Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Greats

with 8 comments

by Bronwen

This week I lectured on ‘The First World War and Africa’.  My students seemed to really enjoy the topic, which isn’t surprising; in a course (African History since 1800) where so much is new to first year undergraduates, the First World War is a topic they know quite a lot about and for which they have an extensive frame of reference.  This is because the First World War is constantly talked about here.  Between high school course work on the causes of World War One, and the pervasive cultural memory – enhanced by Downton Abbey and recent BBC miniseries like Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – students arrive at university with a pretty solid foundation in World War One history.

Obviously, the First World War was pretty devastating to Britain.  Not only did 2.19 per cent of the population die in the war, but over a million and a half servicemen were wounded as well.  Its social and economic impacts in the British and French colonies in Africa were similarly devastating.  Contrast this with America’s 0.13 per cent casualty rate (as a percentage of the population) and its easy to see why this is a topic that has a much greater, more lasting emotional impact here. World War I was the event that catapulted Britain – like it or not – into the modern age. Add to that the historiographical line that has made its way down to the classroom level – the futility and pointlessness of the war – and it becomes clear that all my student essays this term are going to be about the impact of the Great War on Africa.

I think all of this is interesting because, although I feel like I had a really excellent high school history education, and a fantastic undergraduate history education, I arrived in Britain knowing only a few key facts about the First World War: that it had been the first major conflict in which the flame-thrower was used; it gave rise to Egyptian nationalism; and it was a major influence on Hemingway.  My husband was pretty dismayed when I explained that in a lot of American schools, World War I is taught as basically the pre-World War II: the same actors, basically; the same plot-line from an American perspective (we come in late and end the war); and pretty much important (from our perspective) because it lines up the causes of the Second World War.  Obviously this is not the case everywhere in America, and I’m sure that if you chose to focus on this in college, there’s loads of good teaching out there.  But it is possible to come through the American education system without too much emphasis on this conflict.

Despite my explanation, I’m not sure he believed me until we (finally) watched the first season of Boardwalk Empire.  Talking about it afterward, we were commenting that if this had been a story set in Britain at the same time (1920), it would have been all about the war, the changes in society after the war, the crumbling British institutions, etc that are all the fodder for Downton drama [in fact, the first episode of season 2 of Downton drove me nuts a little because they just wouldn’t shut up about the war! even though it was supposed to have been going on for a couple of years by that point!].  Instead, the characters who fought in the war are outsiders, are really not supposed to bring it up, and are even shunned a little for having participated (especially for having volunteered).

In fact, the big cultural shared moment that pushed the US into modernity in the way most like World War I for Americans is the Great Depression, an event that really didn’t affect Britain to the same degree.  For both countries, there’s a heyday for the wealthy before an almost hubristic crash, which brings about more equality and more social programs. A recent piece in the FT Magazine by Gillian Tett points out that the reality of economic austerity is much closer for those in Britain than for those in the US precisely because our big cultural shared memory of austerity in America is over a generation ago, while the memory of the pain Britain felt in the 1970s is still relatively fresh.

Perhaps, following on from Gillian Tett, this all helps to explain both countries’ recent behavior, then.  If the First World War is such a dominant theme in British life and education, maybe that explains their unwillingness to get sucked into the entangling alliances of European politics and finance.  And if the Great Depression is a strong cultural memory in America, perhaps the idea of austerity and life before safety nets, and the pre-modernity it implies, makes the total return to Gilded Age politics distasteful enough to prevent too many cuts.  Here’s hoping, at least.


Written by apini

January 27, 2012 at 08:35

8 Responses

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  1. In France, the national memory of that war is surprisingly weak given the pre-eminence of Western Front battles on French soil! Even in the so-called devastated regions comprising No-Man’s-Land and the occupied area, the general understanding of WWI is minimal. The reason is simple: the memory of WWII now dominates French life. This started with the post-1945 Gaullist Resistance myth, overturned in the 1970s, marking the beginning of what Henri Rousso calls the ‘Vichy Syndrome’ – the obsession with collaboration and the French role in the Holocaust, and the attendant sense of guilt. This syndrome is alive and well today – if you go into a French bookshop, you’ll see shelves filled with books on WWII, and a tiny section on WWI. The fact that many who lived through WWII are still alive no doubt plays a large role in the fixation with this contested period.

    However, the ‘duty to memory’ initially referring to that of WWII has recently been extended to include that of WWI, especially since the 90th anniversaries of 2004 and 2008. The French government has since 2008 officially promoted the teaching of WWI as part of a reconfigured ‘duty to memory’ demonstrating ‘how much the memory of the two World Wars is essential to the construction of a Europe founded on tolerance and peace.’ There’s also been a move to highlight more explicitly the colonial aspect of the war (seemingly because of large North African immigrant populations who might feel less alienated). Finally, as with a lot of history in France, WWI seems to be treated in a very patriotic manner (more so than in the UK) – France won and repelled the invader, French troops were heroes etc – perhaps as a counterpoint to the potentially shameful history of WWII. This is more nuanced than it used to be, however: there’s a wonderful 1972 edition of Larousse’s ‘Histoire de France’ comic series dealing with WWI which is almost embarrassingly patriotic!

    James C

    January 27, 2012 at 10:04

  2. Having recently watched the not-so-ficitonal “Joyeux Noel” (for the 2nd time), and finding it impossible to imagine the same thing happening in WW2, goes some way to explaining why WW1 isn’t dwelled on here. All wars may be to some degree tragically stupid, but WW1 more than most. A ridiculously persistant assassin who should have failed, mobilization timetables as out-of-control as Dr. Strangelove’s Domesday machine, and boneheaded generals throwing lives away over and over in the face of new weapons…there’s nothing to make you feel the war was anything but a mistake. Wilson tried to make it about something worthwhile, retrospectively, but that didn’t work on either side of the Atlantic. Instead, the consequences of the war are even worse (starting with the spread of influenza, which killed more than the war itself). No wonder that we want to just forget it.
    WW2, by contrast, seems horribly necessary and worthwhile. And, just as a story, it moves; it isn’t stuck in muddy trenches for years.


    January 27, 2012 at 13:21

  3. Are you going to discuss W.E.B. Du Bois’ work on the African causes of the War?

    Really interesting post. In Canada, I think we got a pretty solid WW1 education, not in my Jewish high school (where all we learned about was the Balfour Declaration, and the fact that Jews fought on both sides), but in my CEGEP (sort of like non-remedial junior college). Beyond our history class, we also read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in English Lit, which gives you a good sense of the effects of the war in England. I think Canada is really into WW1 because our most famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrae, is a WW1 poem written in 1915.

    I should add that my WW1 education at Harvard was also excellent when taught in the European context. We read All Quiet on the Western Front, which must be one of the greatest books ever written. Also the play “Journey’s End” is Amazing.

    David Weinfeld

    January 27, 2012 at 17:18

  4. David – yeah, that might have made for an interesting discussion. Unfortunately the First World War only gets one week (and our seminar was half writing workshop this week), so I’ll have to save that for next year’s class. But Dubois has been pretty neatly summarized in most accounts of Africa’s role in the war (if not in general histories of the war…..) so they should have picked it up in their readings.

    In general, WW1 seems to get better treatment in former colonies, so I’m not surprised that Canada teaches it well, particularly as the dominions emerge pretty nationally-oriented from the war. As for Harvard….I’m sure it had great teaching on WW1, but my point was more that I went through 4 years there without touching the first world war (with the Egyptian exception mentioned).

    Anyway, it seems like it’d be a good war to study generally because – futile or ill-planned or not – it is so tricky and with such weird consequences that it seems like it’s rife with lessons! (even if lessons aren’t what history’s for…..)

    Bronwen Everill

    January 27, 2012 at 18:17

  5. As an American who has an interest in WWI it has always dismayed me how little reflection or concern we give to that great conflict (see my post here on this topic: which in many ways was more important in terms of giving birth to the modern world than the second world war was. Anyways, great post.

    Christopher Petersen

    January 28, 2012 at 16:02

    • Thanks Christopher! And great post too – your reasoning seems spot on.


      January 29, 2012 at 07:00

  6. I am in sentiment with those preceding me.
    I taught a high school course in 20th Century military and diplomatic history for about 25 years. The more I taught it, the more I believed I needed to immerse the class in the First World War, not the Second. I told them again and again: your grandkids will be studying these two wars as one, with a mere 20-year break in-between to produce more soldiers. The two wars are so closely connected that they simply can’t be pried apart.
    World War I is, to me, THE turning point of human history. None of the developments of modern civilization could curb the insatiable urge to engage in mass slaughter. It blew to pieces the notion that any nation could be safe from some other force any longer. It destroyed the inkling of the perpetually well-developing society, one that could devote itself entirely to the positive elements of human culture. It created dictatorships that, all by themselves (Germany, Soviet Union, China) destroyed tens of millions within their own borders, with two of them getting away with it. It frightened the entire planet with a half-century of cold war, with the nuclear sword hanging above it–and remaining that way now with an even more frighteningly unstable assortment of proliferating countries. It arranged for the hopeful finalization of the state of Israel, but merely set another stage for another ultimate showdown, which reached the United States with devastating consequences to its own pristine, secure society, setting off political polarization and bitter stalemate, as well as a continuation of the xenophobia that immediately followed the Armistice.
    We live with these results still. We disdain the effort to look back. We do so at new peril.

    Mark Cebulski

    January 29, 2012 at 16:13

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