A Historian’s Eye on Eastern Europe: Past and Present

A Live Chat with Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

On October 1, 2015, Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius sat down for a live Q&A session with his fans from across the globe. The chat is over, but the transcript is posted below for you to enjoy.

photo of Professor Vejas Liulevicius
Professor Vejas Liulevicius

MEHBOOB HAMZA: Do you consider the last 70 years of relatively low conflict in Europe (i.e. no major armed conflicts) as a fairy tale? What in your assessment would trigger the calamity in as it did towards two great World Wars?

LIULEVICIUS: I think those decades seemed a blessed time, free of general war. So in that sense quite real, not a fairytale. But in the leadup to WWI there was a long peace too, so it is no guarantee.

MIKE NIEBAUER: Do you believe that WW1 fundamentally changed the ways humanity deals with itself?

LIULEVICIUS: That is a terrific question, but really hard to quantify or PROVE. I do think that lots of contemporaries talked of disillusion and a cheapening of life–they felt that keenly afterwards. It must have affected civilization.

JAMES LEHR: Do you think Russian President Putin wants to set up SOVIET …. REUNION, I guess that’s a good way of putting it. This idea comes up where Pres. Putin wants to go back to the good old days and he’ll probably want to take everything back. I find this highly unfeasible, but you never know, Iowa might want to secede from the Union and go to the other side.

LIULEVICIUS: Putin clearly aims to revive Russia to great power status, and has mixed Soviet imagery and older Tsarist imagery in his self-presentation and that of the state he rules. I think he aims to revive certain aspects of Soviet times, but reviving the entire ruling ideology would be difficult.

KEN STRUMPF: I’m Jewish and my family lived under German occupation in Poland in World War I. I remember my great aunt telling me that this was the safest period of her life prior to coming to America, which is ironic considering what happened a couple of decades later. Can you discuss the German treatment of Jews in their occupied territory during the First World War?

LIULEVICIUS: Thanks for this marvelous question. When history intersects with family lore, it is most fascinating. I write about this period in my first book, “War Land on the Eastern Front.”  The encounter of German soldiers in WWI with Eastern European Jews was highly significant. German soldiers could communicate with the Jews because Yiddish is cognate to German. In Eastern Europe, German administrators in WWI tried to win sympathies by promising equal treatment for all communities, and an end to Tsarist repression. Of course, the atrocities of the Second World War proved a great contrast.

PAM: When–and why–did you decide to become a historian?

LIULEVICIUS: I appreciate your question! As for so many of us who love history, a grandparent is involved! My grandfather was a historian and told me stories from Greek and Roman mythology when I was a child. It all began there, and schooling only confirmed that love of stories and what they have to teach us.

poll results of most important turning point in 20th century history

JAMES: Should the Espionage Act be discarded because it is biased political repression not a real threat to National Security?

LIULEVICIUS: That is a fascinating question. In my undergraduate class on espionage, we spend time debating the overarching issue: how much transparency should a democracy have, and how should it keep its secrets, if any? The voters need to speak on this.

PROFESSORTOM: What made you decide against a chronological flow in your World War I course?

LIULEVICIUS: You raise an excellent point. I opted in my WWI course for a thematic approach in part because so much of the war was marked by battle lines that did not shift, or only shifted slightly at vast cost of life. Moving chronologically forward would have been achingly slow and even more depressing! But there are many ways of organizing the same material.

JAMES NORWOOD: In your course on exploration, you mentioned that Thomas Jefferson had asked Congress to keep Jefferson’s pet project of the Lewis & Clark expedition a secret. This was prior to the Louisiana Purchase. It is difficult to imagine Congress keeping a secret very long. Could you elaborate on how long the project was kept under wraps in the House and Senate prior to the Louisiana Purchase? Did Jefferson genuinely believe that the Reps and Senators could keep a secret?

LIULEVICIUS: That is an excellent point. I think that expectations of total secrecy would have been limited. But given the slow movement of news, and the claim that the expedition was scientific, what was hoped for was ambiguity, or today we would say deniability. Leaking was slower in those times!

TED KIJESKI: What is your favorite one-volume work on World War I ???

LIULEVICIUS: Thanks for this! Can I be frustrating by picking two favorites? Paul Fussel’s “The Great War and Modern Memory” is classic, and Modris Eksteins’s “Rites of Spring” is a first-class provocative cultural history of the war and the entire modern age!

photo of Professor Liulevicius in a cafe in Budapest, Hungary
Professor Liulevicius in a cafe in Budapest, Hungary

BERNICE: What do you think about Ed Snowden’s choices?

LIULEVICIUS: Obviously, Snowden remains a mysterious character, and the nature of his choices and motivations murky. That’s what rivets the audience: watching the consequences of his choices unfold.

ART: Motivations murky, choices criminal, imo. He gave away much more to Russia & China than to news media.

JO JOSEPHSON: Most heroic watchdog/whistleblower in defense of the Fourth Amendment.

JOHN: A whistle-blower who outed the NSA’s violation of the 4th amendment. Also says a NYTimes’ editorial. He never gave anything to Russia or China. When he left Hong Kong bound for Cuba or Ecuador, he was carrying no data on him. Everything had been given to journalists.

ALAN: What sort of relationship exists between archaeologists and historians? Do you consider yourselves mutually supportive, competitive, whatever?

LIULEVICIUS: It is a very necessary relationship! I would suppose that like myself, quite a few historians early in life were fascinated by archaeology and could have gone that way. Especially for eras where written texts are not available, material culture is the evidence we must use. The inquiry into the past is a shared venture.

GUILLERMO GARCIA: World War I could just as easily have ended with a quick victory of one of the sides. Or it could have never happened. European hegemony and a world order much different from what we know would have ensued. Don’t you think that the importance of WWI is constantly underestimated?

LIULEVICIUS: I agree entirely that we are constantly underestimating the true import of WWI. Think how it is memorialized less in the US. Yet it unleashed processes leading to WWII. Do you agree that historians will increasingly (as those world wars both recede in time) be speaking of a modern Thirty Years War, with a truce in the middle?

GUILLEROMO GARCIA: That may be entirely. The end of the absolute hegemony of Western Europe was so rapid and so absolute that it boggles the mind! It is unfortunate that the modern awareness is so affected by all the propaganda resulting from WWII and the ensuing Cold War.

KEVIN MANZEL: Do you have any favorite writers of US/Soviet or Cold War-evoking spy fiction?

LIULEVICIUS: A fellow fan of espionage fiction! Alan Furst’s novels for the Soviet or Communist characters are amazing. Graham Greene’s Cold War atmosphere likewise.

video graphic from Professor Liulevicius's course titled "History's Greatest Voyages of Exploration"
Learn more with Professor Liulevicius in “History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration

PATSY STONE: How does history influence Putin’s strategy in geopolitics or at least his regional strategy? How does history influence Putin’s strategy in geopolitics or at least his regional strategy?

LIULEVICIUS: Excellent question. Putin clearly evokes Russian imperial tradition and great power status in how he wants to be viewed, and sees himself as continuing that geopolitical tradition, but now in an eclectic way, combining ethnic themes, Soviet nostalgia, and even religious identities.

JOHN: But he, Gorbachev and most other Russians are reacting to a perceived Western unipolar world which threatens them. The eastern expansion of NATO and placement of missiles closer to Russia’s borders is viewed as threatening. Western triumphalism which ignores Russia’s views is galling to them.

RICHARD HEATH: I’ve often wondered how it came to be that Hitler, with his concoction of ideas of Aryan supremacy and racial purity, etc., rather than being just another “crank” giving stump speeches on a local corner or a minor political figure never to be heard from again, was somehow motivated to play out his internal drama first, in Germany, and then on the “world stage.” What is your “take” on this extraordinary phenomenon?

LIULEVICIUS: You put the matter quite well. In less disordered times, Hitler might have remained a failed seller of watercolor postcards. The key point is that in an atmosphere of crisis in Germany (defeat in war, discredited democracy, economic ruin), many people proved unfortunately quite receptive to radical schemes and promises they would earlier have ignored. The result was global tragedy.

TERRIS: My grandfather (Polish; not Jewish) participated in both world wars. He was also in Auschwitz. How much, knowing about one’s family history, affects one’s beliefs and attitudes about history in general?

LIULEVICIUS: This is an excellent and deep question. One’s family knowledge is clearly foundational. In my classes at the university, so often students come up after class to mention that their own family history has intersected with the epic events we are studying… clearly, it makes their study even more meaningful. Historical and family memory is especially deep in Eastern European societies. In that connection, I wanted to note that before the holidays this year, the Great Courses will release my new course of 24 lectures on “The History of Eastern Europe“. You may find it interesting (I know I found creating the course so).

poll results of favorite real-life spy

JACK H: I have always been impressed by one trait of Otto von Bismarck that seemed to differentiate him from leaders like Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler. He knew when to stop conquering, and did not fall victim to megalomania.  Do you agree, and do you consider him unusual from that standpoint?

LIULEVICIUS: Isn’t restraint the rarest human trait of all? You are quite right that Bismarck knew how to limit his aims… but some historians (with perfect hindsight, of course) fault him in a different direction, arguing that he failed to train disciples who would know how to run the European system of alliances he built. Do you agree with this criticism?

KAY: If you had been in charge after WWI, what would you have done differently regarding the treatment of Germany? Could the difficult economic times of the 1920s and 1930s been alleviated and WWII potentially averted?

LIULEVICIUS: The beloved counterfactual! I think the exercise very valuable of envisioning alternatives. The Allies could have decided more clearly whether Germany was to be punished or welcomed into a Wilsonian system of democratic states. Instead, ambiguity and then bitterness were the result. At war’s end, democratic ideas enjoyed significant popularity in Germany–encouraging their success could have curtailed the radicalism that surged up so soon. But global economic crises would have come anyhow.

ALAN: Benjamin Anderson’s book “Economics and the Public Welfare” is an interesting look at the policy mistakes that led to economic chaos in Europe, and the Great Depression.

GUILLERMO GARCIA: What about chance? We as human beings are unable to escape from the vagaries of luck. The right man at the right time, etc. What is your perception of the role of chance in the creation of history?

LIULEVICIUS: How right you are. ‘The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happeneth to them all’. Its role is pivotal, including in our own individual lives, and so big that it must be scary to think about in full measure. The great British historian AJP Taylor accented ‘history by mistake’, and I bet you would enjoy his sardonic explorations of this theme, as I have!

PROFESSORTOM: What does it take to become an expert in a history topic? I’m looking for more than just “a lot of hard work” here. For instance, if one wanted to be an expert in World War I or II, they can’t possibly know everything that transpired during the war. So what differentiates the expert from the knowledgeable amateur?

LIULEVICIUS: Great point! I would single out vast reading (which is pleasant work), to gain multiple perspectives (even, or especially conflicting ones) on the events in question… reading in the original sources in particular enriches the act of historical imagination that a true historian must undertake: to see events in the categories that contemporaries had in mind, without excusing or minimizing cruelties or moral enormities.

RICK MOYER: Do you set aside every day a certain amount of time to research and write?

LIULEVICIUS: That is exactly my vision of perfection, the classical life of the scholar! Would that it were so. In fact, life inevitably means that the day is caught up in many different tasks… I guess I would say I just find myself grateful for the hours I do find for research and writing–then one enjoys a most rewarding feeling of engaging the big issues and questions.

photo of Professor Liulevicius in the studio at The Great Courses
Behind the scenes in The Great Courses studio

TOM B: In your research for the new course, did you find that some of the differences that have been creating tensions between some of the groups in Eastern Europe are starting to dissipate?

LIULEVICIUS: You marvelously anticipate a big theme in my new course, “History of Eastern Europe.” I focus on the diversity of Eastern Europe (in language, ethnicity, religion, and historical memory), which can yield both richness as well as potential for conflict. The course does indeed discuss how the terrible and violent historical experience of the first half of the 20th century has shaped “lessons” that animate aspects of Eastern Europe.

KEVIN MANZEL: I just saw a report of yet more genetic testing to “determine the fate” of Tsar Nicholas’s family? Does Russia itself have the same obsession or is this a Western phenomenon?

LIULEVICIUS: Great question! Clearly, the Western obsession is there, and I see it as a subset of the fascination for royalty that is so big today. Many Russians are quite understandably fascinated with the Tsarist heritage. Vast resources have been dedicated to restoring the monuments of the Romanovs, to mark that past. I think part of the fascination is related to alternate history: how would Russia have evolved if the Tsarist regime had not been toppled in 1917? All of world history might have unfolded differently! What a thing to consider!

SALLYANDMILT: Just a quick comment – we are enjoying your WWI series, and look forward to your Espionage and Spies – our OSS friend Elizabeth McIntosh, author of “Sisterhood of Spies – Women of the OSS” died at age 100 last June 8.

LIULEVICIUS: Thank you for your kind words… given your friendship with an epic figure from the past, how much is gained by continued study!

ROY HALLIDAY: My question about the American civil war seems to have got lost. That war produced tremendous losses because of technology. Were there no voices that pointed out this example in the allied or central powers that pointed out the potential slaughter in a world wide war?

LIULEVICIUS: Thanks for a splendid question that points us to global connections (always a valuable thing to do, to broaden our sight). There were indeed select keen observers who had noted the vast bloodletting in America, just as there were some European voices raised against the ferocious and unevenly matched wars associated with European imperialist conquest in Africa and Asia. But precisely because those areas were remote from Europe, many disregarded these frightening omens as inapplicable.

poll results on exploration

JLEWIS: To what degree do you see contemporary political trends in this country as being simply the latest reflection of common historical processes, and/or to what extent, if any, do you see today’s activities as being a unique new synthesis?

LIULEVICIUS: I would opt for the latter, I think… broad historical patterns can assert themselves, but ultimately choices are made by historical actors anew, rather than being locked in. Would you agree? Which way does your thinking tend?

VOLS96: I’m a University of Tennessee grad and wondered of all the universities in the world you could teach at why you chose UT? (Not that it’s a bad thing! :))

LIULEVICIUS: First of all, Go Vols! Thanks for a great question from a Tennessee grad. Our history department here has marvelous colleagues doing fantastic work of original research. Working with talented undergraduates and ambitious, focused, and insightful graduate students is a great pleasure. And then there is the beauty of the Smoky Mountains right next door.

BAY0WULF: How do you determine, from among the many sources and viewpoints of any given event, which to accept as “Historical Fact” or “Credible Source” over those you do not? How do you balance completely valid although opposing points of view of an incident and come up with a determination of which you accept to be … or espouse as the “Historically Correct” viewpoint?

LIULEVICIUS: You’ve stated the problem with admirable clarity. And yet this problem is not unique to historians. In our daily lives we often face the question of who or what to believe. So one deploys critical skills of comparing opposing or complementary accounts, judging credibility in general, and faithfulness to particulars. The result may not be total certainty, but a balanced view of probabilities.

BAY0WULF: How do you determine, from among the many sources and viewpoints of any given event, which to accept as “Historical Fact” or “Credible Source” over those you do not? How do you balance completely valid although opposing points of view of an incident and come up with a determination of which you accept to be … or espouse as the “Historically Correct” viewpoint?

LIULEVICIUS: You’ve stated the problem with admirable clarity. And yet this problem is not unique to historians. In our daily lives we often face the question of who or what to believe. So one deploys critical skills of comparing opposing or complementary accounts, judging credibility in general, and faithfulness to particulars. The result may not be total certainty, but a balanced view of probabilities.

RAY: Does the current war in the Ukraine have roots in WWI and or WWII?

LIULEVICIUS: That is a fascinating question. In the context of WWI, an attempt was made at Ukrainian independence, but the land was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Likewise, WWII saw vast and deadly violence in Ukraine, and memories of that ordeal have been invoked today. But I would want to turn it around a bit, for this reason: if one draws a direct line from conflicts already decades in the past, it suggests that current actors on the scene are driven by the past, rather than the choices they make in the present day. For better or worse, the choices people make are their own.

  LIULEVICIUS: I recently published a book titled, The German Myth of the East: 1800 to the Present. Learn more about it here: http://www.oup.com/uk/catalogue/?ci=9780199546312

GARY DOUGHTEN: Could it be reasonably argued that two of the most fundamental driving forces behind all historical wars were due to the aggressive competition for natural resources and the preservation (or promotion) of pride (race or personal) by those who were in power?

LIULEVICIUS: Debate on the causes of war has been enduring. One should add to your list wars of religion and ideology, as well.

GUILLERMO GARCIA: The Roman empire had the toughest enemy it probably ever encountered with the Huns. These nomads from the steppes, as the Mongols would later come along, peoples who were born into battle, were their undoing. However, I understand that with another Marius in 378 the Romans could have stood as an empire for another couple of centuries easily. Here we come again to the role of chance. What do you think?

LIULEVICIUS: The role of individuals in history, and the chance that attends their being present and available for the roles they can play, is a profound debate. Thinking about alternative history brings that helpfully into focus, but certainty is hard to gain there.

SCOREJUNIORE: Regarding World War I, other than the extreme financial headwinds which facilitated WWII, what two other conditions led to the build up of Hitler’s Reich?

LIULEVICIUS: Many historians see the traumatic experiences of the First World War as another factor that affected German society: the shame of defeat, rejection of the outcomes of the war, and receptiveness to radical ideology.

JAMES: I read that terrorism is included within your area of expertise. What appears to be the best way to get rid of religiously motivated terrorism today? Is it possible? Another question: have governments usually taken an effective or well-advised course of action in fighting terrorism in the recent past?

LIULEVICIUS: No need to apologize for a generic question: those are the big issues that are helpful to think about! Terrorism is not exclusively a religious phenomenon. On the contrary, the term’s origins in the French Revolution underline that it can often be secular as well. Are the social roots of such movements the most important, or the ideas and ideologies they propose?

JOHN CLUTCHER: How do you think George Patton would have done as President after WWII? Could this have prevented the cold war – or at least made it less problematic?

LIULEVICIUS: That is a startling alternative history scenario! Historians joke that it is hard enough to predict the past. Would your suggestion mean that the Cold War was mostly formed by the personalities involved, or social and political factors?

photo of Professor Liulevicius at the memorial to the doomed 1845 Sir John Franklin Arctic Expedition
Professor Liulevicius at the chapel of the Naval College, Greenwich, UK, at the memorial to the doomed 1845 Sir John Franklin Arctic Expedition

JOHN CLUTCHER: Have you considered doing any biographies for the Great Courses? Thanks in advanced – I’ve enjoyed Turning Points in Modern History, World War I: The “Great War”, Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century & Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History.

LIULEVICIUS: Thank you for your question, and your kind words about my courses. I think biography is a powerful and attractive mode of understanding the past. A course on the biographies of kings and queens, famous and notorious, would be a lot of fun. Please pass your suggestions to the Great Courses staff–they are very interested in customer feedback and suggestions!

RONALD J SMITH: Why do you think the Ottomans entered WWI on the side of the Central Powers instead of the Entente? To regain their former No. African states? Because they thought they could gain the Caucasus? Or because they thought Germany would win? Interesting that they wound up on side of Austria-Hungary after fighting them in the past.

LIULEVICIUS: Historians have pointed out that the Ottoman regime worked on the assumption that they would be drawn into the war either way, or indeed partitioned in an overall settlement if they stayed out. German political elites worked to cultivate relationships, quite effectively.

THOMAS VISEL: Given Kaiser Wilhelm’s intrigues to stir jihad in the Middle East, Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and support Mexican attack against the United States, do you think the Germans had a coherent concept of subversion during World War I?

LIULEVICIUS: Excellent question! Their concept might have been coherent in theory, but they regretted some of the consequences of that policy. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

JUDI: I have 3 original letters from Friedrich Klausing (nicknamed Klaus) who was a member of the Valkyrie Plot. I had these translated & find them to be very interesting because of the names & places he mentions. Also, he wrote very well. Little is known about this man. The letters were written during WWII when he was recovering from wounds & were sent to a member of my husband’s family.  I also have over 230 letters from a 3-star general of the Luftwaffe who was the grandfather of my husband’s cousin. The cousin is deceased and his widow neither speaks nor writes any German and she gave them to me, knowing how interested I am in WWII. What do you suggest I do with these (what I consider to be) historical documents?

LIULEVICIUS: Thank you for your inquiry. Those letters sound very interesting. At the University of Tennessee, I direct the Center for the Study of War and Society, where we collect oral histories and documents like letters, especially from the Second World War. Our website is: http://csws.utk.edu. There one can find information on how to donate materials, and how to sign up for our free twice-yearly newsletter.

DONNA: I was born during WW2 and I remember it only as history, not live. My children were born during Vietnam and also remember it only as history. Given how fast memories fade about historical lessons we should be learning, what do you think is needed for humans to retain memories, learn from them, and act accordingly?

LIULEVICIUS: Yours is a very important question. Part of the answer lies in cultivating historical consciousness and imagination through reading key sources and reflections by people who lived through those epic events. Historical amnesia is dangerous to a society.

A CIOFFI: Can you see the present day U.S. is on the same path as Rome was in the late 4th century (when Rome could not control her borders!)?

LIULEVICIUS: Rome has always been a potent exemplar of politics in Western Civilization and constantly stirs reflections concerning rise and decline, republic and empire.

KEN CARNEGIS: I am Greek and my great uncle fought in the Balkan wars and for the US in WWI. What direct influence did those wars have on WWI starting in that region if any?

LIULEVICIUS: It is fascinating when family history intersects with epic events. What got called the “Eastern Question”, to a great extent centered on the Balkans, raised the temperature of international rivalries in the lead up to WWI. Before the holidays, the Great Courses will release my new course, “A History of Eastern Europe”, which covers this and may be of interest.

DAN FRANKE: I’m sure you’ll be reviewing Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” very soon, if you haven’t done so already, but could you perhaps give a bit of a preview of what you think of the book? In particular, perhaps the advantages/disadvantages of an ecological perspective on the “Bloodlands” and the Holocaust? Do you see any ecological factors connecting the First and Second World Wars in Eastern Europe, or shaping the conduct of the First World War there?

LIULEVICIUS: Snyder’s Bloodlands is fascinating, and powerfully written. His work is tremendously thought-provoking.

MARYA: Have you ever traveled to Germany and/or Austria? If so, how have those travels altered your view of the World Wars? (I ask because I lived in Austria for three years, and while living there received an entirely new perspective. I feel there is so much that is glossed over or ignored in American re-telling of those events.)

LIULEVICIUS: You are entirely correct that visiting or living in the sites themselves is most useful and alters perspectives. I know how much I gained from research in Germany and in Austria. The categories of a culture only become clear after intense observation.

KEN STRUMPF: By the end of 1914 it must have been obvious to all combatants that the war would last for years and be extremely costly. Why was there no serious effort to end the war diplomatically?

LIULEVICIUS: Historians point out that the very sacrifices of the previous years made a compromise less likely, because then how could elites justify the costs already laid down?

JAMES NORWOOD: I enjoyed your lecture on Thomas Walsingham, who arguably created the first modern spy network in Elizabethan England. In your opinion, was the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe a spy working for Walsingham? Was Marlowe’s death under suspicious circumstances in a tavern brawl in reality the story of “the man who knew too much?”

LIULEVICIUS: Thanks for your kind words. What fascination there is in trying to puzzle out what really happened in a dark tavern centuries ago?! It is hard to know, and dispute continues.

CATHERINE BOLTON BROWN: I think Ida Pfeiffer made up that part about having the sailors tie her to the mast in the tempest! I think she took Homer along to read in her cabin! What is the role of fantastic fictions in mapping the Unknown?

LIULEVICIUS: Thanks for a great question. As I stress in my course on explorers, fantastic or fraudulent travel literature spurred many real voyages. Isn’t that a great paradox?!

CATHERINE BOLTON BROWN: Have you seen the Economist magazine article about Indiana Jones botanists-fighting the Narcos in Peru, driving up and back a mined road in Lebanon during the Civil War, and slicing off leeches with machetes as they chased down and brought back rare specimen? It says 80,000 flowering plants are likely to be out there somewhere. Sounds like your Voyaging Explorers to me! (September 12-18, 2015 Economist magazine)

LIULEVICIUS: I had not seen that article… thank you for the citation!

JOKER573: Do you believe there is more cyber espionage now or are we being mislead in order to do our own cyber sleuthing?

LIULEVICIUS: Clearly, there is cyberespionage aplenty on all sides. It has ever been thus, that a new technology is exploited to the hilt.

EHM: What caused WWI to end, and how much did each of the following contribute to that– the Spanish Flu, German manpower and material losses, the cost of the war, political influences, and the U. S. entering the war?

LIULEVICIUS: All those played a role. German exhaustion became obvious even in their advances in the spring offensive of 1918, and German soldiers were shocked to see the plenty in terms of food and supplies in Allied trenches they overran, showing that the balance was tipping or had already done so.

MARIANNE: Given Russia’s involvement in Syria and Ukraine, what do you see happening to the Kaliningrad area and the Baltic States?

LIULEVICIUS: Clearly, there is profound potential for geopolitical anxiety here.

JERRY HAYES: Where do you think Putin is going with his Syrian adventure?

LIULEVICIUS: Putin aims to support his ally, Assad, and help him remain in power.

VICTORIA: Do you think that Putin has any real weakness that should be exploited but the U.S. is blind to it? laba diena!

LIULEVICIUS: Thanks for your question (sveiki). Unfortunately, I think the weakness has been on the contrary in responses in the West towards aggressive moves to alter borders in Eastern Europe in the present. Will that be the new normal?

MEHBOOB HAMZA: Have historians considered applying mathematics in modeling and determining rhyme and rhythm from past events and perhaps prognosticate potential time frames of tension, conflict, turning points? Economists are doing it all the time and even market theory has developed in spotting trends, etc.

LIULEVICIUS: That has been the aim of a considerable group of historians for at least the last half century. Here at the University of Tennessee a workshop was recently held to plan models for conflict and aggression.

JOSEPH FIORILE: From your expert perspective – why does brutal conflict still exist in so-called modern times?…should we not be moving on?

LIULEVICIUS: Thanks for your question. That’s precisely the quandary of our hopes for modernity and progress. Conflict reasserts itself, contradicting our aspirations.

RAY C HASELBY: Re WWI, Germany was a new country having been pasted together over only 40 years by Bismarck. Do you think the reckless behavior of Germany was powered by an immaturity of their national “character,” kind of like now we can act like others do?

LIULEVICIUS: Probably the key lies not so much in national character as such, but as the spirit that obtains in the political leadership. Bismarck gets faulted by historians for not cultivating habits of restraint in his own successors.

ROSS VAN FAROWE: I am representing Bosnia-Herzegovina in a historical simulation of the 1995 crisis. I was wondering if you have any information that could help me with this.

LIULEVICIUS: There are many fine volumes on the crisis. For a longer-term perspective, elegant and brief, see Mark Mazower’s The Balkans.

RYAN CAVANAUGH: What are your thoughts regarding the current ushering in of Syrian, and other, Islamic refugees into the EU? Do you feel that the presence of The Other on such a dynamic scale will create chaos and perhaps a Balkanization of European countries?

LIULEVICIUS: As the news reports indicate, this is a deep crisis for European countries, and for the European Union project. Europe has seen large population movements in the recent past (with WWII) and in the remote past. Clearly, these events will shape Europe’s trajectory for decades to come, or longer.

photo of Professor Liulevicius by the Reichstag building, Berlin, Germany
Professor Liulevicius by the Reichstag building, Berlin, Germany

KEN P.: It has been argued that the generals in WWI had to go through a “learning experience” which accounts for the horrible slaughter such as at the Somme before they learned the realities of modern mechanized warfare. Is this a reasonable view or were the generals either incompetent or monumentally stubborn?

LIULEVICIUS: Could not both obtain? Both slowness to understand, with bloody consequences, AND a protracted process of adjusting?

JANE BINKOFF: Do you think that in the face-off between Putin and Obama, whichever one bends a little will be perceived by the rest of the world as weak, so that neither of them can move? Won’t this lead to a standoff?

LIULEVICIUS: That would seem to be true of almost all stand-offs, right?

JACK H: I just read a fascinating article by Graham Allison in The Atlantic, entitled “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” He sees a pattern going back to the Pelopponesian War concerning how the interactions between a rising power (China in this instance) and a dominant power (USA now) has often led to war through mistakes on both sides in handling the changing relative power relationships. Do you have any thoughts on that issue?

LIULEVICIUS: In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Imperial Germany saw itself as dynamic and a rising power. Clearly, this scenario is one that occurs again and again in history.

MICHAEL MURPHY: What is your general opinion about popular history books such as written by the late Barbara Tuchman? Do you have any favorite popular history writers/books?

LIULEVICIUS: Tuchman was a great writer, and I think the genre is valuable. Couldn’t academic history aspire to reach broader audiences? Recently, I admired Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval.

LINDA LEE: Can you cite a positive consequence of war, in general?

LIULEVICIUS: History is replete with all the detail of the human tragedy that is war, yet states resort to it, as have struggles for independence from foreign rule.

DON SCHWARTZ: How would Bismarck have handled the present situation in the Middle East today?

LIULEVICIUS: That is an excellent and challenging question! It is made harder by Bismarck’s intense focus on pursuing above all the interests of Prussia, and then the German empire. When the Great Powers were partitioning Africa in brutal fashion, he indicated that he saw the balance of power in Europe as the key.

ROY HALLLIDAY: Why did the allies and central powers learn nothing from the technological horrors of the American civil war?

LIULEVICIUS: Excellent question. Many European military thinkers slighted the Americans as less civilized, and thus not worth learning from.

Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
All of his lecture series are available to stream on The Great Courses Plus.