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  • Shannon Bontrager

The Affinity of War: Traveling Memory, the War Dead, and the American Empire in France.

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Memories travel. When people tour or go on pilgrimages they share their memories with those they come into contact. People who can afford to travel have the privileged ability to give these transportable memories form and shape. My work examines how after the grueling and destructive First World War, American government and business elites were strategically interested in the work that travelling memories performed in laying the groundwork for economic prosperity and political alliance. American elites funded and constructed a postwar cultural memory and American travelers transported it to France and Europe. French and American people then synchronized their memories of the war into a transcultural memory. By transcultural, I mean that memory helped people transcend cultural boundaries, political borders, and the destructiveness of war. Crossing borders and cultures became easier when French and Americans remembered the dead. People on both sides of the Atlantic used the dead to lay the postwar foundation for a flourishing Franco-American relationship that promoted peace and prosperity especially in the face of a militant Bolshevism that had the potential to spread across Europe. The work of the dead thus continued long after soldiers died. Through a series of case studies focusing on the interwar commemorations of American soldiers who died during the First World War, my book-length manuscript brings together cultural and political history to explore the trans-Atlantic contexts of this Franco-American memory. I have currently completed the bulk of my proposed project. It stands at five chapters and approximately 250 manuscript pages and approximately 10-15 images and maps. The market has embraced this topic publishing several recent works on the war dead including the University of Nebraska Press, which will publish in February 2020 my forthcoming book Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921. A scholarly gap yet remains in investigating how Americans and French people together built the rituals of a trans-Atlantic commemorative tradition. My proposal to the ACLS, “The Affinity of War,” fills this gap and brings an innovative approach to American historiography by tracing the transcultural origins of the Franco-American memory that helped undergird the interwar relationship.


Letter from the U.S. Embassy to French officials requesting duty free status for urn materials being imported from Italy.

I situate my study between the influential discussions developed by Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, which examines American dead bodies of Civil War soldiers and Adam Tooze’s economic history The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931. Before the Civil War, Faust contends that memories of the dead traveled slowly through the disconnected rural landscape moving from farm to village to town as people exchanged their grief and constructed meaningful mourning rituals out of their respective losses. Widespread disillusionment coupled with massive numbers of dead people, suggests Faust, led Americans away from the nostalgic society of the antebellum years and prepared them for the postbellum modernity emerging in the wake of the Civil War. I use President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as an articulation of this modernity, which signaled a transformation in the relationship between the government and the citizenry through an embedded promise—an obligation—for the living to remember the dead.


Tooze argues that the interwar period remade the global order in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the retreat of the U.S. from the trans-Atlantic alliance and the League of Nations. While Americans returned to a form of isolationism in the 1920s and 30s, American capitalist and political elites sought to explore trans-Atlantic business opportunities and build a political bulwark against the spread of communism. To assist this effort President Warren G. Harding created the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) and placed General John J. Pershing as its chairman. The ABMC oversaw the creation of military cemeteries and monuments (similar to American National Cemeteries founded after the Civil War) that dotted the European landscape as a reminder to Europeans of American sacrifices. The ABMC thus attempted to transplant the Lincolnian traditions of the Gettysburg Address into Europe. Middle-class Americans, businessmen, government agents, and war veterans traveling to Europe incessantly stopped at these locations with their French counterparts to remember the past within a trans-Atlantic context. This was a commemorative function that also had economic and political underpinnings as Europeans and Americans remembered together while they invested their shared interests in democracy, capitalism, and each other. President Herbert Hoover similarly backed the Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages from 1929-1933 that saw the federal government expend over three million dollars to escort six thousand mothers to France on a six-week pilgrimage to visit the final resting places of their respective sons. My project is not just a story about how Americans imposed modern order on the inevitability of death, it is a history of how Americans developed a culture of memory using the war dead to reimagine their own political identities and imperial ambitions.


After WWI, U.S. officials buried American dead often withoug the consent of French local governments. Here a French town has to halt American officials from recovering buried bodies because the U.S. officials are violating local laws.

Americans altered their obligations to the dead in the years after the First World War as modern technologies, such as radio and telephony crisscrossed the nation, and the oceans, allowing people to communicate their grief and their memories much faster and more efficiently than ever before. My work contributes to recent discussions of the U.S. and the First World War most notably highlighted by Christopher Capozzola in Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen. Capozzola suggests the politics of the Great War brought on a new relationship between the federal government and Americans that shifted away from a culture of voluntary obligation and toward a culture of individualism and citizen rights. Instead of disruption, I argue this modernity was more of a collaboration between politicians and citizens on both sides of the Atlantic obsessed with the places where democratic identity and imperialistic oppression came into contact, especially over the graves of the war dead. Here historians such as Jane Burbank’s and Frederick Cooper’s Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference provides a backdrop to the modern mourning rituals unfolding inside the United States and within the American Century. Martial death rituals helped demarcate locations of difference, inclusion and exclusion, based on racial ideologies, religious beliefs, and economic realities. I argue that American modernity was reflected in modern mourning traditions that were culturally resilient and politically dynamic and this was most clearly evident with the way Americans commemorated the martial dead in France. Government officials and elites collaborated with the citizenry using sophisticated new technologies and the language of liberty and equality to identify locations where they could negotiate the tensions between republicanism and empire. They took great care to cloak these white, Protestant, and capitalist places with the language of individualism, freedom, and equality that often excluded immigrants, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others. Wherever the boundaries of nation and empire came into proximity with each other, even within the national boundaries of France, Americans formed new meanings out of Lincoln’s promise. These continual rebirths of the nation took place at Gettysburg and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier but also within 1927 American Legion and 1930s Gold Star Mothers pilgrimages to France. Presidents from Harding to Roosevelt, likewise with their countrymen, reliably used, time and time again, the language of liberty, democracy, and republicanism to redefine national and imperial identities.


U.S. officials worked with the Vichy government until 1943 trying to undermine the Nazi regieme.


Politicians, business elites, and American tourists collaborated with their European counterparts to cultivate a transcultural memory of the First World War. This transcultural memory traveled back and forth across the Atlantic as people who could afford to take their memories with them stressed their shared capitalist and democratic interests. Frictions emerged when Americans at home and Europeans distrusted the nature of this transcultural memory especially when it reflected American economic and diplomatic interests too much. Parisians protested in droves at American monuments on Memorial Day during the Ruhr crisis while the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini played a key role in prohibiting the ABMC from building a monument in Rome, Italy. These tensions would have significant consequences for the transcultural memory precisely because they marked a distrust of the United States as the guarantor of trans-Atlantic peace and prosperity. This became evident in 1940 as the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled through France. Although most American diplomats left France before Germany’s invasion, ABMC officials remained behind to document the Nazi destruction of French towns, American cemeteries, as well as to provide the U.S. government with valuable insights into the conditions of Nazi-occupied France and its political relationship with the Vichy Regime.


Nazi soldiers buried within an American monument from the First World War after the German Blitzkrieg in Varennes, France.

This project makes significant contributions to the humanities beyond its history. It examines the human condition of grief and mourning through the lens of cultural memory. It highlights the politics of grief and memory and contributes to memory studies, death studies, tourism, foreign relations, sociology, communications, and art and architectural history within the context of the interwar Atlantic World. Commemorating the dead brought Europeans and Americans together allowing them not only to remember the dead but also to remember their shared interests in democracy and capitalism even as this uneasy relationship was full of disruptions especially as Europeans and Americans often felt opposing governments did not always consider their respective memories or acknowledge their grief.

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