Magazine article Humanities

Conflict of Interest

Magazine article Humanities

Conflict of Interest

Article excerpt

SOim DAKOTA WAR IS HELL, THE SAYING GOES, AND THERE is no shortage of books, television shows, and movies that remind us of the horrors of World War II. As a result, the truly terrifying innovations of World War I seem remote, if not forgotten: the first aerial battles, large-scale trench warfare, and the use of poison gas. Also obscured in our collective memory is the war's transformative impact at home. A recently opened cache of letters in South Dakota, fortunately, recalls this first of the world wars, yet does so from the microscopic viewpoint of a small-town, GermanAmerican family.

In this batch of letters, a young man named Gil confides to his friend, U.S. Army Private John Warns, that he has spent the last two years fighting for the Kaiser as an infantry soldier in the German Army. He describes everyfJhing he witnessed in detail, but then asks Warns not to tell anyone because he was now back in Grand Forks and, at the moment, trying to get a job with the post office.

The letter is from a collection of correspondence that belonged to Warns, who died in 1953. One hundred and fifty letters, thirty of them in German, were kept in a sealed box marked "Private. Not for Public Viewing." For nearly fifty years Wams's family respected his wishes, never opening the box and reading his words of loneliness, longing, and worry, all that connected the young soldier on the Western Front to his loved ones and community back in Wentworth, South Dakota.

Then, a few years ago, Warns's son and daughter-in-law read about Mount Marty College Professor Richard Lofthus's work with someone else's correspondence from the Great War and decided that it was better to offer the letters for historical research than to let them languish in private. Lofthus, who has been working with the letters since 2002, says they reveal a family and community struggling to reconcile their divided loyalties, torn between their adopted country and the homeland they left behind.

At the beginning of the war, it was natural for many Midwestern communities that still spoke and worshipped in German to be openly pro-Germany. The challenge came when America entered the war a few years later in 1917. "The war accelerated the Americanization of these people," says Lofthus. …

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