How would you explain why WWI started to an eight-year-old?
March 3, 2014 7:08 AM   Subscribe

My son has recently gotten interested in history. He's been asking a lot of questions. I paid attention in high school, took some history classes in college, and read some history in spare time. So, I can often provide a halfway decent answer to his questions. However, I really didn't know what to say when he asked me this weekend why WWI started and what the war was "about". I said some vauge things about Archiduke Ferdinand and pre-exsiting tensions and alliances. I am sure, based on his past behavior, he wasn't satisfied and will ask again. I'd like to do better next time. I've read books on this topic, but don't know how to distill them into an answer. What would you recommend saying? I want to help him understand what happened, at least to the level he can appreciate at this age, while avoiding the sort of pat explanations that might make the war seem sensible or noble.
posted by Area Man to Education (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Schools usually sum up the underlying causes as MAIN:


With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand serving as the "spark" that causes these underlying factors to explode into war. I think the key will just be explaining complex theories like "imperialism" to an 8-year-old, but I bet you can do it!
posted by leitmotif at 7:15 AM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I don't know all the details son, but It was all about the last vestiges of Empires. Kings were afraid of losing power to different forms of government, elected officials, or even anarchy, So everyone was snatching land and resources before it all blew up, and guess what, it all blew up into WWI. Archduke Ferdinand was just the straw that broke the camel's back."
posted by Gungho at 7:17 AM on March 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

The BBC has put together a site about the First World War for schools, including a section on the causes of the war (you have to click through up at the top, which wasn't obvious to met at first). I imagine there's other centenary stuff appearing online aimed at children.

(There are going to be kids' history books that explain it, but I think the tricky part is finding one that isn't totally focused on the US. I had some as a kid, but they were all British (and thus totally focused on Britain, but at least didn't ignore everything before the US entry into the war).)
posted by hoyland at 7:23 AM on March 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

At 8 I was devouring history books for children. Mostly Time-life encyclopedia stuff. This looks like an OK resource along those lines (on WWII so maybe there's a related WWI book).
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:48 AM on March 3, 2014

My son really enjoyed these history books at about that age. They were a bit of a PITA to find in the US back then. Not sure what the situation is today.
posted by COD at 7:52 AM on March 3, 2014

Interestingly, new interpretations of the causes and reasons for the war were put forward recently. The facts are widely know, but our understanding of the war is mainly based on interpretations and an understanding of the world from the 1960s.
If you're interested to read more about the WWI for yourself, check out Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Chris Clark [reviews: NYT, Guardian].
posted by travelwithcats at 8:16 AM on March 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Everyone wanted to fight, and when their friends started fighting, they jumped in.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:23 AM on March 3, 2014

What I remember from my "Modern Europe" class in college is basically "England and France had empires that they wanted to protect, Austria-Hungary and a recently unified Germany wanted to have empires of their own, everyone built up their militaries in a way that made everyone else nervous, and any major power not mentioned above had alliances with at least one of the four."
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:50 AM on March 3, 2014

The Simple Wikipedia entry for WWI isn't perfect, but it's not awful.

Also, might be a little over his head but kids often are interested in military technology so what the heck... Another contributing factor to why WWI played out as it did, in addition to the broader geopolitical manuvering, and not more like the Franco-Prussian war 40 years previously was a few coincidences of military technological evolution.

This is a gross oversimplification but in essense the guns had gotten good enough that a group of infantry could destroy a calvary attack, and while a number of technologies that would revolutionize military mobility were just coming into being (armored cars, tanks, airplanes, portable radio) in the early part of the war none of them were really in place yet, which meant that a tactic that had governed earlier conflicts (break enemy infantry with a massed charge and force it to retreat, capitalize on the retreating force by riding it down with calvary thus creating a "break through" in the enemy line) was no longer effective.

The upshot of this was that it meant that the fastest a front could move was the speed of a marching infantry soldier, thus restricting manuverability and, for a time, preventing the kind of breakouts and rapid encirclements that marked previous conflicts.

Another factor at play here was the sheer scale of the armies that the newly industrialized powers were able to put in the field within days of starting mobilizing. Germany alone had a total standing and reserved forces of ~4,500,000 in 1914. By comparison Napoleon's Grande Armée 100 years before was probably just over 500,000 men. If your kids knows the American Civil War the Army of the Potomac, the Union army in the east, never got much higher than ~120,000 troops at a time. We're talking crazy huge numbers of guys, on fronts that stretched not for miles but from Switzerland to the English Channel in the west, and comparable distances in the east.

(Whew that got long... Kind of cringing at my oversimplifications here but I don't think there are any errors of fact.)
posted by Wretch729 at 10:43 AM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

To provide my own oversimplification (and focus on a couple of things that generally get lost in the wash): Austria-Hungary wanted to punish Serbia and regain control in the Balkans, Russia wanted to grab the Straits (plus Constantinople and some surrounding territory) from Turkey and most of Galicia from Austria, and both thought they could accomplish their goals without too much trouble. Unfortunately for Austria, attacking Serbia brought Russia in, and unfortunately for Russia, you couldn't fight Austria without fighting Germany as well, and once the whole system of alliances kicked in it was Katy bar the door.
posted by languagehat at 11:03 AM on March 3, 2014

For a humorous, yet fact-filled (well, fact related anyway) take on the topic, see here:
Blackadder Goes Forth- "How Did the War Start?"
posted by EKStickland at 12:10 PM on March 3, 2014

If you're interested to read more about the WWI for yourself, check out Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Chris Clark

I am about 75 pages into this and it is outstanding.
posted by Kwine at 1:00 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rather than setting out to be the keeper of all knowledge, this is a GREAT opportunity for you and your son to do some exploring together on the internet and at the library. The next time he asks you something you don't remember the details of, say to him, "I'm not sure! Wanna help me find out?" And then go show him how to use google or a library system to find the answer. Empowers both of you to be knowledge seekers. :) Bonding time, too!
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:39 PM on March 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think I would take the kid to the library, and ask a reference librarian and a children's librarian for some help. Because going to the library is fun, going with Dad is even more fun, and reference librarians are really good at finding information.
posted by theora55 at 9:55 PM on March 3, 2014

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