WWI: Week Three Update (Paris)

We’re a couple of days into the third and final week of the inaugural travel course version of HIS230L World War I, taught by Profs. Chris Gehrz and Sam Mulberry. They and their twelve students have relocated once more, to the southern German city of Munich, from which they’ll fly home this Thursday. But first, a look back at the five days they spent last week in Paris, France:

As Prof. Mulberry has observed, the course follows an interesting arc: the initial week in London focused on the background to and origins of the war, with a leisurely pace and burgeoning enthusiasm appropriate to the Europe that entered 1914 and greeted the outbreak of war so gleefully; that gave way to three intense, challenging, and uncomfortable days on the former Western Front, imaginatively understanding the soldier’s experience of the war. But then to Paris, and an awkward question that faced many at war’s end: How should we feel? Can we enjoy life when so many have lost it?

Our students found plenty to enjoy during their five days in Paris: the art of the Louvre, Orsay, and Orangerie; the January sales that make Paris shops almost affordable; and the sight of the Eiffel Tower lit up on a snowy night. But they also found themselves better understanding that the war’s wounds did not heal quickly, and that European and American attempts to make meaning of ten million deaths often foundered.

We started at Les Invalides, last resting place of French military heroes like Napoleon Bonaparte and Ferdinand Foch (the Allied commander who finally defeated the Germans in 1918). It’s also home to a well-designed military history museum whose WWI wing introduced French perspectives on the war and gave our students another chance to walk through its story in its entirety.
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After lunch on the rue Cler, we paused on the Champs de Mars to gaze up at the Eiffel Tower and contemplate how the war had complicated the industrialized West’s fascination with technological innovation.

Wednesday took us to the royal chateau of Versailles, which has several connections to the origins and aftermath of the war. It was here in 1871 that a unified German Empire was proclaimed, an event that ended up leading Russia, France, and Britain into alliances with each other. In a spirit of revanche it was here that the French hosted the 1919 peace conference that yielded a harsh treaty that many Germans regarded as a Diktat. One of them, war veteran Adolf Hitler, rode resentment of the Versailles Treaty to power in 1933, proceeded to ignore its attempts to restrain German power, and launched a Second World War in 1939 – a final blow to the late Woodrow Wilson’s belief that 1914-1918 could be redeemed through peacemaking in 1919, and the world made “safe for democracy.”

If only Bethel students had been in charge of the peace… For nearly an hour, they roleplayed the peace conference — in the Hall of Mirrors itself! — and the American and German teams managed to talk the British and French teams into a much less severe peace than the one that was signed in that same room in June 1919. Here are our team leaders, clockwise from the left foreground: Gretchen Luhmann (a.k.a. British prime minister David Lloyd George); Sarah Herb (French premier Georges Clemenceau); Anne Magnuson (American president Woodrow Wilson); and Annie Berglund (German chancellor Philipp Scheidemann — who resigned rather than sign the actual treaty); with Prof. Gehrz moderating a point of contention.
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