World War I: History versus Memory

2014 WWI Talk

Today in the Dana Center at 4 PM, Professors Meg Cronin (English), Phil Pajakowski (History), Ann Norton (English), and Hugh Dubrulle (History) made a series of presentations to commemorate the centenary of World War I’s outbreak. The program as a whole was entitled, “‘What, Then, Was War?’:” Representing and Remembering World War I. The turnout was very good, and a number of students, faculty, and staff stayed afterwards to discuss the presentations as well as to socialize. If possible, One Thing after Another will try to obtain the presentations of all the participants. For now, it will have to make do with Professor Dubrulle’s comments which are reproduced below.


My paper, which is about the differences between history and memory when applied toward World War I, will do something toward synthesizing much of what we have heard up until now.

What distinction am I making when I use words like “history” and “memory” to mean different things? Perhaps the following anecdote will make some sense of the matter.

Many years ago, a Soviet journalist visiting Paris asked a small boy in a working-class quarter what the child knew about the Paris Commune. The boy responded: “Do you mean what they teach you in school, or what Papa says?”

History is what they teach you in school; memory is what Papa says. If we were to draw a Venn diagram, there would be an overlap between the two because, after all, Papa probably went to school.

However, the differences are significant. History is the interpretation of the past that professional historians create according to the dictates of their discipline. Memory is the popular understanding of the past that is cobbled together by everyday people from their own experiences, movies, literature, stories, family lore, popular history, magazines, pictures, monuments, commemorations, museums, and so on.

Recently, historians have investigated the history of memory—how and why it has changed over time. And indeed, the history of memory has become a hot topic. Interestingly enough, much of this study began with works about World War I and memory. I’m thinking primarily in this case of George Mosse’s Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (1991).

Memory’s study of history, of course, has been much less methodical—and it would be unfair of us to criticize because memory is not a discipline the way history is. But it is fair to point out that memory is not created in the same way as history, nor does it serve the same purpose.

A good place to start is by looking at “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” which was installed in the moat at the Tower of London in August to commemorate World War I’s outbreak. The moat has been filled with over 888,000 ceramic poppies—one for each British soldier killed during the conflict. We could say much about this “event”—about how it is an interesting cross between art installation, charity fundraiser, space for “personal reflection,” and tribute to those who served in the war (the Financial Times has described it as a “a very 21st-century blend of spectacle and ‘edutainment’.”). What strikes me forcefully is the extent to which the memory of this conflict dwells on the war dead. There are the 888,000 poppies, one for each fatality. And the poppy itself is associated with the dead on the Western Front, mainly because of the poem, “In Flanders Field” (1915). The Royal British Legion has kept the symbol of the poppy alive since 1921 with its Remembrance Day fundraisers during which they sell commemorative red poppies made of paper.

So the war is remembered as a great tragedy in which the dead feature prominently, mainly as victims. This vision of “crosses, row on row” is yoked to a narrative of the war in which incompetent political and military leaders in all countries inadvertently led Europe into war, conducted that war in a bloody and unimaginative manner, and then subsequently made a hash of the peace. According to this story, a generation of young men, fed on illusions by their elders, were disabused of their notions by trench warfare before they were killed in their hundreds of thousands.

So strong and convincing is the force of this narrative, you might ask, “Is this interpretation really just memory? Isn’t it the verdict of history?” The answer is, “No.” Aside from the fact that history’s verdicts are always temporary, the current state of World War I historiography does not look at all like this picture. I will return to historiography in a minute, but not before I say something about how this memory came to be.

Like history, memory plays out differently in various places. For Russians, the war does not loom quite so large in their memory as elsewhere because it is mere prelude to 1917, Year 1 in their short, Communist 20th century. And in Germany, memory of World War I is muted because the conflict contributes to the difficulty of finding a usable past that includes Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust.

Memory is like history in other ways; it is contested. Before the conflict had even ended, the memory of WWI was the object of a great battle. We have to realize that many participants were extremely anxious that their version, their understanding, and their narrative of the war would not be forgotten. One of the characters in Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (1916) worries that later generations would not understand what had happened during the war: “Whatever you tell them they won’t believe you. Not out of malice. .  . but because they just won’t be able to. . . . Nobody’s going to know. Just you. . . . We’ll forget. We’re already forgetting, old man!” And a great many people, like Barbusse, wanted to tell the bitter and ironic story that many remember today. These included a huge collection of figures as diverse as Britain’s war poets (Sassoon, Graves, Gurney, Rosenberg, Owen, Jones, etc.); the German expressionist sculptor, Ernst Barlach; the Italian symbolist poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti; and the German painter/printmaker Otto Dix.

But if we are good historians and we look at the source material, we also have to realize that during and shortly after the war, there was a competing narrative. It recognized the war as a tragedy, but refused to admit that the conflict was futile or purposeless, and frequently expressed an austere patriotism. We see this attitude in the great neo-classical war memorials like Edwin Luytens’ Cenotaph in London or Sir Reginald Blomfield’s Menin Gate (which Siegfried Sassoon described as a “sepulcher of crime”), the tombs of Unknown Soldiers in various countries, and the Tannenberg Memorial. We see it in Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel (1920) which revels in the triumph of the human spirit against everything the machine age can throw at it. We see it in intellectuals like Adolfo Omodeo who described the war as a kind of education in patriotic self-sacrifice to a liberal Italian state. And we see it in Rupert Brooke’s poetry which not only glorified war, but more important, also outsold all the War Poets put together.

Although there is some dispute among historians about the turning point in the struggle between competing memories of the war, the conventional wisdom has it that the late 1920s and early 1930s proved decisive. The philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote that “all true history is contemporary history” in that the perspectives of historians are very much shaped by their current circumstances. The same is true of memory. The economic volatility of the 1920s became the depression of the 1930s. At the same time, the diplomatic system erected by the Paris settlement of 1919 began to disintegrate. It seemed to many in retrospect that the war had proved itself futile in that it had failed to make Europe a better place. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, then, a spate of novels and autobiographies about the conflict (the “war book boom”) suddenly appeared throughout Europe. Perhaps the most influential and best-selling was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Just as important if not more so for their impact, a wave of war films, all taking advantage of brand new sound technology, came out as well. The most prominent include All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Journey’s End (1930), Westfront 1918 (1930), and Wooden Crosses (1932). The important thing to remember about these works of literature and cinema is that they did not necessarily capture what people thought during the war but what they thought about it ten years later—and that’s a very different thing.

Well might critics—and there were many at the time—complain that by focusing exclusively on the pain and terror of private soldiers, by exaggerating certain elements of the war experience, and by stressing the disillusionment of the rank and file, these works lost track of the big picture which gave the war meaning.  In 1930, Cyril Falls, the military historian, complained that “to pretend that no good came out of the War is frankly an absurdity. The fruits of victory may taste to us as bitter as the fruits of defeat to our late enemies. But how would the fruits of defeat have tasted to us and our Allies? Let any man seriously consider what would have been the situation with a Hohenzollern Germany and a Habsburg Austria dominant in Europe . . . and he will find it hard to deny that some good ‘came of it at last’.”

Of course, the outbreak of World War II seemed to confirm the futility of World War I. Yet it would be mistaken to attribute the survival of our dominant memory of the war to events alone. A tradition of representation has gained momentum in the contemporary era. Each literary or cinematic contribution simultaneously drew sustenance from that tradition while confirming it. Perhaps the two most important works in the English-speaking world that have perpetuated this memory are Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) (as well as the musical and film inspired by the book—Oh! What a Lovely War! [1963]) and Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). As a measure of that tradition, I encourage you to watch the way World War I combat has been treated in film. From All Quiet on the Western Front and Wooden Crosses onward it is incredibly consistent. Check out Paths of Glory (1957), Gallipoli (1981), Legends of the Fall (1994), A Very Long Engagement (2004), The Trench (1999), Joyeux Noel (2005), Passchendaele (2008), and War Horse (2011). We could go on and on. The themes and tropes remain the same. In every case, soldiers are victims, killed in utterly impossible and fruitless assaults for no good reason.

As just one indication of the extent to which this memory of the war as futile act of sacrifice has triumphed, we can point to What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown (1983), a Peanuts cartoon that Charles Schultz produced in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Memory, as everyone will tell you, involves forgetting—meaning that we remember some things at the expense of others. In this particular case, Schultz had Linus recite “In Flanders Fields”—but leaves out the third, patriotic stanza that encourages the reader “to take up our quarrel with the foe.” And then there is Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder Goes Forth, the fourth season of the Blackadder sitcom series (1983-1989). Here the futility of the war and the stupidity of generals are absolutely central to the plot. When historians seek to criticize what they see as the caricature of the conflict that memory has produced, they often refer to the “Blackadder version” of the war.

And what of historians, that is, the people who make history for a living? The historiography of World War I has responded to a variety of stimuli over the decades, including political events, the release of previously unavailable documents, and different kinds of readings. And yet, except for the intervention of certain outsiders (for example, Niall Ferguson and his The Pity of War [1998]), historiographical debate has been confined to fairly familiar ground. That is not to say that historians of World War I are parochial; in fact, in the last twenty years, they have done an excellent job of delineating the global connections that truly made the conflict a world war. Still, debate revolves around questions that would have sounded familiar to scholars decades ago. Who should assume responsibility for the war’s outbreak? How and how well was the war conducted? And what were the war’s most important consequences and legacies?

How have these questions been answered?

Military historians have stressed the extent to which new weapons and techniques eventually formed the basis for modern combined arms tactics that in turn gave armies the capacity to launch assaults that could disrupt the enemy on the operational level, even if he employed a defense in depth. Learning how to deal with mass armies and new technology was very much a “two steps forward one step back” process, but the armies of 1918 bore very little resemblance to the once that went to war in 1914: they had far more firepower (and laid it down far more accurately), they deployed many more specialized troops, they used more flexible tactics, and their command, control, and communication  were far more sophisticated.

Unlike memory, which has compared the origins of World War I to a senseless accidental bar fight, diplomatic historians see something much more complex but comprehensible. If Europe’s leaders made mistakes and misjudgments, they often acted from entirely understandable motives, and the diplomacy of the period reflected their will. For that reason, the great majority of scholars agree that certain states, as measured by their intentions and actions (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and, to a lesser extent, Russia) bear much more responsibility for starting the war than others (such as France and especially Britain). Hand in hand with this judgment is the belief that World War I mattered, and not merely because of its unintended consequences, which included, at the very least, the destruction of four empires.  It arrested, if only for a short time, a deliberate German bid for the domination of Europe—a domination that would not have been particularly pleasant.

The foregoing seems to indicate that the findings of historians are somewhat less judgmental than those of memory. That is not because historians, in general, are any less judgmental than anybody else; they can and should judge. Yet historical judgment emerges from a discipline that encourages careful study and an empathetic spirit. This approach often culminates in measured verdicts. For all of the similarities between the two, it is these specific qualities that set history apart from memory and ensure that what we learn in school is different from what Papa says.

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