Writing the History of the Great War
An Exclusive Excerpt from The Cambridge History of the First World War
Understanding The Great War today, a century after it began, remains a challenge for historians. In his general introduction to the three-volume Cambridge History of the First World War, Jay Winter describes the way scholars understand the war as it recedes further into our global past.
Writing history is always a dialogue. When historians put pen to paper, they carry with them the accumulated interpretations their colleagues have developed over time. Frequently, it is against the grain of these interpretations, in opposition to them, in exasperation with them, that historians decide to write. To be sure, there are many occasions when historians concur with their colleagues or draw their attention to previously untapped sources on matters of common interest. But most of the time historians argue, make objections, and present through their writing a portrait of the past different from those available in print.
This is true both within a generation of historians and between generations. Today’s scholars engage with colleagues still at work, and they do so dialogically. The critical point, though, it that the dialogue is also with those historians in the past whose works still inspire reflection, confirmation, elaboration and, on occasion, refutation. We historians are part of a very long engagement with the Great War, an engagement that will continue long after we cease to practise our profession.
The dialogic nature of historical practice therefore makes it necessary to place one generation’s thinking about the Great War alongside those of early generations. And we are now the fourth generation of historians who have approached the history of the war of 1914–18.
There were still scholars who insisted that the Great War was a noble cause. But there were others who came to portray the Great War as a futile exercise, a tragedy, a stupid, horrendous waste of lives.
There have been three earlier generations of writing to which current scholars refer, sometimes explicitly, most times, implicitly. The first was what I will term ‘the Great War generation’. These were scholars, former soldiers and public officials who had direct knowledge of the war either through their own military service or through alternative service to their country’s war effort. They wrote history from the top down, by and large through direct experience of the events they described. The central actor portrayed in these books was the state, either in its dirigiste forms at home or at the front. The most voluminous of these efforts was the 133-book effort to write the economic and social history of the war, sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Most of these tomes were penned by men who helped run the war or who had to deal with its aftershocks.
This first generation was also composed of men whose memoirs went over the ground again for evident purposes of self-justification. This took many forms, from books by generals and cabinet ministers about their contributions to victory, to exculpatory reminiscences about those trying to evade responsibility for defeat. There were also official histories, many of which were written by former soldiers for the benefit of the various national staff colleges, trying one at a time to frame ‘lessons’ for the future. These works were frequently highly technical and so detailed that they took decades to appear. The delay diminished their significance for planning the next war in more efficient ways.
The second generation may be termed the generation ‘fifty years on’. This group of historians wrote in the late 1950s and 1960s, and wrote not only the history of politics and decision-making at the top, but also the history of society, defined as the history of social structures and social movements. Of course the two kinds of history, political and social, went together, but they were braided together in different ways than in the interwar years. Many of these scholars had the benefit of sources unknown or unavailable before the Second World War. The ‘fifty year rule’ enabling scholars to consult state papers meant that all kinds of documents could be exploited by those writing in the 1960s, which threw new light on the history of the war.
In the 1960s, there was much more use of film and visual evidence than in the first generation, though in the interwar years battlefield guides and collections of photographs of devastation and weaponry were produced in abundance. After the Second World War, the age of television history began, and attracted an audience to historical narratives greater than ever before. This became evident in the size of the audience for new and powerful television documentaries about the war. In 1964 the BBC launched its second channel with the monumental twenty-six-part history of the war, exhaustively researched in film archives and vetted by an impressive group of military historians. Many of the millions of people who saw this series had lived through the war. In 1964, the young men who had fought and survived were mostly above the age of seventy, but what made the series a major cultural event was that the families of the survivors, and of those who did not come back, integrated these war stories into their own family narratives. The Great War thus escaped from the academy into the much more lucrative and populous field of public history, represented by museums, special exhibitions, films and now television. By the 1960s, the Imperial War Museum in London had surpassed many other sites as the premier destination of visitors to London. It remains to this day a major attraction in the capital, just as does the Australian War Memorial, an equally impressive museum and site of remembrance in the Australian capital, Canberra.
There was more than a little nostalgia in the celebration by survivors of ‘fifty years on’. By 1964, the European world that went to war in 1914 no longer existed. All the major imperial powers that joined the struggle had been radically transformed. The British Empire was a thing of the past; so was Algérie française, and the French mission civilisatrice in Africa and South Asia. The German Empire was gone, and so were most of its eastern territories, ceded to Poland and Russia after 1945. Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia were small independent states. And while the Soviet Union resembled Tsarist Russia in some respects, these continuities were dwarfed by the massive transformation of Soviet society since 1917.
The nostalgia of 1964 was, therefore, for a world which had fallen apart in the Great War. For many people, the blemishes and ugliness of much of that world were hidden by a kind of sepia-toned reverence for the days before the conflict. ‘Never such innocence, / Never before or since’, wrote Philip Larkin in a poem whose title referred not to 1914, but to the more archaic ‘MCMXIV’. This poem was published in 1964.
In much historical writing, as much as in historical documentaries, the dramatic tension derived from juxtaposing this set of pre-lapsarian images with the devastation and horror of the Western Front, and with the sense of decline, a loss of greatness, which marked the post-1945 decades in Britain and beyond. Whatever was wrong with the world seemed to be linked to 1914, to the time when a multitude of decent men went off to fight one war and wound up fighting a much more terrible one.
The nostalgia of 1964 was, therefore, for a world which had fallen apart in the Great War.
Decencies were betrayed, some argued, by a blind elite prepared to sacrifice the lives of the masses for vapid generalisations like ‘glory’ or ‘honour’. This populist strain may be detected in much writing about the war in the 1960s, and in the study of social movements which arose out of it. The fiftieth anniversary of the Gallipoli landing provoked a surge of interest in the Great War in Australia and New Zealand, where the loss of the battle was eclipsed by the birth of these two nations. Similarly heroic were narratives of the Bolshevik Revolution, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 1967. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many scholars told us much more about the history of labour, of women, of ordinary people during the conflict than had scholars working in the interwar years.
The third generation may be termed the ‘Vietnam generation’. Its practitioners started writing in the 1970s and 1980s, when a general reaction against military adventures like the war in Vietnam took place in Britain and Europe as well as in the United States. This was also the period in Europe when public opinion turned against the nuclear deterrent, and when the 1973 Middle Eastern war had dangerous effects on the economies of the developed world. The glow of the ‘just war’ of 1939–45 had faded, and a new generation was more open to a view that war was a catastrophe to both winners and losers alike.
This was the environment in which darker histories of the Great War emerged. There were still scholars who insisted that the Great War was a noble cause, won by those who had right on their side. But there were others who came to portray the Great War as a futile exercise, a tragedy, a stupid, horrendous waste of lives, producing nothing of great value aside from the ordinary decencies and dignities thrown away by blind and arrogant leaders.