Monday, November 12, 2018

The end of the First World War?

I'm glad the war is over.  Meaning no disrespect, but I found the Remembrance Day that marked the end of four years of the First World War centenary a bit of a relief. Canada's centenary observances since 2014 have been impressive and often moving, and they probably reached wider than I might have guessed four years ago. But I think we are getting ready to let the First World War pass into history, to become like the Napoleonic Wars or some other distant conflict: interesting, full of drama and event and historical significance, but capable of being considered a bit less personally now.

The First World War did leave an enormous shadow over the 20th century. And new media and the digitalization of old sources have recently made it possible for almost anyone to immerse themselves in the specific details of the life and service of practically any soldier of the Great War, and even his or her family and community too.

But it should be growing remote. The Civil War remains a live issue in the United States after more than 150 years, but that's because its driving issue, race, remains alive. Some Serbians, I hear, continue to obsess about some medieval battle their ancestors lost in what is now Kosovo. But what issue of the First World War remains live today? Grief alone seems not enough any more. The orphans of the war are now few, the loss and devastation becoming distant, the grief less personal. Maybe we can start to let it go.

I happened to be reading Toby's Room, a recent novel by British Booker Prize winning novelist Pat Barker, much of whose writing concerns the First World War.  And I began to find the endless fascination with the war dead of 1914-18... just maybe a bit much. Toby has been dead a long time.

Can we start to leave the First World War to its historians?

Update, November 13:  Pushback from Helen Webberley in Auz:
Au contraire. I think the lessons of the War To End All Wars are
probably more relevant now than at any time since 1933-45. Today
we have national leaders using the same language of hate and racism
as they did in 1914 - Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil, Donald Trump in
the USA, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Matteo Salvini in
Italy (currently Interior Minister), Viktor Orbán in Hungary etc etc.
And Alan B. McCollough:
I have attended most Remembrance Day ceremonies at the War Memorial in Ottawa since the mid-70s. During the 1980s and 1990s there were often anti-war protestors there; sometimes they were noisy but generally the crowd accepted their presence without showing much support. Since 9-11 I have not seen protestors and the numbers in attendance have, in my opinion, grown. The crowd this year was as large as any I remember.

I have no close link to the war although my mother had a cousin who was killed in France in the first war and my father was in the air force in the second war. I attend partly as a matter of respect and partly as a sort of civic duty like voting in election even when I don’t care for any of the candidates. Attending is an act of solidarity.

The protesters in the 1980s saw the ceremony as a glorification of war. For some it may have been but increasingly the emphasis has been on remembering the human costs of the war and strengthening the sentiment “Never Again.”

You ask “But what issue of the First World War remains live today?” In the recent ceremonies in Paris President Macron spoke of the rise of nationalism in Europe as the reawakening of old demons. The European Union was, and is, an attempt to neutralize the effects of nationalism and prevent general European wars. So far it has been successful but allowing the memory of the war to drop out of the public consciousness does not seem likely to strengthen the EU or to reduce the dangers of chauvinistic nationalism.

I won’t leave the war to historians just yet.
Fair enough. But I think of the Second World War as being better "for thinking with" when it comes to these issues.  Was not the First World War mostly about loyalties to monarchies and empires, often transnational?  I know, its's complicated.
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