Memories of the Great War

About this Episode

Guests
Kirsten Hildonen, Keshia Lai, Brenna Miller

The summer of 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In this month’s podcast, three Ohio State historians travelled far and wide to bring us first-hand stories of how the Great War is being commemorated across the globe. Brenna Miller joined us from Sarajevo (Bosnia), where Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke, the famous spark that set off the war. Kirsten Hildonen phoned in from Belgrade (Serbia), an epicenter of the Great War still feeling aftershocks of the wars of the past 25 years. And Keshia Lai reported from Singapore, then an important colony in Britain’s Asian empire and now an economic powerhouse.

(Image Source)

Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "Memories of the Great War" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
August, 2014
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/memories-great-war?language_content_entity=en.
August, 2014

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy 

Welcome to History Talk the history podcast for everyone produced by Origins: Current Events and Historical Perspective. I'm one of your hosts Patrick Potyondy. Many historians consider World War I as the most important event of the 20th century, the conflict that broke apart the old-world order to set the stage for the rest of the century. Also known as the Great War, this was the 20th century's first man made global upheaval literally bigger and more disastrous than any war before.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This is your other cohost Leticia Wiggins. 2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of World War I's beginning. As Patrick noted, the Great War's ramifications were felt throughout the world, and its impact on social and cultural memory extreme. We dedicate this podcast to the myriad of ways this war is commemorated globally.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

To explore this subject further, we have three historians joining us via phone to lend their global perspective on this war's remembrance.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

We'll hear from Kirsten Hildonen and Brenna Miller as they weigh on Sarajevo and Belgrade and Keshia Lai as she reports on the less studied war memorials in Singapore.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

So stay tuned for unique perspectives on one of the most remembered wars of the last century.

 

Brenna Miller 

Okay, I'm Brenna Miller and I'm a graduate student of history at The Ohio State University. I specialize in European history and specifically on the socialist era in Yugoslavia.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

So where are you calling us today from?

 

Brenna Miller 

I'm calling today from Belgrade, Serbia, where I'm doing some research for my dissertation. But last week I took the special trip to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to have a look at some of the commemoration for the hundred-year anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

In a recent article you call the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, one of the most successful assassination attempts in history not only because the assassin was able to kill his marks, but because by the end of the war, the geopolitical boundaries that he had been trying to change had in fact changed in large part because of his actions. Um, so can you tell us a little bit more about the ways in which you see the assassination as successful? And kind of what you mean by that?

 

Brenna Miller 

Yeah. So I use the term successful in a bit of a meditative way. And I use it that way for two reasons. First, in the very literal sense that the assassination achieves its geopolitical goals, right?  At the turn of the century, Bosnia was under Austro-Hungarian occupation or annexation. But there were movements for national independence in the region. And the ultimate goal of Princip and organizations who was a part Mlada Bosna, or young Bosnia, was to liberate Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to unify with other south Slavs and independent state. And, of course, there's debate about exactly what form or balance of power that unification was intended to take. But by the end of World War I that unification was exactly what happened. Austro-Hungarian rule ended and Yugoslav Kingdom emerged.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

In considering this kind of controversial acts to say the least, has the hundredth anniversary of World War I's beginning that you mentioned that you that you visited some of the events and Sarajevo has it received much attention there. How are the people there commemorating the war, what events have been going on?

 

Brenna Miller 

The anniversary has definitely received a tremendous amount of attention. And that's not just here in the Balkans, but also in the international media. And all of this has had been in the works for months now. Even I have to say, it's kind of to the point of fatigue and covering it for months on end now. But there's definitely been no shortage of articles on the assassination-

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right.

 

Brenna Miller 

-that have come out there, the media and reporters and documentaries all over the city, and lots of tourists in town, especially for the commemoration. But as for the events themselves. I guess it's important to explain that there are essentially two threads of commemorations. Generally there was one sort of thread that viewed the assassination as sort of a terrible act that ushered in an era of war. But there's another interpretation of the brilla princip and the assassination that views it as sort of a victory for independence and liberation. But the main events took place in Sarajevo which is where I attended, and multiple organized with pretty heavy EU and European, European organizational support and also financial assistance. And these were more oriented towards commemorating the assassination and served as the generalized idea of war and a new era of peace. And there were a lot of events along these lines, it's almost sort of like dizzying to sort of try to recount them. There were museum exhibits and theatre events and our unveilings.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right, right. And so where the tourists there, were they, did you get a sense that a lot of them were there because of this kind of historical anniversary. I don't, sometimes I think we think of tourism as being based around history in fact.

 

Brenna Miller 

I have through an ongoing meditation on tourism sort of in the city. And it seemed like a lot of the people that were here had service specific interest in World War I, kind of history buffs, you know alongside historians and things that the kind of want to see how things are being commemorated, and just sort of be present in the place at the moment when the sort of historic event occurred.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right. Right. And this is a really good transition, I think into kind of the next question. With Sarajevo being the site of the you know, the main event the historians generally see as the spark that ignited World War I. So have the various commemorations taken on a special meaning in Sarajevo, because of the role the city played? And I imagine there are sort of competing views here that you kind of have started to touch on about the war and the city and how they should be seen.

 

Brenna Miller 

The event definitely speaks to a lot of controversy around the interpretation of brilla princip. And in the article, I kind of talked a little bit about the different phases that his memory has gone through. The commemoration this time around are really heavily influenced by I feel the war in the 1990s and some of the legacies of that. There are different local interpretations now with the brilla princip that sort of speak to that moment of conflict. One sort of thread of those, and this is a bit of a generalization, but primarily Bosniaks and Croats. Here, we sort of  view now the Brilla Princip as a symbol for greater fear of ambition, and fear of aggression. And conversely, Serbs in the region view him even more now as a defender of national interest, and also a defender against foreign intervention. So a lot of the events really spoke to those sort of contrasting views of Princips. And because there was a lot of concern about that sort of controversy, the very fact that there would be competing events, event organizers really wanting to kind of spin this perception of Sarajevo as being a place of conflict. And so that's why so many of these main events will really seem to focus more on their peace and having a new era in the country's history.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

There's a kind of an interesting contrast there, right. So the Balkans are often seen as this you know, quote unquote tinderbox of Europe divided by ethnic rivalries and ethnic violence. You know, we have the word balkanized, even right for this, um, so in what ways are the people of Bosnia and Sarajevo, you know, including those government officials, maybe the veterans from the 1990s wars that you suggested that you mentioned? How are they struggling to change that image of the region as we move into the 21st century?

 

Brenna Miller 

Um, well, I think kind of reflecting personally on the events themselves, some of these concert events and also theatre performances, that went on that focus solely on peace and a new era. They were definitely paying attention to this idea of changing the perception of Sarajevo in the international community. And I think in part there was definitely a sense that they were combating sort of gosh, I guess, a media that was kind of ready to seize on any signs of conflict, right.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right. Yeah.

 

Brenna Miller 

When we think of Bosnia that's what we think of. And so for the events themselves, the focus on promoting peace and a new future was definitely a part of an effort to present that new image of Sarajevo and youth especially I have to say here seemed particularly involved in number of events that weren't necessarily about the assassination. But were things like peace conferences or performances that focused on international connection and building bridges and things like that.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

So it sounds like a lot of these events that you know, you you visited were largely successful. Would you say?

 

Brenna Miller 

On the whole yes. it's very easy to be a bit cynical to look at, you know, sort of moments or instances that that were maybe a little bit heavy handed. The Vienna Philharmonic concert that was presented at the City Hall. That City Hall used to be the National Library and during the 1990s it was burned by Serb armies sieging the city and so the decision to hold the concert there while it does suggest sort of rebirth, and a new cultural era, also kind of could be perceived as a criticism against Serbs and in fact, there is a placard on the front of the building that describes Serb specifically uses the word criminals, who destroyed the building in the 1990s. I do have to say on the whole, my sense of the events was that they were really relatively moving. And I'm a bit of an optimist, but I, I felt that they were relatively successful. Yes.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And it also sounds like a very well attended, people really paying attention to the history here.

 

Brenna Miller 

I have to say it was a really pretty crazy week, you know, running from one event to another event, they were throwing them all over the city. It always wasn't clear where things were going on sometimes. So it was it was a little bit hectic. But I will say though, that the sort of focus on the future and sort of using the commemorations themselves as a prism through which to begin moving forward, I think was pretty salient in terms of speaking to the contemporary, general political situation in Bosnia. And I guess I would say that that in general Bosnia has really struggled since the breakup of Yugoslavia with a number of issues in the country. The Dayton Accords after the war, divided up power between ethnic groups in the country and institutionalized the lobbies ethnic divisions. And that has caused a lot of political gridlock that hasn't been able to deal with some of Bosnia's, problems with infrastructure, and especially with unemployment. And I think that this effort on focusing on moving forward and reconciliation is really important for Bosnia right now, especially because they're considering reforming The Dayton Accords. And earlier this year, there were a number of protests that were against a lot this national division. And so I think that, that this event that kind of focused on moving forward really speaks to that need to actually enact reforms that can make Bosnia successful in the future.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

That's a really important example, I think of you connecting there, the kind of long history of the region and present events. Thank you, Brenna Miller, for joining us today on History Talk.

 

Brenna Miller 

All right. Thank you very much.

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

Hello, everyone, Kirsten Hildonen and I'm a PhD candidate in the Department of History here at Ohio State. You know, I specifically focused on Eastern Europe, and I'm writing my dissertation on everyday life under the German occupation in Belgrade, Serbia during World War II.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Well, welcome to the show and tell us where you are calling from today, and where you recently visited.

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

So I'm calling you from Belgrade, Serbia, where I'm actually currently living while I'm doing my dissertation research here in the city. And it's been great because it's been given me a great opportunity to observe the city and depth and really get to know its character.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

With this podcast. We're focusing on the hundredth anniversary of World War I. Has the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the war received much attention in Belgrade and how are the people of Belgrade commemorating the war? What events have been going on?

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

It really kind of surprised me how little pageantry and formality surrounded both the anniversary of Franz Ferdinand assassinations back in June and Austria Hungary's actual declaration of war in Serbia in July. There's been nothing in Belgrade anywhere near approaching the scale of what went on in Sarajevo to commemorate the assassination. But instead, I've gotten the opportunity to go to several smaller cultural events and retrospectives here. And there's been a greater number of kind of more informative events rather than events of the more commemorative character. I mean, there's a lot of debate going on in the public sphere among the general public newspapers.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

What sorts of these kind of smaller multicultural events have you had a chance to go to?

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

As far as the cultural events go, there were two really interesting things that I went to that stood out to me for a couple of reasons. One was the exhibit of Serbian impressionist painters at the National Museum. Another was an exhibition of Serbian literary productions, which included books, journals, sketches, newsletters, anything produced during the war or on the front lines. And so I thought these two were really interesting because what they did, they did a really good job highlighting Serbian talents and Serbia's struggle and suffering during the war, because it really was devastating. Serbia lost at least 15% of its population and went through a pretty brutal occupation under Austria Hungary. But at the same time as they highlighted Serbian talents. It's both did a really nice job clearly creating similar cultural exchange with what was going on in the rest of Europe.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And it's important to note that historian Margaret McMillan has recently called the lead up to the beginning of World War I the, quote, war to end all peace. Do you agree with that interpretation? And do the people of Serbia see the origins of the war in such negative terms today?

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

I mean, there it's yes or no. Something important to remember in Serbia is unlike most of the rest of Europe, when World War I broke out, it had already been at war recently. 1912 and 1913, during the First and Second Balkan war. First, they were fighting against the Ottoman Empire and then they fought against Bulgaria. So, the start of World War I was more like going back to war rather than starting a whole new cycle of war. There was an outdoor viewing of the Yugoslav film called March on the Drina. that I went to. It was about the first time that Serbia defeated Austria Hungary on the battlefield during World War I. And what it really drove home well was that at least at the outset of the war soldiers and people they really thought they knew what to expect. Thought they knew their roles turned out to be really wrong because Austria-Hungary was a lot better equipped for the war in the Balkans, than the Ottomans had been, so wasn't quite as peaceful here in Western Europe. But as far as ending pieces I think that Margaret McMillan's trigger point is a really good one, you know that the war wasn't necessarily inevitable, but rather it was a result of a series of choices made by fallible people. And I guess that logic, that same logic applies to the idea of World War I being a war to end all.  I'm not so sure it was the lead up to the war, even the events of the war that made these kind of an endangered species in the world of the country that would eventually become  Yugoslavia was created in the aftermath of the war, but without a real firm consensus between the different nationalities and ethnicities, which I think most of us know lead to problems later in World War Two and beyond. So I do think that in Serbia there's a tendency to look at the war as a kind of ending of a period of struggle that really only ended recently, but also more positively the origins of the war  are a way to really enshrine and commemorate what Serbs see as true Serbians valor and heroism.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

There's part of this commemoration to kind of celebrate Serbian identity then.

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

Exactly and I think that's important because, you know, the more I thought about why these events weren't necessarily such widespread public characters, but it's really kind of because Serbia is still trying to define how it regards princips and the outbreak of World War I both in relation to Serbia's history kind of relation to Serbia is the position in Europe and the rest of the world today. There wasn't a sense to commemorate the actual declaration of war, the opening of an archival exhibit by the archives of Serbia, the Serbian parliament building and pass out of them to speak of the Serbian parliament. Really emphasized the need to look to the future and the need to work in concert with Europe. The Serbians still trying to figure out exactly how it looks at the start of the war and how it relates.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so you already mentioned World War Two in your previous answer. And so I'm wondering how you know, in many cases, World War I is often overshadowed in more recent memory by the Second World War. And is this the case for Serbia? Or is this something that maybe takes place more in somewhere like the United States where the Second World Wars really dominates the memory of World Wars?

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

Certainly the case in Serbia as well. I think that's pretty universal in Europe and the United States.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Interesting

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

Just because you know World War Two in Yugoslavia It was such a violent and divisive event, and would have been able to tear the country apart. So the divisions between people that have exacerbated must of  really left a shadow and all the successive states, so I understand why so much effort and scholarship you know, including my own projects, are so focused on World War Two over World War I. One of the most interesting things about the events and efforts surrounding commemoration of World War I this year, that a real effort’s being made to bring the availability of information about World War I up to the standard of World War Two. One good example is at the historical archives of Belgrade, where there is an effort to digitize at least 20% of the documents pertaining to World War I and also to develop a database of prisoners who were interned at Austro-Hungarian camps during World War I. And this will be a resource comparable to the ones that have already been created and now exists for the concentration camps in Belgrade during World War Two. So there's kind of a push to bring them up to equal levels of importance, but I don't think its quite there yet.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yeah, that's a really great way of making history accessible to the public. And it's sort of a final last word here. Um, why, in your opinion, is it important to mark the anniversary of World War I?

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

Well, I think particularly in the case of Serbia, World War I was the last time before the 1990's that Serbia actually is its own country. I think there's a really positive example, especially if we kind of avoid letting the interpretation of World War I be colored by more recent events. I think Serbia has a great opportunity to look back and identify its own character and its own history. So looking at all of these cultural memories and all the stuff, mentation, about the war, it's a great opportunity to kind of rebuild that identity now that Serbia is and will be, and for the foreseeable future, its own country.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

On behalf of History Talk. I'd like to thank you Kirsten, for joining us today.

 

Kirsten Hildonen 

Thank you, Patrick. Have a great day.

 

Keshia Lai 

Hi, my name is Keshia Lai and I am from Singapore. I just completed my second year of graduate school in the history department at The Ohio State University. And I am back in Singapore for the summer to conduct research and that's me.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Where exactly are you calling from today and where have you recently visited Keshia?

 

Keshia Lai 

So I am calling from Singapore. Okay, so in Singapore they are three sites that commemorate World War I and I visited two of them on my trip here. The first site that I visited is called the Cenotaph and it's basically a war memorial that commemorates the sacrifice of British soldiers who died in World War I and World War Two. And the second site that I visited has a little bit more complicated background. So on February 15, 1915, in the midst of World War I, a troop of Muslim Indian soldiers called the Fifth Light Infantry. This Fifth Light Infantry was stationed in Singapore by the British. They rose up in mutiny against the British authorities, and they killed about 40 British officers stationed in the barracks in this place called Tangling, and they also killed other European civilians that they that they met along the way. This mutiny lasted for about 10 days before it was suppressed. In the end, about 36 mutineers were executed and over 70 of them were sent back to India. And so in the aftermath of this whole mutiny the comrades and associates of the deceased British soldiers and civilians, made memorial tablets to be hung in two different places at this building that is now called the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall and a place in this church called St. Andrew's Cathedral. St. Andrews Cathedral is an Anglican Church. It is one of the oldest in Singapore, it was built in the 1850s and it is currently the largest Cathedral in Singapore. So I think this is why they thought that it would be an appropriate place to commemorate those who died there. When I was in Singapore. I was able to visit St. Andrew's Cathedral and the Cenotaph.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

thinking of especially your mention of St. Andrew's Cathedral with the tablets it seems there's also an additional religious component to this memory and would you care to expand on this a little bit?

 

Keshia Lai 

Yeah, this Light Infantry, this troop of Indian soldiers consisted of Muslim Indians who were stationed in Singapore since 1914. When they started coming here, they had this troop leader that was British, and he was really unpopular with soldiers. There was poor communication and very low morale among the soldiers, and then the soldiers would rest at this cafe. And this cafe owner will also stop anti British sentiments and tell them that it is their religious duty as Muslims to overthrow the British. From 1914 to 1915, this anti-British group sentiments just simmered on the surface, but nothing happened until February 1915 when they were supposed to be shipped to Hong Kong to be stationed there. However, rumors broke out that they were going to be sent to Europe to fight against the Turks instead. When World War I broke out, the Turks sided with the German against the British, okay? And the Sultan of Turkey at this time was regarded the leader of the Muslim world. These Indian soldiers they will be sent to Europe under the British to fight against their fellow Turkish Muslims and the Germans because they were fearful of this on February 15, they mutiny they went to the barracks to obtain ammunition, and that's when chaos erupted for about 10 days. The British military had to call for help from outside and interestingly, okay, the Sultan of Johor became an ally to the British. Johor is a state in present day Malaysia, neighboring countries from Singapore. And it's really just divided from Singapore by a very narrow body of water. The Sultan is also a Muslim, he sent his troops to run on any mutineer to cross the streets into Johor. And so, I just thought when I you know, do my research about this point mutiny of 1915. And looking at the memorial, it just raised a lot of questions to me about religion and war. What about the effect of religion in the colonies and decolonization? You know, how about the impact of religion on individuals, you know, for example, like these Muslim Indians who thought that it was their religious duty to revolt, and yet the Muslim Sultan of Johor proved an ally to the British.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

It seems that this history of World War I in Singapore, you mentioned is tied really closely with that of European colonization. And do you think that this plays into this current memory of the Great War as well?

 

Keshia Lai 

Frankly, I think current memory of the Great War is still very much focused on what took place in Europe. I think it's very important to highlight and understand  the ramifications in the colonies. Like a very basic reason for this is because looking at the colonies and the impact of World War I on the colonies, underscores this our description of the Great War as a World War, you know. It doesn't just show like what to face in the European Theater, but it also shows the ripple effects in the climate and that it was devastating to people there, you know, and there were British soldiers born in the colonies who lost their lives in the war as well. I think it also connects a lot to discussions and debates of decolonization, even though we don't really immediately directly connect it to World War I, for example, like the sea point mutiny. I know there's one historian who stated that this mutiny had a large impact on India's education for independence from the British later on a few decades later, although another historian has also disputed this and said, no, this mutiny really didn't have any large impact

 

Leticia Wiggins 

As historians do.

 

Keshia Lai 

And so I think, you know, looking at the colonies brings up another looking into colonies. And how war World War I affected it, you know, brings out more discussions and debates and sheds light on the history that we don't really think about, you know, like I said earlier, it really highlights the role of religion and other factors in the war. I think it raises questions about identity in the colonies as well, you know, like how the Cenotaph was erected for British men born in Singapore, but sent back as British citizens to fight for their nation, motherland, which they might or might not have visited prior to the war.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

You know, when one thinks of World War I, you're right, and like normally, Singapore doesn't usually come to mind as places, right? So you're bringing us a really unique perspective today. And just to kind of wrap up and say thank you for reminding us that this is a World War we're talking about, I was wondering how is the memory of the war alive in Singapore today from your, from what you've observed?

 

Brenna Miller 

I think the really sad thing is that when I went to visit the memorial, there weren't a lot of people there. And I think it's because World War I is just very disconnected from the memory of Singaporeans today, especially for the younger generation. I think they read about the war in the textbooks, and they view that, it really doesn't affect them directly. And it just really, really sad that it's not really in their memory. So last year in 2013, someone actually vandalized the Cenotaph. He spray painted this big x over the year 1914 to 1918. And then he wrote democracy in bold letters above, and the culprit of was eventually caught and he turned out to be a 33-year-old man. And the leading newspapers in Singapore said that this as an example of how younger generation of Singaporeans are disconnected from the significance you know, all these national monuments that we have no stands or respect or memory of significance of the Cenotaph, the memory of war is just not very alive in Singapore today. I will say though that incident with vandalism, it did spark some discussions among the younger generation. I think it did make them like wake up and think about it.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Some good came out of it in a way.

 

Keshia Lai 

Yeah some good did come out of it.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Keshia, thank you so much for joining us today and enlightening us as to this history in Singapore. We really appreciate your time.

 

Keshia Lai 

Thank you for giving me this chance.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer and our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. We'd like to offer a special thank you to local Columbus baseband The End of The Ocean for providing our music. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website https://origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on Soundcloud and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

YouTube Video