Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Illinois Campus Commemorates the Centenary of WWI with Events for the Entire Community

This blog was originally posted by the University of Illinois News Bureau on August 19, 2014.

The EUC is a co-sponsor of the initiative, which features participation by numerous faculty and student affiliates of the center.

Michael Rothberg (left) and Marcus Keller, professors and department heads in English and French, respectively, are co-coordinators of “The Great War,” a cross-campus initiative at the University of Illinois commemorating the centenary of the start of World War I.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start The Great War: Experiences, Representations, Effects” is designed for Illinois students and the local community to gain a new understanding about the first industrialized conflict carried out on a global scale.
of World War I with a cross-campus initiative that includes theater productions, a film series, concerts, lectures, symposiums, an art exhibition and a general education course. “

A complete listing of events can be found at

Michael Rothberg, a professor and the head of the English department and co-coordinator of the initiative, said organizers made a conscious decision to avoid creating a schedule of conferences led by academic historians. “It’s not a project organized by people who are specialists or experts in World War I history, but precisely by people who aren’t – because we thought it would be important for everybody to think about the legacies of the war,” he said.

Rothberg, who also is the founding director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies Initiative at Illinois, admits that he knows less about World War I than he knows about World War II, which has overshadowed a conflict that caused some 16 million deaths.

“World War I is really interesting because it was an enormous rupture in the 20th century. Millions of people died, and it changed the face of geopolitics on a worldwide scale, and yet it also is not remembered as strongly as you might expect,” Rothberg said. Its memory seems less vivid in America than in Europe, he said, where battlefields, trenches, cemeteries and monuments provide residents daily reminders of the turmoil.

Marcus Keller, co-coordinator of the initiative and a professor and the department head of French, said that France, in particular, still regards World War I as the greatest trauma of the 20th century because of the loss of nearly 2 million French soldiers, with another 5 million wounded. “Contrary to World War II, the war of 1914-18 affected just about every family in France through the loss of a loved one,” Keller said.

He said The Great War initiative has broadened his understanding of the war’s global impact – the colonial powers’ recruitment of soldiers from Africa and India, the Australians compelled to fight the Ottoman Empire, the “social reshuffling” caused by the feminization of the workforce. “World War I really thrust the world into the 20th century, and a wholly new era, within the matter of four years,” Keller said.

An opening reception for the initiative will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 4 (Thursday) at Krannert Art Museum, where an exhibition of World War I posters and photographs is on display. 

At the core of The Great War initiative is a history course ­– HIST 258: World War I and the Making of the Global 20th Century – that will satisfy general education requirements for history, Western comparative culture or global studies. This one-time course will be co-led by history professors Tamara Chaplin and Peter Fritzsche, who are specialists, respectively, in the histories of France and Germany, two of the central players in the conflict.

The class also will take advantage of other aspects of the campus initiative, such as the exhibition of war propaganda posters at Krannert Art Museum, and other specialists from history and other campus units will lead about a third of the lectures. The course will deal with the war’s politics and strategies, but also with art, race, empire, the home front, the role of women, shell shock, the Russian revolution, the Armenian genocide, and the soldiers’ experiences told through fiction and poetry, among other topics. 

“What’s nice is this course simulates what a conference does, bringing together people from different disciplines, but now for the benefit of an undergraduate audience,” Fritzsche said.

“One of the things we’re really interested in communicating to our students,” Chaplin said, “is that so many things that they take for granted in the world around them have been shaped by that war because it was such a massive, cataclysmic, global experience.”

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, who fought in World War I, is among the required readings for the course. Instead of recounting battle heroics, Remarque told the story of war from the point of view of soldiers living in the trenches ­– boredom, chaos, terror, shell shock – similar to the realistic perspective that dominated the Vietnam War.
Oh, What a Lovely War” – a musical that takes a look at World War I through the prism of Vietnam-era sensibilities – will be presented by the University of Illinois department of theatre for two weeks beginning Nov. 6 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Full of catchy tunes, the play premiered at Theatre Royal in London in the early 1960s. It was directed by Joan Littlewood, who assigned her actors books to research various aspects of World War I. One reviewer described the resulting musical as imbued with “the contrast between beguiling form and radical content.”

Music composed against the backdrop of World War I also will be on the program when the St. Louis Symphony performs Sept. 14 (Sunday) at 7:30 p.m. at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Danish composer Carl Nielsen decided in 1914 to compose a work that would express the “spirit of life” and “the elemental will to live.” Two years later, he titled his Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable.”

One poignant peaceful night during the war will be commemorated with a concert Dec. 2 (Tuesday) at Krannert Center, when the nine-man a cappella group Cantus and a trio of actors perform “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.” The concert will include patriotic tunes, trench songs and holiday carols, with a narrative woven from letters and war documents to honor the Christmas Eve when Allied and German soldiers laid down their guns to gather their dead, exchange gifts, share a meal and sing.

A series of World War I-themed films will begin Sept. 26 (Friday) with “La Grande Illusion,” a 1937 Jean Renoir film about a small group of French POWs. It was the one film that legendary director Orson Wells named when TV talk show host Dick Cavett asked what two films he would take with him “on the ark” (the other was “something else”). John Ford’s 1952 Technicolor movie “What Price Glory,” starring James Cagney, will be shown Oct. 9 (Thursday); the satirical German film “Der Brave Soldat Schwejk” (The Good Soldier Schweik) will be shown on Nov. 13 (Thursday). Peter Weir’s 1981 film “Gallipoli” follows two Australian sprinters (Mel Gibson and Mark Lee) from their idealistic enlistment to the doomed eight-month Gallipoli campaign. It will be shown Nov. 20 (Thursday). The series ends Dec. 4 with “Joyeux Noel,” a 2005 French film about the Christmas Eve truce of 1914. Though the gore of war is depicted in the movie, film critic Roger Ebert noted that the plot centered on “a respite from carnage” and that the sentimentality “is muted by the thought that this moment of peace actually did take place, among men who were punished for it and who mostly died soon enough afterward.”

“La Grande Illusion” will be shown at the Armory Building; the other films will be shown in the Krannert Art Museum auditorium. All films begin at 7 p.m. The series was curated by Lilya Kaganovsky, a professor of Slavic languages and literature and director of the Program in Comparative and World Literature at Illinois.

The Great War initiative offers several scholarly opportunities. Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at New York University and co-author of “Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality,” will talk about the effect of the war on the rivalry between black military units formed in Chicago and New York at 4 p.m. on Oct. 22 (Wednesday) at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Taner Akçam, a professor of history at Clark University and one of the first Turkish academics to examine the Armenian genocide, will speak on “Denying the Armenian Genocide: A Turkish National Security Concept” on Nov. 3 (Monday) at the Illini Union. Akçam is the author of “A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility” and “The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire.” 

Timothy Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University and the author of the critically acclaimed book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” will deliver a MillerComm lecture hosted by the Center for Advanced Study at 3 p.m. Nov. 10 (Monday) at Spurlock Museum.

A complete list of lectures can be found online.

Editor's note: For more information, contact Michael Rothberg at 217-333-2581; email; or Marcus Keller at 217-265-6476; email
To add events to the The Great War calendar, email


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