Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Meet World War One Centennial Commissioner Monique Seefried, PhD, Part II

Commissioner Monique Seefried

Yesterday, we discussed how she became so deeply interested in the First World War with U.S. Centennial Commissioner Monique Seefried. That portion of the interview can be accessed HERE. In this issue of Roads to the Great War, we are going to discuss her  work as a commissioner with  Monique. MH

Interview Part II  
Monique Seefried on Her Work with the United States World War One Centennial Commission

A. MH: Your leadership of the Croix Rouge Memorial project, and its highly visible success, marked you as someone who combined a high level of interest in the war  with an ability to get things done both stateside and "over there" in France where the fighting took place and where much of the commemorative events would take place during the Centennial. Could you tell us how you were nominated or recruited for the Centennial Commission, and also, why you chose to accept the position of commissioner?

MS:  The work Rod Frazer and I did at Croix Rouge Farm, included inaugurating a WWI memorial to an American Division in France. It was especially noticed by French and American authorities as the inauguration took place on the day after President Sarkozy announced, on November 11, 2011 the launching of the French WWI Centennial. Jerry Hester, who had chaired the U.S. commemorations of the 70th anniversary and helped us connect with the U.S. Army before the inauguration of the Rainbow Division Memorial at Croix Rouge Farm, was instrumental in presenting my name to the office of the Speaker of the House when a seat became vacant on the newly created WWI Centennial Commission (WWICC). I was appointed to the commission in June 2014.

Commissioners of the WWICC Break Ground for the National World War I Memorial 
(Monique S. Second from Left)
I accepted the position as a high honor, one that would allow me to remember all those young Americans who came to save my country of origin twice in the 20th century. I was raised with an immense sense of gratitude for what Americans did in WWI and WWII, with a great respect for service in the military. Knowing men like General de Gaulle, who fought in WWI before becoming heroes in WWII, or someone like my godfather, General Louis Dio, who was the first French officer to rally to General Leclerc de Hautecloque in August 1940 in Chad, had definitely an enormous influence on me. My own father was in the Resistance, General de Gaulle’s deputy chief of cabinet from 1944 to 1946 and again his chief of cabinet from 1959 to 1961. Service to one’s country was essential in my upbringing, not only at home but also at school. I had the extraordinary good fortune to be taught 20th-century history by Lucie Aubrac, one of the greatest heroines of the French Resistance. With this service on the WWICC, I was given an extraordinary opportunity to serve my country of adoption and express my gratitude towards it.

I am extremely humbled to have been asked to serve the memory of those Americans who, 100 years ago, gave so much more than I can ever give them back. They deserve to be remembered, thanked and honored.

B. MH:  I've met most of the commissioners and each seems to have a niche, such as working on the National Memorial, remembering the aviation effort of the AEF, networking with veterans groups, and so forth.  How would you describe your scope of work as a commissioner? I'll be surprised if it did not turn out to be much broader than you were thinking when you were first appointed in 2014.

MS:   Without the slightest doubt.  I had not realized that it would become, especially in the past two years, an all-consuming activity on both sides of the Atlantic. When I came on the commission, I was asked to coordinate international affairs and represent the commission abroad, mostly in France. I also worked with Belgium and Italy and to a lesser degree with England as other commissioners didn’t have a language barrier there. I was very fortunate to have the support of the American Battle Monuments Commission and receive help from U.S. embassies in these different countries. I also worked with local villages and towns eager to honor the Americans who had liberated them 100 years ago.  

This is where my ability to communicate in French, and all the contacts I had in France, where most of the AEF fighting took place, became essential. I did spend much more time in France than I had expected and represented the WWICC on multiple occasions.  These events were wide ranging, from commemorations in cemeteries, battlefields or memorials, to music festivals, recitals, exhibitions, and school activities. Most of these events were organized by the French to honor Americans who served in the military or volunteered to help the local population, and it was therefore extremely meaningful to the organizers to have the United States represented. I had to give or translate multiple speeches, and I was always glad to be able to give a voice to those men and women who couldn’t speak for themselves anymore.   

I was also a representative of the national WWICC in some of the southern states, especially Georgia and Alabama, where I worked with their respective WWI commemorative bodies.  

Veterans Day, Atlanta, GA, 2017

And I enjoyed immensely the education role that accompanied all these activities, as well as the work I did with my fellow commissioner, Libby O’Connell, who lead the commission educational activities. We collaborated extremely actively with the National WWI Museum and Memorial, produced a newsletter, and organized a wide range of activities.

C. MH:  I know you consider yourself an educator and that you participated in many educational events over the last five years. What thoughts do you have on the general point of reversing the modernist trend of attempting to erase our historical heritage and eliminate the study of history in our schools? And specifically—using World War One as a case study—how can we reach young people and convince them of the importance of learning and connecting with their heritage?

MS:   You can well imagine that the elimination of history in our curriculum would be totally antithetical to all I stand for. I strongly believe only those who have a good knowledge of history will be able to shape the future. So many geopolitical mistakes have been made in the past by people who ignored history. Studying history is one of the best tools in education to learn critical thinking skills.  

This is also why I don’t believe that each generation should rewrite history according to the beliefs of the time, and I disagree, for example, with the destruction of Confederate statues.  They should stay and their context explained, or they should be moved to a location where one can still learn from them. New generations would be much better served by being told what they represent and the history surrounding them than to have them disappear and their history be forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.  

Humanity is never far from repeating the same mistakes. I applaud and find so important all the schools’ visits of concentration camps like Mauthausen in Austria or Auschwitz in Poland so that young people never forget the horrors they represent. Authoritarian regimes have generally either stopped teaching history to cut people from their past and allegiances or taught a distorted version of history to manipulate people. History rigorously taught by trained historians is key to informed citizenship, especially in a time of fake news and unsubstantiated information available on the Internet.

In the case of WWI, the teaching of its history is extremely important, not only to understand most of the conflicts our country is still engaged in but also to learn about geography, science, economics, as well as about the impact the war had on new technologies, the arts, the role of women and many other aspects of our 20th-century history, not least the fact that its participation in WWI brought the United States to the world stage and started the American century.

WWICC Commissioner Monique Seefried, PhD, was designated an honorary member of the 16th Infantry Regiment by an order of the Secretary of the Army for her work to memorialize the 16th Infantry and the 1st Division in World War I

D. MH:  Please share with our readers your favorite moments as one  of the 12 U.S. World War One Centennial Commissioners.

MS:  Over the past five years, I have attended many events ranging from lectures, conferences and reunions of veterans associations to school presentations, plays, concerts, and movies as well as dedications of memorials and commemoration ceremonies, in Europe as well as in the United States. They have all been occasions to remember the men and women who participated, served or died in the Great War. All were very moving in one form or another, but I have to say that the events I remember with the most emotion are the ones including the participation of young people. My goal as a commissioner was always to pass on the legacy of the WWI generation to new generations so that they, in their turn, would not forget their sacrifices, as well as the causes and the consequences of this First World War.  

A few events remain etched for ever in my memory, like the commemoration in May 2016 of the battle of Verdun with French and German students arriving from the woods,  standing among the crosses in the cemetery of Douaumont, flanked on each side by a Jewish and a Muslim Memorial or commemoration of Soldiers of All Colors Walking on the Path of Peace. It was a two-day commemoration, in September 2018, including students from schools in France (Aisne), Morocco (Casablanca), and the United States (Chicago Military Academy and Martin Luther King High School, also in Chicago) who participated in concerts in Soissons and Laon, and ceremonies in Vauxaillon. I will never forget the beautiful concert in the Cathedral of Laon performed by these American and French students in collaboration with the French Air Force band. These two days were all about our common humanity.  Descendants of German soldiers were also present. 

I will also always remember some of the many commemorations involving the planting of trees.  Two stand out particularly in my memory. One was when descendants of soldiers of the Rainbow Division planted a tree by the Rainbow Memorial at Croix Rouge Farm in Fère-en-Tardenois on the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Ourcq. The other was when 1st Division young soldiers sang the Army song standing by some of 1700 young trees, planted in the shape of the coat of arms of their division. These trees remember the 1700 1st Division soldiers who died in the Argonne 100 years earlier, in October 1918. This was organized by the French National Office of Forestry.

Receiving the Secretary of Defense Medal for 
Outstanding Public Service

Finally, being able to share some of these commemorations with my grandchildren was also very special.  With their Austrian, German, French, and American heritage, I felt very moved to have some of them by my side during the commemorations of the Battles of Belleau Wood and of St. Mihiel. I will also never forget receiving at the Pentagon the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service in front of my oldest grandson. He was 9 at the time. He will always remember it and never let his siblings and his cousins forget it.

My greatest pleasure in serving the commission has indeed been to pass on the legacy of the Great War to younger generations: soldiers, university students, and schoolchildren as well as my children and their own children.

E. MH:  What does the future hold for you, both specifically on American history and the First World War, and other projects you might be involved in?

MS:  As I answer you, I have just finished attending a two-and-a-half-day workshop on the new International Baccalaureate Organization (IB) Career Program at CASIE, the organization I founded in 1999 in Atlanta. I fully expect continuing to serve the WWICC until we build the National WWI Memorial in Washington, but I will be going back to the world of education, and the training of educators to serve new generations of American and international students and give them the critical thinking and rigorous learning tools as well as the  global perspective they need for this 21st century. The lessons of WWI will never be far away from my mind. 

Thanks again, Commissioner Seefried, for taking time to join with us for this interview and for your invaluable contributions to America's World War One Centennial Commemoration. 

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Monique Seefried is an extraordinary woman. She goes out of her way to share her knowledge and to help many people.