Nous évoquions dans un billet récent le colloque qui s’est tenu à Kansas du 22 au 24 mars 2013. Mike Neiberg, un des historiens invités pour y donner une conférence nous a écrit un texte sur son interprétation de l’approche du centenaire aux Etats-Unis que nous co-publions ici avec le site de la International Society for First World War Studies :
I recently had a rather surprising discussion with a European-based editor who told me that, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I notwithstanding, he was reluctant to sign any more books on the war. He was, he told me, afraid that by 2016 or 2017 European readers would be tired of reading about the war. His comments took me aback, given the general lack of interest American publishers have been showing in the war. Two different American publishers have recently told me that they, too, do not want to sign World War I books, but, unlike their European colleague, they were not worried about reader fatigue. They were worried that general American indifference toward the war would lead to poor sales.
In light of those discussions, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that the United States is far behind Europe in its planning for the centenary. Besides America’s usual lack of interest in the war, in 2013 we face a government sequester that has blocked access to even modest resources and distracted attention even further from plans to educate citizens about the war. Unlike Great Britain, there has been no sustained effort in the United States to dedicate money or show support from the highest levels of government. The federal government has made clear its opposition to the construction of a World War I memorial on the National Mall, and the post office has agreed to issue a commemorative stamp, but otherwise little of substance has yet come out of Washington. The United States Senate has tasked the White House with forming a twelve-person commemorative committee, but the committee still does not exist. A distracted Congress has really only made one important decision: designating the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City to be the lead organization for commemoration activities.
In late March, the museum hosted a conference dedicated to beginning the commemorative process. Given the general lack of support and interest it faces, the challenge could be formidable. Nevertheless, the museum has a talented staff, a fantastic venue, and an international reputation that make it a logical choice to lead the commemoration. It is likely to do so, however, with little to no federal money. Thus this conference had two goals: to share ideas and to create networks of people interested in commemorative efforts.
Given the lack of governmental interest, much of the support for educational and outreach efforts will have to come from the private sector and from dedicated groups like the Western Front Association and the American Friends of Blérancourt, as well as the wide variety of museums and libraries planning local commemorative projects. Notably, much of the energy for this American conference came from Europe, including the assistance of the government of Flanders and the participation of the French and German consulates, as well as the Alliance Française.
The conference brought together academics, government officials, private citizens with an interest in the war, and representatives of organizations like AFS Intercultural Programs that trace their origins to the war. It will likely take an effort of all of us pushing together to build momentum if we are to take maximum advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to commemorate, educate, and explain. Otherwise we face one of two futures for the centenary, and both are typically American. In the absence of hard work, resources, and planning, Americans will either ignore the war or make a flurry of activity in 2017, cobble something together quickly, then claim victory. The choice is ours.