The World War One Centennial Commission has posted my article about the 1938 Armistice Day on its Facebook page. If so inclined, be sure to like the page to receive regular updates via the Commission. I can tell you that they are doing a lot of worthwhile things for the anniversary of the Great War.
This article is a little dense but I wanted to pass along Wilfred M. McClay’s article about the First World War and what it did to the notion of human progress. I remember being in graduate school 10+ years ago and having this discussion with my professor in a class on Modernity. One of the most fascinating aspects of World War One is that it came at a moment when two opposing notions were running parallel to each other. Never was Europe stronger; never did it control so much of the earth’s surface; never did the future, with its rationalism and idea of scientific progress, seems so limitless. Yet things were tenuous underneath–and not so far underneath–the surface. Reactionary monarchies ruling over unwieldy constituencies. Social strife. Nascent colonial independence movements. Jim Crowism and racial unrest here in the United States. These were all there as well. How these problems might have been resolved had the war not come we will never know.
As McClay notes, there is still an odd duality in our consciousness. On one side there is the hand-ringing and the postmodern nihilism that says we can never find objective truth; at the same time many in the West still believe it is possible to intercede and improve the world’s lot through thoughtful effort. Think of Bill Gates’s work on eradicating West Nile virus. It could be that one needs the notion of Progress in order to move forward. Still, the idea can have disastrous results and unintended consequences. Think about current events from our own recent past.
(image/Imperial War Museum)
Today is Veterans Day, or what used to be called Armistice Day because the day was reserved to remember the end of the fighting on 11 November 1918. One of the major figures in the early memory of the Great War was Ted Roosevelt, the oldest son of 26th president. Roosevelt had been an officer in the 26th Regiment of the FIrst Infantry Division during the war. After, he co-founded the American Legion. Roosevelt also served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. This was the position once held by his father and later by his cousin Franklin. As Assistant Navy Secretary he was part of the Harding and then Coolidge Administrations. Here he is with Silent Cal at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day 1923, five years after the guns fell silent.
This was a crucial time in 20th century history. The New York Times reported the day before the photo above was taken that “a sign painter from Austria” with “a gift for demagogic oratory” was causing trouble in Munich. This was Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. Others noted the fragile nature of the peace. The day the Times reported on Hitler, Woodrow Wilson gave a radio address in which he discussed the fragile peace. The following day 15,000 people showed up at his house on S Street in Washington to see him in person. Wilson’s health was fragile; he died less than three months later. Wilson had cause for concern. It was not just Hitler. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted with concern on 12 November that many of Europe’s “wisest statesman” were calling also calling for dictatorship. Even an American, a graduate of the Harvard class of 1909, had participated in Hitler’s attempted takeover.
No one understood the dangers more that Ted Roosevelt. He resumed his civilian life in the 1920s and 1930s, but returned to military service when the Second World War began. Again a member of the First Infantry he served in North Africa, Italy, and Europe. He was the only American general to land on the beach of Normandy on 6 June 1944. Ted Roosevelt died of a heart attack the following month, the day before he was to be promoted to major general.
(images/top, Library of Congress; bottom, Berlin Document Center)
I had an exhausting and exhilarating day today. It was day one of The Center for Jewish History’s Conference on World War 1 and the Jews. It will take me weeks, months really, to absorb and digest everything I learned. I took copious notes. It is amazing to live in New York City and attend these types of events and then walk back onto the street where people are going about their day. I am too tired to share much right now, but one neat thing did happen. After one of the sessions the moderator invited the audience to check out the two exhibits that opened this weekend. These are The Kaiser’s Call to Arms: Jewish Expression in the Great War and German Jews at the Eastern Front in WW1: Modernism Meets Tradition.
Many people were looking at the displays when I noticed a woman paying close attention to one case. Incredibly she was comparing the war medals of one Carl Rosenwald with those of her grandfather. As you might imagine this drew considerable interest from many of the guests. Here are a few photos.
The medals of the two men are not all the same, but you will note that a few of them are. Both men appear to have been from Munich; they each received the Bavarian Military Merit Cross. There is a King Ludwig Cross in each set as well. Then there are the Prince Luitpold medals. It was extraordinary to see these after listening to such authoritative speakers talking about the war and its causes and consequences.
I am going to write more about this tomorrow, but I found this poster so striking I had to share. October 22 is the 100th anniversary of Herbert Hoover’s appointment as leader of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Here is something that the National Archives published for the 75th anniversary in 1989. I have always thought it unfortunate that Hoover’s reputation never recovered from the Great Depression. His work during and just after the World War was one of the great humanitarian efforts of the 20th century. In the 1920s Hoover was justly lauded as one of the great men of the era. One would think Hoover would get a little bump after so many decades, but alas that does not appear to be happening any time soon. Even today the taciturn Hoover cannot compete with the charisma of his successor Franklin Roosevelt.
I am really looking forward to the Theodore Roosevelt Association conference here in the city this weekend. It is going to be an opportunity to meet some people with whom as of yet I have only corresponded via email. My piece on Theodore Roosevelt and the Preparedness Movement is coming along. It is so important here in the United States to focus on the events of 1914-1917, and not just wait for the anniversary of American involvement. Among other things, I am trying to show how Theodore Roosevelt’s endeavors before and during the First World War parraleled what his father did during and after the American Civil War. There is a lot to go and and the pieces are falling into place now.
(image/Library of Congress)