Studying the Memory of War

Students in ParisMemory creates powerful narratives that inform several aspects of a nation’s identity. During the summer of 2018, undergraduate students at UT will travel to Europe and visit key memory sites related to World War II as part of the Normandy Scholars Program. 

“The goal of the program is to expand students’ ability to analyze how we reduce the complexity of World War II in ways that serve contemporary political and cultural agendas,” says Dan Magilow, associate professor of German in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures and director of the Normandy Scholars Program. 

The program has two components. First, the students take a three-hour spring course focused on the memory of World War II and why it maintains such a powerful hold on the popular imagination, including an examination of the American narrative of the “Greatest Generation.” The study abroad component is a summer mini-course where they start in the United Kingdom, ferry over the English Channel to France, and end their trip in Germany, symbolically retracing the path of the D-Day invasion.  

Claire Mayo“I was thrilled to learn of this dynamic, interdisciplinary program for undergraduate students,” says Claire Mayo, doctoral candidate in history and the graduate student assistant for the course. “It combines the rigor of theory on memory studies with its practical application in Europe. Students from a variety of disciplines can engage with the material, share their own experiences, and gain a broader understanding of our shared history.” 

The program is very competitive mainly due to the $3,000 scholarship each student receives to help with the study abroad costs. Most of the first cohort of students are Honors Students with an average cumulative GPA of 3.74. Each one of them is extraordinarily talented and enthusiastic about the program.  

Even though its home is in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Normandy Scholars Program is open to undergraduates from any college. Jonathan Winfiele, a third-year student of architecture, is interested in the program because it gives him the opportunity to look at the history and events of World War II from an architect’s perspective.  

“With my knowledge of architectural space, I will be able to share, through the eyes of a future architect, how designs of memorials play a vital role in how memories are commemorated,” Winfiele says. “I am interested in how the engaged experience can make an individual remember the events of war to prevent future acts.” 

Magilow hopes each student will walk away from the experience equipped with some of the conceptual tools for thinking about memory on a variety of levels and be able to talk about the past, especially traumatic pasts, with a healthy and historically informed skepticism. Today, the youngest remaining witnesses to World War II and the Holocaust are elderly, but the memory of the war and the crimes committed during it, as well as its complex geopolitical aftermath, still powerfully informs contemporary politics and culture. 

“Even 75 years after the fact, you can scarcely turn on the TV or look at the internet without seeing some mention of World War II, Hitler, or Nazis,” Magilow says. “To me, the question is not only is that reference historically accurate, but also with so much death and destruction in human history to choose from, why do we always draw on World War II? Why do you call someone a ‘grammar Nazi’ rather than a ‘grammar Stalinist’ or a ‘grammar Maoist’?” 

The Normandy Scholars Program gives UT students the opportunity to understand specific ways national narratives are created and how they differ between countries. Each destination will take students on a journey to see a side of the country they might not see as a tourist. Magilow and Mayo hope the experience will attach a special significance to this particular chapter of the students’ UT experience for years to come and illuminate their own uniqueness as a person, an American, or a Volunteer.