Reflections on “Contested Commemorations”, RHS Symposium at the Open University.

On 17 May 2019 the Open University History department hosted a Royal Historical Society symposium to reflect on the centenary of the First World War. Following four years of commemorative activity, our aim with “Contested Commemorations” was to assess how a range of countries and regions had marked the centenary. Vincent Trott reports on a day of  fascinating presentations and lively discussion.

Collective memory of the First World War is mobilised for a range of political ends in various parts of the world. Our goal was to illuminate these contested legacies and provoke further discussion and debate.

The day began with a keynote lecture by Professor Jay Winter (Yale University), who provided a panoramic assessment of the war’s centenary. Winter reminded us that commemorative activity is often driven by commercial concerns, with publishers, film-makers, and television producers, for example, taking the lead. Winter stressed that as academic historians we need to work with these groups to ensure that the conflict is represented appropriately. Winter also denounced the rise of “infotainment” and especially the growing popularity of re-enactment, which he views as a form of “ersatz history”. Winter stressed that we “cannot reconstruct the past” and “cannot be there”; we therefore have “a moral responsibility” to ensure that the war is remembered in a manner that does not trivialise the realities of warfare.

The first panel session addressed the commemoration of the war in Europe. Helen McCartney (King’s College London) discussed the diminishing emphasis on generals in British commemorations of the Great War, arguing that this was a consequence of an increasing focus on the stories of ordinary people. Alison Carroll (Brunel University) then discussed the commemoration of the war in France, focusing especially on the region of Alsace. Men from Alsace fought for Germany during the war, and so commemorations during the interwar years tended to celebrate the return of Alsace to France, rather than the service of veterans. During the centenary, however, there was a greater emphasis on reconciliation, with regional commemorations highlighting Franco-German friendship. Finally, Annika Mombauer (The Open University) discussed remembrance in Germany. Although the First World War has often been overshadowed by its successor in German popular memory, the centenary sparked popular interest in the conflict, with books about the war selling in large numbers. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (2013), for example, was enormously successful, partly because it downplayed German culpability for the outbreak of the conflict.

The afternoon panel addressed the memory of the war in Africa and Asia. John Slight (The Open University) focused on the Middle East, illustrating why the war’s legacy remains controversial across the region. Islamic State militants, for instance, have been motivated by a desire to overturn the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement, whilst the Armenian genocide triggered renewed controversy, not least because of the Turkish government’s continued refusal to recognise the event. Slight was followed by Santanu Das (Oxford University), who discussed the memory of the war in South Asia and especially within the United Kingdom’s South Asian communities. Das lamented that efforts to mark the service of colonial soldiers in Britain have often had a “celebratory” character, glorifying military endeavour “under the guise of multiculturalism”.  In this panel’s final paper, Anne Samson (Independent) discussed the commemoration of Africa’s Great War. Samson argued that many of the war’s African sideshows continue to be overlooked, whilst the considerable racial diversity of soldiers from across the continent is often underappreciated. Samson stressed, however, that valuable research is being conducted on Africa in the Great War, though much of this is taking place outside the academy and deserves greater recognition.

In the final presentation of the day, Laura Clouting (IWM) discussed the Imperial War Museum’s efforts to mark the centenary, with a particular focus on the redesign of the museum’s First World War galleries. Clouting stressed that whilst the museum had an important educational role to play, its curators were keen not to overload the public with information; they did not want the exhibition to be “a book on the wall”, and so focused instead on the human stories behind the objects in their collections. Ultimately, the museum’s staff wanted to provoke discussion but did not want to tell the public how to remember the war.

The event concluded with a roundtable discussion featuring all of the speakers. Many of the war’s contested legacies were reflected in the robust debate that ensued. The panellists had conflicting views on a range of issues, debating, among other topics, the commemorative role of museums and the merits of digital technologies. The entire event was also marked by lively audience participation. Around 50 people attended in person, with another 150 tuning in throughout the day to watch a livestream of the symposium.

A full recording of the event is available to view here: http://stadium.open.ac.uk/stadia/preview.php?s=1&whichevent=3263&option=both&record=0

Vincent Trott is Lecturer in History at The Open University, and author of Publishers, Readers and The Great War: Literature and Memory since 1918 (Bloomsbury, 2017).