Kansas City museum exhibit showcases German World War I artifacts

Friday, September 3, 2010 | 3:12 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — The soldier's eyes are almost spooky as they gaze determinedly into the future.

They stare out from a patriotic poster exhorting the public to buy war bonds and help the nation prevail in the struggle against the enemy.

But this infantryman is German and the enemy is us.

The huge image dominates a new and limited exhibit at the Liberty Memorial that presents the First World War from the perspective of the other guys.

Exhibit organizers say they believe this is a first for an American museum.

"That's the benefit of having time and distance from the war," said Eli Paul, vice president of museum programs at the Liberty Memorial. "We can look at and explore topics that you couldn't have done, politically, a generation or two ago."

Most of the objects and documents in the exhibit are on public display for the first time.

The soldier in the war bonds poster, with his gas mask and grenades, captures the "man and machine" theme of the exhibit and of the first truly industrialized war. Objects such as home parlor memorials to fallen loved ones and adventure novels of German valor and heroism are reminders of their humanity. Soldiers' words also echo their sense of being overwhelmed by events.

"We are all screws in a machine that wallows forward, nobody knows where to," says one of many similar quotations highlighted in the exhibit.

The display cases juxtapose personal items, including a schnapps bottle and glasses found in a German trench and a handmade calendar for 1918, with instruments of death such as machine guns and a camouflaged ammunition can.

"We're certainly not romanticizing or glorifying anything," said Doran Cart, curator of the Liberty Memorial collection. "This is a straightforward view of the machines that (the Germans) had at their disposal, the equipment they had to carry, the uniforms that they wore."

One of the more poignant objects in the exhibit is a handmade sign on paper that survived a German trench in France. Neatly lettered in blue pencil, it says "Verbotener Weg" — a warning to fellow German soldiers not to take this route.

Many exhibit items come from the collection of the late Carl H. Hauber acquired last year. It was the largest single donation to the Liberty Memorial Association in its history.

The German display is housed in Exhibit Hall, flanking the tower at the Liberty Memorial. Admission is included with the National World War I Museum. The exhibit will run through the end of 2011.

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