World War I: History, Memory, and Commemoration

WWI 18 pd 1917

The latest issue of The Economist has just hit the newsstands (and the internet) with an extended article about World War I: “Still in the Grip of the Great War: 100 Years after 1914.”

This essay provides a sketch of the historical arguments surrounding the origins of the conflict and discusses some of the more recent works on the war. At the same time, it also speaks to the connections between academic history, popular memory, and official commemoration. Simply put, academic history is what professors write, popular memory is how the public remembers, and official commemoration is how governments choose to memorialize. In every category, as you may imagine, positions are contested to greater or lesser extents. At the same time, all three of these categories are linked, but all three are very different. For instance, academics can influence popular views of an event (to use an example from the article, Alan Clark is a good case in point, although most academics would dispute his academic credentials), but the way professors study such things differs immensely from the way in which the public goes about remembering the past. In the particular case of Britain and World War I, historians are not really on the same wavelength as the public. Where much of the British public still seems attached to the notion that World War I was a great, pointless, bloody tragedy, historians increasingly tend to argue that a) Britain ought to have fought and b) Britain fought as well as it could. Finally, both academics and popular opinion can inform official commemoration. Britain again is an excellent case in point. For a number of reasons (some of which are outlined in the article), the British government is more committed to commemorating World War I than other European states. And that commitment has led to a vigorous debate that has involved both professors and the public.

Why spill all of this ink (or use up all these pixels) over something that happened a century ago? Sure, The Economist points out that World War I and its origins are “endlessly fascinating, hugely complex and charged with emotion.” But what are the stakes in this debate over the war? As in many other cases, arguments about history reflect disputes about the present. As The Economist asserts, “the controversies about the causes, strategies and consequences of the war are matters of contemporary concern.” Britain’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was wrong to suggest that “there was a crude left/right split over the war” in Britain today, but where one stands on the war says something about where one stands now when it comes time to discuss international relations, the use of force, and a host of related issues. These collisions between history, memory, and commemoration occur all the time.

An obvious example of this sort of thing that occurred in America is the huge debate that took place between 1994 and 1995 over an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum entitled The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Cold War. The exhibit included a portion of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. To make a long story short, the debate culminated in the cancellation of the exhibit. You can read more about this story in the following essay (Michael Hogan’s “The Enola Gay Controversy: History, Memory, and the Politics of Presentation”):

Although the argument over representations of the Enola Gay involved veterans groups that did not believe the Smithsonian’s exhibit respected their own lived experience of World War II, this debate was not just about the past; it had great contemporary relevance. Moreover, the split was not a simple division between right and left. To quote Edward Linenthal, who wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education shortly after the incident’s conclusion, the exhibit had been “caught between memory and history,” between the “commemorative voice and the historical voice.” Surely, the same thing will happen with World War I among the countries that dare to commemorate it.


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