Point of View by John Deak

The Nanovic Institute for European Studies has been my intellectual home since I arrived on campus as a newly-minted assistant professor in 2009. Eleven years in, I still find it to be the most welcoming and natural place to engage the wider world and the life of the mind—for me and my students.

John Deak, Nanovic faculty fellow and associate professor of history at Notre Dame, outside the historic Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Austria.

And even as I write now, in the midst of a general lockdown and worried about the future, I can look back on the past year and see that it has been filled with many blessings—many chances to teach students more effectively, to come into contact with scholars and scholarship, and to pursue my own research and study while watching my own students’ endeavors flourish. And once again, the Nanovic has been a central supporter in what I am and what I do.

Every tour needs a journey and this one is no different.

And every journey begins with an idea. In the Winter of 2019, my colleague in German, Professor Robert Norton, and I had an outrageous idea: We would teach a new course on the First World War and its memorialization. Easy enough. But, in addition to exposing our students to the classic literature and texts, we wanted to take our students to Europe over fall break to see firsthand the battlefields, museums, and memorials. We filled out the applications to teach a new course together and then began crunching numbers. We estimated that it would take nearly $40,000 to take 18 students to the UK, Belgium, and France. Luckily, we won the College of Arts and Letters's single big grant for “teaching outside the classroom.” But it wasn’t enough. We went to the Nanovic to apply for their Faculty-led Student Trip Grant. They came through. We had enough money to take all our students, all-expenses paid, to Europe for eight days.

The "Great War and Modern Memory" class at St. Pancras railway station in London, England.

Naturally we were delighted. Quite a few of our students are on financial aid and needed all of the trip to be paid for. Several also obtained their passport for the first time to go on the trip. Traveling together made them excited for what they would find.

Our goal was for students to see the trenches, the uneven landscape—still scarred by shell holes and craters—and the museums and monuments. Our idea was to get students to look beyond the books and to see things with their own eyes. It would make what they read more meaningful—show them that ideas aren’t divorced from experience. This was always more than tourism, this was about opening the mind to see new things, to show students the gravity of the events and also to allow them to see how museums and memorials tell stories, make arguments—how they both convince and manipulate the viewer. It would deepen their understanding of the past and how its story is told, shaped, and retold. But it would also show them how to experience the world, not as a tourist checking things off a superficial “bucket list.” We wanted them to actively engage in what they experience, to make and find meaning in what they saw, and to see how it matters.

On October 18, 2019, we boarded a bus for O’Hare and then checked into our flight to London. By 11 am the next morning we were standing in the British Imperial War Museum, taking in our first exploration of how museums have interpreted the First World War.

We got a good night sleep and set off the next day for Belgium, taking the Chunnel to Brussels and traveling by train to Ypres / Ieper, where the Battle of Passchendaele was fought in 1917.

We spent three nights in Belgium, taking in two museums, and seeing countless memorials, trench reconstructions, and British and German cemeteries.

At the Passchendaele 1917 Memorial Museum, we saw the different explosives and gas shells up close as well as the guns that fired them. In the photo below, Caroline Elser, a junior from Arkansas—abroad for the first time—takes in the magnitude of what she was seeing. I’ll have more to say about how this trip inspired her later on. Caitlin Fennelly, a junior from Virginia, got a sense of how museums can tell different stories. This will lead her to design a senior thesis on historiography and memory. After Belgium, we would travel to Vimy Ridge, the Somme, the site of the big U.S. offensive at Meuse-Argonne, and finally end at Verdun, one of the biggest battles of the First World War.

(top) Caroline Elser ’21 taking in the magnitude of what she is seeing at the Passchendaele 1917 Memorial Museum; (bottom left) Caitlin Fennelly ’21 and her peers from the "Great War and Modern Memory" class view gas shells at the Passchendaele 1917 Memorial Museum, Belgium; (bottom right) Flanders Fields Interactive Museum, Ieper.

It is hard to anticipate how travel like this will affect the students. Will they throw themselves into our program; will they be moved? Will they engage with the museums and their stories? We wondered and hoped. But the students once again showed us just how worthwhile these types of experiences are for them. Travel brought us all closer together.

We stood as a group of 21 students and professors in a field still scarred by the trenches and shell holes in the middle of northern France. Looking out at the Ancre valley below at where the British Commonwealth Troops were positioned. We were on the high ground, in the German trenches. We could imagine the British troops advancing up the hill, a suicide attack that their generals assured them would be victorious. They were mowed down to a man on that hill by machine guns on 1 July 1916—the worst day in the history of the British Military. Some of us stood in stony silence. Others started to cry. Above us, towered the Thiepval Memorial, a triumphal arch inscribed with nearly 75,000 names, names of soldiers who lost their lives at the Battle of the Somme, and—in the euphemism of the memorial—were deprived of the proper burial given to their comrades. In other words, they were obliterated by artillery. 75,000 men from one army in one battle, who were never found. The Germans have no memorial there. Their dead are still missing.

Everyone had their moment when the experiences overwhelmed their emotional capacity to take it all in. Mine came at the U.S. Military Cemetery at the Meuse-Argonne. Nearly 12,000 American soldiers—who died during the last major offensive on the Western Front—are buried there, somewhere in northwestern France. Unlike the British or German cemeteries, which concentrate their war dead in dense rows, the U.S. cemetery gave every soldier his own stone and his own space. One can take more fully the human cost of war. I walked through the cemetery and up the hill to the visitor center and took in the whole scene: 12,000 graves on the side of a massive hill. I sat on the steps and just wept. Before I knew it, all the students, emerging from the visitor center, sat around me in a protective circle and let me cry. No one said anything—they didn’t have to. They knew what I felt. They felt it too.

(top photos) Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France; (bottom) Cimetière Américain de Meuse-Argonne, Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France.

There were fun moments too. One of our last nights, we ate at British-style restaurant in Verdun—The Sherlock Holmes. The restaurant was one of the only ones in the small city that could accommodate a group of 21. Almost all of the students selected the hamburger from the pre-circulated menu. And, I wish you could have seen the look on their faces when, on the bus microphone, I informed them that since we were in France—where it is rude to eat at the table with your hands—that they would have to eat their burgers with a knife and fork. The incredulous looks are something I will always remember. But, everyone in good spirits and humor, gave the oversized pub burgers their best effort, sawing at the crusty bread with serrated knives and picking up the bun, pickles, lettuce and tomato with their forks in their left hands. For me, this was another moment when the students dove into the experience and embraced it.

London scene with students of the "Great War and Modern Memory" class.

These types of experiences are not a dime-a-dozen. Our students remarked, later, on the profound ways that integrating travel into a course affected them. Caroline Elser designed a senior honors thesis project that will examine the common soldiers’ perceptions of the battle of the Somme, comparing that to the way the generals viewed the war. Her research will take her back to the Imperial War Museum in London, where they archive diaries and have a vast collection of soldiers’ recordings. The Nanovic awarded her the R. Stephen and Ruth Barrett Prize for her project. Caitlin Fennelly was struck by how each museum told different, often conflicting stories. She took this knowledge and designed a senior honors thesis for her degree in PLS, which will examine how the history of the Risorgimento has been told and retold after the Unification of Italy in 1861.

These are just two students whose entire undergraduate trajectory has been changed as a result of this travel. But there have been other, equally fundamental, manifestations of the success of the experience of travel and a deeper, more meaningful educational experience. Our “Great War and Modern Memory” class has not met—officially—since December 2019. But, with the mandate of social distancing and the scattering of our students to the ends of the earth, our class met this spring—online—for Friday night get-togethers. They have become friends because of their shared experiences.

The "Great War and Modern Memory" class at the U.S. WWI Memorial near Ieper, Belgium.

It is these types of experiences that are so hard to quantify and, at the same time, so worthwhile, that has convinced me that Notre Dame succeeds most when we do what we’re best at: engaging students as whole persons, educating their mind and spirit, challenging them to exist as critically-thinking moral creatures, and joining them on their journey as fellow travelers. Students long for this type of education—it is what brings them to us in the first place.


John Deak (center, right) at the Nanovic Institute's 2020 Gallery of European Studies and Faculty Fellow Meeting.

John Deak is an associate professor of modern European history at the University of Notre Dame and serves as a faculty fellow at the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.