“With the passage of time, after years of residence in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany and with the phenomenon of the Second World War now before me, it was borne in upon me to what overwhelming extent the determining phenomena of the interwar period, Russian Communism and German Nazism, and indeed the Second World War itself, were the products of that first great holocaust of 1914-1918…thus I came to see the First World War, as I think many reasonably thoughtful people have learned to see it, as the great seminal catastrophe of this century – the event which, more than any others…lay at the heart of the failure and decline of this Western Civilization.”
These lines were first published in a book in 1979 by the great American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan. In it, he coined a phrase that has since become deeply associated with the defining event in his life, and indeed the defining event of the last century: the First World War. This phrase, “the seminal catastrophe,” seems to sum up everything about this enormous conflict – its incredible cost in resources and human lives; its disastrous effect on the stability of the entire world; and its setting of the stage for virtually every important political, economic, and military conflict of the rest of the twentieth century and even to the present day.
Now why am I talking about all of this right now? Well, like many of you, I became deeply interested in the history of the First World War as that conflict’s centennial was observed in the last few years. As I delved more and more into this subject, it became more and more clear to me not only how under-covered the First World War is in popular discourse, but at how cross purposes with itself that small amount of discourse can be. Details of this immense conflict are only known by a small number of historians and enthusiasts, and only a small number of those seem to truly grasp and understand not only what happened during those four years in its totality, but also what the ultimate reasons and results of that conflict were. And while I don’t claim to be an expert ready to give you the definitive thesis on what the First World War was and what its ultimate effects on the modern world are, I hope that by taking a detailed look at what in the world happened from 1914-1918 in Europe and around the rest of the world, together we can perhaps come closer to understanding this problem.
Before we start on that journey, I want to take the time to address some, for lack of a better word, logistical issues on who I am, how this podcast will work, and how you can reach out to ask any questions or give any suggestions you have about my presentation of this topic.
First, who am I? Well, my name is Dylan Kornberg, I’m a longtime student of history who has for the past several years focused primarily on studying the First World War, especially on the events that led to the outbreak of war in August of 1914. This study has been entirely personal on my part, I finished my undergrad degree with a major in history back in 2015, and since then have been an amateur, one might say self-proclaimed, historian rather than a full-time student. As such, I want to make clear that while I will do my best to make my research, writing, and presentation in this podcast as academically rigorous as possible, I do not pretend that I am giving a professional level of in depth education in anything covered here. If this podcast and the material it covers captures your interest, than I encourage you to read and study further on your own, to flesh out details that I will not cover here and to develop your own takes on my interpretations. All the sources that I use for each episode will be posted in the show notes and at (website).
Second, what exactly will this show cover? Well, as with a lot of stuff on this here humble podcast…I’m not totally sure. We will be hitting all of the major events, battles, political debates, and social upheavals during the war itself (which, for the record, has a couple of different “official” starting dates, but lasted from the beginning of August, 1914, until November 11, 1918). We will also spend a few episodes laying the groundwork for geopolitics generally and in Europe specifically during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and will also probably go on to cover the negotiations and final signing of the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended the war on June 28, 1919. But on the edges of this outline are several events which may or may not merit discussion. After all, every country that fought in the war, and many countries that did not but were affected by it tangentially, experienced deep and often traumatic social and political turmoil? Also, while fighting between the major powers ended in November of 1918 and the war was officially ended in June of 1919, various other military conflicts continued over the next several years that were directly or indirectly caused by the war between the Entente and the Central Powers. Also, there is the small matter of the so-called Spanish Flu, which from 1918-1920 killed between 50 and 100 million people. which of these myriad events, all related to the First World War in some way, warrant examination in this podcast? And in what detail? I’m not totally sure on the answers to these questions, and will sort of decide on a case by case basis as we move forward.
Third, what are we talking about in terms of length here? So, as I discussed previously, I intend to go into pretty good detail covering most of the major events of the war, both military and civilian, as well as laying some groundwork before the war starts and moving on to the negotiations that formally ended the war. Each episode will be roughly 20 to 30 minutes long, and episodes will be published every Sunday, starting today. I will let you all know if an episode will be delayed as soon as I know. Based on the rough outline I have already made, I imagine this project will take at least a year or two to finish, quite possibly longer. So…strap in, I guess.
Fourth, what kind of structure will this show have? This point is something I have been thinking a lot about recently, and while I haven’t worked out all the details yet in terms of how this will carry over in the long term, I do know what the structure of the show will be for at least the first dozen or so episodes. Basically, this show will be divided up into a series of “chapters” or “arcs,” that will be anywhere from two or three episodes long to possibly as many as ten; possibly even more (this is what I mean in terms of not being completely sure about the details of this in the future). My hope is that by grouping episodes together like this, it will help you (and me, frankly) to understand not just what each episode covers individually, but how everything in this war is connected with everything else. These “chapters” will be thematically, chronologically, and geographically centered; that is, rather than bouncing around every part of the war from episode to episode, each chapter will cover a specific event or series of events during the war in a specific geographic region. So, for example, if we spend a chapter covering the opening campaigns of the war in the Western Front, the next chapter would likely cover the opening campaigns in the East. In between these grand, sweeping arcs, will be one or two supplemental episodes that cover some niche aspect of the war that is not confined to a single area or timeframe. These would be things like “the home front,” or “aircraft,” topics that do not necessarily drive the narrative but are important or at least interesting enough to warrant discussion. Now not every “chapter” will be followed by a single “supplemental” episode, this is all very general. However, each episode will be titled in such a way that will make it clear whether it is an episode covering the narrative of the war, or whether it is a standalone supplemental.
Finally, some grab bag issues and concerns. As I stated before, I am not a professional historian, nor am I an expert on the First World War generally nor any of the other topics that make up this story. I am simply a humble and passionate student of history, and I hope none of you will find any issue with the material I present here nor in the way I present it. If you do find issue with anything here, or if you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, that again is email@example.com, or leave a comment at www.seminalcatastrophe.com, that again is www.seminalcatastrophe.com.
I also have to mention the issue of language. As a native of the U.S. whose first language was English, it will probably not surprise you that foreign languages are not something that come easily to me. Unfortunately for me, and I suppose for all of you (particularly those of you are adept in the language field), the story of the First World War involves a huge number of names of people, places, and ideas in a huge variety of languages. Just looking at the five “major” powers who fought throughout the war, in addition to English there will also be a fair amount of French, German, Russian, and Hungarian. But when you add discussion of the myriad peoples and places who were heavily involved in this conflict beyond the five “great powers,” conservatively, Arabic, Armenian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Cantonese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Serbo-Croat, Spanish, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Yiddish will all likely play at least some small role in the story and require me to pronounce words that don’t necessarily roll off the tongue. And I am almost certainly leaving out a few. Fortunately, I do actually happen to speak a bit of German, so while I can’t promise anything regarding my accent I am at least confident of my pronunciation of that language. But other than that, I will try my best to pronounce everything as accurately as possible, and please let me know if I butcher anything too badly. And, really finally, I would also like to mention that in addition to this project, for the past 18 months or so I have been writing a play with my writing partner Jasper about the beginning of the First World War, the famous July Crisis that we will be discussing hear sometime around episode five. While this play does not yet have a final title, we have at least finished a first draft and are working on a second draft. You will very likely hear more about that from me as that project nears completion.
Alright, with that all out of the way, let us begin, as the fires of one enormous war are finally put out, the fuel for the next enormous war is being unwittingly set by those believing that they have put to rest for every the centuries old problem of war in Europe.