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Centennial Poppies: Duke Scholars Recall the Legacy of World War I

Flanders poppies

Poppies in Flanders, Belgium. Courtesy Tijl Vercaemer through Wikimedia Commons

The poppies were back out throughout Europe this week of Nov. 11 as countries marked Armistice Day, commemorating the official end of World War I at 11:11 on Nov. 11, 1918.

In this, the centennial year of the start of the war, 888,000 ceramic poppies were planted at the Tower of London to pay tribute to the war dead; in Flanders, a British group planted poppies outside the memorial near the Ypres battlefield.

Even Americans who can recite the poppies of "In Flanders Field" are often unfamiliar about the lasting consequences of World War I throughout Europe. Below, Helen Solterer and Domenico Cangiano talk about the effects of the Great War and the people who endured it in France and Italy.

Solterer is professor in the Department of Romance Studies. Cangiano is a Ph.D. candidate in the department.


Why go to war?

Helen Solterer:  The shock of your home invaded, the sting of defeat – there’s nothing more powerful that moves men and women to fight; in France, in the summer of 1914, the memory of the Germans taking over Alsace and Lorraine and besieging Paris was still fresh.  The government had only to talk of the country’s ‘sacred union’ for millions to pitch themselves into another battle with Germany.  Their battle fever was quickened by new technologies – especially the flying machines in the skies.  Think about that ‘adventure’: thousands of young pilots took off with little more than leather goggles as a uniform; only to discover all the disastrous consequences of aerial bombing.


Domenico Cangiano:  Italy joined the conflict in May 1915: the only country to debate the war, for and against, for 10 months; the only country too that switched sides, having been allied, since 1882, with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

On the eve of World War I, the Viennese chronicler Karl Krause warned that sometimes markets have to turn into battlefields to become markets again.  No doubt Italian industrialists wanted to compete with their former allies for the Balkans and Turkey. There were other ways intellectuals of the time narrated the conflict. The “Futurists” saw war as “the only hygiene of the world” while nationalists needed Italian territory to expand for the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who were abandoning the country.


What did soldiers and others in the war effort write about  – novels, poems, newspapers, diaries, letters?

Cangiano: Italian intellectuals prepared the ideological ground for the conflict. But the kind of literature supporting Italy’s intervention was defeated by the conflict itself. Ardengo Soffici’s “bullets as kisses,” or Marinetti’s “Zang Tumb Tumb,” could not survive the trenches and contact with ‘real people.’ During the war many authors came back to a kind of sentimental literature based on the myth of the Mother, the Field, the Wife, the House, and God. 


The Futurist poet Aldo Palazzeschi stopped writing in 1916; and when he began again postwar, he dedicated his book to his old friends “who betrayed themselves and stoked the fire.”  Two Failed Empires treats the German Reich, as well as his own avant-garde circle, whose writing no longer made sense.

Solterer: Among the millions in France who wrote about the Western front, there were thousands who came from elsewhere.  Their literature represents as much of a world as the war.  Today we are rediscovering the Swiss volunteer, Blaise Cendrars.  He was ‘lucky’ enough to escape alive; and immediately wrote an account of his arm being amputated.  If he had any prosthesis at all, it was what he managed to write with his remaining hand, frenetic bursts of sentences that bring you face to face with a German soldier. “Me the poet, I understand reality; I acted, I murdered, like someone who wants to live.”  Cendrars punctured all the heroic talk of sacrificing for country by exposing the horrific necessity to kill to survive; and asking us to see the some 2 million dead on the Western front alone.


Why teach the Great War today?

Cangiano: A class on the Great War is a perfect way to show how those in power can use intellectuals -- who are supposedly free -- to build their own hegemonic discourse. The young Mussolini is emblematic: in his article at the time, The War as a Revolutionary Event, nationalist ideology starts to take the place of a socialist one. The war  -- better even than peacetime – allows us to see how the fight for consensus works.  It also helps us to understand the ‘rules’ of peacetime -- think about ‘discipline’ in the trenches and in factories.  I would call war a drug for societies scarred by class conflict, and a lab for new forms of mass control.

I also like teaching first person accounts of the conflict: the anonymous letters written from the front. Very often they’re love letters.   We have to remember that the majority of the infantrymen were illiterate, and so were the girls waiting for them in their hometowns. They needed someone to write for them, so often the love talk happened between a lieutenant at the front and a priest back home.


Solterer: Cendrars’ piece, “I Killed,” gave my students a jolt – even those who take for granted that killing is a daily happening on American streets.  Teaching about the experience and repercussions of warfare makes us all think, and think again.  I thought of the many military men and women in North Carolina.  Anyone who’s been down to the coast in the last several weeks knows the shuddering feeling of what locals call “the bombing” :  armament practice for the thousands being deployed right now.   A marine reminded me that every serviceman and woman transmits the memory of the past conflicts right back to Belleau Wood in France in 1917.  I wonder for how many more generations.

In my family, the memory of WWI took us by surprise one day back in the Seventies when my mother was cleaning out the attic.  She unearthed a moldy sweater, one my father admitted he had brought with him from Europe.  He was one of the teenagers on the Eastern Front who the Austro-Hungarian Empire sent up in a plane over the Adriatic.  Shot down, he made it out of the fiery crash; his gunner did not.  Out of that experience, he took his comrade’s sweater, one of the few possessions he carried with him from prisoner-of-war camp, through Indonesia, Cuba to America. 

Fifty years after his first war, and two continents later, he was ready to throw it out.  I kept the story.  Telling it gives me a way to combat war, remembering the toll it took on these teenagers, my father’s fidelity to his friend.