History professors discuss significance and issues in World War I

Hayden Clark

American historians prioritize World War II over World War I, a UT history professor said in a round table discussion Wednesday.

“As a culture, Americans don’t dwell much on World War I,” history professor Mary Neuburger said. “It’s not really emblazoned into our popular imagination. We don’t have a lot of films about it, and I think part of it is because World War II is much easier to depict and remember in a kind of satisfying way — in a war where there was a clear good and evil.”

History professor David Crew said historians haven’t focused their studies much on the eastern front of World War I, partly because the battles in that area were not as concentrated as in the western front.

“[The eastern front] is really still to this day the neglected front of World War I,” Crew said. “There are endless books on the western front on all the nations — there are only, sort of, two authors that I can think of who have written about the eastern front.”

History professor Philippa Levine said both soldiers and civilians exhibited racism and segregation during World War I, and nonwhite soldiers were treated much differently than their white counterparts.

“There’s a lot of non-white troops who we never hear about who served during the war,” Levine said. “Their experience in the war is remarkably different from the experience that white soldiers otherwise had during the war. [Nonwhite soldiers] were far more constrained in what they could do both on and off the battle field.”

Levine said one constraint is commanders typically didn’t give nonwhite soldiers firearms and positions in combat.

“There was an enormous fear that if you gave nonwhite soldiers arms they might be tempted to turn their arms on white superiors,” Levine said. “What we actually find is that a very large percentage of the nonwhite troops who work in the First World War are in labor rather than in combat positions.”

Levine said soldiers were separated by race in hospitals during the war, so white hospital workers were not permitted to be around nonwhite soldiers.

“They were segregated in every possible way,” Levine said. “The rule was that white nurses who were working at the hospital were not allowed to have any physical contact with the men. They were scared that if the white women touched the soldiers, then their passions would be inflamed.”