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Vickroy: A century later, World War I still matters

In this photaken Saturday June 14 2014 entrance World War I Saint-Charles de Potyze Cemetery Zonnebeke Belgium. More than 4000

In this photo taken on Saturday, June 14, 2014, the entrance of the World War I Saint-Charles de Potyze Cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium. More than 4000 French soldiers are buried in the cemetery with a further 600 unknown soldiers interred in a mass grave. The cemetery is the largest French cemetery in Belgium. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

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Updated: September 1, 2014 8:09AM



A hundred years is a long time.

Though the United States was directly involved in World War I for just a year and a half, it nevertheless felt the impact of what had been billed, “The Great War.”

That impact not only lingers, it plays an integral part in the chaos that reigns today in the Middle East, the power struggle that Russia is now perpetrating in Ukraine and the way we define personal freedom right here in the United States.

As we mark the centennial of the start of WWI, it is quite obvious that much has changed since a Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, setting in motion a monthslong chain reaction among trigger-itching nations across Europe and as far away as Japan and Bolivia.

For one, the nature and weapons of war are much more sophisticated. The days of soldiers hovering in trenches or running full speed to slaughter across “No Man’s Land” are gone.

But the reasons that propel us to pit nation against nation remain the same: power, control and a loosely defined pursuit of “freedom.”

Peter Kirstein, professor of history at St. Xavier University on Chicago’s Southwest Side, says much of what came out of World War I remains relevant today. President Woodrow Wilson may have called it the war to end all wars, but, Kirstein said, “World War I proved that war just leads to more war.”

And so here are just 10 reasons to give a care about World War I.

1. The Middle East. “The situation in the Middle East and Palestine is a direct result of the first World War,” Kirstein said. The Sykes-Picot Agreement basically divided up between Great Britain and France parts of what had been the Ottoman Empire, he said. That was the beginning of European intervention in that region, he said.

At the same time, The Balfour Declaration gave support to the notion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and gave Great Britain temporary control of it, he said. It began a process of establishing a Jewish state in an Arab-dominated area that is still not resolved today. “We clearly can see that some of the problems in the Middle East today, with regard to the displacement of Palestine, date back to World War I,” he said.

2. Ukraine. After World War I, Germany believed that it was being unduly punished, Kirstein said. It was told to pay reparations and limitations were set on the size of its army. Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty basically blames Germany for causing the war, he said, when in reality, there were several causes for that especially bloody war. The Germans, including Adolf Hitler, felt that they’d been stabbed in the back. That paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power.

Today, Russia, which saw its empire dissolved by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, now has the same “get-even mentality,” Kirstein said. “The problems in Ukraine right now are directly linked to what the U.S. did after the Cold War ended in 1991,” he said. “Just like Germany after World War I, Russia wants to restore its glory.”

3. Women’s Rights. The war propelled millions of American women into the workforce, Kirstein said. That sense of responsibility and independence encouraged the Women’s Rights Movement and helped establish their right to vote.

4. Great Migration. Before 1914, African Americans primarily lived in the southern states. The war compelled them to move north, with many heading for Chicago, thanks to the promotional work of the Chicago Defender newspaper, Kirstein said. They came in search of factory jobs that were made available by overseas combat. They brought with them their culture and their music. The Great Migration caused Chicago to become a host of the Jazz Movement. Among the musicians who made their way to Chicago’s South Side were Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.

5. Architectural Changes. World War I rearranged the architecture of Europe more than World War II did. Kirstein said the war gave rise to a number of independent nations that had been under the rule of Russia or Austria-Hungary rule, such as Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

6. Sophisticated Weaponry. Tanks, machine guns, chemical weapons all came on the scene during WWI. That was the real introduction of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Kirstein said. “In World War I, they were using 20th Century weapons with 19th Century tactics,” he said. An example: Having men run across enemy territory only to have them picked off by machine gun fire.

7. Medical advances. Not only was the first blood bank established on a Belgian battlefield during WWI, Kirstein said, the war led to the first medical and psychology study of post-traumatic stress and shell shock.

8. Loss of Freedom. What do the Dixie Chicks have in common with German-Americans or Socialists who lived in America during WWI? Both suffered for their anti-war views.

“World War I began the persecution of Americans who don’t think that war is something America should be doing,” he said. Since then, whenever this country has engaged in war, those who oppose it or who simply give the appearance of opposing it (Japanese Americans during WWII) find their rights oppressed, he said.

In 2006, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed posthumous pardons for nearly 80 men and women convicted of sedition in 1918 and 1919 because they criticized the U.S. government’s war effort, Kirstein said.

After the Dixie Chicks expressed their views just before the start of the Iraq War, pro-Bush and pro-war groups called for the nation to shun the country music group.

“One of the biggest legacies of WWI should be that war can be an oppressor to freedoms at home,” Kirstein said.

9. A Miracle Truce. Perhaps the most touching revelation to come out of WWI happened at Christmas, 1914. At the start, many speculated the war would be over by year’s end, but that did not happen. According to history.com, on Dec. 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for a hiatus of the war in light of Christmas, but the warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire. Still, on Christmas Day the soldiers in the trenches along the Belgian front declared their own unofficial truce, the site states. British and German troops put down their rifles and could be heard singing Christmas carols and seen playing football, it said. Kirstein said, “That showed, ultimately, that humans had to be taught how to fight. That they were reluctant to fight.”

10. Remembrance. World War I officially ended at 11 a.m. on 11/11/1918. That is why, to this day, we celebrate Veteran’s Day, or Armistice Day, each Nov. 11.



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