Edinboro history professors lecture on WWI

Category:  News
Wednesday, April 19th, 2017 at 8:53 PM
Edinboro history professors lecture on WWI by Hannah McDonald
Photo: Collin Graves

On Tuesday evening, Hendricks Hall had a full classroom. A mix of students and community members gathered at 6:30 p.m., April 11, in classroom G56 to hear Edinboro University professors lecture on World War I.

The event, hosted by history professors Dr. Ihor Bemko and Dr. Leo Gruber, was held to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entering the Great War. On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany. This effectively engaged the nation in what would come to be known as the First World War.

Bemko began the presentation and spoke for about 30 minutes about what led up to the beginning of the war and the actions that spurred U.S. engagement. In his quirky, joking lecture style that many students are acquainted with, Bemko told the story of rising European tensions.

“By the middle of August, 1914, we got England, we got France, we got Russia on one side. And then on the other side, we got Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire,” Bemko said.

Bemko explained these tensions could have been left to build across the Atlantic, but the U.S. had a special interest in the war from the beginning.

“What’s the big deal for America,” Bemko asked. “Well, the big deal is that trade has been cut off between the United States and the central powers.”

It was not this economic interest alone though that caused the U.S. to enter the war. Bemko noted that instead, it was the bombing of the Lusitania, which killed over 100 Americans, that led the Wilson to declare war on Germany.

After the declaration of war and in the years following, Wilson repeatedly sided with the British and villainized Germans.

“The people that are running the country like President Wilson, like J.P. Morgan, the great merchant banker, they all love the British,” Bemko said. “Interestingly enough, they think that the country that gave us Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner — you name it — the stuff we call classical music . . . those people are uncivilized.”

This transitioned into the second part of the presentation done by Gruber. The focus of the latter half of the lecture was on the effect of World War I on German-Americans. He began by asking the group of listeners if they could think of any popular public celebrations of German heritage or culture in the U.S. today.

Someone suggested Oktoberfest.

Gruber continued: “Oktoberfest is one. Is that all we have left over? That’s kind of a direct result of World War I and World War II and the anti-German sentiment.”

Oktoberfest was the only answer Gruber got, and it proved his point that WWI greatly silenced German culture across the U.S.

Wilson’s continued dislike of the Germans led to the renaming of many German foods to “American” versions — i.e. the Liberty Sandwich (formerly and currently the hamburger).

The government and public opinion of simple acts like this and the continuation of the belief that Germans were monsters for their actions in war was the result. The consequences of this remain today, Bemko and Gruber pointed out.

“So, basically the tradition has been our leaders decide and we sort of lumber on behind them. From my perspective, that’s the lesson of the Great War,” said Bemko during his closing remarks.

“Not a particularly uplifting one, but history is not, for the most part, an uplifting story. It’s all about people,” Bemko concluded.

Hannah McDonald can be reached at voices.spectator@gmail.com

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