," and Lohr agrees that Putin has "czar-like" characteristics. "He shares many of the same traits. He's trying to create a political system where he is above the institutions in many of the ways that the czars were," he says.

But Lohr points out that Putin has been quite attuned to public opinion, and Russians have tolerated his iron grip because high gas prices have helped the economy. He also says that not all czars were alike, with the last czar, Nicholas II, begrudgingly serving as a constitutional monarch.

In fact, one of Russia's best chances for democracy was in the period leading up to 1914: "The 1905 Revolution brought a constitutional monarchy. It was moving clearly to a rule of law, electoral system. It was an increasingly democratic place. And then World War I happened, and it wiped it all away."