Commemorating WWI in Minnesota: Overshadowed by WWII

Even before I set out to look at how the First World War has been commemorated here in Minnesota, I assumed that the vast majority of Twin Citians would be hard-pressed to identify a single WWI memorial in the metro area. Even those who drive, bike, jog, and walk on or along Victory Memorial Drive in Minneapolis — how many know which victory is being memorialized?

New Brighton WWI Monument
The WWI Monument in New Brighton, Minnesota

But perhaps I’d better pay attention to the log in my own eye before I worry about specks in others’…

Since 2003 I’ve attended Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, MN, and more than a few times driven past that suburb’s small city hall. Until three weeks ago, I hadn’t the vaguest notion that standing in front of that building is a small granite monument to the eighty-five townsfolk of New Brighton who served in the military during the war — four of whom died.

It’s a marvel of minimalism: there is no patriotic embellishment apart from two crossed flags carved into each side, and no description any more flowery than the one on the base: “Veterans of World War I.” (An anachronistic addition that gives away the fact that the monument was rededicated in 1985, having moved a block south to make way for an expansion of the city’s fire department. When the monument originally went up, in 1926, there was no “World War” other than the one American fought in 1917-1918.) (You can read more of the monument’s history on this PDF.)

On the other side of New Brighton City Hall is Veterans Park, where one finds an American Legion-sponsored plaque (dedicated in 1990) that may be understood as commemorating WWI soldiers, but only implicitly and as part of a much larger group. It reads:

In memory of the seven heroic Challenger astronauts and all who fought to defend world freedom.

I’m not sure what those four dead New Brighton doughboys would make of being remembered alongside people flying a rocket into space, but… It suggests an important theme for WWI commemorations in the Twin Cities: most are relatively small and overshadowed by neighboring commemorations of other events (or intermingled with them). And few are as old as the 1926 monument in New Brighton; many in the Twin Cities seem to postdate the Second World War, or come even later.

Consider, for example, the war memorials on the grounds of Minnesota’s lovely State Capitol. (Designed by the same man who came up with part of Duluth’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument.)

MN State Capitol

What you see in the foreground is the WWII memorial, dedicated in 2007. What you can’t see in the picture above is that that memorial is partially bordered by the Court of Honor, a short wall bearing plaques that honor Minnesotans who fought and died in American wars from the Civil War through Vietnam (as well as some additional groups like female veterans, chaplains, Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients, and so forth). I’ve circled the WWI plaque on the picture below.

Court of Honor, MN State Capitol

WWI Plaque, Court of HonorHere it is in close-up, with the inscription: “Dedicated to the 57,413 Minnesotans who so gallantly served in ‘the war to end all wars.'” (Update: reader David Thompson did a little research, with the help of Doug Bekke at the Minnesota Military History Museum, and points out that 118,497 Minnesotans actually served in the military during the First World War — of whom 1432 were recorded as being killed in action; another 2,326 died of disease, primarily the influenza epidemic that ravaged both sides. I don’t have the 1958 book that Doug and David are relying on for their figures, but my guess is that it offers the total number mobilized while the plaque refers to those who actually served on the Western Front. My recollection is that only about half of those mobilized reached France before the fighting ended, which fits these numbers for Minnesota.) Aside from the adverb describing those Minnesotans’ service, there’s little here that could remotely resemble patriotism. The use of quotation marks offers an understandably ironic tinge to the closing phrase.

And that’s all. It’s no bigger than the Spanish-American War plaque nearby, or the one for the Bataan Death March. It’s overshadowed by the larger, more elaborate WWII memorial above and around it. And not too far away is an impressive Vietnam War memorial that evokes Maya Lin’s more famous work in Washington, DC.

There’s something similar to the Court of Honor at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, just north of St. Paul in Falcon Heights. Each year nearly 1.8 million people visit the Minnesota State Fair; if they’re like me, they walked right past the Horticulture Building dozens of times without noticing the Veterans Garden, dedicated in 2005. It includes several war memorial plaques, the one for 1917-18 having been added in 2009 (the most recent of the set). Its tribute is even more muted than that outside the Capitol:

MN State Fair WWI MemorialTo honor the Minnesotans who, along with their brothers in arms in the U.S. armed forces, helped bring an end to the epic tragedy of World War I.

Why are WWI memorials in and near the capital city of Minnesota so small and so subdued? (And why did they arrive so many years after the Armistice?) (One more belated update: my father pointed out that Ramsey County has a memorial overlooking the Mississippi River, in the Shadow Falls Park Preserve at the western end of St. Paul’s famed Summit Avenue. Read about it here.)

To be sure, the “Great War” only featured a few months of active American combat, but nearly a thousand more Minnesotans died in 1917-18 (approximately 3500) than in the entire Civil War (almost 2600 — and every Minnesota schoolchild learns about the sacrifice of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg). WWII claimed the lives of 6300 Minnesotans, but that over several years of combat.

I can only guess, but given St. Paul’s large German- and Irish-American populations, I wonder how much enthusiasm there was in the years after 1918 for celebrating a war fought against Germany and alongside England.

It’s certainly important to note that American participation in the “World War” did not have overwhelming support in Minnesota, even in April 1917. Four of Minnesota’s ten members in the U.S. House of Representatives voted against the declaration of war on Germany — three representing districts with heavy German-American populations, plus Minneapolis representative Ernest Lundeen, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and a convinced neutralist.

With that in the background, the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) sent agents to spy on German enclaves like New Ulm, as well as reputedly “disloyal” members of the University of Minnesota faculty and the farmer-activists of the Non Partisan League. Longtime U of M historian Hy Berman described the work of the state’s Public Safety commission as

A reign of terror that wiped out civil liberties, wiped out freedom of expression, wiped out freedom of association — that created a kind of climate where, in fact, it ruled by force.

For more, see the collection of materials on the Commission at the Minnesota Historical Society Library, or read Carl Chrislock’s 1991 history, Watchdog of Loyalty.

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3 thoughts on “Commemorating WWI in Minnesota: Overshadowed by WWII

  1. I would love to contact Mr. Thompson or Mr Brekke. I am researching the WWI Vets buried in Tucson. Quite a few are from Minnesota! The can email me at scarberja@hotmail.com, and also through my Facebook page “The Great War Doughboy Search:Tucson and WWI. I am pleased that someone from my home state recognizes the importance of recognizing these veterans.

  2. Hello Chris,

    Thank you for this post! My name is Ryan Higbea and I work at an elementary school in So. St. Paul, MN. A dear friend and colleague forwarded this post onto me.

    We’re a Primary Years Program of the International Baccalaureate. This year, the IB is encouraging its World Schools to work with the WWI Memorial Inventory Program (http://wwi-inventory.org/) to document WWI memorials in our local area. Have you heard of their project?

    Have you since come across other WWI memorials in Minnesota, other than the ones in New Brighton & in the Twin Cities that you write about in this post?

    We, along with the greater IB organization, aim to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. Learning about an international conflict, like WWI and in particular, MN’s part in that war will give our students perspective on why it is important to understand and respect those different from us.

    Thanks again for your post RE: WWI memorials in MN!

    1. Great to hear from you, Ryan. I’ve seen mention of the WWI Memorial Inventory at the Centennial commission site, but wasn’t sure how far along that project was. I’ve written some more about selected memorials in Minnesota at my rarely-updated war commemoration photoblog, https://mementobelli.wordpress.com/category/memorials-in-minnesota. But I’ve yet to write up many of the sites I’ve visited. (I took a two-day driving tour a couple of years ago through central and southern Minnesota.) If I can help catalogue them, let me know.

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