Often Overlooked Impacts of WWI Highlighted During Commemorative Events, Exhibit
Photographs showing bombed out villages, battlefields and trenches littered with lifeless soldiers, and posters calling on citizens to heroically join the efforts to defend their respective nations. The images of World War One and its most obvious impacts have been documented countless times over. However, like any major moment in history, there are details that fade behind the more visible conflicts. The accounts of the hardships of battle are easily found, but the impact on families struggling to survive war-time life, including being ripped apart by differing views on the war, is not always a focal point. It’s those realities hidden in the shadows that inspired best-selling author Adam Hochschild’s book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.
“The way to organize my book dawned on me after reading about Charlotte Despard, a ferociously active English-born pacifist,” Hochschild said. “As I was reading about Charlotte, the author of this particular journal, just in one sentence in passing mentioned her brother, Sir John French. I immediately recognized that name as the Commander in Chief on the Western Front. So, I thought, wow, that must have been an interesting relationship. It’s essentially what drew me to organize my whole book around divided families.”
Hochschild detailed his research and discoveries about citizens and families divided over the war during a special talk to more than 300 people at the Wisconsin Historical Society on Oct. 8. The talk was part of the UW–Madison Libraries ongoing events and exhibits commemorating the centennial of the outbreak of WWI, in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Department of History’s Mosse Program. Hochschild says he became appreciative of the deeply personal accounts of individuals who recorded their experiences, often while jailed for descent and refusal to fight.
“People want to read about people,” Hochschild said. “You can slip in a lot of information about social conditions, battle, and other things, but people will remember the story when it’s about other people.”
Following the talk, visitors had the opportunity to view the WWI exhibit, “Then Came Armageddon,” in the Libraries’ Department of Special Collections. The exhibit was curated by UW–Madison graduate students Skye Doney and Eric O’Connor. The majority of the exhibit contains pieces donated by UW–Madison alumnus, Andrew Stangel.
“I lived for a couple of decades in Germany and had the advantage of traveling all over while I was teaching for the University of Maryland’s Extension in Germany,” Stangel said. “My students started asking to visit the places we were studying, so it spun me out of the classroom, and into a classroom on wheels with Europe as our campus. This gave me the chance to start working with dealers around Switzerland and Germany, gathering these antiquities. From there, my collection just grew.”
When Stangel decided to move back to the U.S., he and his wife began looking for a safe place to move his collection to, away from bank safe boxes. He turned to his alma mater and the Libraries.
“I started thinking that I have my ‘nourishing mother’ – my alma mater – and I’m a third generation UW graduate. I thought maybe this collection could be kind of like a fourth generation, as part of the University’s collection.”
The expansive Stangel Collection focuses on materials including newspaper accounts, war medals, photographs, cartoons, paintings, diplomatic correspondence, death certificates, propaganda, postcards, and children’s toys. Combined with other items from Special Collections and the Wisconsin Historical Society, the WWI exhibit, much like Hochschild’s book, aims at confronting perceptions of life and death both on the battlefield and the home front, giving visitors a better understanding of the profound impact, suffering, and opportunities that emerged from the war. Doney and O’Connor say curating the exhibit provided an opportunity to learn about WWI from a different light, something they hope others will take advantage of through the exhibit, or accounts of history from authors like Hochschild.
“We really tried to emphasize that this war took everyone to begin the conflict,” Doney says. “There’s no one country that’s at fault. We reflected the history of the conflicts, and the chain of events with the supreme cost.”
“We were able to really use this exhibit to find the pieces we thought would be the most interesting to people,” O’Connor said. “I hope people have a greater understanding of what is here and bring their classes, or incorporate it into their assignments.”
The exhibit will remain on display through Dec. 30. Several images can be viewed online. Adam Hochschild’s talk at the Historical Society will be available online in the coming weeks as well.