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Scientific section > The teaching about the First World War in the school syllabuses

The teaching about the First World War in the school syllabuses

Image locale (image propre et limitée à l'article, invisible en médiathèque)
La Grande Guerre 1914-15 - En Alsace - Ecole faite dans une cour de ferme par un maître soldat.
© Musée national de l'éducation


History is something the French are passionate about in general as well as teaching at school as can be seen in the debates or even the controversies that have often surrounded it. In most cases these controversies have centred on school course books. Three things which need to be clearly distinguished are often confused:  the syllabuses, course books and the reality of teaching in the classroom.

As a starting point it’s worth looking at a few specific points. Only the syllabuses are the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and appear in an official publication. The way they are put together has varied over time. The National Board of Education played a major role up until 1989, when a National Syllabus Committee was established, the role of which was to supervise “technical disciplinary groups” made up of university lecturers,  professors and inspectors. This Committee progressively disappeared between 2002 and 2004 to be replaced by “groups of experts”, directed by the National Board of Education and comprising high-school teachers, university lecturers and regional educational inspectors who put together the most recent syllabuses for junior and senior schools. These planned syllabuses were submitted to teachers as part of a consultation process before being presented, for comment, to the Higher Committee for Education. The bill for the future law on the reorganisation of Schools includes the return of a “Higher committee for syllabuses”.

In order to help teachers implement the syllabuses, the ministry is providing additional material which were first of all called  “official instructions” , then  “support documents”  and then finally  “class work resources”. This change in the terms used for the name given to this extra material is symbolic of the growing concern to respect the pedagogical freedom of teachers.

As for the course books, they are the sole responsibility of private publishers who compete with one another. They rely on teams consisting essentially of teachers to write them. The publication of these course books, before and after, is independent of the Ministry, in line with editorial freedom which was established at the beginning of the 1880s. Each school through “a teaching committee” made up of all the teachers of the discipline is then free to choose from among the course books. However, in order to be chosen the course books have to comply with the syllabuses, but they are not in themselves the syllabus and they can more or less be free in their expression. It is up to the teachers at each school to make their judgement when together they make their choice.

They are just one of the instruments available to pupils and teachers alike. Teachers can use other resources which in the digital era are ever more plentiful and they have a pedagogical freedom which leaves them with a lot of room for manoeuver.  For this reason it should be pointed out that what happens in the classroom cannot be put down simply to the course books alone.

It is nevertheless what is contained within them that has sparked various controversies. The controversy concerning the teaching about the Great War at the start of the 2012-2013 school year is an example among others: it was started in Le Figaro in its edition of 27 August 2012 by an article entitled “history course books are forgetting the heroes of the 14-18 war”. The article contained a photo of the Marshall Pétain on horseback during the victory parade of 14 July 1919. The article was scathing about the absence of references to his role during the First World War as well as the absence of Marshalls  Foch and Joffre in the new course books for the final year of junior school classes, in its reference to the new syllabuses coming into force at the start of the new school year. If one follows this logic, one would have to conclude that it was the new course books which were guilty of having deliberately erased the names of the marshals. In fact, when one takes the trouble to examine the contents of the successive syllabuses since the aftermath of the Great War one notices that these names never actually appeared in any of the syllabuses. This demonstrates the extent to which one tends to refer to the contents of the syllabuses without really knowing what they really are.

Our subject is to talk about the focus given to the Great War in the syllabuses. To do this more seriously, we should refer back to the texts of the syllabuses themselves in order to illustrate the significant changes in the emphasis that is given to the Great War. This point concerns more particularly the study of this focus in the syllabuses within secondary school education, but it’s worth also saying a word beforehand about the syllabuses in primary education.

I. The emphasis given to teaching about the Great War in primary school education

Teaching about the First World War was formally adopted within the first syllabuses for primary school education which were published after the war in 1923 : they stipulate that generally speaking a part of the study of the “main facts and principal dates of the history of France from 1610 to the present day” should be that of “the 1914-1918 war” without mentioning any other details.

But from the start of the war the Minister for public education, Albert Sarraut had called upon teachers to talk about the war and to “make children aware of current events and to exalt their patriotic faith within their hearts”.

In 1915 the minister sent out a circular to school teachers which read: “A school master that I cannot imagine is one who as a Frenchman does not recognise the existence of the war and who continues to live from his same lessons and duties and in this decisive hour can only address his pupils with the same old words”.

The 1914-1918 war has always been a part of the primary education syllabuses since 1923, without any further details. It must be remembered however that in the 1970s there was no explicit syllabus, history being one of the “learning activities”. It was only in the 1980s that real syllabuses, including the subject of the First World War made their return. Since then the teaching of this war has remained in the syllabuses up to and including the current syllabuses which were published in 2008, in which during, the primary school classes (CE2, CM1 and CM2), there is an introduction to the “two world conflicts”, with the chronological milestones which need to be learned by heart (1916 : Battle of Verdun ; Clemenceau; 11 November 1918 : armistice of the Great War).

II. The emphasis given to teaching about the Great War in secondary education before its inclusion in the first syllabus published after the war in 1925

The study of the war was included for final year pupils preparing to sit the Baccalaureate in the first syllabus published after the war in 1925. However even before this publication, teachers were expected to talk about it with their pupils, as is evidenced by a circular dated 28 February 1920, and send to chief education officers by the minister for public education André Honnorat :
“The Board for Education has drawn my attention to the limited nature of history syllabuses which are currently studied in senior schools.
In the very near future these syllabuses certainly need to be adapted so as to include, the study of the events which led up to 1914-1918 war, of the  principal facts concerning this war as well as its immediate consequences; and this necessity is one of the reasons for which a revision is essential. Until this revision has been carried out, it would seem for this year, impossible to conclude a study of the history of European politics in the very aftermath of the peace treaty of Frankfurt […]
It would seem therefore necessary to authorise history teachers to teach more widely and not to adhere strictly to the chronological limits of the syllabuses of 1902. It is thus on the subject of the Orient Question  and the last sentence that the syllabus reserves for it– The Balkan States since 1878 ; Austria, a Balkan power – that they may refer to in their teaching, in a very summarised form of course, until the 1913 peace treaty of Bucharest, so that pupils may understand the mutual position of the Balkan States on the eve of the great war […]
But it should be made very clear that teachers should not try to teach the details of the diplomatic history of this period, which is very complex and moreover insufficiently understood and that they should not talk about the 1914-1918 war, the history of which is not yet complete. As for the clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, what can be said about it would be more appropriate to a geography lesson on the World’s main powers.
If it is  impossible to conceive of today, in philosophy, a history lesson which  takes no account of the events of  1914 to 1919, it is perhaps even more so to deal with in geography the World’s main powers by referring to the territorial appearance and economic activity that each one them had before the war. Here also the major transformations resulting from the war must be taken into account. But it is essential to do this with a lot of restraint and care because these transformations are far from being complete. As far as the territorial adjustments are concerned, all that is required on the subject of Germany is to list the territories that the return of peace has taken from it […] As concerns the economic activity of the different powers […] all that is needed is to banish the old statistics […] and only to take account, among the economic consequences of the war, of those which appear reliable and sustainable”.

In this memorandum there is also a call for support for the teaching of geography, playing on the fact that in France, teachers teach history and geography as one subject. The call for “restraint and care” because “the transformations are far from being complete” are also interesting to note. However the question of teaching recent history is not a new one: the syllabuses of Victor Duruy already included the teaching of the war of Mexico and the syllabuses of 1902 went as far as to the end of the 19th century.

The study of the Great War was included in all the syllabuses running from that of 1925 to those used today but with changes concerning the classes concerned and the wordings. What are these changes ?

III. The successive wording concerning the First World War in the syllabuses for secondary education, from those of 1925 to those which have just come into force

1925 syllabus :  final year at senior school

The 1914-1918 war. The warring parties, the main theatres of battle and the main phases; the changes in weaponry and tactics; the Russian revolution of 1917 ; the intervention of the United States ; the treaties and the reorganisation of territories ; the League of Nations.

1931 syllabus : final year at senior school

The 1914-1918 war. The main theatres of battle. The main phases. The Russian revolution; the intervention of the United States .The treaties and the reorganisation of territories. The League of Nations

1938 syllabus : final year at senior school

The 1914-1918 war. The main theatres of battle, the main phases; the Russian revolution; the intervention of the United States .The treaties and the reorganisation of territories. The League of Nations

1941 syllabus : final year at senior school

The 1914-1918 war. Its immediate causes. The manoeuvre warfare in 1914. The Marne. The war of the trenches and the new battle conditions. The Italian intervention. The blockade of the central empires. The Russian revolution of 1917. The intervention of the United States. The war in 1918: the Eastern front; the Italian front, the French front. The armistice of 11 November 1918. The peace treaties: treaties of Versailles and additional treaties; the new Europe; the national minorities; the League of Nations.

1943 syllabus : penultimate year at senior school

This syllabus which was not used included the study of the 14-18 war at the end of the penultimate year at senior school, the final year syllabus focussing on the “New world order”.

1945 syllabus : final year at senior school

The 1914-1918 war. The immediate causes. The main phases. The peace treaties. The League of Nations.

1957 syllabus : penultimate year at senior school (final year syllabus reserved for civilisations)

The 1914-1918 war and the peace treaties. The League of Nations.

1959 syllabus : final year at senior school (syllabus in 2 parts: the 1st part reserved for the period 1914-45, the 2nd part reserved for civilisations)

The First World War (1914-1918) and the peace treaties. The League of Nations.

1969 syllabus for junior school : final year at junior school

The 1914-1918 war : its causes, how it unfolded, its consequences

1978 syllabus for junior schools : final year at junior school

The First World War : origins, major phases, outcome.

1982 syllabus for senior schools : penultimate year

The First World War ; the peace treaties.

1985 syllabus for junior schools : final year at junior school

The First World War and its consequences.

1988 syllabus for senior schools : penultimate year

The 1914-1918 war. Origins of the conflict and forces present. The major phases of the war. The Russian Revolution and the American intervention. The human, technical and economic aspects of the conflict. The peace treaties. The new map of Europe and the world.

1995 syllabus for the senior school: penultimate year

The First World War, the Russian Revolution and the upheaval in Europe. Brief presentation of the different phases of the conflict. Focus on the global nature and on its consequences. The wave of revolutions in Russia and the rest of Europe caused by the war.

1998 syllabus for junior schools: final year

The First World War and its consequences (4 to 5 hours). Once the major military phases of the conflict have been identified in their chronological order, the focus will be on the overall ramifications of this war (economy, society, culture), on the suffering of the soldiers and on the hardship endured by the different peoples. The result of the war includes the revolutions of 1917 in Russia, the revolutionary wave that followed and how it was crushed.

Documents : extracts from the treaty of Versailles. A novel or an account about the 1914-1918 war
Milestones: August 1914, start of the First World War. 1917: Russian revolutions. 11 November 1918: armistice

2002 syllabus for senior schools

Penultimate senior school classes ES and L

The First World War and the upheavals in Europe. Brief presentation of the major phases of the conflict followed by a focus on the “total war” character of this war and on its consequences. This study includes the major event which was the Russian revolution.

Penultimate senior school class S

The role of the French in the First World War. After a description of how the country entered the war, pupils study the ways in which the French lived through the conflict focussing on the fact that almost everyone in society was bereaved by the war. The study will be rounded off with a look at certain outcomes of the Great War (calming of religious conflicts, organisation of remembrance, changes in the roles of men and women…).

2008 syllabus for junior schools: last year

Theme 1 – The First World War: towards total war (1914-1918)

The First World War is a cause of upheaval among States and society :

  • it is characterised by mass violence ;
  • with the Russian revolution, it causes a wave of revolutions across Europe ;
  • it finishes with the signing of treaties which shape a new map of Europe and a source of tension.

After a brief presentation of the three major phases of the war, pupils study two examples of mass violence:

  • the war of the trenches (Verdun) ;
  • the Armenian genocide.

The study is based on the presentation of significant people and events. The study of the new map of Europe highlights in particular a few flash-point areas.

To know and use the use the following milestones

  • the First World War : 1914 -1918, the battle of Verdun : 1916; the armistice : 11 November 1918 ;
  • the Russian revolution : 1917 ;
  • the map of Europe in the aftermath of the treaties.

Describing and explaining the war of the trenches and the Armenian genocide as examples of mass violence

2010 syllabus for senior schools: penultimate year ES, L and S

Theme 2 – War in the 20th century

Question Application
World wars and hopes for peace
  • The First World War: the experience of fighting in a total war
  • The Second World War: war of annihilation and genocide of the Jews and Gypsies
  • The hopes for a new world order in the aftermaths of the  conflicts: the League of Nations and the United Nations

NB : A special syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school S was made necessary because of the reintroduction of compulsory teaching of history-geography in the final year of senior school S and the changes in teaching time allocated for this. It was published in the BO (Official Bulletin) of 21 February 2013. As far as the study of the First World war is concerned it uses exactly the same structure as that which was chosen for the three courses.

IV. The study of these successive wordings allows important changes in the methods to be highlighted

  • Up until 1969, the First World War was only studied in senior school. It was studied in the final year of senior school, except for the 1943 syllabus where it was studied in the penultimate year of senior school because the last year had to be reserved for studying the “developing world” (however because of the Liberation it was not implemented) and also the 1957 syllabus (which was also not used) which involved the study of civilisations in the final year of senior school.
  • It was introduced in junior schools in 1969 as part of the change toward single junior schools. Because the final year at junior school was the last compulsory year of education, pupils who left school after this year had to know their history up to the present day. Since then study of the Great War always came in the last year of junior school before being dealt with once more at senior school.
  • In 1982, it was transferred from the last year to the penultimate year of senior school. In fact, at the time, the syllabus stopped at 1945 but now runs up to the present day. As the syllabus goes further forward in time so the First World War is pushed further back.
  • Up until the 1980s, the wordings of the syllabuses placed the emphasis on military events (“principal theatres of battle, main phases… “, on the consequences for the world order  (“ reorganisation of territories, peace treaties, League of Nations”) and on the “ immediate causes (cf. 1941, 1945). The trend was to stick to the military and diplomatic chain of events and the link between causes/process/consequences (this was still clear in 1969 and 1978, 1982 and in 1985).
  • A new detail appeared in the 1988 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school: where, although the preceding aspects were retained, the study of the “human aspects” of the war was introduced to the course.
  • But it was in the 1995 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school that the new approach was confirmed: the phases of the conflict were to be presented “briefly” so that its “global character” could be explored fully. A theme based approach focussing on the notion of “total war” took over from the event based approach which had been long been the prevalent method.
  • The 1998 syllabus for the last year of junior school takes up this theme based approach. For sure, pupils learn the “chronological order of the major military phases of the conflict”, as these milestones are essential at junior school but “the emphasis is placed on the total character of this war”. The “suffering of the soldiers” and the “hardships endured by the different peoples” are for the first time explicitly mentioned in the syllabus text.
  • The 2002 ES and L syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school confirmed this new focus and the syllabus of the same year for the penultimate year of senior school S class concentrates on a theme which is fully incorporated within the syllabus: “the French people in the First World War”, with particular attention given to how society is  “affected by bereavement”.
  • The syllabus for the final year of junior school, published in 2008 and which has been used for this class since the start of the 2012 school year, confirms the change which began in 1995: the presentation of the three major phases must be “brief”. What is important is to highlight the   “mass violence” which characterised the conflict through the use of “ two examples; the war of the trenches and the Armenian genocide”.
  • The 2010 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school returns to the theme of total war and mass violence by focussing on the “fighting experience”, which is of primary importance in historiographical research and debates in France on the subject of the Great War. This makes it possible to demonstrate to pupils who are coming to the end of their secondary school studies and need to be prepared for higher education, through this study of the First World War, that history is not written once and for all and that it obeys scientific rules and methods, that it uses its own models and that it is a subject of debate. The syllabus takes the new approach even further by considering how the two world wars are examples of the beginning of this era of total war and violence and how, in these two respects, they represent the crossing of a threshold.

V. The recent additions to syllabuses confirm these changes

The confirmation of these ever more marked changes toward a theme based approach, in the final year of junior school as well as in the penultimate year of senior school is to be found in the extracts of the most recent additions to the syllabuses published by the ministry (support documents  “ resources for teaching the class “) :

Extract from support documents for the 1998 syllabus for the final year of junior school

The First World War and its consequences

We need to stop concentrating on a chronological account of the phases of the conflict and focus on highlighting its major features: its total aspect and the brutality in human relationships that it brought about. This will allow an understanding, beyond the more immediate consequences of the war, which are studied as part of the outcome of the war, and its profound and traumatic effect on the century which was beginning.  The notion of brutalisation (a poor translation of the English term "brutalization" that would be better understood by the use of the neologism "ensavagery") reflects the fundamental role of violence in war. Recent research has highlighted this violence which was part of a conflict infamous for being the context for the first case of genocide of the century, that of the Armenians, and which, for the first time in Europe, saw the emergence of concentration camps; this practice, which all warring parties inflicted upon the nationals of enemy countries, extended to entire population groups (such as these French men and above all French women from the region around Lille who were deported to Eastern Prussia). Even though the extermination of Jews and Gypsies was not a direct consequence of the First World War, certain human beings who lived through this conflict became capable of carrying out an evil will to exterminate: on two occasions, in 1931 and in 1939, Hitler used the deportation of Armenians as a means of justifying his anti-Semite policy. Therefore the conflict has to be seen in its dimension of a founding source of total (totalitarian?) violence which was to have a profound effect on the 20th century.

Extract from the support documents for the 2002 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school ES and L classes

The First World War and the upheavals in Europe

The study is aimed at understanding this major event and analysing its facet of total war, a novel phenomenon on this scale, which consists of mobilising all the forces of a country to destroy its enemy. The major phases of the conflict are therefore presented in their interaction with the strategies which the States used to adapt to the new conditions of the war. It is also about showing, with the help of a few examples, that the effects of a conflict of such magnitude are many. So it is then, that war was the cause of new forms of State intervention, of a geopolitical upheaval of the continent and the rejection of many regimes and political traditions. The collective memory of the inter-war period whatever the country concerned, is indelibly marked: collective bereavement, commemorations, pacifism.

The brutalisation of relations between humans leads us to ponder the links between the violence of the period (such as the massacre of Armenians, the first genocide of the century) and the violence of totalitarian regimes.

The First World War was the template for the Russian revolutions. From 1910 onwards the empire found itself up against an unstable transition (rapid industrialisation, recurrent social strife, apparent political solidity) which gave no indication, one way or another, as to what the future would hold. Its entry into war was a military disaster involving losses in human life and territory; the economy couldn’t survive the conflict, the re-supplying of the front and the rear lines could no longer be carried out, and the country fell victim to inflation and shortages; the tsar and the centralised organs of power became discredited: in 1917 Russia was running without any central government. The war only served to amplify the previous blockages and fragility acting as a tremendous accelerator of history: less than three years after the mobilisation, the imperial regime would collapse and eight months later it would be the turn of the Bolsheviks to seize power.

The study of the First World War is compatible with the work performed by teachers of French, of foreign languages or plastic arts on the exchanges of letters and literature or the explanations about war.

Extract from the support documents for the 2002 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school - class S

The French people in the First World War

The second period chosen for the study of France between 1900 and 1939 is a major event: the 1914-1918 war. The common theme explored by the syllabus is the living experiences of the French; it aims, as the themes suggest explain, to contribute to an overall analysis.

The first months deserve special attention because they are when the long-term traits crystallised. Public opinion and the public authorities have to deal with a conflict which, whatever had been expected for the last ten years came as a surprise to them by its suddenness; whilst the rapid change from a state of peace to one of war initially provokes a sense of consternation or resignation, it is quickly replaced by a feeling that is to remain for good: that of defensive patriotism and the determination to defend oneself. During the few months that the war of manoeuvers lasted, some 300,000 French were killed, 600,000 went missing in action, were wounded or taken prisoner: the country had entered an era of mass death. The failure to achieve a quick victory caused the country to ask itself a series of questions and make progressive changes. Among these, the search for a balance between the executive, legislative and high command and commitment in a total war: mobilisation of all of its human resources, integration of the economic and productive potential into a war mentality, affirmation of the resources for mass mobilisation and the search and banalisation of the means of mass destruction.

By the end of 1914, society had adopted a war mentality: the years 1915-1917 form the heart of the study. A defensive network consisting of two parallel positions had been built all the way along the front. Soldiers took up their positions in the trenches. Their resistance to the daily doses of inhumanity during the attempts of the leadership to smash the continuity of the front (attempts by Joffre in 1915 at breaking through, strategy of attrition in 1916 by the Germans and then by the Allies) begs a number of difficult questions concerning agreement and acceptance to both exact and suffer violence. A powerful feeling of national solidarity, the individual and collective struggle to survive, the interiorisation of the idea that the enemy somehow belongs to a world of savages are the answers one hears. In 1915 and 1916, the rear echelons confirm the same consensus, based on an  identical framework of convictions, and being in a favoured situation speak of maintaining bearable living conditions, the continuation of the “Union sacrée” (truce called by the left-wing involving not calling for strikes), the solidarity with the front and the management of opinion. On the contrary, 1917 was blighted by an economic depression affecting every walk of life. It was overcome as the result of controlled repression and a second series of soul-searching and adaptation. By seeking an “explanation for certain consequences of the Great War”, the syllabus draws attention to the fact that the darkness into which the event plunged the world is long-lasting and it encourages students to consider whether the  conflict  creates the conditions necessary for structural change. There is too little time to analyse equally the three examples which have been given: But it could be done through a qualified analysis coupled with one or two pieces of background information. By way of an example, one could highlight the following traits in respect of “the organisation of remembrance”. By the end of 1918, two thirds if not three quarters of the French population had been affected by a bereavement. The monuments to the fallen erected during the inter-war years and a multitude of commemorative plaques recall, with their lists of names, those who died; they became places of remembrance, especially on 11 November (a public holiday as of 1922),and they fulfil a civic desire. Monuments and events alike help the survivors to come to terms with the loss of their folk, by providing a harmony between personal suffering and collective sacralisation. Through the existence of their associations, the veterans (which is to say in 1920, 55% of the over twenty year olds) play a role in the organisation of remembrance; a combination of pacifism and patriotism form one of the characteristics of these associations. The study of the First World War is compatible with the deployment of heritage resources for local studies. It is also compatible with the work performed by teachers of French, of foreign languages or plastic arts on the exchanges of letters and literature or the explanations about the war.

Resource extract from for the 2008 syllabus for the final year of junior school (on line at Eduscol)

The First World War : towards total war (1914-1918)

The First World War, towards total war (1914-1918) is one of the three themes dealt with as part of the second part of the syllabus entitled “ World wars and totalitarian regimes (1914-1945)”. The teacher can therefore develop his project within 3 to 4 hours.


The First World War was the subject, as much as at the time when it began as it is today, of historical research which is unique in terms of its magnitude. The following have thus been successively explored, within historical and scientific contexts which are themselves moving but without one issue superseding the previous issue:

  • The military and  diplomatic issues, which aimed to identify responsibilities and explain the victory of one side and the defeat of the other ;
  • The economic dimension of the conflict, whether in terms of war aims, the war economy or reparations ;
  • The social dimension of the conflict, taking into account on one hand soldiers and  civilians, far from the history of  political and  military leadership; on the other hand,  in an equally  political sense, the war in its relationships with  revolutionary movements, whether they succeed (as in Russia), or break out but fail (as in Germany, Hungary, etc.) or remain embryonic ;
  • Finally, the cultural dimension with the emergence of new notions: fighting experience, mass violence, both of which have been the subject of lively debate for the last ten years or so. This was the cause then of the confrontation between the school of “consent to go to war” and that of “constraint”.

What remain then are the question of a general history of the First World War, which would go beyond national history and those concerning periodisation and the overall direction. Should one see, in what was first perceived as the result of the 19th century and then as the beginning of a new “Thirty year war” the general confrontation between nations? Between societies, as well as within themselves? Or even the “template for a tragic century”, blighted by the repetition, magnitude and persistence of violence meted out on individuals?

The genocide of the Armenians is gradually departing, if not without difficulty, the field of remembrance to take its place in that of history, and still precious little work has been done by historians on the subject due to archives which are difficult to access or simply do not exist. The genocide occurred in the double context of the war and more widely in the nagging  “Question of the Orient”. Although the Turkish Empire managed to repel the Western forces in the Dardanelles (1915), its difficulties in doing so led it to use the Armenians as scapegoats. The same process had taken place before the war, with the massacres perpetrated in Anatolia, whilst at the same the Europeans were sharing out the Turkish possessions in Europe among themselves and Russia was making inroads into the Caucuses and whilst the autonomy for Armenia that had been agreed at the Congress of Berlin (1878) had been left by the wayside. In the spring of 1915, Turkey decided to deport the entire Armenian population to the deserts of Mesopotamia. Between 800,000 and 1,200,000 people were to perish in less than a year, which is to say almost half the Armenian population. Many survivors chose exile in Western Europe, creating a new diaspora.

The treaties of (Versailles, 1919 ; Saint-Germain, Sèvres, Trianon, 1920) profoundly changed the map of Europe and Asia Minor: shrinking German territory as a result of transfers of territory (Alsace-Lorraine) and a  renaissance (Poland) which were quite emblematic; the break-up of Austria-Hungary to form a host of States, a number of them federated (within the new Yugoslavia) ; then the end of the carving up of the  Turkish empire and the dominance of the Western powers, notably the British, over the Arabian Middle East. But marking out new borders couldn’t solve everything. The fate of the Greek and Turkish populations on both sides of the Aegean sea or the question of the lands with nationalist movements afoot (Fiume (Rijeka) and Trieste) were every bit as much hotbeds of new conflicts, as were the future of the German minorities in Czechoslovakia or the Hungarians in Romania, or still more the recent promise of independence to the peoples of the Caucuses which was forgotten, as they passed first, under Russian and then Soviet control.

Three common themes can be used to guide the introduction of this theme :

  • the battle of  Verdun as an example of a form of total war ;
  • the Armenian genocide as a form of extreme violence exacted on civilians ;
  • the upheavals in the political map of Europe.

Study supports

The very limited number of hours that can be devoted to this chapter (between three and four hours) means that key choices need to be made. It is through the example of the battle of Verdun that one can first consider the war of the trenches, then on both sides the two phases of the war of manoeuvres. Verdun also allows us to comprehend the western front and to grasp the magnitude of the war (human and material forces engaged in the battle, duration of this battle, losses), in order to appreciate the notion of total war, without trying to make a full examination of it; in regard to this battle, the Armenian genocide is an example of the extreme violence meted out on civilians and in the many arenas of war. The Russian revolution can be dealt with through the figure of Lenin, and that of the revolutionary movement which was to shake Europe at the end of the conflict through the activities of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht.

Traps to be avoided in the implementation

  • the wish to  develop the notion of  total war in all its aspects instead of choosing one or two examples ;
  • treating the revolutionary movement on its own and drowning in the account of the Russian revolutions instead of focussing on the relationship between the revolutionary movements , the war and the defeat ;
  • detailing the political positions and programs of the revolutionary movements and the stakeholders at the risk of losing sight of the impact of these movements.

History of the arts

In regard to the importance which is now given to the individuals, civilians and soldiers, participants in and victims of the war, it is logical to put some emphasis on the popular arts: songs (chanson de Craonne (song of Craonne), of course but many others are possible), whether it is just by listening and not only reading; brochures and postcards; tales; poems (Guillaume Apollinaire). It is important however to cast a critical eye over the works, and not to see every object of daily life, even those made in the trenches, as an object for study in respect of the history of the arts. The recourse to previous works, notably films (The Paths of Glory, by Stanley Kubrick) or the comic (Tardi) may be very relevant if once can demonstrate that the works are also the result of ideological bias and that war is sometimes manipulated to serve other causes. The revolutionary movements are inseparable from a visual and sung production: of course this theme will apply throughout the history syllabus, and this can be an initial opportunity for introducing pupils to the Internationale and its history.

Further reading

  • PROST Antoine and WINTER Jay, Penser la Grande Guerre, (Thoughts on the Great War) Paris, 2004-2009
  • AUDOUIN-ROUZEAU Stéphane, La guerre au XXe siècle, (War in the 20th Century) 1: L’expérience combattante,(The fighting experience ) La Documentation photographique (Photo documentation) no.8041, Paris, 2004.
  • DUMENIL Anne, La guerre au XXe siècle, (War in the 20th Century) 2 : The experience of civilians, La Documentation photographique (Photo documentation) no.8043, Paris, 2005.
  • La vie dans les tranchées, (Life in the trenches) Texts and Documents for class no.1024, November 2011
  • www.massviolence.org (site run by Sciences-Po (Political Sciences) and the CERI-CNRS)
  • The colour of tears – Painters at the First World War. Exhibition site hosted by the site of the Caen Memorial – Commemoration of the 8the anniversary of the end of the First World War: http://www.memorial-caen.fr

Resources extract for the 2010 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school (on line at Eduscol)

Question – World wars and hopes for peace


The general theme is about finding a relationship between two questions in order to understand the organisation of the world in the 20th century. The first question is about studying the way in which the two global conflicts mark the beginning of the era of “total war”, resulting in a gradual realisation of the necessity for a world system of control for preserving peace and about creating the necessary conditions for this control.

In its current meaning, the concept of “total war” came into being at the end of the First World War (Léon Daudet used the term in 1918, but it was popularised by the German Marshall Ludendorff in a work published in 1935) and theorised during the inter-war years by Carl Schmitt. It is however used by certain modern historians to denote an older reality which refers to the change in warfare since the Revolution and the Empire, with the conflicts of the XXth century representing the climax of this change. This concept encompasses the mobilisation of all the resources of the State over a long period and to a degree never reached previously, and the spread of the conflict to all the corners of the globe (or at least to very large parts of it) in an endeavour to annihilate the enemy. It is based on a “dynamic of   radicalisation” (David Bell) which entails the warring parties for ever deploying greater resources in the pursuit of this aim.

For every conflict, war is approached by concentrating on the role of humans and by asking questions, based on the fate reserved for the combatants and the civilians, about the changes to the nature of war. Beyond the military events and political upheavals, the aim is then to show how the experience of the “violence of war” bears with it the seeds of the transformation of societies and the relationships that they have with the State. This notion makes it possible to question the manner in which individuals, groups and nations have been affected by situations of extreme violence (starting with mass death) which occurs in a war situation whether it is suffered or inflicted.

Study supports

The First World War : the fighting experience in a total war

The First World War represents an essential stage in the evolution of war during the XXth century. Under scrutiny is the fighting experience, which is indicative of a change in the degree and the nature of the violence, and which should enable the student to appreciate the concept of total war. During this conflict, which was symbolised by the duration of the hostilities, by its industrial dimension and by mass mortality, it was the combatants who paid the highest price both physically and psychologically, even if recent studies have highlighted the suffering of the civilian populations. As a result of their actions, it was the whole of the society which was plunged into disarray, a phenomenon which certain historians have, over the last twenty years or so tried to explain through the concepts, which are for sure debatable, of   “brutalisation”  (or “ensavagery”) of the European societies and of “banalisation” of violence. Without dwelling on the detail of the events, the syllabus encourages the student to take as examples several significant cases (a battle, a historical figure, a particular year  …) to bear witness to the change to total war and the effects of the violence of war on societies, even if it should not be forgotten that the fighting experience of the first world war was also to lead to the emergence of the great  pacifist movements of the inter-war years and   international efforts which would transcend rivalries between States.

The Second World War : war of annihilation and genocide of the Jews and Gypsies

The Second World War marked a new higher level in total war (…)

Hopes for peace

Through the  study of the two world wars it can be understood why and how each of them led to the emergence of a hope for a new world order which was demonstrated by attempts to preserve peace once a catastrophe, which every time was said to be the last one ever, was over. Because the world of the after war period was dominated by the only powers capable of conducting a total war, these attempts therefore had a direct relationship with the nature of the conflict. The explanation of the SDN (League  of Nations) and of its failure needs to be given in a summarised form  in relation to the withdrawal of the United States, the only country capable of providing a long term commitment to peace, as compared to the lack of will and resources of the other countries. The creation of the UN and the implementation of a system which bases its rationale on what happened before in order to preserve the world from a new flare up was successful because of the declared will of President Roosevelt to see a new system for guaranteeing peace put in place. When one studies this international organisation one can see its different facets in the diplomatic, military, economic, financial and cultural fields.

Traps to be avoided in the implementation

  • Reducing the  theme to a political or military story of the XXth century ;
  • Focussing the theme on a history of war, and of its forms and techniques which were used in the XXth century ;
  • Neglecting to problematise the study of the questions about adopting a processing mode which is too descriptive or too narrative, placing too much of an emphasis on events which would be incompatible with the spirit of the syllabus. On  the other hand, a more detailed study of an event or place can allow a question to be addresses using an inductive approach ;
  • Adopting an approach which relies too much on concepts and which would be unreal and have little meaning for pupils ;
  • Seeing the two world conflicts in isolation, in a distinct manner, without  establishing any link between them as part of the  problematic of total war ;
  • Making a detailed presentation of the history of the League of Nations, then the UN and how it has changed since 1945.

History of the arts

By virtue of the importance of the period covered and the density of the questions dealt with, the choice of material which could be studied as part of the history of the arts for each of the questions is quite wide-ranging. As a guide the following might be suggested :

  • for the fighting experience in the First World War : a painting or a drawing (Otto Dix …), a novel (Les Croix de Bois (The Wooden Crosses) ; A l’Ouest (In the West), Rien de Nouveau (Nothing New) ; Le Feu (The Fire), a film (Les Croix de Bois (The Wooden Crosses) ; Les Sentiers de la Gloire (The paths of Glory …), a song (La chanson de Craonne / The Song of Craonne), a comic (Putain de Guerre ! (Bloody War!)  by Tardi) ;
  • for the Second World War as a war of annihilation : a novel (La Mort est mon Métier (Death is my Trade) ; Les Disparus (Boys’ School) ; La Douleur (War : A Memoir …), a film (Le Pianiste (The Pianist), La Liste de Schindler (Schindler’s List), a painting or an engraving (by David Olère, Isaac Celnikier …), a comic (Maus by Art Spiegelman) ;
  • for the League of Nations or the United Nations : a poster reflecting the hopes placed in the new organisation, a caricature underlining its weaknesses…

Further reading

  • Audoin-Rouzeau S., Becker A., Ingrao C. and Rousso H. (dir.), The violence of war, 1914-1945. Compared approaches to the two world conflicts, Editions Complexe/IHTP-CNRS, 2002
  • Audoin-Rouzeau S., War in the XXth century, volume 1: The fighting experience, Photographic documentation no. 8041, 2004
  • Duménil A., War in the XXth century, volume 2 : The civilians’ experiences, Photographic documentation no. 8043, 2005
  • Horne J. (dir.), Towards total war, Tallandier, 2010
  • Prost A. and Winter J., Thoughts on the Great War, Seuil, collection “Points”, 2004
  • Masson P., A total war (1939-1945), Tallandier, 1993
  • Friedländer S., Nazi Germany and the Jews, volume 2: The years of extermination, 1939-1945, The Threshold, 2008
  • Asseo A., Frome  “racial science”  to the camps. The Gypsies in the Second World War, Gypsey Research Centre, CRDP Midi-Pyrénées, 1997
  • Moreau Defarge P.,  “From the League of Nations to the United Nations”, in the review Powers, no. 109, April 2004
  • www.crdp-reims.fr/memoire : History and Remembrance of the two world wars
  • www.histoire-image.org/site/lettre_info/hors-serie-premiere-guerre-mondiale.php : First World War – special edition
  • www.ushmm.org : Multimedia Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust
  • http://www.enseigner-histoire-shoah.org : Holocaust Memorial – In conjunction with the teaching syllabuses, new resources site intended for junior and senior school teachers and school audience

VI. What to think of the criticisms of the contents of the new senior school syllabuses on the subject of First World War ?

The controversy started by the Le Figaro, which was dealt with earlier on, on the death of the marshals, calls to mind the nostalgic attitude towards a military history “seen from high up above”,  which shines the spotlight on the great leaders, considered as heroes of the history of France but rather forgets those who did the fighting as well as the civilians. It is even less credible in that it is based on confusion between syllabuses and course books and that, since the 1920s, the syllabuses themselves have never quoted the names of the marshals. It forms part of a wider criticism, which has been recurrent in le Figaro Magazine since the start of the school year in 2010, based on the death of the heroes of our national history in favour  of the study of distant civilisations (cf. the so-called removal of Louis XIV and Napoléon from course books and syllabuses). 

Another criticism refers to the disappearance of chronological teaching, thus neglecting the importance attributed to the appreciation of chronological milestones in the junior school syllabuses. But it expresses a point of view which supports the whole chronological approach and regrets the passing of an era when the “theatres of battle” and the “military phases of the conflict”  were studied in detail. It rejects the change towards an approach which is less military, more theme based and leaves room for human aspects. This change, which is linked to the changes in the study of history, does not stem from the latest syllabuses but has its origins in the 1980s and 1990s as we saw earlier. It was not possible to carry on teaching about the conflict as one did in the 1920s, by confining oneself to a continuous account which neglects recent historiographical contributions.

Another criticism, quite similar to the preceding one expressed regret about the study of the series of causes/ process/consequences. Behind this criticism was also the regret about a chronological continuum.

The junior school syllabus was also attacked on the basis that in theme 2 which is all about “War in the XXth century” the first question dealt with “the world wars”.  The aim was to guide the pupils in their reflections about war and about how the emergence of new levels of violence characterised the two global conflicts. In this case also it is chronology which is the angle of attack.

Another criticism takes issue with an approach to the conflict which is considered as being “compassionate”. The only thing that is considered is the suffering of the combatants which should be shared with the pupils. To which it can be replied that the recent historiographical debates in France concerning the First World War have concerned essentially the question of the experience of combatants and that of civilians. The best way to encourage senior school pupils to understand what history is about, is to show them that history is not set in stone but is a subject of many a debate.

Finally, mention should be made of a criticism coming essentially from the  Turkish diplomatic services who have expressed their  “ concern”  at the inclusion of “the Armenian genocide”  in “the course books for final year junior school pupils” which  “impose an  opinion” , whereas the “ events of 1915 presented as a genocide are disputed by historians”.

VII. The study of the First World War is also part of senior school technological courses and, to a lesser extent, in professional baccalaureate preparation

In technological courses :

  • ST2A, STI2D end STL technological courses. 2011 syllabus, first year class: “Living and dying in war time (optional study subject). Students choose one of the major European conflicts between the 1870s and the 1940s.”
  • STMG, ST2S technological courses. 2011 syllabus, first year class: “Europe, a continent which has been affected by two world conflicts (compulsory question). The war profoundly affected Europe of the first half of the Ext century and its peoples.”

Professional baccalaureate preparation :

  • The 2010 CAP syllabus includes as part of the study subjects “European wars and conflicts in the XXth century” a choice of situations of which one is entitled “the battle of Verdun and remembrance of it.”
  • No explicit study of the First World War is contained in the preparatory classes for the professional baccalaureate. However certain themes can touch on the subject of the conflict: “Women in French society from the time of the Belle Epoque to the present day”; Being a worker in France (1830-1975). In the final year of senior school there is also the situation all about the “14 point plan of President Wilson”.

So the First World War still very much has its place today in the school syllabuses, from junior  school up to Baccalaureate, and the approaches to teaching about  it have been refreshed as a result of major changes in historiography and the very expectations of school education at the beginning of this the  XXIst century.