Third World Resurgence, Penang June 2014
War has particularly strange psychological effects on those who commemorate it. For most of my life, it was axiomatic that the First World War represented a shameful squandering of human life; not in a theoretical way, but in the deaths, maimed bodies and mental scars of family members. Many women, too, amputated of husbands and fiancés, spent diminished lives in the shadow of the conflict that had robbed them of everything. Our next-door neighbour (in Palmerston Road, an aptly-named imperial thoroughfare) kept for a lifetime the wasting trousseau which had been prepared for the day which was annulled when her future husband was killed in the last days of the war. In her seventies, she gave my mother some of the items that were to have been her dower – some lace pillow-cases, sheets marked with iron-mould, soap that still lathered after half a century, and table-cloths, lovingly embroidered by herself with multi-coloured daisies, in the long watchful nights of an absence prolonged for ever.
The desolation of that conflict remained, even when the event had long been overtaken by its grisly successor. And by a strange act of temporal imperialism (its spatial version now being severely circumscribed) there has been a clear urge to assimilate the Second World War with the one that preceded it. It seems that history, far too restless to be confined to the shallow graves to which it is habitually consigned, has risen up to colonise the First World War with its own values and heroic iconography.
The enduring fascination of Britain’s role in the war against Hitler is still overpowering. Films, reconstructions, documentaries, memoirs, fiction, newsreels of the Blitz, evocation of the last time that Britain truly acted with moral conviction (however tardily) continue to draw new generations into a struggle from which there has been little dissent from the accepted narrative. The clearly just war showed this country in such a favourable light that we have re-lived it ever since; casting all new foes, real and imagined, in the role of Hitler – Nasser, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Saddam, Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Ahmedinajad, and now Putin. Perhaps it is the sense of righteousness that is now being projected backwards, so that 1914 – 18 can be shown as a fight for civilisation against barbarism, a war for democracy and freedom; even though at the time of the fighting, democracy was incomplete even in Britain, since the franchise had not yet extended to all adults.
The story that German imperialism had to be stopped would have been more credible if the empires of Britain and France were not so entrenched, and clung to with such tenacity: imperialism in Europe was obviously a different order of domination from that in the spaces of Asia and Africa, where the suppression of lesser peoples, as well as enriching the treasuries of Paris and London, could readily be represented as tutelage for their own good.
But it is not necessarily ‘revisionist historians’ who are to blame for this new version of the First World War. History itself knows nothing of stillness. Convulsive and exigent, it is always in a state of flux, a condition of chronic discontent, begging posterity to re-shape and alter its contours. Perhaps this is how the First World War has morphed into the less equivocal fight against the monstrosity of National Socialism after 1939; so that it now engulfs the more disputed morality of the carnage of 1914-18. We are urged to believe that Britain was bound to enter the war, to prevent the brutal domination of the continent by an aggressive Germany. But the victory of the allies in WW1 actually produced the circumstances in which Germany strove for that cruel distinction. The necessity of World War Two has bled, as it were, through time, to stain 1914 -18 as a necessary and just war, despite the fact that the words ‘never again’ of the repentant belligerents of the earlier conflict were negated less than a generation after they were uttered.
Rehabilitating a contested conflict by covering it with the mantle of one which not only unavoidable but also ideologically principled has been wonderfully effective. We have been so saturated in the past seventy years by the iconography of the brutalities of Nazism and the heroic response of a Britain under aerial bombardment, threat of invasion, suffering great material privations, in response to which all classes and conditions of people united in a common endeavour, that it has proved a relatively simple matter to varnish the earlier war with the colours of a Britain drawn together in the interests of a common – and internationalist – morality.
On balance I prefer to believe the first hand testimonies of the uncles and elders of my childhood; and their stories – involuntarily treading on body-parts and rats in the trenches, under continuous rain and and ankle-deep in mud, broken bodies and minds in a broken landscape, the fear of summary executions of deserters, and their constant longing to be elsewhere, indeed, anywhere else than in the trenches. Of course, they also remembered the solidarity and affection, friendships abbreviated by sudden death; and the survivors, with their sewn-up trouser-legs and coat-sleeves, remained, a tangible reproach, selling matches or singing for halfpence in the town centre even when the Second War was already long finished.
Of course, it doesn’t do to exaggerate. Even the nobility of World War Two was less untainted than it has often been represented. When news of the concentration camps could no longer be concealed in 1943, a reminder that history did not have its only habitation in Europe, came with the Bengal famine; a disaster aggravated by the priority given to feeding the military, so that more than a million died in the heart of the Empire, destined to receive its quietus so soon after the time of bones and ashes.
No doubt when the four years of official memorising are over, the First World War will stand forth, bathed in uncritical adulation, not so much for the real courage and credulity of those who fought it, but for the wisdom and insight of those who directed it to the greater glory of Britain; but it is a pity when commemoration takes precedence over remembering, and the voiceless dead are enlisted in ritual rather than remorse.