World War I: The Great War


Join Active Minds for a look at the “war to end all wars.” We will start by understanding the ingredients that kindled the flame that was ignited by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 and follow the story as the various players get pulled into the conflict, including the United States in April of 1917. We will end with a brief preview of how the seeds of future conflict were sewn at the conclusion of World War I.

Key Lecture Points

  • Many factors contributed to the start of World War I, including the unification of Germany, the European alliance system, European colonialism, an arms race between Great Britain and Germany and the rise of nationalism in Europe.
  • Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on July 28, 1914. Austria-Hungary responded by mobilizing troops against Serbia. The assassination marks the beginning of World War I.
  • Russia came to Serbia’s support. In answer, Austria’s ally Germany declared war on Russia, followed by France. Attacks on France brought Great Britain into the war. A few months later, the Ottoman Empire entered the war as one of the Central Powers.
  • Trench warfare, flying aces and chemical weapons are all icons of World War I.
  • Because of Europe’s many colonial holdings, WWI was truly a world war. Well over 4 million non-white men were mobilized into European and American armies in combat and non-combat roles.
  • World War I began during a period of American isolationism. The U.S. finally joined the war in 1917 after Germans killed 159 Americans aboard the RMS Lusitania and news of the German Zimmerman Telegraph soliciting Mexico’s help against the U.S.
  • Russia signed an armistice with Germany in December 1917, shortly after the revolutions in February and October that overthrew the czar and created the Soviet Union.
  • Fighting in World War I ceased on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—11am on November 11—1918. The war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
  • World War I killed between 8.5 and 10 million soldiers and another 8 million civilians. It also led to the fall of all of the continental European empires—the German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian.
  • World War I still reverberates today. The war introduced deadly new military tools such as tanks, military aircraft and chemical weapons. The Treaty of Versailles and the divvying-up of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire have been catalysts for regional and international war for the past 100. The League of Nations, set up in the aftermath of the war, was an important precursor to the modern United Nations.

Exploration Questions

  • Which of the many causes of World War I do you think is the most important? Why?
  • How did World War I shape the way other modern wars? World War II? The 2003 invasion of Iraq? The Syrian Civil War?

Reflective Questions

  • Did you have family members who fought in World War I? What kinds of stories did they share about the war?
  • What was the role of American isolationism in World War I? What lessons might modern Americans learn about foreign policy from the war?
  • What do you think is World War I’s most enduring legacy? Why?
  • How does today’s United Nations compare to the League of Nations? How is the UN an improvement? What weaknesses do the two organizations share?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Larson, Erik. Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Broadway Books, 2016. 480 pages. The bestselling author’s narrative of the sinking of the Lusitania.
    Click here to order
  • Tuchman, Barbara W.  The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic About the Outbreak of World War I.  Presidio Press, 2004. Tuchman recounts the first month of WWI—30 days that determined the course of the conflict, the century and our world today.
    Click here to order