The 2015/16 KU WWI Lecture Series, Everyday Lives on the Eastern Front, concluded yesterday evening with a lecture by West Virginia University Eberly Professor of Modern European History, Robert Blobaum.
In his talk, Professor Blobaum contextualized Warsaw’s First World War experience by comparing it to the more widely understood and researched experience of Warsaw’s citizens during the Second World War. In the analysis of statistical data found in food rationing, caloric intake, the weight measurements of youth, infant mortality rates, migration, and other like metrics, there is an argument to be made that the WWI experience had as much of an impact – and in some instances, a more severe impact – on the overall public health of Warsaw’s citizens than WWII.
But if this were the case, why does WWII dominate the memory landscape in Poland leaving WWI as an afterthought? One explanation is illustrated in the title that Professor Blobaum chose for his talk and soon-to-be-published book, A Minor Apocalypse (coming soon in 2016). As harsh as the average experience was for Poland’s citizens during WWI, it is not comparable to the genocide and decimation of minority groups in Poland during WWII, a much larger and more horrifying apocalypse.
Another explanation can be found in the legacy of the First World War. In Eastern Europe, the war culminated in the collapse of century-old empires giving rise to new states like the Soviet Union, a communist country that did not venerate its imperialist past nor seek to commemorate those who died in the name of a Tsar. Because of the animosity towards Imperialism, there is a lack of scholarship on the Eastern Front’s experience during the Great War, a dark void that is a little brighter with Professor Blobaum’s study of Warsaw’s WWI experience.
Since 2014, KU’s WWI Centennial Commemoration has focused heavily on the Eastern Front and one of the questions I’m most commonly asked is “why?” Wouldn’t general audiences be more interested in local, Kansas history?
My answer is simple: by learning more about Eastern Europe, we are focusing on local, Kansas history.
After the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 giving rise to the Soviet Union, the United States began creating academic units across the country to better understand and increase scholarship on the perceived threat of the Communist East. As the Cold War heated up, so too did funding and support of these learning centers. It might surprise you to know that one of oldest of these academic units is found right here in Kansas at KU.
The University of Kansas Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies (CREES) has been a national leader for the study of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe since 1959. Its very existence, arguably, is a legacy of the First World War. To this day, CREES and affiliate faculty develop and support programming like the Everyday Lives on the Eastern Front lecture series to expand US knowledge of the world and contribute to scholarship on global events like World War I.
It is because of KU’s long tradition of studying this part of the world that there are experts living in Kansas like KU History Professors Nathaniel Wood and Erik Scott who, recognizing the need for increased scholarship on WWI, have the foresight and connections to bring nationally recognized experts to Kansas to share cutting-edge research on 100-year-old events.
As we commemorate the World War I Centennial in Kansas, it is important to look back and reflect on our local history and honor the sacrifices made by Kansans during the war. It is also important to look forward and embrace the resources Kansas has for learning more about WWI within a global context.
Click here to read an interview with Professors Wood and Scott about the Everyday Lives on the Eastern Front lecture series featured in the CREES Spring 2016 Newsletter.
Click here to learn more about the KU WWI Centennial Commemoration, coordinated by the European Studies Program.
Click here to learn more about the KU Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies.