Before the GI Bill: The American Expeditionary Forces University

As far as I’m concerned one of the joys of poking about in the historical record is stumbling across tidbits that don’t make it into big picture accounts of historical events. Sometimes they don’t even make it into the smaller-scale stories that I am working on. This is one of those tidbits. It caught my imagination. I hope it catches yours, too.


American doughboys looking at Paris from the Pavillon de Bellevue



In 1918, as World War I drew to a close, the YMCA and the United States Army joined forces, so to speak, to provide educational opportunities for members of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

The program had come together quickly. The YMCA began exploring the “needs and opportunities for educational work among men in the military service in connection with the American forces—not only using the war but during the period of mobilization” at the end of 1917. The Army approved the program in February, 1918. Six months later, the first stage of the program went into effect. [Rather than making a judgmental comment, I will simply suggest you insert your own experience with government or other complex bureaucracy here.]

The initial stages of the program were the military’s version of a junior year abroad. Doughboys with an academic bent and a few college credits in hand were able take classes at Oxford, Cambridge, the London Fellowship of Medicine, and the Sorbonne. Several thousand soldiers received vocational training in fourteen trades in French technical schools. (I am curious how language barriers were overcome. )

But the most ambitious element of the project was the creation of the American Expeditionary Force’s own university at Beaune, on the site of a former Red Cross hospital twenty miles south of Dijon,* and of 1,000 army post schools scattered across France and the occupied portions of Germany. The program provided a wide range of courses, 200 in all, including a full high school program, a agricultural college, a fine arts school with departments in interior design, painting, sculpture and city planning,** a medical school, and classes to prepare a few soldiers for admission to West Point. (It also had a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.)

The program was short-lived. The university opened its doors on March 17, 1919, and closed three months later thanks to the rapid demobilization of the AEF. But while it lasted, ten thousand soldiers attended the university at Beaune and more than 200,000 took classes at the post schools.

One student in the painting program told his instructor that his three months in the program “had made up for the loss of two years’ work while in the Army.” Sounds like a successful experiment in public education to me.


*The heart of the hospital was the Pavillon de Bellevue, which Isadora Duncan had used for her dance school before the war. I think it makes for a nice symmetry: from training one kind of corps to educating another.

**I have no idea why city planning was part of the arts school. And I am ashamed to admit that the thought of war-hardened soldiers who had fought in the trenches of Normandy taking classes in interior design gives me the giggles.

The Lost Generation, the Paris Edition, and James Thurber

As I dig into the story of American journalism in Europe after the Great War,* there are several themes/topics that are unavoidable: Paris, the Lost Generation, and the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune among them.**

One of the things that became clear early on is that the popular image of the Lost Generation is too narrow: not limited to Paris, not limited to the usual suspects, and in many cases not lost.

France in particular drew writers because as Ernest Hemingway put it in an article in the Toronto Star, Paris “in the winter is rainy, cold, beautiful and cheap. It is also noisy, jostling, crowded and cheap. It is anything you want—and cheap.” Not only was the franc depressed, but Paris promised sexual and other freedoms and plentiful, good, and yes, cheap wine. The latter was a draw in the time of Prohibition.

Once there, many writers ended up working for a time at the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, dubbed “the world’s zaniest newspaper” by William Shirer.*** (A jibe at the Chicago Tribune’s sub-head: the World’s Greatest Newspaper.”) To my surprise, James Thurber was one of them.


I’ve been a Thurber fan since my freshman year in high school, when I fell in love with My Life and Hard Times. (I still think is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. In fact, I blame it for the fact that this blog post did not appear on Friday. I pulled it off the shelf to see if my copy had a biographical introduction and was immediately sucked into Thurber’s world. Again.) But in my internal and often faulty timeline, he was solidly placed first in Columbus, Ohio, as a young man and then in New York in the 1930s and 1940s. Which is not incorrect, just incomplete.

It turns out that Thurber was definitely a contemporary of the Lost Generation, though he didn’t make it into World War I because his eye sight was so bad. He was working as a newspaperman in Columbus in 1921 when he got the bug to move to France and write. (It appears to have been contagious.) It took him several years to get the trip organized, and when he got there things didn’t work out as planned. He ensconced himself and his wife in a farmhouse in Normandy, where he planned to support himself as a freelance writer while working on a novel. Writing the novel didn’t work out: “because I got tired the characters at the end of five thousand words, and bade them and novel-writing farewell forever.” And it turned out there was a lot more competition for freelance work than he thought. And it was a lot of work. (Both of these circumstances will sound familiar to my writing friends.)

When he applied to the Tribune’s Paris Edition for a job, the editor told him “I got thirty men ahead of you who want jobs.” Then he asked, “What are you, by the way, a poet or a painter or a novelist?” Thurber wisely didn’t mention the abandoned novel and answered that he was a newspaperman with five years of experience on the job. He started work the next day.

Working at the Paris edition was very different than working for the Columbus Dispatch, and Thurber earned a reputation for inventing parody news features (one of which almost went to print), phony column fillers, and mythical and eccentric guests who had recently arrived in Nice for the season, for the society page.

Even at a favorable exchange rate, the Thurbers’ francs ran out after a year. They moved to New York, and Thurber began to build a career as an important humorist and cartoonist, whose work always had an edge below the surface affability. Sounds like a member of the Lost Generation to me.

* Which is absolutely essential to understanding American journalism and the rise of Nazi Germany.

**Not to mention the Versailles treaty, the Russian civil war, and what I think of as Romantic Reds. None of which I intended to talk about today. Though they could creep in. The Russian civil war, in particular, has been tracking me down for almost a year now and might decide that today is its day.

***Later the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer used his time the Paris Edition as a springboard to working as a foreign correspondent for the Tribune’s foreign bureau, which was not the same thing.


Let me start with the short version: Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape and Home is one of the best works of non-fiction I’ve read in a while.

Here’s the long version:

In 2017, former Sports Illustrated journalist Alexander Wolff  set out to explore his family's German roots. The result is an extraordinary mixture of memoir, journalism, history and an up-close look at one family's complicated relationship with Nazi Germany.

Two biographical narratives stand at the heart of Endpapers. Wolff's grandfather, Kurt Wolff, was a leading publisher of contemporary literature in Germany, publishing authors whose works would later be burned by the Nazis. ( Think Kafka, Thomas Mann, Günter Grass.) In 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire, he fled Germany with his wife Helene and took refuge in the United States, where they founded a new, equally influential, publishing house, which served as gateway for introducing American audiences to major European authors in translation, including Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.*  They left behind Kurt's family from his first marriage, including Wolff's father, Niko. Niko served in the German army, spent time in a POW camp and emigrated to America in 1948, with a little belated help from his father. He became a chemist with Dupont and assimilated to a degree Kurt never managed. But he never told his son about his wartime experience. And Wolff didn’t ask.

In the course of tracing their stories, Wolff discovers family secrets. He learns the intricacies of which family members escaped being labeled as Jewish by the Nazis and which did not. He realizes how deeply his grandmother's family, the Mercks of Merck Pharmaceuticals, were involved with the Nazis. He takes a fascinating and horrifying detour into the tragedy of the 1972 Olympics in Munich. **And he eventually confronts the questions of guilt, shame and accountability that many Germans of his generation struggled with decades earlier and the larger questions of “moral inheritance” in general.

Ultimately, Endpapers is not only the gripping story of one family's history, but an important exploration of our collective responsibility for the past.

* They also published Anne Murrow Lindbergh, which I find somewhat ironic given Charles Lindbergh’s political positions.

**It turns out that a security specialist hired by the Olympic Committee to “tabletop” the event predicted the murder of the Israeli Olympians in the Olympic Village with frightening accuracy in one of several worst-case scenarios. The committee chose not to act on them.
* * *

CODA: Endpapers is a prime example of why I always read the acknowledgements. Wolff buried some good stuff in the midst of the usual “thank-you” list, including a brief discussion of historical novels that shaped his feel for the period and this gem:

Nor could I have told this story without two other women close to Kurt and Niko, my grandmother Elisabeth Merck Albrecht and step-grandmother Helen Mosel Wolff. Their voices underscore how much this narrative, despite its patrilineal spine, owes the women of our family. It is a truism borne out to me repeatedly over years of writing about sports figures, many of them alpha males reluctant to reveal their vulnerabilities: all praise to the mothers and sisters and wives who dress the skinned knees, keep the scrapbooks, vividly recall the failures and thus better sense the full arc of a story.

Sing it, Mr. Wolff!

Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.