Monday, November 03, 2014

Memory and history

I wasn't impressed by the original article about the First World War commemorative installation at the Tower of London, but all the indignant moralising about it didn't do much for me either. However, it did provoke a response and Jonathan Jones replied to his critics here. I liked it when he wrote,
What can make a difference is our historical understanding of the Great War, its causes and consequence. History is worth far more than the illusion of memory, when none of us today actually have a memory of being soldiers in 1914-18.
History is a collective memory, but is just as fallible and contested as an individual one. And that is where Jones goes wrong. He sees the history of the First World War as unproblematic.
Popular history has been invaded by revisionists who tell us that far from being lions led by donkeys in a futile bloodbath, the British soldiers who fought from 1914-18 were fighting, as the propaganda at the time claimed, to defend democracy from militarist authoritarian Germany. 
I believe this fashionable view of the first world war to be historically unjustified. I’ve been interested in its history ever since I spent too many hours as an 18-year-old reading up to win a history entrance scholarship at Cambridge – no, before that, since seeing that photo of an unburied corpse on the cover of Taylor’s book. The best current work on the origins of the first world war, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, is a 562-page analysis that does not pander to instant explanations. He demonstrates the absurdity of seeing Germany as the unique culprit and reveals the complex process of diplomatic folly that started the war.
I have not read Clark's book, but I doubt if it is the last word. So let's take apart that revisionist jibe.

The historiography of the war is a topic in itself. It started in the immediate post-war period with an account based on German guilt. The war had begun when Germany invaded Belgium and France as part of a co-ordinated attack on Russia. German culpability seemed clear. But then the emphasis on pre-war diplomacy was given a boost by the publication of diplomatic papers as a revisionist process set in. Socialists had always seen the origins of the war as lying in imperialism in general rather than the act of a single guilty power, whilst the idea of the war as a "futile bloodbath" was first propagated by the inter-war peace movement. It also had the unintended consequence of encouraging the appeasement of Hitler. The notion of the war being a catastrophic blunder by the great powers, an accidental war, was encouraged by Albertini's major study of its origins, published in English in 1953. However, it wasn't long before the debate was opened up again. An odd combination of the very right wing historian, Alan Clark (who admitted to, at best, misattributing the lions led by donkeys quote), with the pacifist left popularised the "futile bloodbath" argument once more and gave us Joan Littlewood's "O What a Lovely War" in 1963. But in 1961 the case for German culpability had been restated as well, this time in Germany itself, by Fritz Fischer. And the debate has raged on to this day.

Revisionism has succeeded revisionism from 1914 onwards. For instance, I have just written about the anarcho-communist revolutionary Peter Kropotkin's position in the First World War. He supported it, to the horror of many of his comrades. He had warned about the dangers posed by a German state unified under the principles of Prussian militarism for more than a decade before the war began and fully expected Germany to start a European war. Once France had been invaded he called for solidarity with their right of self-defence and military action to destroy German militarism. The idea that this was a just war wasn't "propaganda," it was a ferocious controversy, even taking place within the the revolutionary left!

So, this is no recent invasion by propagandists, but a continuation of an unresolved debate about the war. That there is no consensus suggests that we are faced with ambiguity rather than a definitive history that should be propagated by works of art.

Secondly, Jones makes a common error when he elides between the causes of the war and the experience of it. And what was that experience? Horrific, certainly. We have plenty of evidence for that. But the social history of the trenches is not straightforward at all. With all the correspondence and memoirs of participants we have a huge archive of material and it too is ambiguous. I am uneasy with any account that treats participants as unthinking victims, simply because so many of them weren't. They were driven by propaganda, certainly, but also by duty, family and a belief in a cause, particularly the defence of Belgium. So what was it that made people (including Wilfred Owen) return to the trenches willingly, even if they could have been invalided out? Was it duty or the intensity of the experience and the deep comradeship with their fellow soldier, a profound love that could be found nowhere else? There is evidence for this as well.

Again, there is no single answer. The war, especially on the western front, was terrible. But then war is not good, war is horror, but sometimes it is necessary. And if it was necessary, shouldn't we honour those who experienced that horror?

In the end, we don't have a single objective truth about the war and its participants. Victims or heroes? A necessary war or a crime against humanity? Cases can be made for both. So is it right that a "true work of art about the first world war would need to be as obscene as cancer," a kind of pacifist realism, or should it reflect that ambiguity, try not to be didactic, and provoke reflection and debate? Do the poppies do that? I haven't seen them so I can't say.

I want to end on a note of semi-agreement. The centenary of 1914 does not need politicised sentimentality, it does need history. The ongoing debate is its real memorial, the archives and library shelves a living memory. As for art, my personal view is that ambiguity and dialectics, informed by respect, should win out over certainty.


Anton Deque said...

I have thought for some time that 'O What a Lovely War' – and Taylor's 'Illustrated History' carries a dedication to Joan Littlewood – is a simplification that has passed into fact, mores than 'Blackadder Goes Forth'. Young men might have been mislead into the fight against 'the Hun' but it would not as you point out explain why they persisted.

The current debate is not I think about the First World War at all, and Jone's reference to UKIP in the context of the poppy field at the Tower of London convinced me.

I went for years not buying nor wearing poppy. One of my uncles served in the trenches and old Tory as he was, he never wore one either out of disgust with the Haig Fund.

No what Jones and others are thinking of is not I feel World War One, but Iraq and the narrative of intervention. Interestingly, most right wing historians today believe Britain should have stayed out of the war. I find that revealing as much as anything Jones writes.

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