Dan Corkery: 'Cross-campus initiative' spotlights Great War

Dan Corkery: 'Cross-campus initiative' spotlights Great War

It's called a "cross-campus initiative," but its pull should be felt beyond the University of Illinois.

"The Great War: Experiences, Representations, Effects" is intended to be more than just a meeting of historians. The idea is, the Champaign-Urbana community, along with students and faculty, will learn more about the consequences of World War I, which began 100 years ago.

While many of us know much about the Second World War, the Great War some 20 years earlier seems to be just beyond our grasp. We need to know more.

Some of the 21st century's most intractable conflicts — Israel/Palestine and Iraq, for example — have their roots in World War I.

"It's the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century," Marcus Keller, a UI professor of French and one of two coordinators for this semester-long effort, said of WWI.

The war was the first truly industrialized conflict, which meant there were a staggering number of deaths and injuries for both combatants and civilians: The death toll ranges from 9 million to 16 million.

The United States, whose entry into the war in April 1917 was the deciding factor, suffered 117,000 military deaths — about double the loss from the Vietnam War.

But other countries — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire — lost millions.

"For France, every family had a dead man or a wounded man," said Keller, who is a native of Germany.

The initiative's first event starts this week, with the opening of an exhibit at the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign.

"La Grande Guerre: French Posters and Photographs from World War I" goes on display this Thursday and continues until Dec. 21. The posters (war propaganda seeking French citizens' support and money) and photos (of various military units across Europe) are part of the UI's collection.

Among September's highlights: the St. Louis Orchestra performs music related to the period; a film series begins with Jean Renoir's acclaimed "La Grande Illusion"; and history Professor Peter Fritzsche and others will discuss local wartime stories.

In October, there's a discussion about black regiments in the war, along with a screening of John Ford's "What Price Glory?"

And in November, Illinois Theatre will perform the musical "Oh, What a Lovely War!" — an anti-war satire that premiered in 1963 — at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

That's just a sampling. Visit http://www.thegreatwar.illinois.edu to learn about more events.

Other than the musical, all events are free. And bring your questions; discussions are part of the program.

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. He can be reached at 217-351-5218 or dcorkery@news-gazette.com.

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