By Don Knies
World War I was already well underway 100 years ago. Its repercussions are still visible today. Treaties and political divisions set in motion as a result of that war still echo throughout modern times: a revolution that created the Soviet Union, the rise of Hitler, the current configuration of the Middle East, European colonial spheres of influence in Iraq and Syria, and the emergence of the United States as a world power.
The disillusionment that followed the four years of stalemate on the Western Front impacted the artistic expression of the era as well. The war fostered a “lost generation” of expatriate American writers and the bleak cynicism of such post-war poems as “The Waste Land” and the fractured artistic expressions of modernist visual artists such as Pablo Picasso and others.
Studying this legacy, at once so distant in its origins, yet so pervasively present into contemporary times, has become the effort of a reading and discussion group now meeting at the Andes Library on Tuesday nights. “Our World Remade: World War I” is sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities, which provides guidelines and the free usage of books for 12 discussion group members. Pre-registration was required of the participants for this program who commit ahead of time to attending the five sessions. The scholar-facilitator and discussion leader is Sharon Ruetenik, international student adviser and part-time instructor at SUNY Delhi.
The first two sessions were held on September 20th and October 4th, with three more sessions scheduled in late October and November. Lively issues emerged immediately in the opening session: two members, for example had first-hand family connections to The Great War: Buffy Calvert, whose uncle suffered catastrophic injuries from poison gas and Judy Garrison, who shared a photograph of her father attired in his World War I U.S. Army uniform. At this session, discussion of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front and its young protagonist Paul Baumer led us to consider the plight of returning Vietnam and Iraq War veterans, in some cases severely injured, often alienated and abandoned, upon their return to civilian life.
The second session focused on primary historical documents: actual letters and journal entries of participants, the optimistic Hague Conventions, contemporary propaganda posters and newspaper articles. The group was especially riveted by the persistent racism that existed at the time and the special problems encountered by Indian and African troops serving in the Allied cause, yet marginalized by the existing white supremacist ideologies of the time. Women, too, working in both German and Allied munitions plants on their respective home fronts, encountered equality issues still not fully resolved in today’s world.
Interested Gazette readers should look for Judy Garrison’s monthly feature, “The Way We Were,” which culls articles from The Andes Recorder of 100 years ago. In a September issue from 1916, the following brief article appeared in the Recorder:
“Miss Beatrice Forbes, sister of Rev. G.A. Forbes, will sail Saturday on the steamer New York for France to serve as a Red Cross nurse with the allies.”
By April of 1917, America will have declared war on Germany and joined the Allied war effort. In just a few months readers will begin to see more of the ways in which Andes itself joined this “war to end all wars.”~