Commemorating the First World War: A delicate balancing act

Last week the media and Twitter were full of news about the impending centenary of the start of the First World War – including images of exhibits and, yes, ‘reenactors’. When I saw what I believed to be ‘yet another WWI image’ I was just about to switch off mentally, when with a start I realised that this was actually an image from a current conflict.


That I suppose will be one danger of the four year commemorative programme planned across the UK [1] – that people will become inundated with and subsequently inured to images of WWI and other conflicts, that they will dismiss what is happening now due to a flood of information about what happened 100 years ago.


I am not suggesting that we should let this centenary pass without notice. I like the idea of Lights Out, for example – although I would prefer it to be an international intitiative. Nalini Malani’s visual arts project In Search Of Vanished Blood, to take place in Edinburgh on 4 August, also sounds promisingly powerful and thought-provoking.


But to some degree I share the apprehension expressed last week by this commentator in The Guardian over ‘the story we are about to be told’, and for the very same reasons. Not unexpectedly, as a native German I am uncomfortable with the British undertones of heroes and sacrifice, and a war that ‘brought freedom’ – particularly in a modern world that now more than ever in my lifetime feels ripped apart by conflict and suffering. I am deeply concerned by the political pressures brought to bear on our interpretive practice, with a Prime Minister making the commemorations a ‘personal priority’ and declaring them a ‘matter of the heart’ [2]. At what point are we crossing the line to that oft-criticised (mis-)use of heritage for political ends?


A few weeks ago I blogged about the moral obligation of interpretation, and this comes to mind again now. Interpretation of the First World War cannot simply be about ‘relating’ the experiences of people of the time, civil or military. This should not be about ‘understanding’ the First World War, and especially not just about understanding Britain in the First World War – a suggestion that seems untenable anyway with regard to an event as complex and traumatic as a conflict that burnt a path of destruction around the globe and through our societies.


In some ways, I think I am worried about the narrowly historical focus of the initiatives that I’ve come across – see the examples of projects that can get funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘First World War – then and now’ grants programme. It has always seemed to me that treated in isolation, history can often do more harm than good – certainly when talking about war. History can trap us in circuitous debates about who was wrong and who was right, and what the ultimate outcome was. Most importantly, it can bury our awareness of what matters now under piles of facts that were true then, and distort how we relate to others in the present [3].


I am hoping for initiatives that don’t simply respond to the call for researching the ‘local angle’ of the First World War. I hope we’ll see more than restored war memorials and carefully reconstructed lives of those listed on them. I hope we’ll see exhibitions and events that show all the stories, from all sides, including those that challenge the popular, established national narrative. I hope we’ll see exhibitions that look at the suffering in war globally, then and now, and the inevitable injustice of it, and that raise the questions we ask ourselves of the conflicts of our own times. I hope that opportunities will be created that facilitate us experiencing, and contributing to the joy of humanity in its diversity and its capacity for peace. If all we’ll get is a review of what happened during the First World War, I feel this will have been a missed opportunity to transcend the wrongs of the past, and to really do something that has a positive impact on our present.



[1] The UK Government made over £50 Mio available for various projects and funding streams, including HLF’s. Last week, the new WWI galleries at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London opened, and already across the country, local research initiatives and exhibitions are taking place. This is set to continue over the next four years. You can get more information about the Government’s plans here.

[2] For my non-British readers these articles on Jon Snow’s recurring confrontation about his not wearing a poppy might be illuminating of just how emotional this is in Britain: in 2006 and 2010.

[3] I would also question here the validity of suggestions that we can ‘show’ how the First World War is relevant to our lives today – this assumes that history is a direct and somehow predetermined sequence of events from then to now. Many changes that took place after WWI might have taken places anyway; many other changes have long since been overtaken by more changes that have nothing to do with the war. More importantly perhaps, there are far more relevant events that have taken place recently, or that are in fact taking place right this minute.  We need to pay attention to those.

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