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University of Chicago historian Michael Geyer examined the causes of World War I and its longer-lasting effects before an audience of 110 people gathered Feb. 20 for the 2014 Mary Stevens Reckford Lecture in European Studies, hosted by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities.

Geyer, the Samuel N. Harper Professor of German and European History, offered a revisionist account of the causes of World War I, which he believes was almost completely inevitable. The three empires of Eastern Europe – Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian – were not sustainable because nationalism was Europe’s future, he said. Only if a non-violent means for dissolving these empires into constituent nation-states was found could the war have been avoided.

A mistaken focus on Western Europe feeds the many fantasies in which historians imagine that the war does not take place, said Geyer. Admittedly, German insecurity did play a large role in the mistakes that nation made in 1914. But Geyer urged the audience to shift its gaze eastward if it really wanted to understand the war.  Once the war created a Europe entirely organized into nation-states, its larger lesson is that such states can only co-exist in peace if they abandon unrealistic commitments to invulnerable self-sufficiency.

Geyer ended by discussing briefly how World War I, by 1918, had become a “total war,” erasing the traditional distinction between combatants and non-combatants, thus opening the way for the horrors of the Second World War

This year’s Reckford Lecture marked the opening of a series of events to be held on the UNC campus to commemorate the centenary of World War I.  The Institute for the Arts and Humanities, in partnership with the College of Arts and Sciences and King’s College London, has scheduled more than 20 undergraduate courses, a lecture series, three academic conferences and various artistic performances to enable reflection on the war and its legacies.  Many of these events will be open to the public.

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