Politics and Public History in Europe’s WWI Centenary

Plastic red poppies with a photograph of a soldier.
Remembrance Day Poppies. Photo © 2007 Benoit Aubry. Creative Commons BY 3.0 License.

The year 2014 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. With some European governments planning major commemorations, the centennial is full of opportunity for public historians — but how should we remember a devastating war of nationalist passions in today’s supposedly “transnational” age? While the animosities of World War I may seem a world away from today’s European Union, the anniversary has exposed continued divisions over how to publicly remember the “Great War” a century later, revealing the close ties between historical memory and contemporary politics.

While each country in Europe has a different plan to mark the centenary of World War I, perhaps the starkest division is between Germany and the UK. While Germany plans to quietly participate in a few international commemorations, Britain is preparing for a nationwide series of patriotic events and exhibits. These differences reflect not only the different results of the war for each country, but also their divergent contemporary views on European policy.

In Germany, where defeat in World War I is seen as a prelude to the devastation of World War II, preparations for the centennial have been so small as to surprise some historians. Young Germans are curious about the war and the debate over German responsibility for its outbreak, but compared to later events, World War I plays little role in Germany’s contemporary national consciousness. With Germany now a leading advocate and beneficiary of the EU and the Euro currency, the government appears eager to avoid stirring dormant national divisions, and it has planned few commemorations beyond international meetings. Those events, such as an August 3 visit in Alsace between German President Joachim Gauck and French president François Hollande, will focus on shared remembrance and emphasize the achievement of European unity.

War Memorial at Hartmannswillerkopf
The French War Memorial at Hartmannswillerkopf, Alsace.
© 2011 Flickr user abac077. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 License.

The UK, by contrast, has earmarked over £50 million for a national commemoration of World War I. Among other things, the money is funding new exhibits at the Imperial War Museum and class trips for schoolchildren to visit battlefields. These commemorations have taken on a patriotic tone, emphasizing the heroism of British troops and the war’s role in building modern British identity. This focus fits not only with Britain’s victory in the conflict, but also with its ongoing skepticism towards international cooperation in Europe, including its rejection of the Euro currency and other EU initiatives.

Discussing Britain’s centenary plans, UK Education Secretary Michael Gove recently wrote “The Government wants to give young people from every community the chance to learn about the heroism, and sacrifice, of our great-grandparents.” Gove criticized “Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders,” arguing that World War I should be remembered as a “just war” to defend “Britain’s special tradition of liberty.”

Not all Britons have agreed with Gove’s rhetoric. In light of BBC productions emphasizing, for example, that nine out of ten British soldiers survived the war and that anti-war poetry has “distorted” historical perception, some critics have accused Britain’s Conservative Party government of trying to rehabilitate the war’s image to support a hawkish contemporary foreign policy agenda. British peace activists have organized a “No Glory” campaign to counter what they perceive as their country’s dangerously celebratory approach to the war’s anniversary.

German newspaper Der Spiegel has similarly reacted to the UK’s commemoration plan by stating that “A response of this nature would be unthinkable in pacifist Germany.” Indeed, official nationalism in Germany can still call to mind the horrors of World War II that Germany has long sought to overcome. The German emphasis on shared commemoration is far from disinterested, however. Germany has prospered through the era of European integration, even profiting from the Eurozone crisis that brought economic stagnation and cuts to social programs in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Ireland. Given these inequities, Germany has a strong interest in using WWI commemorations to defend European integration against the resurgent nationalist critiques long championed by Britain.

Germany and the UK, of course, cannot represent the whole spectrum of European perspectives on World War I, but they are a clear example of the close relationship between public history and present politics. Given the ways that politics are rooted in histories and histories shaped by politics, these connections can never be disentangled. Nevertheless, as commemorations unfold in Europe and, eventually, the United States, it will be up to public historians to determine whether commemorative history merely reinforces current political ideologies, or whether it can provoke the public to interrogate widespread ideologies and gain a richer perspective on present political debates.

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7 thoughts on “Politics and Public History in Europe’s WWI Centenary

  1. Josh, this is a really interesting distinction between Germany and the UK. It left me thinking, as you mentioned at the end, how other countries in Europe are planning to commemorate the event, and if any countries, particularly those with more socialist identities, are trying to use a transnational approach.

    On another note, it also had me thinking about something that I read in British Atlantic History (I think it was written by David Armitage in his The British Atlantic World). He said that, for Britain, the English channel was always bigger than the Atlantic Ocean, suggesting that the UK had a long history of trying to distance itself from Europe politically. That reminded me of this nationalist approach to commemoration. Great piece.

  2. Thanks Josh for your post! I am glad to hear back from you. It is truly amusing that “9 out of 10” British soldiers survived… without limbs or sight. The battle for memory it has always been viciously fought for those groups competing for hegemony in the official or/and the popular discourse. And downplaying the psychological impact of the war in Britain is rather obscene. But I guess there has always been chauvinism to set the record “straight.” Finally, the relationship between the Brits and the Huns has been of superiority from the former towards the latter. If you ever witness an informal dialogue between an English and a German, the “but we won the war” would undoubtably come up. I also agree with Devin, the British have never felt very European, so it would be rather more interesting to see the evolution of German-French relations.

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