The First World War and the culture of historical commemoration

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Too much or too little; too left-wing or leaning too far to the right; trying to cover too much new ground or retracing tired theories: marking a notable anniversary of an important historical moment is a near impossible task. Yet failing to honour one correctly can prove disastrous.

Official commemorations are one of the most tangible and influential examples of history directly moulding national identity. They are vital not only in informing a public about an event which directly affected their ancestors, but also for providing a new window through which to assess our fluid and elusive present, indecipherable solely through analysis of current affairs.

This year, Britain turns its attention to acknowledging the centenary of the First World War, the colossal four year global conflict which changed the course of the 21st century, ending empires and prompting the deaths of around 16 million people.

From 2014 to 2018, memorials will take place in the form of wreath-layings, concerts and exhibits. Around 150 new books are due to be published on the subject in Germany, whilst France can expect around twice as many new titles. In Britain, David Cameron will make funds available for children to visit the battlefields of the Western Front. The BBC plans 2,500 hours of television, radio and online programming on the subject before 2018.

Over the next four years, the story of the most enduringly influential historical event for centuries will be repeatedly retold. It is essential, then, that it is done so responsibly.

Recognition of the war’s centenary poses substantial challenges to its organisers. They have a duty not only to correctly honour those who lost their lives and livelihoods – they must also be savvy to the present day issues which the anniversary will inevitably bring to light.

The vitality of European relations, for example, will be placed in increased focus. For some commentators, the anniversary will be a moment to highlight the benefits of international cooperation – since 1945, after all, structured and considered efforts to build healthy European relations have kept the outbreak of international conflict at a commendable minimum.

Yet the anniversary falls at an awkward moment. Our continent exists in a state of unrest: disillusionment and unemployment have prompted the virulent, often violent, rise of nationalist groups campaigning against the EU and its root principles. Such sentiments will only escalate as elections for the European Parliament elections in May draw closer.

As anyone with a vaguely nuanced knowledge of Great War will testify, the implications of such impassioned nationalism can prove devastating. The risk is clear: if handled poorly, these commemorations will not help to heal wounds – instead, they could open them wide once again.

Britain finds itself in an especially delicate situation. Here, the conflict which left the heavy legacy of almost a million British deaths continues to cast a shadow longer than in any other nation. Now, it will be reassessed at a moment when an already brittle national identity is under attack from a host of other immensely challenging issues – youth disinterest in politics, an uncertainty over the future of Scotland, and growing concerns over the implications of immigration. At a moment when the strength of European cooperation is set to be applauded, Britain exists further from the mainland than it has for decades.

It is worrying, then, that the most prominent feature of Britain’s First World War commemorations so far has been an unsophisticated and highly futile one: a petty political dispute over who was to blame for the war’s outbreak.

The debate began in January, when Education Secretary Michael Gove launched a strangely inappropriate attack on the “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.” Despite some “mistakes,” Gove argued, Britain’s role in the war was “marked by nobility and courage,” making the idea that the war was a “misbegotten shambles” and “series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite” little more than a “myth.”

Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor, went further, arguing that the war was “overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression,” the strength of which compelled Britain into a “struggle to frustrate these deranged ambitions.” This, of course, is the same Britain which withheld the vote from forty percent of its population at a time when Germany offered full male suffrage; the same Britain that was allied with tsarist Russia and which had failed to offer justification for an illegal seizure of African territory just years before the conflict’s eruption. For Johnson’s agenda, though, such context was clearly trivial.

The debate prompted ripostes from a host of opinionated commentators from various backgrounds, political standpoints and professions. Historians such as Niall Ferguson and Sir Richard Evans had their say. Rarely, though, did the conversation escape beyond the example of petty political point-scoring originally set by the politicians. Dignifying and honourable, it was not.

In the case of the First World War, there are few black and white facts: generals were not all just members of a heartless upper class, sheltered in grand villas hundreds of miles from the nearest mud-caked trench. Arthur Currie, one of the Allies’ most competent generals, was a failed insurance salesman, for example. Deserters were not just innocent sufferers from shellshock, but often petty – occasionally dangerous – criminals.

The same ambiguity applies to the very roots of the war itself. Attempting to identify a guilty party is, of course, entirely missing the point of the centenary commemorations. Claiming in a Daily Mail article to have the definitive answer to a highly complex issue – which has, after all, been debated by professional historians for a hundred years – was little more than dismal politicking.

Even if they had brought the most astute and sophisticated levels of historical analysis to the debate, the idea that politicians would attempt to impose their interpretation of a historical event on their public is a highly troubling one.

This was a highly complex war, driven by motivations and meanings that were fluid and multifaceted and driven by a relentless momentum difficult to define, even at the time. It was not a conflict capable of being be neatly defined as either a dramatic mistake or heroic, principled crusade. Politicians were either lamentably ignorant of this fact, or pursued their agenda regardless.

This clumsy partisan dispute is a timely reminder of Britain’s continued struggle with the legacy of the Great War. Despite the Allies’ victory, the war may well have had a more enduring effect on the British than any other population. By initiating the growth of new global powers and independence movements, the war prompted a critical turning point in British imperial thinking. Our role in the world has, of course, remained largely undefined ever since.

Johnson’s article praised post-war Germany for being “frank with themselves” and “agonisingly thorough in acknowledging the horror of what they did.” Johnson cannot afford to be blind to the grim irony of his words: Britain – with its lengthy and ugly imperial past – hardly has history on its side, after all. We still have considerable working out of ourselves to do.

Embracing the value of history provides the opportunity to appreciate our heritage and allow facts and considered analysis to eradicate the potential danger of imagined myths. What we learn from the past will also dictate our future, though: it is essential that we remember it responsibly.

Originally written for Counterpoint

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