Conflict of Interest

South Dakota remembers the Great War in a collection of one family's letters.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2010, Volume 31, Number 3

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, German-American 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 everything 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 Warns’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 Mary 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. South Dakota outlawed the teaching of all foreign languages, students threw their German textbooks into the river to show their patriotism, and Lutheran schools and barns of German supporters were painted yellow as a brand for cowardice. Warn’s nineteen-year-old sister, Anna, wrote to him about seeing the film Over the Top, describing the impression it made on her, criticizing “those darned German Officers,” and wishing she “were a boy” so she could join the army and “have had the chance to kill some of them.”

“It’s an amazing letter, because it shows the propaganda campaign waged by the U.S. Government was even reaching into rural America and heavily German communities,” explains Lofthus.

At the end of the war in November 1918, Warns had hoped to be home by Christmas, but was kept in Europe because he was fluent in German. “He was used as a translator,” says Lofthus, and would go into German towns to find places for the American soldiers to stay. His sister wrote to him on that Christmas day, missing him terribly, and exclaiming that the Christmas program was done “all in American,” not in German that year.

Warns’s letters back home were subject to censorship and couldn’t reveal his whereabouts or activities. “He talks about being exposed to poison gas and winding up in a hospital in Europe, and he has lifelong health problems related to that,” says Loftus. “He describes what it’s like to see airplanes doing battle. He sees General Pershing. He talks a lot about what it’s like to be on the front, but he’s always assuring his mother that it’s not too bad.”

Lofthus offers presentations on the Warns correspondence through the South Dakota Humanities Council’s speakers bureau, including one on May 11 in Sioux Falls. Often his audiences are made up of history buffs and people with memories of World War II, but without a lot of knowledge about the Great War. “It’s a war that has received very little attention; so there’s not much out there to help people learn about it,” says Lofthus. “The letters fill a void. It’s a message of every war: the separation of family, of loss, of turmoil.”