History Dept. to mark WWI centennial with lecture, West Point exchange

While most nations chose to mark the centennial anniversary of the beginning of the First World War on August 4—the date the United Kingdom officially declared war upon Germany—Vassar will mark the anniversary with two days of educational events with West Point on September 22 and 23; these two days will begin a year-long series of events related to the First World War. Affiliated with the Vassar-West Point Initiative program, the events will feature visits to both campuses and a lecture on September 23 at 5:30 p.m. by historian Sönke Neitzel, entitled “The First World War In the Context of a Century of Violence.”

On September 22, members of the Vassar-West Point Initiative will travel to West Point Military Academy to tour campus and shadow participating West Point cadets for a day. According to a schedule from Vassar-West Point Initiative member Aleya Romero ’15, students will participate in afternoon classes, screen the film “Kreongal,” and attend a book signing by Sebastian Junger. On September 23, West Point cadets will attend courses with their paired Vassar students before attending Neitzel’s lecture.

The decision to use this year as the marker for the centennial anniversary proves to be somewhat unique. While European nations have commenced with a series of commemorative actions, the United States will mark the anniversary three years from now, as the America entered WWI later. Professor of History and leader of the Vassar-West Point Initiative Maria Hoehn explained that this decision to adopt the European date of commemoration was intentional. Hoehn noted that American memorials of WWI are smaller and the war is generally not as prevalent in American consciousness compared to other wars. She explained, “Part of what we want to do in the History Department is that we want to remind our students that World War I is important, even though it is not out there in the public like it is in Europe.”

The lecturer—whose academic focus is on World War I and World War II—echoed the value of using this anniversary as a means of challenging popular memory around the war. Neitzel explained in an emailed statement, “Our approach in commemorating WWI is sometimes driven by normative approaches which use the conflict to support their master narratives. I am a bit skeptical towards a black/white approach and would argue that WWI is far more [complicated] than we normally think. This is especially the case if we investigate mass violence.”

He continued, “The 100th anniversary is a good occasion to widen and differentiate our view and to calibrate the First World Wars role in a century of violence.”

Hoehn also commented on the larger implications of the First World War on history and current events. “We need to look at this war because the world that was created in the settlement of that war—the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East—is the world we inherited. It’s the world we are still living with,” Hoehn explained.

Neitzel similarly articulated, “In view of recent conflicts in the Middle East or Ukraine there is much to learn about the grammar of international relations, the role of perceptions, misunderstandings, etc. in the relations of governments, societies, etc…And: It’s a great possibility for the people around the world to re-discover their own past, to ask about their families destiny in the war.”

The lecture will unite a variety of subjects related to the Great War. Neitzel explained, “Just some pieces and bids of what I will talk about: Atrocities and mass violence in WW I; the role of cultures of violence in WW I (did these cultures exist, what was the impact), the aftermath of WW I, was there a catalyst role for mass violence in WW II, similarities and differences of WW I and WW II, soldiers behavior in wars of the 20th century.”

The inclusion of West Point cadets as part of the academic exchange inherent in the Vassar-West Point Initiative occurred naturally as the department considered how best to commemorate the anniversary. “I had thought about inviting a speaker for the 100th anniversary last year because I thought that the Department [should make] a statement of support to remind our students why it’s important, and our colleagues at West Point, they are always thinking about ways to connect our academic affairs with theirs,” Hoehn noted. “So when they were talking about 4 or 5 months ago that they were going to have this World War I conference, [that’s] when we sort of started plotting and planning for this.”

Hoehn believes that their inclusion in the event will also help change some of the perspectives in the conversation. She noted, “For them, because they are out of the mainstream of the American public, of course World War I was important, Americans fought there.”

The lecture will serve as one of the first events to celebrate the anniversary year. Other upcoming engagements with the topic include a history course entitled “First World War,” another on Germany 1945 that begins with analyzing the Great War, and an International Studies trip to France, Britain and Germany to study war memorials. Hoehn also believes the department will do a similar year of anniversary events in 2018 to mark the centennial of the end of the war.

While the event has been folded into programming by the Vassar-West Point Initiative, the organizer and the lecturer believe that the lecture will be engaging for all members of campus. Hoehn explained, “I think that it’s interesting to any student of the world as it is today.” Neitzel also noted, “A college campus offers [a] great chance for dense discussion on WWI and its aftermath by students/staff from various [ethnic] and national backgrounds in an intimate atmosphere. Where else would you find such perfect preconditions for an inspiring discourse?”

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