Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cultural memory

The First World War had a lasting impact on social memory. It was seen by many in Britain as signalling the end of Victorian England, and across Europe many regarded it as a watershed moment. Historian Samuel Hynes explained:
A generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them. They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance.
This has become the most common perception of the First World War, perpetuated by the art, cinema, poems and stories published subsequently. Films such as All Quiet on the Western FrontPaths of Glory and For King and Country have perpetuated the idea; while war-time films including CamradesFlanders Poppies and Shoulder Arms indicate that the most contemporary views of the war were overall far more positive. Likewise, the art of Paul Nash, John Nash, Christopher Nevison and Henry Tonks in Britain painted a negative view of the conflict in keeping with the growing perception, while popular war-time artists such as Muirhead Bone painted more serene and pleasant interpretations subsequently rejected as inaccurate. Several historians have since countered these interpretations:
Siegfried Sassoon (May 1915)
These beliefs did not become widely shared because they offered the only accurate interpretation of wartime events. In every respect, the war was much more complicated than they suggest. In recent years, historians have argued persuasively against almost every popular clichĂ© of the First World War. It has been pointed out that, although the losses were devastating, their greatest impact was socially and geographically limited. The many emotions other than horror experienced by soldiers in and out of the front line, including comradeship, boredom and even enjoyment, have been recognised. The war is not now seen as a 'fight about nothing', but as a war of ideals, a struggle between aggressive militarism and more or less liberal democracy. It has been acknowledged that British generals were often capable men facing difficult challenges, and that it was under their command that the British army played a major part in the defeat of the Germans in 1918: a great forgotten victory.
Though these historians have discounted as "myths" these perceptions of the war, they are nevertheless prevalent across much of society. They have dynamically changed according to contemporary influences, reflecting in the 1950s perceptions of the war as 'aimless' following the contrasting Second World War, and emphasising conflict within the ranks during times of class conflict in the 1960s. The majority of additions to the contrary are often rejected.

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