As Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, the outbreak of war in Europe was just one event competing for students' attention on college campuses. At the University of Illinois, for example, fall homecoming festivities proceeded as usual, featuring the annual Illinois-Michigan football game, a dance, pep rallies, theatre productions, and alumni reunions. Amidst these activities and the start of new academic year, however, the war did not completely escape students' attention. This photograph demonstrates how students incorporated news of the war into the homecoming festivities.
Alongside the many other homecoming festivities on campus, many students decorated their homes as part of a school spirit competition. Residents of at least 117 different houses participated in this contest, with the majority of them belonging to fraternities and sororities. More than one house attracted attention for referencing the war in its display. The campus newspaper noted, for instance, that the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house had gone "totalitarian on us with a big display of Stalin-Hitler."1
The student house depicted in this photograph, however, presented a more lighthearted approach to the war in Europe. Featuring a banner that proclaimed, "What war? it's Homecoming at ILLINOIS!" In front of this banner, the students created cutouts of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain2 (on the left) and Adolf Hitler (on the right). The figure cutout of Chamberlain seems to tower over Hitler, who appears to be clothed in a schoolboy's outfit. Taken by an Illinois alumnus who often photographed student events, it is likely that this image was intended to document life on campus as part of the institutional record.
This image suggests that students remained focused upon events unfolding at home as war broke out in Europe. It also points to an embrace of humor and satire as responses to Nazism and the conflict in Europe. When the US entered the war roughly two years later, many of members of the fraternities and sororities like those at the University of Illinois would likely have begun participating in the war effort at home or fighting abroad.3