If you have the chance to visit the Wapello County Historical Museum’s exhibit on World War I, do it. It’s worth seeing.
I vividly remember a discussion in one of my college history classes when the professor asked which was more important to history, World War I or World War II. Most of the class said it was the latter. I was one of two or three students who disagreed and, for once, it wasn’t just to be contrarian. When the professor asked why I said WWI, my reply was that you simply could not have the second world war without the first.
Another student missed the point. “You can’t have two without having one. We know that,” he said. “But World War II was still more important.”
That wasn’t what I meant at all, and the professor knew it. The social, political and economic tensions that led to World War II were a direct result of the first world war’s conclusion and the aftermath. Simply put, the conditions that led to WWII were not possible without the first world war.
Could there have been another worldwide conflict had WWI ended differently? It’s possible. Perhaps even likely. But it would not have been the war we know from history.
World War I wasn’t discussed much in my family when I was growing up. It was viewed as something of a prequel to the real conflict. That was the one my dad was more interested in. His father was in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII, and my maternal grandfather was an engineer for the Army in Europe. My parents grew up in a world shaped in virtually every way by that conflict.
So did I, of course, but my world was gaining greater influences from the developments of the late Cold War era. That’s what originally caught my interest when it comes to modern history. I quickly learned you cold not understand the Cold War without understanding World War II. And a real understanding of World War II requires a solid foundation in World War I.
The real lesson wasn’t what I learned about any discrete event in my studies. It was in the slower realization that history is a long way from the decrepit lists of dates and names so many people believe it is. It’s a continuum along which the effects of one event inevitably influence how people approach the next.
History is filled with examples. At the end of WWI, Nguen Tat Thanh sought an audience with President Woodrow Wilson during the Versailles negotiations to discuss colonialism in southeast Asia. He was rebuffed, part of the events that led to his emergence as Ho Chi Minh years later. That didn’t lead to the Vietnam war, as some have suggested, but it’s hard not to see it as a missed opportunity.
History is a tangle of lives and coincidences, moments that matter only in retrospect. In journalism we do our best to focus on what’s important, but we don’t have the benefit of hindsight while we do so. That’s why ours is only a first draft of events.
It’s worth taking the time to go see the WWI exhibit while it’s in Ottumwa. There may not be any grand revelations in it, but you might run across something that shifts your view of the past a bit. And there’s no telling where that can take you.