The World Wars

HistoryChannelby Steve Lancaster    5/28/14
The History Channel is currently running a three day mini-series on WWI, the interwar years, and WWII focusing on leaders who served in WWI and came to power just before or during WWII. The idea is exceptional. However, the product is little more than a rehash of pop 20th century history, a Cliff’s Notes version of a critical 30 years in world history. I realize that even in 6 hours of television time the task of conveying understanding of the years 1914-1945 is a challenge and some oversights can be forgiven in the interests of brevity.

The show begins with Wilson, portrayed as agonizing about the prospect of American involvement in the European war which in 1916 has been going for two years. Wilson is struggling to keep the US out of the war in spite of sinking of ships like the Lusitania in May of 1915 with Americans killed and injured.

We then get flashback to 1914 and the assignation of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife as the sole casus belli almost no attention is paid to the political struggling in Germany and Austro-Hungry over the Serbian problem. It was the Second Balkan War (1913) and its aftermath that persuaded Berchtold and his foreign office that Austria-Hungary had to destroy Serbia. Vienna started drafting the memorandum-plan to crush Serbia two weeks before Sarajevo. In short there was going to be a war regardless, the only question was German involvement.

Of course we have the Kaiser sitting in Berlin pulling the strings, more Cliff’s Notes history, in fact the Kaiser ordered the Austrians to call off the Serbian war, but when the Austrians did declare war on Serbia on July 28, it was because the German foreign minister told them to do it. In short the monarch was deceived by his own government.

It was not to support the Austrians that the German leaders had maneuvered in July. It was just the reverse; it was to secure Austria’s support for themselves in their own war. Germany’s generals had to perform the trick of first getting Austria involved in a war and then getting it to change its enemy. Moltke, who more than any officer in Germany, wanted the war with Russia and France is shuffled to the sidelines in 1915 because of his leadership failure on the Western front, “this war which I prepared and initiated” It is an arresting thought that, to the extent that any individual did so, this modest, unexceptional, and indeed rather ordinary career army officer started the Great War, and thereby ushered in the twentieth century, with all of its horrors and wonders.

Tonight the show focused on the interwar years, 1919-1939. No mention was made of the League of Nations or the efforts Wilson went to the get the agreement passed in the senate. No mention is made of the 1922/23 naval disarmament conference in Washington which resulted in an American and British reduction in naval development that would prove crucial in the late 1930’s.

Of course the hero of the series was FDR. The viewer comes away thinking that FDR personally built the Golden Gate and dug the foundations for Hover Dam all the while battling the Republicans for more money for social programs. The series gives a nod to Keynesian economics by stating that while America and Great Britain use billions in public money taken from the military budgets, Hitler is doing the exact opposite.

The usual cast of experts are rung in for commentary, including Colin Powell, Dick Chaney and a host of progressive history professors to lend gravitas to the light weight narration. Powell in one way or another keeps to the progressive theme of don’t blame me Bush did it over my objections and Chaney offers no interesting comments, mute the TV while they are on and you will miss nothing.

One of the most glaring errors and in my opinion unforgivable for a cable channel called the History channel; Douglas MacArthur is portrayed in 1933 as General of the Army, a five star rank and the person playing him wears the five stars, additionally, George C. Marshal is portrayed wearing the same rank in 1939 neither man held this rank until December 1944.

In short these and other omissions and inaccuracies make the series unwatchable for any student of history and sadly insulting for the level of ignorance that the producers seem to believe Americans have about world history. Perhaps, I should be more forgiving after all the people who watch this series have no knowledge of history before they were born.

No, it sucks. • (1515 views)

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9 Responses to The World Wars

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Douglas MacArthur is portrayed in 1933 as General of the Army,

    The rank did not exist until 1944 and Marshall was the first to receive it. I believe there was a “General of the Armies” held by another man, but can’t recall by whom.

    I have not watched the History Channel for some years. On the occasion that it is mentioned during a conversation, I advise others to avoid it as well.

    Frankly, it isn’t even the equivalent of high school history. It is the modern liberal’s version of reality.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Pershing was General of the Armies, the first 5-star general in the US. In the 1930s, McArthur was Chief of Staff (and gave the orders to Eisenhower and Patton on clearing out the Bonus Army), with Marshall replacing him later in the decade (and McArthur going off to command in the Philippines, where he virtually became a god — at least a saint, since they were theoretically Catholics in most of the islands — to the natives because he respected them as hardly any whites ever had).

      History Channel has a lot of interesting material, though it obviously can’t go into much detail. Oddly enough, it’s actually one of the more popular cable channels for conservatives, given that the latter tend to be interested in history, which makes the modest liberal bias peculiar (but perhaps unavoidable given the fact that the history professoriate is rather liberal).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I wasn’t aware that the History Channel had devolved to that point. I haven’t watched it in ages. Between you and Steve, it sounds as if I’m not missing much.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I’m quite sure you meant “assassination” rather than “assignation” for Franz Ferdinand — the two words are VERY different in meaning, of course.

    Max Hastings in his recent Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War covers the diplomacy (not always very diplomatic) that led to war, as well as the early campaigns. Like you he seems to particularly blame Moltke (who was skeptical that Germany could win but believed they had to fight as soon as possible), but also some of the Austrian leaders (particularly Berchtold and Conrad von Hoetzendorf). In the case of the Kaiser and Bethmann-Hollweg, they intermittently supported war and opposed it. There were several key steps — the Serbian covert operation that ignited the crisis; the Austrian decision to destroy Serbia without regard for Russian actions in response; the Russian decision to back Serbia, and the interlocking alliances that led to continent-wide war at that point.

  3. steve lancaster says:

    Ha, call it a Freudian typo.

    We could have a forum on just the causes and consequences of WWI and your points are right on. The Kaiser, was certainly dislodged from reality part of the time, but he was the one man alive in Germany who did not desire war. Henry House who was a special adviser to Wilson was in Europe in 1913/14 and commented on the martial atmosphere not only in Germany but also in France. House mentions in a cable to Wilson in May 1914 that the situation in Germany has gone from bad to worse, with jingoism gone mad.

    If Germany had gone to war in 1905 over the North African crisis, a war they likely would have won; as Russia was in the midst of a revolution, thus, no two front war. It is possible that a Romanov would still be on the throne of a constitutional monarchy in Russia, France would have been humiliated again and the history of the 20th century would be a lot different.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      A friend of mine thinks the key was the Habsburg failure to act quickly: the immediate reaction of the major powers to the assassination was disgust (those uncouth Serbs acting up again; read about the murder of the Obrenovich family a decade earlier, which in fact turned Serbia from Habsburg client to Habsburg antagonist), they waited until the Great Game had resumed. I will add that Hastings, while not specifically addressing this question, would seem to argue that the Habsburgs were incapable of acting that quickly, but also that it didn’t matter anyway.

  4. steve lancaster says:

    Austria was not by any measure a stable empire. They had made a deal with the Hungarians for quasi-autonomous union, but even with the largest ethnic block sort of following the Habsburgs general guidance there were many groups left out.

    The Ottoman Empire may have been the sick man of Europe, but Austria-Hungary was on life support that depended on Berlin. The goal of Austria was to destroy Serbia without the Russians coming to their defense and invading from the East. They thought the support of the Germans would deter Russia from mobilizing.

    The Kaiser wanted no part of a Austro-Serbian war however, Moltke did want a war with France and was willing to let Austria have its way with Serbia in exchange for support in a Franco-German war.

    One of the great ironies of the war was the two men who did not desire war, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and the Archduke Ferdinand could not stop ambitious men in their own governments. When the Archduke was murdered there was no one in Austria to stop a Serbian war.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Again, much of this shows up in Hastings’s book. In particular, he notes that Franz Ferdinand was a staunch opponent of war (well knowing what a long war was likely to do — and ultimately did — to the Dual Monarch) and was thus the only person in Austria-Hungary who might have prevented the war.

      Incidentally, while most of the ethnic groups were unreliable to varying degrees, it’s well to remember that most fought for Habsburg when push came to shove. Most of the Slavs were quite willing to fight the Italians, and in fact the commander on the front (Boroevic) was actually a Serb from the Krajina (and at the end tried to maintain Charles on his throne even after the empire as a whole had collapsed).

  5. Christa SPILLANE says:

    Seriously history channel. Dick Chaney on wars. WT*.

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