Event Title

2A2: 'Lest We Forget': Remembering World War I in Wisconsin, 1919-1945

Start Date

29-9-2018 10:15 AM

End Date

29-9-2018 11:15 AM

Description

Wisconsin had a rough few years during World War I. By the summer of 1917, newspaper editors from around the country questioned the state’s patriotism and even labeled it a “traitor state.” This reputation chagrined scores of Wisconsin’s prominent men and many of them immediately took to avenging the state’s name. They knew why their state looked like a potential hotbed of treason from afar: outspoken national representatives from the state, especially Senator Robert La Follette, had taken unpatriotic stances regarding the war, its significant Socialist population had not backed President Wilson or Congress’s declaration of war, and a politically powerful coalition of German-Americans seemed potentially traitorous.

Wisconsin’s self-described loyalists set out to repair their state’s reputation primarily through education, but also at times with intimidation and violence. By Armistice Day 1918, Wisconsin’s hyper-patriots had succeeded in removing seditious and traitorous talk in Wisconsin from the nation’s eye by suppressing German-American culture, silencing the state’s leading Socialist with a conviction under the Sedition Act of 1918, replacing some of the state’s “disloyal” politicians, although not La Follette, with loyal ones, and generally creating an atmosphere of suppression and tension.

So what about afterwards? How did Wisconsin acknowledge its role in the Great War? Did those living in the state remember only the glory and forget the wrongs inflicted on the “less patriotic” by the self-identified true patriots? How did the people of Wisconsin remember, commemorate, and acknowledge the Great War during the interwar years? What can we learn about historical memory from a study of the state’s remembrance of World War I in the twenty years that followed?

In order to answer these questions, this paper looks at a variety of ways Wisconsin citizens acknowledged World War I and their role in it. First, the Wisconsin War History Commission, created by Wisconsin’s legislature in 1919, wrote the official record of the state’s activities during the conflict. Second, an amazing number of war monuments and memorials materialized all around the state over the next ten to fifteen years. The rhetoric surrounding their unveilings provides historians insights into how Wisconsin citizens viewed their role during the war years. Finally, newspaper editors and speakers at Armistice Day ceremonies used the anniversary to remember and reflect. Their thoughts and beliefs, recorded in the newspapers of the time, displayed changes in the way Wisconsinites used the memory of the war to understand their role in it over time.

Review of these sources show that patriotic fervor and a desire by the state’s patriotic supporters to commemorate their efforts and accomplishments occurred during the post-war years. As the situation deteriorated in Europe, however, and the Great War no longer seemed to be the war to end all wars, the former hyper-patriots began distancing themselves from their World War I activities and, at the same time, some of those attacked rose up and were vindicated. In the end, Wisconsin citizens lost interest in celebrating the war and chose to leave it forgotten in the past.

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Sep 29th, 10:15 AM Sep 29th, 11:15 AM

2A2: 'Lest We Forget': Remembering World War I in Wisconsin, 1919-1945

Wisconsin had a rough few years during World War I. By the summer of 1917, newspaper editors from around the country questioned the state’s patriotism and even labeled it a “traitor state.” This reputation chagrined scores of Wisconsin’s prominent men and many of them immediately took to avenging the state’s name. They knew why their state looked like a potential hotbed of treason from afar: outspoken national representatives from the state, especially Senator Robert La Follette, had taken unpatriotic stances regarding the war, its significant Socialist population had not backed President Wilson or Congress’s declaration of war, and a politically powerful coalition of German-Americans seemed potentially traitorous.

Wisconsin’s self-described loyalists set out to repair their state’s reputation primarily through education, but also at times with intimidation and violence. By Armistice Day 1918, Wisconsin’s hyper-patriots had succeeded in removing seditious and traitorous talk in Wisconsin from the nation’s eye by suppressing German-American culture, silencing the state’s leading Socialist with a conviction under the Sedition Act of 1918, replacing some of the state’s “disloyal” politicians, although not La Follette, with loyal ones, and generally creating an atmosphere of suppression and tension.

So what about afterwards? How did Wisconsin acknowledge its role in the Great War? Did those living in the state remember only the glory and forget the wrongs inflicted on the “less patriotic” by the self-identified true patriots? How did the people of Wisconsin remember, commemorate, and acknowledge the Great War during the interwar years? What can we learn about historical memory from a study of the state’s remembrance of World War I in the twenty years that followed?

In order to answer these questions, this paper looks at a variety of ways Wisconsin citizens acknowledged World War I and their role in it. First, the Wisconsin War History Commission, created by Wisconsin’s legislature in 1919, wrote the official record of the state’s activities during the conflict. Second, an amazing number of war monuments and memorials materialized all around the state over the next ten to fifteen years. The rhetoric surrounding their unveilings provides historians insights into how Wisconsin citizens viewed their role during the war years. Finally, newspaper editors and speakers at Armistice Day ceremonies used the anniversary to remember and reflect. Their thoughts and beliefs, recorded in the newspapers of the time, displayed changes in the way Wisconsinites used the memory of the war to understand their role in it over time.

Review of these sources show that patriotic fervor and a desire by the state’s patriotic supporters to commemorate their efforts and accomplishments occurred during the post-war years. As the situation deteriorated in Europe, however, and the Great War no longer seemed to be the war to end all wars, the former hyper-patriots began distancing themselves from their World War I activities and, at the same time, some of those attacked rose up and were vindicated. In the end, Wisconsin citizens lost interest in celebrating the war and chose to leave it forgotten in the past.