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Memory Notes

History Notes > Further Subject: Comparative History of WWI (1914-19) Notes

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Memory Past Paper Questions: Can a 'collective memory' of the War be achieved?
Was the 'trauma of defeat' more significant than the 'trauma of mass bereavement'?
Did mass casualties blur the distinction between 'winners' and 'losers' in remembering the war?
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------General Considerations: Was memory of the war culturally specific, or even more fragmented - could national or international commemorations truly provide appropriate channels for memory and grief, and to what extent was the unprecedented destruction the predominant memory of war?Collective vs. individual. Memory of war is fundamentally a personal response to an experience, shaped by a plethora of factors such as gender, nationality and personal circumstances. Equally, some aspects of memory transcended nations or individuals and were more of a universal phenomenon.Universal/cultural, collective/individual, how we define victory.

- Collective memory
- Individual
- Victors and defeat

Andrew Motion on the eightieth anniversary of the War: 'memories of the First World War are still endlessly pondered and transformed in the minds of those born long after it ended...Those guns may have fallen silent eighty years ago, but their echoes neither die nor even fade away.' (XI)

How do we understand memory?Petrone sees memory as "an outcome of the relationship between a distinct representation of the past and the full spectrum of symbolic representations available in a given culture." It is "unstable, plastic, synthetic, and repeatedly reshaped," I hope to provide insight into the ever- shifting contours of World War I memory and identify the forces behind its reshaping.


Intersection of collective and individual memory: Maurice Halbwarchs: 'It would seem appropriate to distinguish two memories, one that could be called interior or internal, the other exterior; in other words, a personal memory and a social memory.' o Individual memory crystallises in a social framework, but personal memory maintains unique traces. These can blend with common memory, or resist blending. Collective memory and oblivion, individual memory and oblivion: such is the double tension within which commemorations of the Great War must be understood.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Collective memory - universal loss or cultural specificity?Freud: 'If you want to endure life, prepare for death.' o Paraphrase: If you want to endure life, commemorate death.Jay Winter - 'communities in mourning.' Every social structure in Europe went into mourning for its lost loved ones. Endured loss collectively. Dichotomy with Gregory - universal/cultural.Agents of remembrance serve to link families, civil society, and the state. Did understandings of victory and/or defeat alone do this effectively? Refracted locally, regionally, nationally. Never stable, never fixed. o 'The war provided challenges too heavy for most individuals or families to bear on their own. There were two alternatives open to them: to rely on the state for help; or to create associations which would demand recognition, assistance, and respect for those disabled in the service of the nation.' o Association, almost universally within the cultural sphere, of the war with the loss of youth, of innocence and ideals. Question of success and defeat becomes somewhat marginal, subsumed by a common grief shared by the victors and the vanquished alike.A need to redefine casualties: - is death the only qualifier - what about those who returned dismembered, or suffered from shell shock/male hysteria/can civilians be casualties - those who lost their sons/husbands/brothers/fathers? Or those who returned but felt alienated from society after experiencing the world of the western front - the 'lost generation' - are they a casualty?
o Not just mass casualties - but perhaps every participant on the front line felt like a 'casualty' in some way.Conquerors and conquered often fought and died far from home, thus sharing the same duality. 'Realms of memory' were erected on sites where the men had fought and died as well as on their home territory, at both their collective and individual places of belonging, national and local, public and private, secular and religious. o Different layers - each individual was remembered in his family, his village, his parish and workplace. Also remembered by the state at local and national levels.


Consider Belgium - unique situation, symbiosis between national and local identity. While French monuments are often dedicated to 'la France' or 'la Patrie', underlying linguistic and cultural tensions in B see memorials almost exclusively dedicated to the latter, never 'pour la Belgique.'

A world united by common loss?The omnipresent motif of death and injury in many societies following the huge human sacrifice of the war made grief a common aspect of memory. Winter estimates that nearly every family lost a father, a husband, a son, a brother or a friendAll combatants needed to justify the war and thus to an extent there is an innate conservatism in war memorials as they sought to propagate the righteousness of those values that their citizens had died for. o Encountering death was, Mosse argues, the most basic of war experience, standing at the centre of confrontation and by extension the centre of memory.A need to make sense of what had happened and validate it. 'The memories of those veterans who saw the war as containing positive elements, and not of those who rejected the war, were generally adopted by their nations as true and legitimate - after all, the war had been fought for national glory and national interest.' (6) Such principles were most clearly embodied in the culture of national memory and commemoration, which tended, perhaps naturally, to emphasise not so much the horrors of the war but its purposefulness.

Making sense of commemorationHow did people mourn? For many, the fact that soldiers often died alone, or at least away from their loved ones, was of immeasurable tragedy. It prevented the normal processes that one undergoes in the act of bereavement from being fulfilled. o Denied the process - 'The symbolisation of the dead person is fundamental, by whatever means: a grave, a cenotaph, or something that belonged to the person. The metonymy, in other words, the shift in meaning from the thing contained to the container is essential for mourning: it allows the living to focus their grief on a support that gradually becomes a substitute for the body of the deceased.' o Not everyone was satisfied by such processes - for others, recognising Armistice Day, etc, had no personal resonance birthdays, the anniversary of a loved one's death, etc, were more potent (see Harry Patch). Was communal memory and ritual largely informed by the reassuring logic of the outsider, unable to encompass personal bereavement?
o Idealisation of the dead prolonged the grieving process?
Oover-invested with significance?


Did mourning undermine the cause men fought for? Georges Lecomte, president of the Societe des gens de lettres: 'If we are to be worthy of the valiant Frenchmen whose deaths cause so many tears to flow, grief must not remain sterile.' But to grieve for too long and too intensely was to betray those who fought by calling into question the meaning of their death.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Cultural specificityJ Winter - sites of memory sites of mourning- states explicitly in the comparative work of war, memory, commemoration Britain france and Germany - in the context of mass slaughter, bereavement ideas of victory and defeat don't matter very much - do we buy it?
o Depends on how we think bereavement and grief are operating in society. o Universal loss and suffering did help to define both collective and individual understandings of memory, but these were always in negotiation with a culturally-specific framework that was invariably shaped by victory or defeat o A need to extol the values that mass killing had been committed for: German 'Kultur', British 'Civilisation.' Idealistic victories. Similarly, the defeat of the militaristic German state, and the 'shallow-rooted' regime that rose in its ashes, meant that the memory of defeat became a weapon against those who made the peace, those who betrayed a still-resilient German army. Upshot is: celebration of experience, not purpose/result.

Adrian Gregory: "I would argue that the memory of war was determined by existing predilections in the culture, political, religious and 'communitarian', rather than the other way around. Furthermore I would stress that the memory of the war was not constant and that in fact it was being reshaped by political, diplomatic and economic events during the inter-war period, rather than shaping them."
? Why did memory manifest itself so differently between nations? It could not 'naturally' foster political extremism in Germany and Italy whilst simultaneously encourage political moderation in Britain. Not just victory/defeat - wider causation.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The Allies o


'In the immediate post-war period it was believed that the British soldier had established peace principally by winning.' No-one desired that the values and tenets that their sons and husbands had fought for were futile. Secular patriotism takes on religious dimensions. Robert Kee, writing for the Spectator in 1962, reflected on 'the glare of


national self-congratulation and piety in which the War was officially bathed.' The primary facts laid out for schoolboys were thus: 'We had beaten the Germans. The retreat from Mons had been a wonderful thing. Angels had appeared for us there. We had won the Battle of the Somme. Sir Douglas Haig was a great hero.' Mrs Lloyd George - 'Had we lost the war we would have lost most of the things that make life worth living. But they did not lose. They won for us a complete and lasting victory.'Allies - is commemoration compatible with celebrating victory? A terrible sacrifice, but a purposeful one. Memorials allow scope for social/collective/individual memory to operate alongside each other. Opportunities for individual thought during silence. Existed alongside those views that stressed the war's futility. A sense nonetheless of shared sacrifice. o France - clear sense of pride in their service, defence of the homeland. But not regular soldiers - they are soldier-citizens, fighting for liberalism and democracy. Less problematic in justifying/validating the war. o Differences in perceptions of veterans - British legion gradually builds relationships with German veteran organisations. Can they put enmity behind them? In contrast, French veterans perceived as so vengeful as to be unable to make concessions. o French place this military culture at the centre of memory (more easily established?) war-wounded given priority seating over pregnant women in the 1930s.For the generation lost in the war, an entity was created that perfectly obeyed the classical precepts of tragedy; unity of time, 11th November, unity of place, the war memorial; unity of action, the commemorative ceremony. Everywhere a day of reflection and remembrance. o Everywhere, memorials for the dead were linked to the selfrepresentation of the nation. For those who had experienced defeat, though, the cult of the fallen was more central to understandings of both personal and national regeneration.France and England most enthusiastic about the concept on the unknown soldier. o How did this play out along cultural divides? British tenancy to glorify the conflicts it has engaged in. While the Americans had 'The Unknown Soldier', the British elevate to 'The Unknown Warrior.' Valour and steadfast resolution were remembered as the qualities that defined the English Tommy, even as he lay dead on the field. W. Beach Thomas writing in the Daily Mirror on November 22nd 1916 described the dead English soldier: 'Even as he lies on the field he looks more quietly faithful, more simply steadfast than others.' (Fussell) o Sacredness as immutability - modern technology translated into a spiritualised context, employing medieval images (knights of the sky) and national symbols. German war memorial: soldier

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