National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, USA

The "forgotten front": Great War Centenary conference at National World War I Museum in Kansas City considers the Eastern Front

Posted on centenarynews.com on 16 April 2013
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In a specially written article for Centenary News, New York teacher and historian Dr. Jillian Davidson reflects on the Great War conference held at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, in March 2013. With just over a year to go to the centennial of World War I, she was pleased to discover that the discussion was not “All Quiet on the Eastern Front.”

I was excited to learn that the National World War One Museum of Kansas City was organizing an international centennial planning conference for “what many (in the United States) consider a forgotten war.” I even proposed a paper, to be distributed electronically at the conference, on one of the most forgotten tales of World War One; the Jewish experience. For me, this was an ideal opportunity to offer a small offshoot of my doctoral dissertation on “A ‘Secular Catastrophe’ in Eastern Europe: The Great War and the Reconstruction of Modern Jewish Memory.”

With my paper submitted, I arrived in Kansas City ready to enjoy the words of others over the conference weekend.  Given that the Department of Foreign Affairs from the Government of Flanders and Flanders House, New York, were lead sponsors and that The Western Front Association was a co-sponsor of the conference, I did not expect to hear much which related to the “forgotten” Eastern Front of the war, and especially its “forgotten” Jewish participants.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised.  The Eastern Front figured with an unusual degree of prominence in the featured talks.  The first of the main speakers, the French historian Dr Annette Becker, tackled the vast problem of how to commemorate a 100-year-old tragedy. Grand in her scope, she didn’t limit herself to any one country or culture, but gave due reference to artists of different media, languages and nationalities. She thereby sought to address the creation of a truly global identity of the War.

As a starting point for her analysis of this global identity, she quoted from the Lithuanian-born Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. In an interview much later on in his life, Levinas recalled his mixed up memories of wartime disruptions, which fused with memories of the subsequent  Russian Revolution and civil war. “Trouble began at the end of August 1914, trouble which never ended, as if order had been disrupted, forever.”

Becker not only agreed with Levinas’ perception of the Great War as never ending on the Eastern Front, but she also argued that the Eastern Front was not alone or different in this respect. According to Becker, the Eastern Front did not differ so much from the Western Front. The memories of both fronts raised and confronted similar problems and challenges.

Featured speaker number two, Dr Sophie De Schaepdrijver, was born and educated in Belgium. She is the author of De Groote Oorlog: het Koninkrijk België in de Eerste Wereldoorlog.  The book has not yet been translated into English, but its title means The Great War: the Kingdom of Belgium in the First World War. Here again, I did not expect to hear much about the Eastern Front.

De Schaepdrijver’s opening statements seemed to confirm my expectations. First, she acknowledged the honor of being “here in this place of memory and of active endeavor.” Then, she immediately conjured up, in words as well as power point slides, the “dominant image of our memory that most of us have grown up with, that we are steeped in.” This was the image of the Western Front as a theatre of futility, the front, which never budged, the Front of Blackadder, who described Field Marshal Douglas Haig's attempts to advance as "another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”

An important element, which De Schaepdrijver considers is forgotten or ignored in this dominant image, is, however, the fact that the front lines resulted from conquest. This proved a turning point in her talk as she launched into an examination of the different relationships, which existed between the conquerors and the conquered during hostilities.

De Schaepdrijver’s geographic framework of reference had, therefore, to embrace the enormous expanse of occupied territories in the war. This was an area of military occupation which extended from “Lille to Rostov,” from the largest city in Flanders to the ancient Russian port town. It was an area which included four capital cities: Brussels, Belgrade, Warsaw and Bucharest. In other words, the Eastern Front was as relevant as the Western Front.

With a click of a button, De Schaepdrijver turned from a map of the west to a map of the east; from a photo of a German military funeral in occupied Bruges to harvesting in occupied Romania; from reconstructing the dynamics of violence against civilians as the Germans advanced into West Flanders to an understanding that in Poland, the Russian retreat caused more devastation than the German invasion. A poster from 1916 showed bread-baskets and cornucopias as the fruits of German conquest in the east, produced by the German-Jewish artist in uniform, Hermann Struck.

Far from upholding a dominant image of the Western Front, De Schaepdrijver was sensitive to the array of contrasting experiences of occupation, depending upon different territories, the circumstances of invasion, and the nature of the regimes, societies and ethnic populations. She thus delineated the differences between the west and the east. On the Eastern Front, she explained that civilians were victimized not as much by invading armies but by the retreating armies of the Tsar, causing “Jewish communities to fall victim to a malevolent merger between on the one hand traditional anti-Semitism and on the other hand wartime suspicions of a fifth column.”

Saturday night’s highlight of the conference was Dr Michael Neiberg’s revisionist talk on “The Outbreak of War in 1914: A New Look at an Old Problem.” Acknowledging that the Centennial presents a “once in a lifetime opportunity; not just to commemorate but to educate”, Neiberg’s concern is that the community of commemorators does not waste this unique opportunity.

His goal is to ensure that during the years 2014-18, we do not just reinforce old stereotypes and rehash old stories. Foremost among these stereotypes are later versions of the war such as Blackadder or “Oh What a Lovely War”. By returning to what really happened in 1914, Neiberg undertakes nothing less than a rescue mission: “to get the people of 1914 out of the stupid box.”

As in his recent book, “Dance of the Furies”, so too in his lecture, Neiberg cites primarily letters, diaries and journals of Europeans from 1914. Most of his Europeans are from Germany, France and Britain or Americans who were in Europe at the time. In the introduction to his book, he admitted that he “would have liked more sources from Eastern Europe” but considered that his source base was sufficient to draw his conclusions that there is no evidence of war enthusiasm. No Europeans were eager for war and all sides saw their entrance into the conflict as defensive.

One of his Neiberg’s earliest power point slides quoted Stefan Zweig. The Viennese Jewish writer calculated “Only a few weeks more and the name and figure of Franz Ferdinand would have disappeared for all time out of history.” Whenever available, Neiberg juxtaposed two different quotes from individuals in different countries, making similar statements at the same time, such as the English novelist, Ford Madox Ford, on one side of the screen and a French socialist on the other.

My personal favorite was the source which Neiberg used to summarize “What Really Happened in 1914”.  There stood a quote from, as Neiberg informed his audience, “the Jewish-German soldier Herbert Sulzbach”, a true spokesman of the whole generation of 1914: “[1914 was] a year of pain and sorrow, not only for us but for the whole of what is called the civilized world.”

In his book, Neiberg went even further in claiming that Sulzbach was the Everyman European of 1914. He stated in effect that Sulzbach was to soldiers what Stefan Zweig had been to civilians, the international paragon. “His [Sulzbach’s] sentiments might well have been written by any man in any army in Europe. That he was German is almost irrelevant. His story is the story of Europe in 1914.”

It is doubly ironic then that Neiberg considered it relevant to mention that Sulzbach was Jewish. First, because it was not so relevant that he was German and secondly because in his war memoir “With the German Guns: Four Years on the Western Front”, Sulzbach himself never so much as mentioned his religion. He never identified himself as a German Jew let alone a Jewish-German soldier.

Last but of most relevance came the fourth speaker, Dr Vejas Liulevicius who delivered his talk on “The Eastern Front Experience in World War I”.   Reaffirming a description by Winston Churchill, Liulevicius presented this as the front, which for general historical consciousness is still “the unknown war.”

Liulevicius accordingly invited his audience to “contrast how present in our minds today are the trenches and bunkers of the Western Front and how, by contrast, unfamiliar are the spaces of Eastern Europe.” Like his colleagues before him, Liulevicius sought to explore what it meant to experience the war in human terms and the global significance of that experience. Many Americans can claim associations with the Eastern Front through ancestral ties, evidenced by the names displayed throughout the exhibition halls of the National World War 1 museum. Liulevicius’ own relatives experienced the war as civilians in Lithuania.

His scholarly interest focused, however, on how ordinary German soldiers viewed their experience in the wide open spaces of the Eastern Front, a line which extended twice the length of its western counterpart. Whereas their comrades on the Western Front sank into a war of non-movement, German soldiers in the east kept moving the whole time.

It was a war of movement and passage in a subjective sense as well. In Western Europe, the mental landscape of war was one which exposed the meaninglessness of the slaughter. In Eastern Europe, the war was often celebrated as an entrance, a baptism of fire, which led to national independence. This is the front where empires fell and independent states arose. These are the same spaces where the Germans returned as Nazis, resuming some of their earlier policies and radicalizing others.

As the main source for these mental mappings, Liulevicius used a wartime journal, published in 1918: Josef Wenzler’s Mit Draht und Kabel im Osten. Aus dem Tagebuch eines Telegraphisten” –- “With wire and cable in the East. From the diary of a telegrapher.” Wenzler loved his job of extending communication, of bringing modernity and changing the face of war. He was one of a troop of telegraphers who referred to themselves as “lightning boys”, a new brand of superheroes. He provides an account of an epic odyssey into the huge spaces of the Russian Empire, of the elemental and continuous advance of Germans.

Listening to Liulevicius, I was reminded of Josef Wenzler’s Jewish, Austro-Hungarian counterpart, the Yeshivah boy (student of only Jewish religious texts), turned soldier, turned army telephonist, Corporal Jacob Margolis. Telephonist to the Supreme Commander, Emperor Franz Josef, he is, of course, just one of the comic-tragic anti-heroes of a mock epic, the most celebrated Hebrew novel of World War One, “The Great Madness” by Avigdor Hameiri.

The author-narrator (an enlightened Jew from Budapest) clearly loves this small-town, old-fashioned, Talmudic scholar who has talked with God on the telephone for all of his pre-war life and now is establishing lines of communication for generals. One of the central, though basest scenes, of the novel stars Margolis, but so too does he succeed in linking the Austrian telephone line with the Russian one. This feat enabled the Habsburg Army to hear enemy plans and confuse them with counterfeit orders, and thereby to advance further into Russian forests. Decorated for a second time, Margolis proudly asserts that he was only following the Biblical precedent of setting the Egyptians against the Egyptians. “The pleasure of having found the proper chapter for the occasion was greater than the pleasure he got from the medal itself.” Despite all his metamorphoses, he remained the Bible scholar at heart.

At the end of The Great Madness, the author-narrator and Margolis have advanced so far that they are marching off into Russian captivity. Silently at first, they pass by Russian and Austro-Hungarian corpses, until finally Margolis interjects: “Well, then, tell me sir: what was all this game for? Couldn’t we have simply bought a train ticket and gone straight to Russia?” Not surprisingly, this fictional war diary of a Jew on the Eastern Front, published in 1929, was acclaimed the Jewish equivalent to Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

Liulevicius’ talk marked the end of a conference that satisfied on all fronts.  However, I couldn’t help but reflect that of the nine countries represented at the conference (the US, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Turkey, Slovakia and Japan), no Eastern European country had attended. It is difficult to plan a global commemoration when certain partners are absent.

Perhaps because the snow was still falling outside the museum and flights out of Kansas City were being cancelled, I was nervous that I might not make it home for Passover on the next day. The image of one of Annette Becker’s slides resonated most powerfully for me: that of Brancusi’s Table of Silence, with its 12 symbolic seats around the table. The original empty seat comes from the empty cup and seat left traditionally for Elijah at the Passover seder table. At this conference, the seats for Polish and Russian representatives had remained empty.

Uploaded by: Peter Alhadeff, Centenary News

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