Opinion Articles

War commemorations and politics: Lessons from the nineteenth century

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The recent controversy triggered by a Daily Mail article by the Conservative Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has thrown the spotlight not only upon debates about the origins of the First World War, its significance and its conduct, but how it should be remembered, commemorated and taught in schools. In the article, ‘Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?’, Gove claims that ‘left-wing’ historians have been ‘feeding myths’ about the conduct of the First World War and the reasons it was fought. Arguing that it was a ‘just war’, viewed by those who fought it as a ‘noble cause’, Gove states that soldiers were ‘not dupes but conscious believers in king and country’.

Critics of Michael Gove’s intervention have condemned the politicisation of the memory of the First World War. Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary and historian, Tristram Hunt, has claimed that the ‘government is using what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division’. A range of historians have rejected the attempts to characterise historical research on the First World War in terms of an ideological struggle between left and right. Yet the controversy is about more than rival interpretations, over-simplifications and distortions of the First World War. It raises broader issues relating to the political use of war commemoration and the role of historians in war remembrance. Looking further back in history, into the nineteenth century and its controversies around war commemoration, suggests that legitimising the sacrifices of war has always been highly contested. Competing attempts to control and manipulate memories of wars to suit national narratives provide lessons about the dangers of such approaches for today’s policymakers.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped transform the relationship between armies and nations. No longer drawn from the ranks of the criminal classes, armies began to comprise soldiers who carried a political stake in the nation and whose families mourned their deaths. Governments were therefore under growing pressure to justify losses at a time when new technologies were making war more deadly. To suggest that soldiers might have died in vain was culturally and politically unpalatable; legitimising their loss required a noble cause. Death in war was therefore presented as patriotic self-sacrifice, giving meaning to the loss of soldiers’ lives as the ultimate act of devotion to their country. Men who died on the battlefield were elevated to the status of heroic martyrs, and the living had a duty to honour their sacrifices in acts of remembrance.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 established new practices for remembrance of the war dead. Its commemoration provides important lessons for today. Memories of the Franco-Prussian War became central to attempts to define and shape the nation in recently-unified Germany as well as in defeated and politically-divided France. Yet after providing every soldier killed on the battlefield with a permanent resting-place, in 1878, the French state stepped back. Despite pursuing a policy of centralisation in its education and infrastructure reforms, the complex and diverse experiences of the conflict led successive governments to withdraw from directing war commemorations. The state recognised soldiers as having died for France, but made no further political or nation-building use of acts of war remembrance. From 1878, French war memorials were funded by public subscription, with local communities and political and religious groups organising their own commemorations. With disparate elements seeking to emphasise their visions of the war, each constructed their own, often competing, understanding of what soldiers had been fighting for. Catholic and Republican factions sought to turn memories of particular battles into rival symbols of French identity. As a result of this political contestation, memories of the war remained alive and meaningful. War commemorations were well attended, and new war memorials were being erected up until the outbreak of the First World War.

The nineteenth century practice of limited state involvement in war commemorations resonates with Tristram Hunt’s call for the events marking the First World War to ‘reflect and embrace the multiple histories’ of 1914-18. A singular narrative of glory, or tragedy, is never likely to do justice to a major conflict of this kind. Nineteenth century experiments with commemoration suggest that enabling communities to construct their own memories helps them to be more meaningful and more enduring.

Because governments are responsible for sending armies to war, they have a duty to ensure that military engagements are legitimate and that any losses, however tragic, can be justified. In commemorating wars, they seek to honour the sacrifices made by soldiers on behalf of the nation. The task of the historian is different. Their role does not require them to construct politicised national narratives or to perpetuate a national identity. In seeking to explore the complexities of historical developments, historians are engaged in a quite different activity to remembrance and commemoration. Critically analysing why and how a war was conducted does not necessarily conflict with commemorating the sacrifices of those who fought and died in it. Indeed, in his response to Gove’s criticism of his work, Richard Evans refutes the claims that he attacked ‘the very idea of honouring their [soldiers’] sacrifice as an exercise in “tub-thumping jingoism”’, pointing out that he supports the Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s ‘broad and inclusive’ plans for commemorating the outbreak of the First World War. Politicising and shaping representations of the past are part of the process by which groups and communities construct their own memories of wars. By contrast, historians seek to engage with a variety of perspectives, even if that means drawing what some politicians might consider to be uncomfortable conclusions.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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