Over the past three weeks, I’ve been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series entitled “Blueprint for Armageddon.” With six episodes and over 22 hours total, it was a major undertaking. And I
don’t didn’t even like history! Like a good story teller does, he pulls you in and weaves a tale that you want to listen to, almost regardless of the content. But in the process, I became fascinated with the war itself, the technological changes, and the process of trying to imagine what it was like on the ground and what it was like to be alive and in the world at that time.
I think like most Americans who experience the normal high school curriculum, my experience with learning World War I was in March/April of my sophomore year, at which point we highlighted enough major details (trench warfare, Wilson’s 14 points, Entente vs. Allies) in order to understand the seeds of World War II. We would move on quickly to World War II, which ran into the last weeks of the year and the cold war/60s/70s/80s were oh-by-the-way mentioned. You get the distinct message that WWI just isn’t worth focusing on, but in this (extensive) telling of the story, I was amazed at how, on many fronts other than just military history like the development of technology and social movements, this war set up not just WWII but an entire era that affects our beliefs today.
As someone who has been very aware and interested in the technological changes of the last two decades and its impact on education, I had no frame for understanding the technological changes that happened at the turn of the 20th century. I learned about the ships, guns, railroads, automobiles, airplanes, radio, and the effect this all has. For example, the naval captains, having earned their stripes in old war times, would still use flags to communicate orders from ship to ship, neglecting that messages could be sent by radio. The trenches, such a fixture of the WWI legacy, were basically obsolete once the British and French rolled in their tanks in 1917. The tanks that German military leaders has scoffed at the idea of.
Carlin repeatedly puts you into the moment and exposes your assumptions. An image we are more familiar with, like World War II German soldiers, was not at all what armies looked like at the beginning of WWI (see picture above). Around 1917, they begin to look like WWII solders, but it was wrapped up in this huge transition from old war to new war. They didn’t even wear camouflage at the beginning of the war! But why would they? This was the first time you have air reconnaissance with the advent of planes and zeppelins. I could go on and on with examples of how the stories exposed my misconceptions and gave me new understandings and perspectives about what the battlefield might have looked like, but you get the idea.
Carlin tells a compelling human story. He quotes often from memoirs of the people who were there (and lists all the reading material at the bottom of the episode pages), whether it’s the soldiers in the trenches, the generals at the top, or the people at home. It truly feels like you are standing next to the person, trying to imagine what it would be like to be there. But Carlin also tells a world story of nations, ideologies, technologies, and geographies. His ability to zoom back out, drawing large themes and comparisons of battles and social movements across space and time, connected and made relevant the stories of WWI and the human experience across history.
The crazy thing too, for me, is that I grew up in France, surrounded by this history, and really never paid attention. I remember seeing the WWI artwork in the Pompidou Center and going to the Armistice train car in Compiègne. The images are in my memory but I never understood their context. Now I want to go back and visit these places: Verdun, Amiens, Ypres, and Passchendaele, to stand where soldiers stood. While listening, I frequently looked up the places on Google maps to see where the battles were, like Galipolli and the Isonzo River in Italy. Also, I want to read Lord of the Rings again with new contextual understanding for the time period in which Tolkien wrote.
The most meaningful part, though, of listening to this podcast was not in the listening itself, but in talking to others about it. My husband has been a longtime Hardcore History listener (and gets full credit for finding it), and as I’ve been catching up, we’ve had many interesting conversations that have helped me understand things better. He’s always been a history buff; me not so much. It’s given us another topic for us to explore together. But while he is an auditory learner and always liked lectures and now podcasts, I’m a much better visual learner. It has taken me years to listen to the radio or podcasts and remember what I’ve heard. Getting to repeat things back and discuss with him has made a difference both in my ability to learn this way and my understanding of the content.
This was also true of the conversation I had with my dad a week ago. He was a Marine in between Korea and Vietnam and always an aficionado of military history, but this was never a point of connection for us. I had just listened to the segment about Verdun while driving to visit him, and we sat and talked about it for an hour, mostly with him telling me more stories that he remembered about battles and what it was like for him as a kid right after WWII. It’s the connections.
I’m always conscious of my use of technology and how it might be perceived, and when people criticize my generation as always walking around mindlessly with earbuds in, I wonder what they assume I’m listening to. I’ll bet they wouldn’t guess a history of WWI! Podcasts have become learning I can listen to as I walk the dogs, ride the bus, do the dishes, or, as was in this case, learn to repair cloth diapers. There have been a few times where my husband and I were both walking around the house with earbuds in, listening to podcasts. We frequently interrupt each other to share something we heard or thought, and for us, it’s just like sitting next to each other reading. Before you assume that someone is just listening to another one of those terrible new rap songs, interrupt them and ask because they might just have something interesting to connect with you about.
Next up for me, after I get back to some of the academic reading I’ve been neglecting, is the episode Apache Tears. I know nothing of this conflict yet, though Carlin has mentioned it in other podcasts.
If you like the idea of listening to the Hardcore History podcasts and want to start with something shorter than 22 hours, I would recommend Logical Insanity, which is one of my favorites, or Thor’s Angels. Right now, you can download the WWI series for free, but Carlin archives his episodes and eventually you have to pay a mere $1.99 for them.