The Great War between History and Memory

Draft review for Biography

Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between History and Memory in the 20th Century (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006), 352p, ISBN: 9780300110685, £20.00.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, the interaction between war and culture became a major issue of historical interest. Historians of that century’s great conflicts are now as likely to study representation and imagination as wartime events themselves. The result has been a more complex understanding of how cultures were mobilised, how wars affected individuals and societies over the long term, and how key cultural artefacts were produced and preserved. Jay Winter has been a key figure in this historical movement, from his original work on socialism and the First World War, through a groundbreaking study of the war’s demographic impact on Britain, through to more recent works on the ways in which it was remembered. His self-evident passion, his breadth of reference and his intellectual originality, have served to inspire a legion of graduate students (myself amongst them). Rather like, in an earlier age, Basil Liddell Hart, Winter is now at the centre of his own world wide web, formed from his interactions with experts, opponents, colleagues and students. He has also fulfilled a more public role, communicating historical shifts to a broader audience, through his work with Blaine Baggett on the 1996 television series 1914-18: The Great War and the Making of the Twentieth Century and his part in the creation of the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne, France. The variety of those with whom he has come into contact and the eminence he has achieved have given Winter opportunity and time to think extraordinarily deeply about history, memory and war. His new book, Remembering War: The Great War between History and Memory in the 20th Century is the result. It focuses on the ‘memory boom’ – the recent exponential growth in interest in memory within and without the academy, which Winter argues is predicated on the need to remember war and its victims. The subtitle has a threefold meaning. The ‘Great War’ is the First World War, from which many trends in ‘modern memory’ emerged; the struggle between the need to remember and the historical inevitability of forgetting; and the battle between the way the past is interpreted by historians and by those who claim possession of it through personal experience or familial connection.

The book consists of four sections. The first discusses the creation of a persistent theme in twentieth century culture. The First World War encouraged a fusion between war and memory: it was the decisive event that turned war into ‘everybody’s business’. Yet at the breadth of traumatic experience also challenged assumptions about memory and identity: hence the popularity of ‘shell-shock’ as an interpretative metaphor. The second section focuses on how memory and remembrance worked at the level of individuals and communities and across nations. Winter examines specific examples of photographs, published letters, reportage and memoir, and war memorials themselves. This section includes a meditation on the difference between British and French intellectual responses to the war that bears out Winter’s later point about comparative cultural history – that in its only realisable form, its function is ‘…to offer insights which enrich rather than displace national histories.’(235) Examining responses to the war in parallel bears out Britain’s fortune in escaping invasion: an escape that made the ironic mode of many British writers that much easier. The section closes with a stimulating discussion of the place of remembrance within the former British Empire. The physical and cultural legacy of post war remembrance persists in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but patterns of immigration and emigration mean that the demography of these countries has profoundly changed. Winter argues that the effect of this has been to decentralise remembrance. The nation that could once remember as one has vanished: the towns, villages and families that always engaged in remembrance activity have found their role increased. Winter is surely correct that historians of remembrance need to pay much more attention than they sometimes do to changing demographics, but his point about decentralisation is suggestive rather than conclusive. It is interesting to contrast this suggestion with recent efforts by the British government to make use of the remembrance of the Second World War as a site for re-establishing national identity and educating young citizens.

The third section of the book examines the representation of war and history – on film, on the television screen, and in museums. It concludes by emphasising the way in which ‘witnessing’ has become crucial not just to how individuals remember and societies construct remembrance, but to the creation of historical authority. Much of this section draws directly on Winter’s own experience as a historical and creative force behind 1914-18 and the Historial. His testimony is important in its own right to any study of how the First World War was represented in Western Europe and America at the end of the twentieth century. His experience provides both the evidential basis and the argumentative force behind the fourth and final section, in which Winter both summarises the problems of the ‘memory boom’ and suggests the ways in which historians should seek to engage with it. There is, perhaps, too little here on the roles that the internet and the world wide web might play in the future of remembrance.

A book that draws on such a range of sources and expertise risks its overall sense of cohesion. This might seem especially the case since Winter emphasises that the particular matters: it is necessary to examine specific examples and understand them in context and depth to figure out how remembrance really works. It is therefore a testament to his abilities as a writer and the organisation of the book that the chapters reinforce each other. Themes such as the role of the witness are revisited from several different angles, with these separate discussions building to a cumulative whole. This is not only a carefully thought out and stimulating, therefore, but also a well-written one. In a field too often dominated by ill-articulated theoretical discussions, Winter picks his way with care and wit.

One of the greatest virtues of this book, as in the introduction to the collection of essays Winter edited with Emmanuel Sivan, War and Remembrance, is the author’s insistence on precision of language. Like love, all too often memory is a word used without thought. ‘One of the greatest problems with the contemporary memory boom is precisely this error. People refer to collective memory or national memory without reflecting on what these terms actually mean.’ (185). Memory is fundamentally an individual process – I can tell you about the complex, plastic, unstable ideas I have developed about my experience, but I cannot pass them onto you like an heirloom. The only moments when ‘collective memory’ might exist occur when events are so startling that individuals immediately compare notes and construct their memories together: assassinations, the outbreak of wars and perhaps their end. Much more often, what happens is collective remembrance – that process in which individuals come together either to share ideas about the past. The remembrance of the two world wars is now less focused on the amelioration of the immediate grief and trauma of conflict, and more concerned with the place of those wars in history. Increasingly, it involves those who did not experience the wars at first hand as well as those who did. Winter terms this ‘historical remembrance’, and he rightly points to the breadth of sources from which those who engage in it will derive their sense of the past. These include films, novels and museums as well as family stories and artefacts. Historians are involved in acts of remembrance when they write and teach, and also in acts of memory, since they inevitably leave traces of their own pasts in their work. History, however, is a distinct subset of remembrance and different entirely from memory. It is distinguished by the rules of research, the use of evidence, peer review and publication. ‘History is not simply memory with footnotes; and memory is not simply history without footnotes.’ (6) Those who take part in remembrance more broadly will often engage with what historians have to say about the past. Sometimes they will incorporate these ideas into their own understanding. At other times they will refute them, on the basis that they conflict with the versions constructed by memory – their own or other peoples’. In these cases, professional historians will seldom be able to convince them of the justice of their case: memory trumps history.

Whilst Winter is tough with those who use terms such as memory loosely when they ought to know better, he writes about those who engage in remembrance activity with sympathy and generosity. Others, including myself, have been inclined to mock the creators of historical theme parks or those who insist that their supposed emotional connection is more accurate for its lack of academic method. Winter is more humane. He does not hide his frustration with the devaluation of ‘history’ – in the age of victimhood and remembrance, we are all historians now – but nor does he allow cynicism to overwhelm him. Despite the considerable financial rewards available to those who exploit the modern passion for package holidays in the imagined past, he insists that most of those engaged in historical remembrance are not in it for the money. Instead, they are motivated by powerful emotions, not least a desire to rehearse versions of familial, local and national pasts which give meaning to their individual presents. As historians, we are fortunate to live at a moment when, whilst our academic audiences are static or declining, the potential popular audience has rapidly expanded. Yet we must fear the disappearance of our work amongst the tidal wave of dross produced under the name ‘history’, but which lacks academic rigour and discernment. Our reaction should not be to withdraw to the ivory tower, however, but to recognise the uses to which history, memory and remembrance are put, and to engage with the popular interest occasioned by the ‘memory boom’. We should aim both to influence it and to understand it. This might mean accepting the limitations of different media for the advantages they bring, or finding ways to recognise professionally those forms of work at which we have not traditionally excelled, particularly the collaborative work so common in other academic subjects.

The concepts and conclusions that Winter draws from his own experiences as a public historian are exciting – and should be required reading for all who seek to engage with wider audiences. He himself acknowledges, however, the fallibility of memory – Winter starts the book with an anecdote about the mistakes made by Leonard Woolf whilst he recalled the formation of the Labour Party during his own doctoral research. Readers will hesitate, therefore, before taking this account of the construction of 1914-18 and the Historial as definitive. In the case of the former, in particular, it would be fascinating to compare Winter’s version with that of his collaborators at the BBC and the Imperial War Museum.

Elsewhere, some of the bolder statements deserve further dissection. When discussing the addition of the names of the Second World War dead to First World War memorials in Britain, Winter suggests a fracture in the language of redemptive sacrifice. The earlier warning ‘Never Again’ had not been heeded, another war had taken place, and memorials could no longer fulfil the same admonitory function. Britain’s memorialisation of the Second World War is an area which remains to be fully explored academically, particularly at the local level. But ‘Never Again’ was resonant precisely because it also encapsulated the supposed abandonment of working class soldiers to the scrapheap of the jobless after 1918. Post-1945, the bargain was fulfilled, with the formation of the Welfare State and a government obsession with maintaining full employment. In the aftermath of German bombing, reconstruction on the Home Front was an issue as it had not been after the First World War. The context within which death was redeemed had changed, as had the meanings that could be constructed, but individuals still sought purpose in the loss of life. Winter knows this as well as anyone: it is to his credit that in attempting to cover such a broad sweep, he leaves so few hostages to fortune.

Winter is strong on the essential contradiction of remembrance: despite all the assertions that the dead will be remembered, the passage of time means they are ultimately destined to be forgotten, and in most cases sooner rather than later. Remembrance always fails. This message might seem downbeat, if realistic. For historians, however, this is ultimately an optimistic book. In the war between ‘history’ and ‘memory’, Winter suggests that by knowing our enemy and seeking to influence it using its own weapons, we might achieve a sort of victory.


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