War and Peace

European Memories of World War I

“In the course of the twentieth century the dead of the Great War have turned from martyrs into victims. The distinction is the removal of a religious dimension to their loss of life. When I did a television series for the BBC and PBS in the USA, one official asked me if I could change the title of the fourth episode on the great battles of 1916‒17 ‒ the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele ‒ would I change the name that it had been given from the beginning from ‘Slaughter’ to ‘Sacrifice’ and my response was no, that I would resign as a producer of the series if I had to do that, because the difference between the two is the difference between the sacralisation of violence and the cult of the dead that appears from that sacralisation, and a view that the millions of men who died in the war died in a catastrophe with no religious significance attached to it at all.

There’s a fundamental difference – a divide – in European memories of the World War I. In the Balkans and Eastern Europe (Poland, Russia, Ukraine, now) the losses of those who die in war on the right side, are framed as martyrs, where as in Western Europe the concept of martyrdom has largely vanished because attendance at churches is much lower in Western Europe than it is in Eastern Europe. For instance in Poland where the Roman Catholic Church played a fundamental role under communism, even during the period of the Cold War, religious experience was political in fundamental ways. So there is no one European memory of World War I; there are multiple memories – but by and large, the further east you go the greater the degree to which the losses of life in World War II have served as a screen memory to occlude the losses of the First.

The most important phase of historical writing in recent years on World War I is what we call transnational, and that means not to start and stop with the boundaries of the nation state. World War I was the biggest war to date because it was the first industrialised war between global and imperial powers and that was a quantitative and qualitative difference. The sheer scale of the war: the number of people mutilated and killed is much greater than ever before because the killing power of artillery in particular, but also of mechanized warfare, was revolutionary. And because of this enormous scale of the war, it makes no sense to write the history of individual nations alone. It makes a lot of sense to write the history of individual nations within a broader than national framework. Not an international framework – that is to say not between sovereign states – but to treat war as a regional phenomenon, so that the Eastern fronts or the Mediterranean fronts are vast transnational spaces in which killing took place for four years. The Western front is not France; Belgium and France are in some ways united in ways that they aren’t when you do national histories. The regionalisation of the history of warfare is a reflection of the nature of the war itself, which was simply bigger than the national boundaries of the states which engaged in it.”



© Jay M. Winter
Jay M. Winter
Jay M. Winter, the Charles J. Stille Professor of History at Yale University, is a specialist on World War I and its impact on the twentieth century. His other interests include remembrance of war in the twentieth century, including memorial and mourning sites; European population decline; the causes and institutions of war; British popular culture in the era of the Great War; and the Armenian genocide of 1915.