10/30/2014 Peter Durantine

Seeing A Nation's History Through A Global Lens

The longest battle in history, lasting 300 days and resulting in 700,000 casualties, was fought in 1916 on the hills around Verdun, France, where today a massive ossuary contains the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 French and German soldiers.

"Who can tell the difference between the French and German soldiers who died there?" Mueller Fellow and Yale University Historian Jay Winter asked as he flashed a photograph of the Douaumont ossuary on the screen in Franklin & Marshall College's Mayser Gym. "No one can."

Winter spoke at F&M's Oct. 30 Common Hour, a community discussion held every Thursday during the academic year. His talk, "Making Sense of our Violent Times: The First World War in Transnational Perspective," was part of the College's yearlong commemoration of the centenary of World War I.

The Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale, Winter said history is memory, and thus an important part of cultural life. This is particularly true today, he said, because North America and Europe have more highly educated people than at any time in history and they demand more information about the past.


  • The author of a dozen books and a founder of a French World War I museum, Yale Historian Jay Winter told the Franklin & Marshall College audience, "We need national history, but we need to write and read it as transnational history." Image Credit: Eric Forberger

"There is more consumer interest in memory than ever before," Winter said, adding, "Most history, in my experience, is born through the family experience. "

As an example he cited Judge Paul Mueller Jr. and his wife, Jane, and the fellowship they created in honor of Mueller's father, Paul Mueller Sr. '21, who served on the F&M Board of Trustees and later received an honorary degree from his alma mater. Through that endowment, F&M since 1981 has brought to campus a long list of distinguished scholars, including National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg, filmmaker Spike Lee, historian David McCullough, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and philosopher Cornel West.

Even though the First World War involved most of the earth's cultures, societies have typically viewed their history of the war through a national lens. Winter argued that it should be understood transnationally -- that each nation's actions were influenced by those of other nations.

"We need national history, but we need to write and read it as transnational history," Winter said.

The author of a dozen books and editor of the comprehensive "Cambridge History of the First World War," Winter is a founder of the French World War I museum Historial de la Grande Guerre. He also was co-producer, co-writer and chief historian for the award-winning 1997 PBS series "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century."

He argued that the First World War has not been as important to American memory as it has been to European memory. Although the United States lost more than 116,000 soldiers, Winter said, America was only bloodied by the war compared to Europe, which lost millions of men, affecting an untold number of families.

"European countries got a wound that hasn't closed today," he said.

The Great War also kick-started the "industrialization of killing," Winter said, and ushered in a slow decline of religious conviction and faith. People no longer go to places of worship to ask questions about faith and dying, he said, they go to museums and academic centers.

But the war also stirred to good and great causes men like Herbert Hoover, who later would become U.S. president, in relief efforts to feed and clothe millions of war refugees. "He showed that humanity didn't die in the First World War. Humanity took on a new face," Winter said.

Tom Fogel, a first-year student with an interest in government, described Winter's depiction of the war's influence as "powerful."

"It's incomprehensible," Fogel said. "I think it's important for people to realize that the conflict had incredible effects that we may not be aware of." 

  • Douaumont ossuary in Verdun, France, where the longest battle in history was fought. The ossuary contains the skeletal remains of French and German soldiers who died in the battle. Image Credit: Eric Gunther
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