Students on the trail of the “Great War”
Buried access to the First World War
The seminars are held at different levels, each series lasting for a period of two semesters. An introductory event confronts students with the First World War as a subject of study. Early on, it became apparent that students have very little historical knowledge and only rarely any personal connections documented by family photos or documents. In fact, it can be said as an overall observation that their access to the Great War is often buried. These young people are not unique, but reflect the state of the collective memory of German society.
The groups are shown challenging texts and films, and introduced to various different aspects of the subject. Participants are asked to research and produce a report that tackles a specific problem, and to share the insights they gain with the others. Examples of these reports include the development of weapons technology, hygiene and sanitation, the construction of fortifications, the role of Jewish soldiers, the Battle of Verdun, militarism, the role of scientists, private photography and the image of the war, and much more. Work on the reports is carried out in parallel with the seminars.
Different approaches to the historical events
The work “Der Grosse Krieg” [The Great War] by Herfried Münkler (2013) is distributed among the participants to give them an overview. Individual sections are handed out as excerpts and discussed at the seminars. The group as a whole thus brings together the wider contexts and individual selected aspects of the historical events.
Once a more advanced knowledge of the subject has been gained, there is a day at the Bavarian Army Museum in Ingolstadt, which houses Germany’s biggest permanent exhibition about the First World War. The museum provides the opportunity to “walk through” the history and follow the progress of the war. The individual participants then go off on their own to seek out an area of the exhibition where they can apply a personal area of expertise, as far as they have by then. As the group then goes round again together, the students report back on the progress of their researches. In a display trench, passages from “Under Fire” by Henri Barbusse are read; in addition to practical and technical explanations, this also gives an insight into the emotions of those involved in the war.
This is followed by an evening during which several excerpts from different films about the First World War are shown, which gives rise to discussions on aspects such as the technical development of propaganda and reporting, or the dramatic representations, which extend to the present day with their “embedded journalists”.
Excursion to battle locations
A highlight of the seminar series is the 5-day excursion to France. This takes students to battle sites such as Hartmannsweilerkopf, Reims and Verdun, Arras and Strasbourg. This part of the seminar series focuses on experience – immersion in the geographical proximity of the theatres of war and perception of their physical extent. Walks along the front lines, pausing at war cemeteries, visiting museums, trench sites and monuments have a profound impact on the participants at the stage where their written reports are nearing completion. In addition to specialist historical explanations, reports of the incidents that took place at a given location are read out there. At Fort Vaux near Verdun, historical film material is also used.
A sensitive element of the seminar concept is the reflection on the role of the soldiers in the war. Is it possible to provide the participants with an effective bridge to the critical understanding of the motivation of the young men who were laid to rest beneath these crosses? It should be possible to enable them to form their own attitudes to the war other than by means of the arrogant dismissal of others’ decisions. On the contrary, the misguided readiness of the fallen to sacrifice themselves should be both respected and criticised, in order for the observer to gain a mature stance of their own, with which to put force an uncompromising defence of peace. It is relevant in this context that the dead may have been in their graves for 100 years, but they died young, many of them younger than the students themselves. It is therefore appropriate to get to know them as young people with similar aims and desires. The students are offered collections of letters by those who fought in the war with the suggestion: “Go to a grave and read some of the letters out, acting as a representative of the fallen and giving them a voice.” The offer is accepted and leads to some thoughtful, moving scenes.
Reasons why the seminars are a success
The seminars lead to the disturbing discovery that many present conflicts and even the map of Europe and many other parts of the world arose predominantly from the events of the early twentieth century and the course of the Great War. Opening people’s eyes to a war that began with lances and ended with poison gas, aerial combat and the introduction of tanks, also has far-reaching consequences. The incredible dynamic that can emerge from politics, conflict, technology, science and culture, makes people treat with caution and scepticism the naïve idea that “someone” will always keep things under control.
Getting close to the war in a country with which the students know no rivalry or enmity, makes them thoughtful, sad, bewildered and uncertain. It brings alive European thinking and takes them beyond the economic arguments, presenting the peace dimension of the European project in tangible form.
Prof. Dr. Ulrich Bartosch
Professor of Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Translated from the original text in German
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.