Professor Jankowski Examines Battle of Verdun in Annual History Lecture

Professor Paul Jankowski

News Story: March 30, 2015

“A Paradoxical Icon of the Great War: Verdun, 1916” was the topic of Sacred Heart University’ Department of History Annual Lecture. The Battle of Verdun, one of the longest battles of WWI, is the subject of Professor Paul Jankowski’s newest book, which was awarded the 2014 Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. Book Prize by the World War One Historical Association. Jankowski has been praised by critics for taking a different approach in his writing, as his book includes both the German and French perspectives.

Jankowski is Raymond Ginger Professor of History at Brandeis University. A graduate of the Oxford University with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, Jankowski researches modern French and European history, in addition to 20th-century European war and conflict. He has received numerous academic grants, including a 1995 Carmago Foundation Fellowship to France and a 1992 research fellowship from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. He is the author of four books: Communism and Collaboration: Simon Sabiani and Politics in Marseille 1919-1944; Stavisky: A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue; Shades of Indignation: Political Scandals in France, Past and Present; and of course, Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War.

The lecture was introduced by John Roney, chair of SHU’s History Department, who was delighted to have Jankowski present to students and faculty. Jankowski opened by saying that unfortunately “gloom is the order of the day” as he delved into the origins of the battle, which began on February 21, 1916. Known for being one of the longest battles of the war, Verdun has the unwelcome distinction of being “a symbol of futility of an industrial war,” Jankowski said. Verdun was more than a town, he explained, but was a concentric ring of forts that allowed it to remain largely untouched for over two years. However, all of that changed in February 1916.

He went on to say that many people over the years have questioned the battle’s purpose and have wanted to know what exactly occurred. Why did it go on for so long? Why were there so many casualties? Sources have not made it easy and like many other famous battles, there is a lot of mystery surrounding it. He also noted that many have wondered if Verdun was a “useless carnage. Any carnage was bound to be useless. Sometimes the longer a battle goes on, the more difficult it was to call it off,” Jankowski noted. The problem was largely because neither side knew how to win.

The lecture included various images from the war, as well as two film clips, one French and one German, both released in 1931. When asked if the Battle of Verdun was worse than any other, Jankowski said that while yes, it was special in some ways, “no one battle is quite like another.” There clearly have been many attempts to give meaning to this event that defied comprehension, and as Jankowski concluded, we are still trying to figure it out 99 years later.