The Future of the First World War

It’s now two months since we held The Future of the First World War colloquium, and if it’s not too late, I thought I would finally fulfil my promise on the day to blog up the results.
The only problem there may be is that I was so psyched up with the desperate desire to make the whole thing run smoothly that I may have forgotten to switch to ‘receive’ mode. So when I’ve bashed this into some decent shape, I will send it round to the other participants and ask for their comments.

Format:
A day of discussion between ‘interested practictioners’ of the First World War – mainly academic historians at various levels, but including some workers in other cultural fields: museums, archives, television and film. Four 25 minute papers (more or less) each followed by discussion, then a round table. Many thanks to QMUL, who gave me the opportunity to host the whole thing, provided excellent food and the pleasant (if eventually rather hot) setting. Thanks also to all who came.

Thoughts:
For me,six things stood out
1) the death of the First World War has been greatly exaggerated. Although I realised that the last twenty or so years had seen extensive developments in the field, I think I needed reminding of just how much very high quality research is going on. As John Horne’s paper revealed, much of this has been driven by the boom in the cultural history of the war and is being carried out on a trans-European basis. The result is really to open up the full variety of this huge war to academic eyes – although we might wonder what parts of this will make it into the public sphere. For some idea of the range of topics being explored, have a look at the programme for the upcoming conference in Dublin here.
2) the blurring of boundaries. One of the aspects of this boom in First World War studies that makes me feel most positive is that – although it is often carried out under banners like ‘cultural’, ‘military’, ‘literary’ history – it has become far more standard for students to reach over the boundaries that formerly existed between these disciplines. I don’t think that this is by any means a complete process – it is still far from likely that someone studying the literature of the war would see an extensive knowledge of its military history as a prerequisite – but it is a start. Certainly I got the impression that these various groups are much more likely to talk to each other than in a previous generation – perhaps one positive effect of postmodernism.
3) there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s a big subject area with room for everybody, and in lots of cases what we’re seeing now is still the first mining of the archives, rather than revisionism. I thought that I’d spotted the chance for a grand cross-European project on 1918, but I rather suspect, from his comments, that David Stevenson might have beaten us to it. David would, of course, be the man to pull off what would otherwise be a collaborative project, impossible for any one historian, on his own.
4) the impact of historical fashion and popular cultural concerns on academic study. David’s paper on international history and the First World War pointed out that this was the field that had obsessed the historical profession in the aftermath of the war (how had the catastrophe happened?) The result was that a large quantity of documents were published relatively swiftly, a lot of academic work went in, but that now the field is comparatively quiet. This historical mine has, if not been worked out, then at least had its seams so thoroughly explored that further work doesn’t tempt new scholars. This is at best a half-formed thought, but I think there’s something quite interesting to be done on the ebb and flow of academic interest in a subject area, and the lengths of time and contexts in which different fields of study retain relevance (academic fashion being, I realise, something of a contradiction in terms).
5) Is any of this actually getting out there?
One of the key questions I wanted to ask was whether all these academic developments were having any impact on the public discourse. Here, I think, there’s an interesting point of definition. Is it possible for an interested lay reader/viewer to discover the cutting edge of First World War research – absolutely. I suspect that this is going to get easier as time goes on: not only will recent research be more widely disseminated, but my feeling is that the market effect of the web has been generally positive – the most frequently linked sites, on my own anecdotal experience – are those offering a complex and rich version of the war of which historians can approve.
On the other hand, have all these interesting developments made it into popular and successful TV series (still, I think, the basic mark of whether they are reaching a wide audience)? No, but, as Steve Badsey pointed out in an excellent paper, not necessarily because all TV producers are ignorant commercially obsessed fools. As well as the host of structural issues around turning ‘good’ academic history into ‘good’ TV, the influence of funding bodies and so on, historians have also to shoulder some responsibility. We are either too easily dismissive of ‘public history’ or too easily seduced by its wiles. Few of us are trained in its methods – and those few tend to have gained their training by hard-fought and ill-paid experience. We not only have to recognise the limitations of the various media we want to use, but to think about how we can exploit the advantages they do offer. Quite how to do that is perhaps another matter.
6) What is going to happen around the 100th anniversaries?
The colloquium arose out of faintly remembered debates with Jay Winter about what would happen around the 2014-18. Would the war still be remembered? Would it be slipping over the edge into history rather than memory? Could we see comparisons with other wars/anniversaries. I don’t have a definite answer yet, but the colloquium led me to have the following thoughts:
a) following on from something Steve said, the date to look out for is probably 2017, since that will be the anniversary the American media may want to mark. They’ve got the cash to put on a big production.
b) if historians want to influence the European-wide commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the war, we need to get our act together now: working with public bodies like museums to put together funding bids. That probably means exploring – even deciding – what the war can mean in the 21st century.
c) one key factor in the remembrance of the war in this country has been the family connection. I continue to believe that the scale of involvement and a modern interest in the heritaged past has made the total wars of the 20th century different from their predecessors. My strong suspicion, however, is that by 2014-2018 we will have passed so far from the original event that those familial links will be severely tested. The children and grandchildren of those who fought will have passed away – the potential will be for the emotional connection to have been lost.
d) in Britain and elsewhere, what is taught in schools really matters. This is what lays the groundwork for future fascination and underpins mythology. What do we think is going to happen to the place of the First World War in the History curriculum in our different countries – and to its place in English Lit, in the UK at least?

Enough – I want to get this online and get some responses.

Outcomes
Catherine Merridale and I are going to run a ‘War and Memory’ seminar series on Wednesday afternoons/evenings next year. I’ll be posting more on this as I discuss it with Cathy and set up the details, but I’d appreciate it if those who expressed an interest in a First World War seminar series could get in touch. Can we link these – or at least cross-publicise?
Anybody interested in putting together funding applications for a trans-national, trans-disciplinary project on 1918? Let’s brainstorm.

Regrets, rethinks and apologies.
First, I wish I’d pulled my finger out and got on with this blogging lark earlier. I really hope that someone’s going to get back to me on this, but it was far too long between the conference and setting this up. Next time I run anything like this, I’ll set up a blog thread on it beforehand. I will endeavour to report back on the other conferences I go to this summer – I’ve actually enjoyed having the opportunity to reflect.
Second, it was only as the conference was ongoing that I realised that I had organised a predominantly male set of speakers and commentators. You can take the fact that I hadn’t thought about it either as evidence of my ‘gender-blind’ approach or as a case-study in unconscious prejudice (either mine or the academy’s) as you will. I could have got a set of speakers of equal eminence whilst maintaining a male-female balance (although it would have been harder work, just in terms of my network of people I could ask favours from). Should I have been thinking in those terms? Comments on that much appreciated.
Third, I was disappointed not to get more people from outside the academy. Some of that was happenstance – it was a particularly difficult weeken for some of those I’d expected to come. Some of it may be to do with reputation/gatekeeping: again, thoughts on how to surmount those problems please.
Fourth, I obviousy wished we could have dealt with more subject areas – but time and space were limited. Comments on really glaring omissions will be taken with a smile.

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One Response to The Future of the First World War

  1. gail braybon says:

    I think your “receive” button must have been working pretty well, Dan – perhaps it is on ‘automatic’ – as this looks like a good overview. It was a fascinating, and wide-ranging day, and even though I’ve given up writing about the war myself I found it very enjoyable and thought provoking. This is a reflection of the subject area, and of course of the people you chose. Just 2 comments really – 1) I really can’t see the US being remotely interested in the anniversary of 1917. As we have all discussed, the war has not had as much of an impact as in UK. Why on earth should people there suddenly discover it? 2) yes, it would have been good to have some more women speakers. Firstly, the whole issue of women’s experience and testimony is still very much a live area, and indeed a comparison of the way men’s and women’s experiences are both reported and discussed is a good topic for debate. Secondly, it is always good to see women historians of war NOT talking about gender issues in particular (as women don’t HAVE to write about women).

    One other thought – I’d really like to have heard back from your students present what they were making of things, and how they were approaching the subject -given they will have a different perspective from those who have been writing for a number of years, and who grew up in a different time (personal and historiographical!)

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