Kansas City, Mo. — Vladimir Putin’s conquest of Crimea is raising the specter of early 20th-century power politics. Coming on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, Putin’s aggression is a salutary reminder of the dangers of authoritarian ambition. Long overshadowed by the Second World War (the “Good War”), the “Great War” that ravaged Europe from 1914 to 1918 was in many ways more consequential. In destroying the Russian, German, Turkish, and Austro-Hungarian empires, it unleashed a wave of geopolitical change unsurpassed in world history.
Culturally and socially, the Great War was a watershed in Western society, shattering not only Europe’s century of general peace but the very idea of European civilization. For example, George Orwell, in his autobiographical essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” wrote of the fantastical bubble of the immediate prewar years that the “extraordinary thing was the way in which everyone took it for granted that this oozing, bulging wealth of the English upper and upper-middle classes would last for ever, and was part of the order of things.”
America’s participation in World War I may have been relatively brief, just 20 months, but it set the stage for America’s eventual superpower status and forced the country to begin a permanent engagement with the rest of the world. We are the heirs of the succeeding century of doubt and cynicism, fueled by alienated intellectuals and the horrors of the Holocaust, driven by dreams of radical democratization and dissatisfied equality. Our angst and lack of certitude were punctuated all too briefly by liberal democracy’s victory in 1945 and America’s post–World War II renaissance. The “American Century” ended all too quickly in the jungles of Vietnam, only briefly revived by the fleeting euphoria that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Surprisingly, then, there is in the United States only one memorial and museum dedicated to the Great War. Located in Kansas City, Mo., the Liberty Memorial and National World War I Museum opened in December 2006 and is a state-of-the-art tour de force. Two large, modern exhibit halls divide the war into the years before America entered the conflict and after. Dozens of display cases contain uniforms, weapons, daily items, propaganda, and the like. Stacks of U.S.-issued woolen greatcoats and breeches look as though they have just come out of the factory. An extensive trench system is viewed through portholes, and the differences between those of the Allies and those of the Central Powers is explained (spoiler: the Germans did it better). A couple of planes and a French tank are among of the larger set pieces. There is even a 20-foot-deep hole replicating the damage caused by a howitzer shell that hit a French farmhouse. Two large conference-style rooms have workstations with hands-on exhibits and activities for children and adults alike.
Running nearly the length of both halls is a detailed timeline of the years covered by each. Detailed captions accompany nearly every exhibit, often along with audio explanations or recitations of contemporary memoirs, all of which describe the conditions and war aims of the combatants or explain the use of the weapons and other matériel.