Thursday, November 13, 2014

Representing World War I: Perspectives at the Centenary

On October 30, 2014, Kathelene Smith, Jennifer Motszko, and I traveled to Toronto to present at an international conference on the centenary of World War One.  Upon our arrival at our downtown hotel, we were met with cool fall temperatures, overcast skies, and Canadians wearing red poppies on the lapels of their winter jackets.  It was a somber sight.  But, it was also a striking reminder of how Canada and the other member states of the Commonwealth of Nations commemorate and mourn the fallen of the “Great War” and subsequent conflicts.  We were struck by this very public and collective act of remembrance.

The three day conference, Representing World War I: Perspectives at the Centenary, was jointly sponsored by Toronto’s International Festival of Authors and the Humber School of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  The conference drew historians, political scientists, literary scholars, and archivists from France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Hungary, Canada, Australia, and the United States.  Presentation topics addressed such issues as: war and national identity, life on the home front, state propaganda, gender and armed conflict, race relations and modern warfare, memorialization and mythmaking, and European colonies and their role in a global war.  With a field of inquiry long dominated by military historians, it was refreshing to see how new research questions and methods have broadened the scholarly discussion of this bloody war.

Each day of the academic conference began with a keynote speaker who pointedly addressed emerging research trends and ongoing scholarly debates.  These opening sessions sparked a great deal of discussion amongst attendees.  The first keynote speaker, Dr. Michael S. Neiberg, challenged the way scholars have explained and taught the causes for the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1914.  Neiberg argued that the scholarly focus on a small number of decision-making elites is terribly misplaced.  While acknowledging the influence of military alliances and critical political decisions, Neiberg provocatively suggested that most Europeans did not blindly follow their leaders nor did they desire war.  The keynote speaker for the second day, Dr. David Stevenson, addressed the origins of World War One through the lens of a prewar arms race and a breakdown of international diplomacy.  Additionally, Stevenson explored the “war aims” of each of the combatant countries.  Through this study of war aims and their impact on the postwar settlement, Stevenson sought to draw connections to the outbreak of World War Two, and the development of the Cold War, as well as the current military tensions in Europe.

Drawing on the rich holdings in Special Collections and University Archives at UNCG, Kathelene Smith, Jennifer Motszko, and I assembled a panel on American women and propaganda during World War One.  We were the sole panel that was made up exclusively of archivists.  In her talk entitled “We Need You: Portrayals of Women in World War I American Red Cross Posters,” Jennifer discussed how women were being actively recruited for service with the Red Cross.  Through an examination of the visual imagery in wartime Red Cross posters, Jennifer argued that the posters themselves reflected the changing position of women in society, from supplicant to participant.   

In the presentation entitled “Every Girl Pulling for Victory: Sacrifice and Social Consciousness during the Great War,” Kathelene examined the ways students and faculty at the State Normal (now UNCG)  responded to the American declaration of war and the mobilization of the home front.  Students took an active role in buying liberty bonds, sewing socks, preserving food, and meeting a labor shortage.  Additionally, Kathelene discussed how the experience of the war energized and rallied students around the issue of suffrage, a natural consequence of the war effort. 

My presentation was based on the large World War One pamphlet collection that resides in Special Collections and University Archives.  Specifically, I was very interested in how American propaganda mobilized women to assist in the cultivation and preservation of food.  The title of my presentation was “’Doing Their Bit’: Food, Propaganda, and the Mobilization of the American Home Front.”   I explored how gender specific representations of “patriotism” and “duty” were used to mobilize women in the private and public spheres that constituted the home front.  I looked at pamphlets that promoted the cultivation of “war gardens,” the preserving of food, and the adoption of new recipes to address wartime shortages of wheat and meat.  I also looked at the state’s efforts to recruit women for commercial agricultural work through the Woman’s Land Army. 

Our session was well attended.  There was a lengthy question and answer session.  Audience members were very interested in how race and class may have impacted American propaganda efforts on both the national level and local level. 

As we were preparing to return to North Carolina, I was listening to a news commentator discuss the upcoming Remembrance Day activities in Canada.  While noting the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, he declared that this year’s commemoration (and the wearing of a poppy) took on extra meaning due to a recent terrorist attack at Canada’s National War Memorial and to the fact that the nation was beginning airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq.

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