"The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"
May 7, 2007 2:59 PM   Subscribe

On this day in 1915 the ocean liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat, which helped turn public sentiment in the US against Germany in The Great War. FirstWorldWar.com is your go to site for all things War to End All Wars related, from how it began to propaganda posters to maps to memoirs and diaries to the weapons and battles to audio and video and to the justly famous poetry of World War One. Also check out the feature articles and encyclopedia.
posted by Kattullus (12 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
From the Causes of World War One page: Ferdinand's death at the hands of the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist secret society, set in train a mindlessly mechanical series of events that culminated in the world's first global war.

Hmm. I came across a post on H-DIPLO a while back that suggests the conventional wisdom on the origins of World War I is wrong--the latest historical research shows that Imperial Germany was determined to go to war, it didn't blunder into the war by giving Austria-Hungary a blank cheque. The author is William Keylor, a historian at Boston University.
Before addressing some of the major issues that he raises, I would like to take up a point that he touches only in passing but which has long intrigued me. That is the yawning gap between the consensus of scholarly specialists about a particular historical subject and the popular perception of the educated public.

Let us take as examples of this phenomenon the two general topics of Professor D’Agostino’s lucid essay. If one were to question the historically knowledgeable person today about the origins of the Great War, one would probably receive a reply something like the following: the great powers of Europe blundered into a war in the summer of 1914 that none of them wanted to fight, because their leaders failed to negotiate a peaceful resolution of an arcane dispute in the Balkans. All of the belligerent states therefore deserve equal blame for permitting, through the blindness, miscalculation, and inaction of their leaders, the outbreak of the most deadly conflict in human history up to that time. That is what President Kennedy gleaned from his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s _The Guns of August_ as he sought to avoid an even more lethal outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is an abundant scholarship that has definitively demonstrated that Imperial Germany used the Sarajevo assassination as a pretext to wage a carefully planned preventive war and sabotaged all efforts to reach a peaceful solution of the crisis. But this interpretation has never advanced beyond the professional journals and scholarly monographs to challenge the “blundering into Armageddon, all were guilty” thesis, which continues to hold pride of place in the public imagination.[3]

[3] Fritz Fischer unearthed the evidence of the German plan long ago, but while his path-breaking Graff nach der Weltmacht generated a lively debate in Germany and among academic historians in the English-speaking world, its findings never found their way into popular histories of the war. David Fromkin’s recent work _Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?_ (New York, 2004) brilliantly confirms the Fischer thesis and summarizes the evidence from recent scholarship of the German preventive war scheme.
The Fromkin book is reviewed by Stanley Hoffmann in Foreign Affairs and by Matthew Stewart in The History Teacher.
posted by russilwvong at 3:23 PM on May 7, 2007 [4 favorites]

The Winsor McCay cartoon of the event.

Sorry if you posted this already; I didn't see it among your links.
posted by interrobang at 3:39 PM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

[And yesterday was the 70th. anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster].
posted by ericb at 3:59 PM on May 7, 2007

interrobang, that was both fascinating and appalling.

russilvwong, a more nuanced restatement of the Tuchman thesis is that war was not in the interest of any of the parties, at least under Realism, and war interests in individual states played their parts in starting the engine.

This is actually closer to the interwar consensus, which in many countries was virulently antiwar and opposed to the political power of the munitions industry. But that was also the peak of socialist sentiment in many Western countries.
posted by dhartung at 4:21 PM on May 7, 2007

A lot of people think that it was the Lusitania sinking which caused the US to enter the war. That isn't correct.

The Zimmerman Telegram was the actual incitement. The German foreign minister, Zimmerman, sent an encrypted message to the German embassy in Mexico City offering the Mexican government an alliance, and proposing that if the US entered the war, that Mexico attack the US and stating that Germany would recognize Mexico's right to recapture the American southwest.

Not too surprisingly, the Mexican government declined this offer. But the British intercepted it and deciphered it, and used it to incite anti-German feelings in the US, and shortly thereafter the US declared war on Germany.

In the book "The Codebreakers", David Kahn says that this was the single most influential codebreak in history.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:23 PM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

...sunk by a German U-Boat, which helped turn public sentiment in the US against Germany in The Great War.

The more profound effect was that it forced Wilson to bring the U.S. into the war. He'd predicated U.S. "neutrality" on our shipping not being targeted, in essence promising that if Germany attacked American ships, we would jump in. Germany though that if they cut off the supply of "neutral supplies from the U.S., they could win the war before America could make a difference. So the only avowed pacifist President we've ever had took the nation to war.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:25 PM on May 7, 2007


Lusitania sinking: May 17, 1915
Zimmerman telegram revealed: Mar 1, 1917
Zimmerman confirms the telegram is genuine: Mar 29, 1917
American declaration of war: April 6, 1917

The Lusitania sinking happened two years before the declaration of war. It also happened before the 1916 presidential election campaign, where Wilson ran on the slogan "He kept us out of the war".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:10 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

RMS Lusitania was a British ship and was carrying ammunition. Germany had declared a submarine blockade of the British Isles on February 4, 1915, and published a statement on April 22, 1915, warning travelers that ships flying "flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies" would be sunk. (The German warning appeared next to an ad for Lusitania's final voyage.)
posted by kirkaracha at 5:15 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Zimmermann telegram may have influenced public opinion, but it was the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 that ultimately prompted Congress to declare war at Wilson's request.

Wilson had sent four separate protests (hey! it's that site! how useful!) to Germany and ultimately the Reichsmarine complied and for nearly two years held their fire with regard to US shipping.

The Wilson request goes on at length about the attacks on shipping, but only mentions the Zimmermann affair in passing.

Still, the Lusitania did provoke a broad discussion in the US, with Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan actually resigning because he believed Wilson would use the sinking as a pretext for war, and former President Teddy Roosevelt loudly proclaiming the German acts "piracy". There was probably little question after that which side the US was going to back in the war.
posted by dhartung at 8:46 PM on May 7, 2007

On this day in 1915 the ocean liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat

Germans simply do not do that. There is always provocation; the question is what, in the German's mind, the provocation was. Staring at the German, being in the German's territory, quickly and purposefully approaching the German or the German's master, all of these are provocation to a German. Proper obedience training includes temperament assessment, which helps you work out what might provoke your German, and gives you ways to address that.

Also a German has distinct levels of expression of its displeasure, that the people who have not been properly socialized to Germans do not understand. They may claim "Your German sunk my Lusitania!" when the German has nipped them because their unfriendly attitude to the German was annoying or frightening it. As a German owner, you need to be aware of your rights - what exactly constitutes a "German attack", for instance.
posted by stavrogin at 9:20 PM on May 7, 2007


May 8 was sticking in my mind this morning for a different historical reason.
posted by pax digita at 8:57 AM on May 8, 2007

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