John F. Jungclaussen, German historian and London correspondent for Die Zeit, provides the background to a WW1 conference at LSE on Friday 3 October, which looks at the long-term global consequences of the Great War.
About a year ago, I told a colleague that for someone like me, a German journalist and historian working in Britain, 2014 was bound to be a fascinating year.
The centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 “would make history come alive and shape the public discourse,” I enthused.
I was right in some respects: the anniversary has prompted a national effort to engage with the past that is probably unique anywhere in the world.
Take the Lives of the First World War project of the Imperial War Museum, where members of the public are invited to put online any information they have about their ancestors’ experiences during the war years.
The aim is to create ‘a permanent digital memory’ to eight million British men and women who contributed to the war effort.
On television the war theme is at least as ‘popular’ as baking and celebrity ballroom dancing.
Local communities everywhere have organised village fetes around it and with exhibitions about life on the home front in numerous stately homes, English Heritage is doing its bit to bring history alive. To be sure, it does that extremely well. So well, in fact, that Britain’s Great War mania is depressingly selective and one-dimensional.
The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan described the conflict as ‘the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century’. He was right. This was a global war of unparalleled scale. Its consequences continue to shape the political reality around the world today. Yet, all Britain remembers is a national catastrophe. 2014 is not really about history. It is about a story. Remembering the past is about reliving the suffering of those who lived through it; a jerky ride on an emotional rollercoaster through the stirring reality of previous generations.
All memories are built carried by emotions, especially the collective memories of a nation. They are the foundation of any national identity. It is 25 years this November since the Berlin Wall came down and as we Germans look back we broadly share a collective narrative dominated by a quiet sense of proud achievement. But this is also the moment to assess the past in the context of the political presence. It would be impossible to remember the collapse of Communism without reflecting on the serious challenges we’re facing today as Russia has recently gone rogue again.
In the same way, Britain’s history is reflected in the grim political reality of the Middle East where several hundred British jihadis have taken up the fight for Islamic State. After the barbaric executions of two American journalists and one British aid worker, the government will most likely send fighter jets to Iraq to support the US, Australia und France with targeted airstrikes against IS.
In a moment like this it would seem inevitable for Britain’s prominent role in the Middle East after 1918 to be part of the national narrative of remembrance. Between 1920 and 1923 the British Empire took control of Iraq and Palestine, while France established mandatory rule in Syria and Lebanon. Modern-day Turkey was created slicing up the ancient region of Kurdistan in the process.
Yet another factor of instability in the region today is the growing determination of the Kurdish people to separate from their homelands in Iraq, Turkey and Syria imposed on them almost a century ago and to establish their own state. This is more than pub-quiz-knowledge; it understands history in order to make informed decisions about the present.
This summer, the government raised the terror threat level to ‘severe’. Legislation in place to ensure national security includes extended police powers to arrest and detain suspects and restrictions on public gatherings.
According to the security services, measures such these have helped to protect the nation in the past. Nonetheless, they challenge some of the principles in a liberal democracy and it is therefore even more important for the electorate to be able to speak truth to power and hold the political establishment to account. At this point history is nothing less than a vital component in the delicate balance of power in liberal societies.
Sentiment and sensation are not just the beacons of Britain’s national history. This year especially, politics is also dominated by emphatically emotive ideas.
When UKIP and some Tory backbenchers make their case for leaving the EU they present no more than a vision of the future. For instance, Nigel Farage promises that Britain would continue to have access to the Common Market, by far the most important market for the British economy. ‘Non’, say senior EU officials; that is not certain at all. UKIP’s response is to belittle the behemoth in Brussels. All Nigel Farage had to do to outmanoeuvre the leaders of the three main parties in Westminster and take the lead in the debate over Europe was to paint an ever more alluring picture of post-Brexit Britain as the land of milk and honey.
The SNP took the same approach in the Scottish independence campaign. Despite the fact that the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour made it absolutely clear that there would be no currency union with the UK, an extraordinary 45% of voters were willing to believe in Alex Salmond’s utopia. In this case disaster was averted, thankfully.
Looking ahead to the next few years of passionate exchanges over the pros and cons of EU membership, the chances are stacked in favour of a very different outcome. Regardless of who wins next year’s general elections, the matter of Europe will only be settled with a referendum in 2017 as promised by David Cameron. Such a vote will confront the British people with the same question their ancestors faced in 1914: to get involved in Europe or not? In the centenary year of the outbreak of World War One, Britain seems too wrapped up in the emotive narrative of the past to be rational about her future.
LSE will host a one-day conference, Trails of the Great War 1914-2014, on Friday 3 October, moving the centenary focus beyond the parochial and broadening the British debate to analyse the long-term global consequences of the Great War and its impact on politics today.
The conference is free and open to the public but registration is required. For details of the program, speakers and registration, click here.
Image depicts World War 1 Memorial, Barras Bridge. Courtesy of Andrew Curtis.
Posted 23 September 2014