This week marks the 99th anniversaries of the start of the Great War, the series of events that, one-by-one, led tragically and inevitably to mobilization and the great catastrophe that was 1914-1918. By 4 August 1914 most of the primary players had issued their declarations of war and their armies were now moving across Europe. I mentioned to a friend last week that the WW1 Centennial Commission in Kansas City has just about put its entire advisory body into place. I shuddered, though, when noting that the few remaining positions are going to various “celebrities.” Is it just me, or is having, say, George Clooney giving advice on how we should remember WW1 a bad idea? Hopefully, they will re-think that.
I am currently half way through David Laskin’s The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War. WW1 was a frequent topic in my Interpretation at Ellis Island for obvious reasons. One of the lesser known stories of the war was the Black Tom affair of 30 July 1916, in which German saboteurs set of an explosion on a wharf in Jersey City that could be heard as far as Philadelphia. Beyond that serious event, there were a number of issues pertaining to race, nationality, and allegiance that made for discussion. It is a story that has special meaning for me.; members of my own family had just emigrated to the United States in the years before the war and soon found themselves in the trenches. It is a part of my family history I am just now learning about. Laskin’s book examines the war from the perspective of twelve men who had recently come to the United States from Europe and soon found themselves wearing an American uniform in the American Expeditionary Force. Laskin examines the myriad issues–cultural, linguistic, religious, political–these men had to face, often with mixed results. It is a complicated story and, ultimately, a fundamentally American one. I hope these are some of the conversations we have in the next few years.
(image/1917 poster by Charles Edward Chambers, in Yiddish; Library of Congress)