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THE ASSIGNMENT:

Ede and Cormack argue that technological developments in warfare in the twentieth century led to the “death of certainty.” Describe how major warfare advancements among the major global powers in the twentieth century led to the emergence of Big Science. (500 words)

Introduction to the Second World War (1939 – 1945)

The Second World War (1939 – 1945), also known as World War Two, was a watershed period for humanity that led to technological innovation and mass advancement in weapons capability. This is best illustrated by the final acts of war, when the United States bombed the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima with atomic weapons in August of 1945, killing approximately 130, 000 to 225,000 people.

The carnage of the Great War, to some degree, prepared people for the horrors and shock of trench warfare, but the application of civilian bombardment with flight technology made the effects of war, particularly on the home front of Europe, all the more traumatic and pressing. Moreover, the application of science–in the form biological warfare–was used to undertake genocide in a manner that reflected the kind sadistic imperialism that Europeans had been cultivating for several centuries.

In the clips above, you will review the causes and effects of the Second World War in support of the Learning Outcomes above.

Introduction to Eugenics as a Scientific Ideology and Practice

As we saw in our study of the Great War, ideas about social Darwinism, or survival of the fittest, were not abandoned in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century spurred new interest in the patterns in the idea that science could be utilized to improve upon human biology through natural selection. Eugenics is a term used to describe the selection of desired heritable characteristics in order to improve future generations, typically in reference to humans. As we learned in a previous week, scientific racism was rampant in imperial narratives of ‘progress’ and contribution to the notion that Europeans were destined (and righteous) in colonizing the world through any means necessary.

The term eugenics was coined in the 1880s by the British scientist Francis Galton, who was influenced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Eugenics typically advocated for social Darwinism, or ‘survival of the fittest’ and a system that would enable society to survive by engineering a population with purportedly ‘pure blood.’ You are likely familiar with the concepts and motivations of eugenics as a subfield of science because World World Two (WWII), when Hitler and the Nazi’s exterminated over 6 million people–among them Jews, trans-people, the disabled, Black and Brown folks, and even homosexual men–in pursuit of the ‘perfect’ race of Germanic and white people in the Holocaust. What you may not know, is that the psuedoscience of eugenics had its roots in scientific racism, and was practically a respectable field of study in many parts of the western world leading into WWII, including Canada and the United States. Students are encouraged to explore the scope and nature of eugenic laws in Canada by exploring the chart from the Historica Canada, you can access the larger article via this Link.
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Eugenic ideologies were not exclusive to Germany during the Second World War (1939 – 1945); they influenced how people imagined society in the western world more broadly, and sought to engineer this kind of society through medical and scientific practices.

The United States was a leading nation in the field of eugenics in the early twentieth century and as the chart above illustrates, there was also prominent politicians in Canada who advocated for ‘race hygiene,’ or eugenics. Here is a diagram that outlines that the Canadian historical perspectives on eugenics. Several prominent politicians and figures–including Tommy Douglas and Nellie McClung, were in support of public policies that were eugenic in nature, including those from some Canadian provinces that forced sterilization for some members of the population, including disabled people. To give you context and more information on what eugenics is, the forms it took, and the ways in which it was expressed into legal and social practice beyond Nazi Germany, please watch this playlist on eugenics and biological power in support of the Learning Outcomes below:

WATCH: War on the Weak: Eugenics in American (10 min.)

The Holocaust

During the Great War, many scientific authorities and political leaders supported eugenics. The Great War, to some degree, was inspired by the principles of social Darwinism. But eugenics, underwent significant criticisms in the 1930s and ’40s, when the assumptions of eugenicists were used by the Nazi Party to undertake mass exterminations of people who were considered to be ‘defective,’ or not of ‘pure’ racial character. The magnitude and horrors of the Holocaust can’t be understated, and quite frankly entire courses are dedicated to the study of the Holocaust–including the causes, the effects, the ongoing legacy, and these discussions fuel larger debates over how we can ensure that a nightmare like this never happens again.

Please take a moment to watch the clip below in support of the Learning Outcomes listed below.

he Great War (1914 – 1918)

What was ‘great’ about the Great War? Well despite inflicting untold death and suffering on millions of people, it propelled scientific and technological advancements. This section of the course explores the themes of science and war by considering the incubation of what Ede & Cormack term ‘big science’ during the First World War.

Introduction to the Great War (1914 – 1918)

What was so ‘great’ about it? Nothing, really. Millions died, entire populations were ravaged, and a worldwide flu pandemic toward the end of the war made it even worse. On the other hand, the Great War promulgated advances in science that would chart a course for an explosion of rapid technological change, ultimately establishing the twentieth century as the century of technological revolution.

Before we get into, let’s get one thing straight, the Great War has many names, including the Chemist’s War, the First World War, the Second World War, and was sometimes, as it happened, referred to as “the war to end all wars.” It can get confusing and is a topic of debate amoung historians. While we, as a current generation, may look back and mark this conflict in the context of the Second World War, contemporary populations living through the Great War (1914 – 1919) did not have time machines, and did not know that a second global conflict would loom twenty years in the future. The practice of assigning modern or recent markers of chronological, ideological, or political viewpoints to past is typically considered anachronistic.

Anachronism, simply, a term that means: belonging to a period other than that which is being portrayed or written about. If we were to term it the First World War, that would mean that we are projecting our chronological markers on a population of people who did not refer to it as the first of the wars, they called is something else, usually the Great War, or the war. You may refer to it with any of the names included above, though my personal preference is to use Great War or Chemist’s War as a nod to Ede & Cormack’s marker of the war with a scientific lens.

Much of the historiographical debate is centered around how World War One started, and who started it are tied to discussions of imperialism being challenged by rising nationalistic sentiment, or nationalism, in various regional contexts in Europe. As you will learn, some of the general reasons war broke out in 1914 include:

the breakdown of the European alliance system;
competitive arms build-up leading into the conflict;
secret treaties;
rising tensions between rising nationalism and the power structures of imperialism;

This is putting it simply, to review how the Great War started and who started it, please access these two resources in support of the Learning Outcomes below:

WATCH: WWI – The Playlist

WATCH: The Roads to World War I (15 min.)

WATCH: How World War I Started (9 min.)

WATCH: Who Started WWI (11 min.)

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Introduction to Big Science

The Great War, although not the most bloody or disastrous, was an an instigator of rapid technological advancements. Simply, science is power, and the Great War instigated a shift to large scale scientific research in service of the nation, state industry, and military expansionism, a trend Ede & Cormack (2012) term big science. They also highlight that this conflict set the stage for a continued break with “certainty” into the twentieth century. Ede & Cormack’s chapters Science and War and The Death of Certainty each highlight the collateral damage and advances in science and technology that emerged from the Great War. They, along with other scholars, have argued that humanity ‘grew-up’ as a result of the Great War, as the Enlightenment ideals of universal progress were shattered amid the horror of a geographical expansive and culturally traumatic conflict. It resulted in the breakdown of traditional structures of class, power, and time and also moved the world toward a more global identity.

The context of these changes took place amid:

the continuation of imperialism as a collaboration of science and capitalism;
the emergence of nationalism as factor in the institutionalization of big science;
the application of advances to chemistry, including the development of chemical warfare;
the rising acceptance of new models of medicine and disease, including the emergence of the germ theory of diseases as well as the professionalization of doctoring and nursing;
rising literacy in parts of the world, including the west.

Technological, Cultural & Social Change

Rising social and cultural complexity leading into the twentieth century factored into the social context of the Great War conditions that were influenced by multiple factors, including, but not limited to: shift to urbanization, the rise of consumer capitalism and mass production and consumption, increased access to popular technologies like trains, photography, automobiles, and moving pictures, or films. These new forms of mobility, individualism, and expression were part of a larger period of cultural, literary and artistic experimentation and innovation.

Paradoxically, popular and artistic forms, in addition to reflecting rising complexity, also capturing the death and destruction of human loss as a result of the war. Look no further than Surrealism
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, which was method of painting and expression that captured the destruction of common forms, and the images captured for students to analyze in Discussion Post #2 – Science and War.

The Chemist’s War

Ede & Cormack term the Great War the Chemist’s War because of the application of chemical warfare during the early stages of the war. The Chemists’ War
(Links to an external site.)
use of industrial fertilizer (nitrates) to make explosives through the synthesis of ammonia was critical to German successes in the Great War. On 22 April 1915 at Ypres Belgium, 5000 were killed when German forces released chemical ammonia, or mustard gas, on Canadian and British forces at the Battle of the Ypres.

In support of the Learning Outcomes below, students are required to read two short first-hand accounts of Ypres, one from a Canadian soldier who survived, but was targeted by the attack, the other from a German solider who watched the horror unfold across the landscape.

“Then passive curiosity turned to active torment – a burning sensation in the head, red-hot needles in the lungs, the throat seized as by a strangler. Many fell and died on the spot. The others, gasping, stumbling with faces contorted, hands wildly gesticulating, and uttering hoarse cries of pain, fled madly through the villages and farms and through Ypres itself, carrying panic to the remnants of the civilian population and filling the roads with fugitives of both sexes and all ages.”

Please access the full entry for the German solider and Canadian soldier here: Link
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Historical Research Methods

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Summary

During the Great War, long-standing social, political, and economic standards were shattered. After the war ended, the global population was ravished by a worldwide flu pandemic from 1918 to 1920. Millions more died, but the memory of this disease was largely forgotten by subsequent generations, while the war effort was commemorated and integrated in the collective memory. The 1920s ushered in a temporary era of prosperity and material abundance in the United States and the west, but this ended haltingly with the economic despair of the Great Depression during the 1930s. Then, as we will see in a future week of the course, the horrors of war took on meaning in the context of the rates civilian death and state-sponsored genocide during World War Two.

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