Historical Memory

The Month of November in general is a time of historical memory in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world.  Remembrance Day(or Veterans Day in the US, Armistice Day in several other places) was a day commemorating the end of the first World War, and the War Dead.  It’s historical creation emerged in the British Commonwealth in response to both the need to have some sort of memorial for the unprecedented scope of the War dead, and for political reasons.  Over time, the Historical memory surrounding the events creation, it’s purpose, and it’s scope has changed.

I had started to think about historical memory in various ways, and in so doing reflected on the ways that historical memory changes, and how it relates to continued modern expressions of ‘memory’.  Remembrance day is the most obvious, but it is also the 25th anniversary of the fall of the berlin wall.  Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  It seems a fitting time to contemplate how historical memory is formed, how it is passed from generation to generation, how it mutates, and how it is used.

Growing up I was struck with the significant of Remembrance day.  It was a solemn occasion in public schools across southern Ontario, and both my Grandfathers were WWII Veterans, my one grandmother an English nurse and War-bride in the conflict.  My other grand-mother was a key contributor and member of the Royal Canadian Legion, and it provided an epicenter for her social life, right up until her death.  Yet while these things were known to me as a child, when we were given historical lectures and presentations, there were elements of them that were discordant, and as I grew, I think it was only in adulthood, my grandparents slowly departing one by one, that I came to understand the history of events, the way these events had occurred, and how they had shaped my Grandparents world, and in turn mine.

The war that started Remembrance Day was the Great War, about which, until University, I knew little, and which I suspect, very few people know much about.  The Great war has struggled out of memory, over-shadowed by the Second World War, with it’s ‘epic’ narrative and the Baby-boomers obsession with their parents victories and battles; the ‘Greatest’ Generation.  It was a war fought for deeply problematic reasons, mostly over conflict of Empire and Nationalism.  It doesn’t have a clear good-guy or bad-guy.  Suggesting the Germans, Austrio-Hungarians and so forth were the Villains of the conflict requires you to ignore the actual historical circumstances at the time.  It requires you to ignore, for example, the horrors visited upon the Russian peasantry, the Russian state existing in a nearly feudal state even as it joined the ‘Allies’ of that conflict.  Situations so dire they contributed quite directly to the overthrow of the Czar and the emergence of the Soviet Government.  You have to ignore the way nationalism was exploited in some instances for military gain, and violently suppressed in others.  For Germany the war was a disaster, but was it any less of one for Britain’s Arab Allies?  Claims of independence in their ears, only to discover their home-lands carved up between victorious powers?  It certainly wasn’t a victory for China, whose nascent republican government contributed thousands of men to dig trenches and engage in other menial tasks, but who found there reward was the further appropriation of land to imperial powers, the ascendent Japan not the least among them.  In so many ways, World War One serves as the pivot point of the next century of history, and so little of our present day history can be understood without it.  Yet our memory of it is so localized and limited.  To men in trenches.  Written words send home.  The War has been localized as the tragedy of young men at war, without consideration for why those young men were there in the first place, or what exactly they were doing.  Nor, save for a few examples such as the Christmas truce, of considerations of the young men for the other side who were in similar situations.  This is not universal.  There are states were the considerations on the horrors of war do revolves around such sentiments, but not so, I feel, in North America.

World War two sits so much higher in our memories and thoughts of war, so much so I think people often confuse their images and imaginings between the two.  In both Germany serves as the Bad-guy, in the later as the archetypal bad-guy.  It is even more taboo to consider the day to day realities of the German Soldier from the second World War, or why Nazi Germany served as a font for hopes and dreams for so many.  We select the elements of that history we care to remember, erasing that we don’t.  No thought for Japanese soldiers shot after surrendering to American troops.  None to the displaced Germans who were essentially ethnically cleansed out of various territories in the aftermath of the conflict.  It’s not only the ‘crimes’ of our side we forget, but even the contexts of the times.  How many recall of World War I the war resistors, such as the American Socialist Eugene Debs, winning a seat in Congress from a prison cell after he was convicted of ‘interfering’ with the draft by vocally opposing it.  Or the coordinated efforts to prevent strikes during the second world war, one that involved the collusion of various political organizations, many of which would be targeted afterward during the McCarthy era.

Historical memory is shaped by education, by inference, and most importantly by the stories we tell ourselves.  Margeret MacMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History talks in depth about the various ways governments, people and other actors utilize history is ways both noble and horrible.  She talks about the way we construct narratives about our past, about the past of identities we have created and ignore contrasting information, or the potential for conflicting narratives.  How we strives often for easy heroes, and easy villains.  I think that is why World War One has become so lost, so out of focus.  We want a war that tells us an easy story.  That we fought for freedom and good against an adversary that fought for evil.  What aligns with the story is remembered, what doesn’t, is forgotten.


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