Museum shows how WWI continues to affect the present

By Stephen Cameron

KANSAS CITY, MO. – Standing on the glass bridge that carries you back a full century, you cannot miss the sea of reddish-gold poppies beneath you.

There are 9,000 of the artificial flowers, each one representing a thousand members of the military who died in World War I.

Supposedly no other plant life could grow in the “no man’s land” that separated the trenches in which massive armies huddled in fear of screaming shells.

Yes, that’s 9 million — a staggering number, but about what you might expect from a conflict that saw 65 million people in uniform and involved countries on every inhabited continent.

Surrounded by the poppies and an eerie quiet at the entrance to the National World War I Museum, it’s easy to see how the European battles that ultimately consumed nearly the entire planet have affected every minute of those 100 years since hostilities began in the summer of 1914.

In fact, the tendency is to pause and consider how much the world and its cultures have changed in a century.

Today we worry about oil to keep our machinery running; incursions across the Mexican border; the social and economic struggles that are widening the gap between rich and poor; the ambitions of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin; about unrest, revolution and outright war in a fractured Middle East; about whether the United States should impose itself on the affairs of far-away nations; equality for women in issues of pay and power; domestic spying by the NSA and potential loss of our personal freedoms; and of course, how technology is changing daily life at a staggering pace.

Every one of those present-day concerns either resulted directly from World War I or represents a modern-day repeat of the conditions that led to “The Great War.”

“In so many ways and so many areas of our lives, there is a straight line from World War I to what we are and how we live today,” museum archivist Jonathan Casey said.

VISITING THE displays, artifacts and all the other trappings of a century-old war tempts visitors to think they’re peering into some distant world that has little to do with the 21st century, Casey said.

Quite the opposite is true.

In fact, it’s almost mind-boggling how the supposed “War to End All Wars” affects us right now.

For instance, take the current flap over the National Security Agency and its eavesdropping – not just on suspected terrorists, but even U.S. citizens.

Such a thing once was considered utterly un-American, until President Woodrow Wilson deemed domestic spying necessary during World War I — along with censorship of various publications, violent intimidation of political opponents (suffragettes protesting peacefully for women’s right to vote were arrested outside the White House), and political absolutism.

For the first three years of the war, the United States was not only neutral by decree, but mostly isolationist throughout society.

Once Wilson decided to declare war on Germany and its partners in April of 1917, however, proponents of peace suddenly were persecuted and made targets of “poster propaganda.”

Mexico also had a role in Wilson’s decision to join the war.

Early in ’17, German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a coded telegram to the country’s ambassador in Mexico.

The Germans secretly proposed that Mexico should declare war on the United States, an effort that Germany promised to finance and which theoretically would see Mexico reclaim Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

It came to nothing, really, as Mexican president Venustiano Carranza realized his country didn’t have the resources to fight its giant neighbor — and he didn’t believe the Germans’ promise of funding, anyway.

But there was anger in the U.S. when the Zimmerman telegram — intercepted and decoded by the British — became public knowledge.

Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa had made several raids across the border, so even a fanciful rumor of Mexico’s intervention made it simple for Wilson to whip up support for an American war effort.

“Most visitors don’t really know all the connections to the politics and society of today,” Casey said. “But the more you view World War I, the more it ties into the issues we see now.”

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Well, the Bolsheviks almost certainly wouldn’t have come to power without World War I, leading to the Soviet Union’s stranglehold on eastern Europe and eventually to the establishment of Putin’s old job at the KGB.

One of the remarkable things about the World War I Museum is that the displays, films, archives, photographs and so much more pull all the threads from past and present together.

Most American schoolchildren learn that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, leader of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by Serbian nationalists lit the flame that plunged the world into battle.

But your first experience at the museum is watching a film about the state of Europe at the start of the 20th century.

It turns out the murder in Sarajevo was just an excuse — as nationalism, colonial expansion, a rapidly spreading gap between royalty and the poor, plus country after country arming itself while claiming the need for self-defense set the stage.

As the narrator says in the introduction to the explanatory film… “Peace was war held in check.”

The continent was a tinderbox, and the assassination provided the spark.

No one took blame for the war, a theme that has remained familiar throughout history.

Following the timeline that winds counter-clockwise around the museum’s gallery, you can see the predictable quotes and reactions.

“This sword has been thrust into my hand,” said Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II.

And yet conversations, documents and other evidence on display makes it clear that Germany was determined to force a war on Europe.

The one thing that everyone misunderstood at the time — and it’s the subject of discussions and displays that will be running through the end of the year – was that this “Balkan war” might drag on.

And drag the rest of the world into it.

The slogan when war began in August of 1914: “Over by Christmas.”

As you tour the museum, it’s clear that both sides – originally Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on one side, the Triple Entente nations (Great Britain, France and Russia) on the other – expected a quick and decisive victory.

The further you walk through the museum, the more tragic the consequences of that mistake become.

Eventually more than 20 million died, either in the war itself or from an influenza epidemic that followed.

And walking back out into daylight, there is an obvious question for any visitor: Has the world learned any lessons from World War I?

Historians tend to doubt it, just as they have never quite agreed on how and why the war started, or what the world would look like if it hadn’t happened.

“Everyone has a different view,” Casey said. “That’s one of the things that makes this museum and its archives (with 8,000 titles) so important.”

The only area in which there is no dispute is that millions died for reasons most didn’t even understand.

The poppies are a solemn reminder.

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