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"What War? it's Homecoming at Illinois!"

This photo captures homecoming decorations designed by students at the University of Illinois that comment on the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives

The outbreak of war in Europe was just one event competing for students' attention on college campuses as German forces invaded Poland in September of 1939. At the University of Illinois, fall homecoming festivities proceeded as usual. They featured the annual Illinois-Michigan football game, a dance, pep rallies, theater productions, and alumni reunions. But even with the business of a new academic year, 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. For example, the campus newspaper noted 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 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 towers over Hitler, who is portrayed as a young schoolboy.3 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 members of fraternities and sororities like those at the University of Illinois would likely have begun participating in the war effort at home or fighting abroad.4

Daily Illini, November 4, 1939, 3. 

Chamberlain is often associated with the policy known as appeasement—a British-led attempt to contain Nazi expansionism by granting diplomatic and territorial concessions to Hitler's government. The failure of this policy was evident after German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, despite a promise of peace made at the conclusion of the Munich Agreement in September 1938. For more, see Frank McDonough, Hitler, Chamberlain, and Appeasement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

The display also features a cardboard cutout with a racist depiction of a Native American warrior attacking a wolverine. This is a reference to the school mascots involved in the annual Illinois-Michigan football game. The University of Michigan is known as the wolverines, and the University of Illinois is known as the "fighting Illinis"—a term that first originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At some point in the early 20th century, the name became attached to racialized and romanticized depictions of Native Americans. 

For more information about the US entrance into the war, see the USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia entries on Pearl Harbor and World War II. While required to register under a military draft (the Selective Service Training and  Service Act) in 1940, many male college students received deferments while enrolled in colleges and universities. Many also volunteered for service. For more on reactions to the introduction of the draft, see USHMM's citizen history project, History Unfolded. See also George Q. Flynn, The Draft, 1940–1973 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1993).

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
Accession Number 0004761
Accession Number RS 26/30/5, Box 1, Folder ACT - 6 Homecoming 1926, 1930-40
Date Created
November 1939
Photographer / Creator
Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, USA
Still Image Type Photograph
Description A photograph of homecoming at Illinois University in 1939.
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