Friday, March 9, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Upcoming Centennial of the First World War

When I first started this blog I was in the throes of researching what was, for myself anyway, a mammoth undertaking – a museum exhibit that told the story of one American county’s experience during the First World War. This project was my “baby” from start to finish, and the massive amount of research that I did to familiarize myself both with the general aspects of America’s involvement in the war on down to the local story I was trying to tell led me establish Over There.

While other obligations have made this blog suffer from severe neglect, one thing that has been lingering in the back of my mind is a simple question – how will America commemorate the centennial of the Great War? Will begin with a whimper…and end with a whimper?
So far the effort to get a substantial centennial commemoration underway has led to bickering ,a proposal for silver coins, and a bill that has pretty much gone nowhere. It should come as no surprise that the situation in Europe is different, and planning of all sorts is already underway for the commemoration “over there.”

So it appears as if the efforts to commemorate America’s involvement will be a bit of an uncoordinated effort of local historical societies, museums, and great scholarship done by the relatively small group of academic historians who specialize in the topic.

One exception to this seemingly impenetrable malaise is the brand new Journal of the World War One Historical Association. I received my first issue in the mail yesterday and there is a great opening article entitled “Too Soon to Tell? Some Thoughts on the Meaning of World War I” by one of America’s leading scholars on the topic – Dr. Michael S. Neiberg. Dr. Neiberg is the author of such well-respected works as The Second Battle of the Marne and The Great War: A Global History and he deftly lays out how modern scholarship has put some old longstanding myths about the First World War to rest.

Neiberg talks of the prevailing wisdom among Americans and Europeans alike that the World War I generation was “supposedly so much dumber than our own that they let a calamitous war needlessly happen [and] then fought it with breathtaking incompetence.”
In terms of how the war is remembered, Neiberg states: “Even if those most passionately interested in the war have a sense of what we think the memory of World War I should not be, we have not agreed on what it should be. Nor are we likely to do so.” He concludes by stating that, “although centennials frequently inspire reflection and a quest for meaning, World War I was simply too large and too complex to provide a single set of answers.”

And therein lies the rub. Centennial commemorations are not likely to draw large crowds or garner much excitement because the event that is being commemorated is virtually unintelligible to modern Americans. It’s casually dismissed as being “too depressing” to contemplate or it’s relegated to a subordinate position due to the World War II craze that has captured the public’s imagination. Sgt. York and his buddies in the 82nd Division were neat, but it’s Private Ryan and Easy Company that really get people excited.

Let us hope that the centennial can at least partially alter that perception and spawn a new generation of historians who seek to better understand the American experience in the First World War.