Chicago, Europe, and the Great War and its companion exhibition, American Women Rebuilding France, 1917-1924, focus primarily on the First World War’s western front – in northern France and Belgium. Most Americans served there; but this region was only part of what was truly a world war. Conflict broke out on multiple fronts in Europe, and also in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
About 10 million soldiers died in World War I. Twice that number, however, bore scars from wounds, some nearly debilitating. Calculations of civilian deaths remain difficult in part because of their indirect nature – from starvation, disease, and dislocation – but it was probably between 6 and 7 million. In addition, up to 20 million died in the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, which swept from Asia to Europe to America. The war destroyed empires (the Austrian-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian); occasioned new nations (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, and a number of smaller nations); redrew national and colonial boundaries in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia; and coalesced national identities in others (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, and South Africa). Causes of conflict and political differences in central and eastern Europe and the Middle East today can be traced to this war.
Today we remember World War I largely through powerful fictional interpretations, from Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, to the second season of Downton Abbey, broadcast in the U.S. in 2012. Although these works effectively convey personal experiences of the war, as works of art and entertainment their objective is necessarily not historical. Chicago, Europe, and the Great War refocuses our attention on primary historical sources, offering a fresh look at the event that so profoundly shaped the modern world, through the lives and service of Chicagoans engaged in the war.