Where did history happen, what history do we consider to be significant, who are ‘we’, and what can history do for us?
As a geographer involved with this project, I have found myself considering these essential and interrelated questions, as we have all struggled to make sense of the massive scale of death associated with WWI, and to somehow find some meaning in it.
So where did WWI history happen? Here I would argue it’s all about perspective, and for most people in the world, WWI history happened somewhere else -far beyond respective nation state borders. The result is that WWI is often overlooked or not afforded its full significance, because it is somehow displaced spatially. This is something that also becomes even more pronounced with the passing of time.
Then there is the question of how we might consider WWI to be significant historically. Here, despite the fact that we are today arguably still dealing with many of the same issues (nationalism, race, ethnicity, gender, class, the state, and capitalism) somehow we struggle to make the connections between us and them, between then and now. Nonetheless, on our journey here we have repeatedly been struck by the strong belief in democracy and the selflessness of those who served, and who fought and sometimes died to protect higher ideals. Furthermore it is crucial to ask questions of who (or what) benefitted from this carnage, and the manner in which nationalism can be promoted by those in power to further their objectives, which might not necessarily be in everybody’s best interests.
And then there is the question of who ‘we’ are as we grapple with WWI and try to make some sense of it. In this regard, history cannot be considered self-evident, but rather written from the perspective of the present, ideally as ‘we’ endeavor to imagine a better future. THE lesson from the Great War I would argue therefore, is that ‘we’ have to be the voice of reason. ‘We’ have to be the people who learned from this carnage. ‘We’ have to be the people who speak up when history looks like its beginning to repeat itself. Considering this question of who ‘we’ are with regards WWI also requires us to look past our differences and to acknowledge our commonalities both in the past, present and future. Here I have been astonished by the fact that millions of people saw past their national identity differences to fight together, and that millions of marginalized people served their countries and upheld the ideals of democracy, despite those ideals not being extended to them back home. Furthermore it is important to consider whether they did this completely of their own free will. Here for example, I am thinking about all those from colonial countries who fought for France or Britain, and all the American women, African Americans, Muslim, Hispanic and Native Americans, and immigrants, who served the US in various capacities during WWI.
Finally, as this particular journey comes to a close, I am also left wondering about that final question; what can knowing this history of WWI ‘do’ for us? In a world increasingly divided along national, socio-economic, racial and gendered lines, I would contend that it both serves as a lesson of where such divisiveness can ultimately lead us, while also encouraging us to always ask critical questions in the present about who (or what) ultimately benefits from such divisiveness. Furthermore (and paradoxically perhaps) WWI can serve as a lesson of what can be achieved when people refuse to succumb to divisive identity politics and focus instead on common causes and shared beliefs.
In conclusion I’m left wondering more specifically about these
Bucknellians whose paths we traced -as ambulance drivers, nurses, soldiers and airmen -and whether there was something unique about their Bucknell experience that influenced their character and led them here, in some tragic cases never to return home. Here I come back to the liberal arts, and the ability it arguably fosters in those educated according to this tradition, to be able to contextualize their own specific academic interests within a broader tableau, to ‘think outside the box’ perhaps, and to consider what one’s beliefs are and what path one should ultimately forge in life.
In this regard I believe that remembering and honoring the 750+ Bucknellians who served in WWI, can serve as a guiding touchstone for the Bucknell University of today and tomorrow.