The real purpose of the First World War centenary celebrations

Commemoration of the 1914-18 war should involve critical reflection rather than arouse an inarticulate glow of national pride

Miles Cole opinion illustration (29 August 2013)

Source: Miles Cole

In the late 1960s, Cambridge historian J. H. Plumb made a plausible but entirely erroneous prediction about our society’s future relationship with the past. He believed that history would soon no longer matter to people: as they became more reliant on science and technology they would find rational ways of understanding their situation and be less reliant on the comforting myths of a common history. This, Plumb thought, would free the academic discipline of history from the temptations of creating such myths: it would become a pure science of understanding the past.

A significant reason for the failure of Plumb’s prediction is the fragile state of the national polity in developed capitalist democracies today. Globalisation increasingly restricts the room for manoeuvre available to national governments. They still claim to represent the will of the people, yet are frequently constrained to act against that will by global conditions, undermining the very notion of a national democracy. Under such conditions, the appeal to national identity founded in a shared past is a convenient way of securing citizens’ loyalty to the increasingly disempowered nation state.

History and the nation have always been closely allied. If pre-modern kings and princes had their chroniclers who traced their lineage back to mythic forebears in order to underpin claims to legitimacy, the rise of ethno-nationalism in 19th-century Europe relied on historians and other intellectuals to discover a history of the national people. This story of ancient solidarity and identity justified the centralisation of power in a national state apparatus. As Eric Hobsbawm and his co-authors famously argued, the creation of the national polity paradoxically took place at a time when urbanisation and the growth of the industrial working class meant dislocation and alienation for many. In the face of such upheavals, the “invention of tradition” promoted loyalties to the nation state and the established order.

Today, politicians still believe in the potential of national historical memory to reinforce a sense of belonging. Departments of heritage and culture in the governments of Western democracies are now frequently charged with maintaining citizens’ awareness of their own national history and the identity this is presumed to foster. Speaking last October of his government’s plan to invest more than £50 million in commemoration of the First World War over four years from 2014 to 2018, Prime Minister David Cameron expressed the hope that remembering the “sacrifice” of British troops in the war would “captur[e] our national spirit, in every corner of the country, from our schools to our workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated [in 2012], says something about who we are as a people.”

Cameron’s sentiment may well be sincere. However, any act of commemoration is also an act of silencing. The friendly commemorative football matches and the like that Cameron proposes as suitable forms of remembering are, on some level, representations of the war itself and of the suffering it caused. Like any representation of human experience, they will be partial in both senses: both incomplete and favouring one interpretation over others. How, for example, can the “national spirit” be reaffirmed by commemorating a war in which ordinary people died as a result of the geo-political strategising of Europe’s elites? How can national sentiment be celebrated, when it was just such sentiment that led many young men to volunteer for often needless slaughter?

Many soldiers in the First World War, in contrast with combatants in earlier conflicts, articulated a sense of being part of a world-changing event that would be remembered by future generations. The scale of the catastrophe was so great that many believed it would afford the dead and the battle-scarred a political weight that no one would be able to ignore. French novelist and volunteer combatant Henri Barbusse believed that the soldiers “whose number and whose misery alike are infinite will transform the old world”. Yet it took another world war before the capitalist democracies of the West truly began to address the situation of ordinary people, many of whom continued to face class division, economic insecurity and hopelessness in the inter-war years. The now so-maligned welfare state was still a long way off.

National commemorations, such as the forthcoming centenary of what used to be called the Great War, do indeed offer us an opportunity to think about “who we are as people”, in Cameron’s words. However, if the only purpose of remembering the First World War is to provide us with an inarticulate glow of national pride, as in the prime minister’s Diamond Jubilee comparison, then it will be a missed opportunity.

In 1914, statesmen believed that it was acceptable and even necessary to sacrifice citizens in order to address external forces that were, admittedly, not entirely of their own making. Then, nationalist fervour was a valuable tool in helping to secure the legitimacy of the ruling class, even if – as German and Russian elites were to discover – its efficacy was not without limit.

Although no one would claim that the current woes of Western democracies, not least in the economic sphere, are equal to the physical and mental suffering caused by the calamity of 1914-18, it would be healthier for those democracies today to use the centenary as a moment to interrogate the relationship between the citizen and the nation, to understand that relationship as a potentially potent demand for representation and justice which can also become an uncritical delusion. If, as a recent ITV news report showed, the centenary commemorations are to function at the level of sponsored school trips to the cemeteries at the Western Front, where children will be read Rupert Brooke’s sentimental evocation of the “corner of a foreign field that is for ever England”, the opportunity for critical reflection will not have been realised.

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