National histories of world wars?

Vanda Wilcox provides a report on those parts of the Dublin conference I missed – and challenges us to think about national histories and the First World War…

I wanted to report on the Saturday evening debate, and consider some of the most interesting points which were raised and which merit further discussion. This ‘Round Table’ session was organised as a debate on the theme ‘Are national histories of the war redundant?’ Many of the themes which were discussed (sometimes heatedly!) in this debate had already begun to emerge in earlier panels, as Dan has outlined. The evening session was a great opportunity to pull some of these ideas together, and begin to think about prospectives for the future.

John Horne, chairing the session, suggested 3 initial questions to consider: firstly, the relevance of national frameworks within a broader study of the war; secondly the type and nature of trans-national themes; and finally the role of sub-national communities of various kinds. Annette Becker spoke firmly in favour of trans-national and comparative history, asserting that the chief function of national perspectives was to enable trans-national dialectic which was the most important approach to the war. The speakers largely agreed on the need to create an integrated and comparative European framework for the war. Of course, the conference as a whole has shown how fruitful this approach is: but it is notable that comparative perspectives have been initiated and are still strongest amongst cultural & social historians. Is this simply that military historians have lagged behind (or are grumpy old nationalists?!) or rather, as Gerhard Hirschfeld pointed out, a genuine reflection of the differences between disciplines? That is, are there fewer common trans-national themes in military and political history than in the cultural and social sphere? If so, military history risks being left behind in the quest for comparative history.

The problems of comparative history are of course practical as well as intellectual. Gerd Krumeich raised the problem of linguistic isolation; my own observation was that whilst the debate flowed relatively easily from English to French to German and back, those of us working on ‘minor’ countries aren’t quite so included in this multilingual dialogue. How many people from the Anglophone world are working with materials in Russian, Turkish, Italian, Romanian or Flemish? If Jovana Knežević had wanted to discuss her sources in the original Serbian, how trans-national would everyone be feeling then? In a sense, comparative and trans-national histories are a bit of luxury for those working away from the ‘big three.’ Even the United States lags behind, as Jennifer Keene noted. And it’s not just about languages: historians are inevitably the product of their national historiographies, to some extent. These observations suggest that rather than expecting individuals to conduct comparative work alone, we should be encouraging more collaborative projects.

Another point raised in the debate was the role of public history. The recent debate on the International Society for First World War Studies’ mailing list over Adam Thorpe’s article in The Guardian was an excellent example of the differing views professional historians hold over the interaction with popular views and assumptions. Of course, as we had discussed at Dan’s colloquium in June, the (probable!) increase in public interest as the centenary approaches make these issues all the more pertinent. Alex Watson made a vigorous defence of national history on precisely these grounds: if dialogue with the public is an essential duty of the professional historian, then we must meet the public’s demand for national histories. The First World War is a part of what Dennis Showalter termed the ‘mythic identity’ of France and Britain, despite the efforts of the academic community to create a European history of the war, and the popular need to create meaning and understanding requires our participation.

Of course even the terms of this debate need interrogation. Jennifer Keene pointed out that if it is a world war, then we must write not a European history but a global one. More importantly the very idea of national history is not unproblematic in this context: the combatant states were not fully unified nations. Scottish and Welsh experiences, to say nothing of Ireland, must be included in any British national history; Germany and Italy were both newly created states; Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey were all Empires; even in France regional identities and divisions undermined unity (consider Brittany or the Basque country). Keith Jeffreys, in making this point, asked us to challenge the very concept of nations, especially when dealing with an event which both built and destroyed them.

One of the most interesting observations in the debate came from Heather Jones who pointed out since popular memory has operated nationally, it is the national aspects of wartime experience which have been most studied by historians also – even when working comparatively. Those dimensions of the war which are most truly international or trans-national have disappeared into historiographical black holes. These include the experiences of occupation, of prisoners of war and refugees – all, as Dan has pointed out, new areas which have recently begun to receive attention. This seems like the most convincing evidence that we are moving away from a narrow national perspective. That said, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to dispense with national histories of the war experience.

So: the challenge for us as historians is to find ways to integrate the national and the trans-national both practically and intellectually. It would be nice to think that practical limitations don’t wholly determine academic approaches. But in considering the way forward we also have to ask ourselves the tricky question: what’s it all for?


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