Here at WDF we (as in I) like to keep you well informed. I like to make sure that you’re up to date with the latest events and news in WDF’s world, including how to get the most out of your listening, what we have to offer you if you’re willing to pay a little bit each month, and what you can expect from us in the future. Sometimes though, our projects are necessarily sneaky. I don’t always intend to create whopper projects and hide their innermost details from you guys, but sometimes, you must understand, I can be a bit ridiculous. With that in mind, here’s 5 facts you didn’t know about one of my best known project, the July Crisis Anniversary Project, where for the summer of 2014 I detailed how the world went to war, with some incredible revelations by the end of our journey. You may think it’s a story you know, but have you ever wondered about what went on behind the scenes? Let’s have a look…
#5: I decided to do it in June 2014, as in THE MONTH BEFOREHAND!
2017 Zack likes to plan things with serious gusto and with a tremendous amount of coloured pens and graphs. 2014 Zack liked these ideas, but was rarely ahead of the curve enough to actually make such plans happen. Case in point, this project. It was coming near the end of the Thirty Years War series I’d been doing since the previous August in 2013, and I knew that I wanted to do something different. What I didn’t know was just how much my own ambitions and ridiculous sense of OCD-ness would take over.
The July Crisis Anniversary Project came to me as I was putting the finishing touches on the final script covering the Peace of Westphalia, which had been a long and arduous journey through several dry and dusty sources. I remember putting the kettle on and looking almost absent-mindedly at the calendar. Now I’m not saying that I was somehow unaware that it was in fact 2014, nor was I unaware that it was coming up on 100 years since the First World War erupted.
What I am saying is that it never occurred to me to actually begin with an examination of the build-up to that war, mostly because, funnily enough, I didn’t think I’d have enough time. I was still somewhat stuck in the Thirty Years War in my head, so it didn’t feel right to just jump into such a massive project from the get go. I did not have any notions of doing a day-to-day analysis of all that went on in the summer of 1914, and somehow manage to link it back to 2014. Instead I envisioned something else, which brings us to point #4…
#4: It was originally meant to be far less ambitious in scope.
I cannot stress enough how unplanned the July Crisis Project was. In contrast to other crazy projects, such as Five Weeks to Run Wild where I began planning six months before, the project began as something of a damp squib in the grand scheme of things. I planned on simply doing a two or three-part series on the July Crisis, how it broke out and what exactly it meant for the rest of the 20th century up to the modern day. I had no concept of the project growing such long legs and demanding what it ended up requiring from me.
It was only in the space of a week in the middle of June that the pieces began to come together, and the project we now know so well came into shape. I wish I could remember the exact point that the penny dropped and I realised what the potential was here. Nobody else had done anything like what I had attempted on the Thirty Years War, yet in my head there was this niggling sense of inferiority. At this point in my podcasting experience I had this idea that even if I came up with the idea of following the outbreak of the First World War on a day-by-day basis, I somehow was not qualified enough to actually do it.
In a way then, the July Crisis Anniversary Project is hugely significant, because it was the first time that I said to myself, ‘you know what, I’m just going to do it!’ Motoring onwards with something that I believed had real potential was as exciting as it was terrifying. As I recorded the last episode of the Thirty Years War, by then I already appreciated what lay in store for me. I would attempt what nobody else had ever tried, and I would cover in as much detail as possible how the First World War broke out. With that defiant decision taken, it now remained to actually put the legwork in and, yeah…there was a whole load of legwork to do…
#3: I was working down to the wire almost every day.
On the surface the idea of covering the July Crisis in its entirety seems mind-bendingly epic in scope. This indeed was the major reason I didn’t feel like creating a brand new series from the ground up in such a short space of time was possible. The complexities, the different characters, even the critically important dates which anchor the timeline – all of this was mostly alien to me even with my limited previous experience. I knew that if I took this on, that if I fulfilled what I had in my head, then I would very, very busy for the next two months.
As it happened, I was correct, but even I couldn’t have imagined just how busy I was going to be. I still remember having that knot in my stomach, as every day I looked at what event was to come down the timeline, and I tried to imagine if it was in fact going to be possible to examine it in the detail that it needed. Would I have the time, let alone the mental energy, to research, write and record all on the same day for the next day’s events? Several times I doubted I would. On many occasions we were really down to the wire with time, and I only barely squeezed past the deadline I’d set, particularly when we got to late July and we had several longer episodes coming out, as more things started to happen and everything began going to hell in a handbasket.
Of course there were those fleeting moments when I did feel in control, and then I read a bit ahead of the story and realised that there was so many more layers of the story to come. I was, it has to be said, flying by the sea of my pants. I have never worked on such a stressful timetable in my life, not even when I left my dissertation until three months before it was due! I have to emphasise as well, in line with the fact that I was flying by the seat of my pants, I was also discovering a totally knew angle on the event which I had never even considered, and which I eventually found more convincing than my original thesis, which brings us to point #2…
#2: I was confident that my old thesis on the outbreak of the war remained watertight, until I realised it was full of holes.
This was not my first encounter with the July Crisis. First time around, I was blizting through the event which a massive chip on my shoulder in our First World War special, convinced that I could do no wrong, and that most of my opinions were already correctly and completely formed. Turns out, I was somewhat MASSIVELY INCORRECT. In our special on the First World War, I trotted out the same tired arguments on the July Crisis in the space of an hour long episode which I had always heard and gradually absorbed. My prejudices were plain to see, and a full 18 months before we tackled the July Crisis Anniversary Project, I was convinced that I delivered a one-two punch on the era. Nothing to see here, let’s move on.
As time went on I’d been confronted with additional sources and arguments, not least from my listeners who argued very generously with me, considering how blatantly wrong and ignorant I was. Thankfully, when it came time to tackle the July Crisis again, I surrounded myself with the best narratives and analyses of the war I could get my hot little hands on, as I attempted to do some desperate and frantic reading in the weeks before our project began. Before long, confronted with the reams of new evidence and the logical shattering to tired old arguments, I started to sweat a little bit. Pretty soon it became abundantly clear what I was facing into. Not only was about to take on the most challenging project yet, but I was going to craft it from the ground up with no completely clear conclusions, no fully formed opinions and a belief system which in many respects turned out to be false.
The palpable nerves and hesitation you can hear in that Introduction episode were all real – I honestly didn’t know, right up to the point that we finished, whether we would be able to make it or if I would be able to even wrap my head around everything that happened in the allotted time. As time went on of course, I came to mature greatly in my views. By the end of the whole project I had a deeper sense of what had gone down in summer 1914, and it was while armed with this knowledge that I contemplated using what I had learned to somehow make the whole process of doing a dissertation easier. The September after I finished the project was when my masters began in UCD, and so I entered that new chapter in my life at least confident in my abilities to take on and create complicated, challenging projects, and bring them to life for my listeners. Little did I know exactly what I had started…
#1: I had no idea it would be the making of When Diplomacy Fails
If the July Crisis was a watershed moment in human history, then the July Crisis Anniversary Project was a watershed moment in the lifecycle of WDF. Before I began the project I had a general idea of where the podcast was going and what I had in mind for it. By the end of the project my scope and vision grew alongside the absolute flood of positive responses to what I had done. I remember having some time to relax in Wexford for a few days after the project had been finished, and thinking to myself that it had all gone surprisingly well, all things considered. By doing what I said I was going to do and taking the project on and finishing it satisfactorily, I think I opened some eyes and of course some ears to what I was capable of.
From that point on I knew that whenever I returned with the podcast after our break, I would have the project behind me, but I would also have the expectations of my listeners behind as they waited to see what I could do next. Had I only realised how much new attention I received in the interim I would have made proper use of it and maybe tackled the Second World War or something really crazy like that, but instead I was more like ‘Oh that’s cool, people really seem to like it, now what obscure war can I cover next?’ It was so typically Zack, but it wasn’t exactly the best way to cultivate new listeners.
At the same time though, cultivating a listenership didn’t really matter post-July Crisis Project. As far as I was concerned, I had found my niche. It was hugely encouraging and inspiring to see what I could actually do even while under pressure, and to see what joy and contentment I could bring people with the podcast. From that point on, the podcast ceased being something akin to an awkward pastime. Now it was an asset to me, it was not merely a hobby, and I was determined to approach whatever I did next with the same principles which served me so well here. I would give great attention to detail, I would dwell on that detail, and I would make that detail important to my listeners. I would make them see why this king believed a war was necessary not through a brief examination of his armed forces or his strategic interests, but through a wider scoop of detail that examined his neighbours, his rivalries, his deeply felt fears and his grand ambitions. I would make that ruler human and make him matter to the listener, so that when the diplomacy failed and the war began, we would feel as connected to that king as his subjects did.
It was an aim I set myself post-Project, among others, and it went hand in hand with releasing more episodes on a given war than simply rushing in and giving the quick and easy demonstration, missing in the process all the charm and intrigue which made the era special. The First Anglo-Dutch War and Swedish Deluges episodes which followed the Project are great examples of this. I turned wars which lasted two years and five years respectively into four and five part series, so that we could actually grasp what happened and why, instead of merely getting a survey like we had done in the past. It’s a lesson and a formula which I have never abandoned, and in fact it’s only gotten more intense as time has gone on. The Second Anglo Dutch War, also a two year conflict, warranted 12 episodes from me, while the Franco Dutch War, a six year conflict, warranted 24. I wasn’t messing around anymore – I had absolutely found my niche, and my listeners had found me.
So thanksss for reading history friends, and tell me, did any of these facts surprise you? If you're a listener or a podcaster can you identify with the experience I went through in summer 2014? Does it surprise you that I was so stressed out by the whole experience? Do let me know through the usual channels, but otherwise, thanksss for reading, and remember to check back with the blog archive for further reading about WDF behind the scenes and in history. We release a new blog post every Wednesday, so you'd do well to subscribe to the blog feed if you're interested! Otherwise, thanksss again and I hope to see you around!