The Great War and Medieval Memory: War, Remembrance and Medievalism in Britain and Germany, 1914-1940

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A genuinely comparative study of the cultural impact of the Great War on British and German societies in the first half of the twentieth century. Taking public commemorations as its focus, this book unravels the British and German search for historical continuity and meaning in the shadow of an unprecedented human catastrophe. In both countries, the survivors of the Great War pictured the conflict as the 'Last Crusade' and sought consolation in imagery that connected the soldiers of the age of total war with the knights of the Middle Ages. Stefan Goebel shows that medievalism as a mode of war commemoration transcended national and cultural boundaries. This is an invaluable contribution to the burgeoning study of cultural memory and collective remembrance which will appeal to researchers and students in the history of the First World War, social and cultural history of warfare and medieval studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[...]marvelously informative book, thoroughly researched, with fascinating insights[...]H-Albion subscribers interested in the period (as well as those with an inclination for longue duree cultural history and the forging of national identities in Britain and Germany) are unreservedly encouraged to order The Great War and Medieval Memory for their libraries."
-Antoine Capet, University of Rouen, France, H-Albion

"...Stephan Goebel's The Great War and Medieval Memory is a first-class piece of work that will inspire and intrigue any reader." -Thomas Weber, Journal of Modern History

"I can perhaps best sum up my saying that I expected this to be a merely interesting book, but found it to be a fascinating one." -Geoffrey J. Giles, H-German

"a model of comparative archival research" -English Historical Review

"Goebel's study is (almost) a paradigm for a comparative cultural history of the Great War"- Contemporary European History

"Goebel is to be congratulated for identifying a fascinating subject and presenting the results of his comparative research in a clear and lively account. He has put methodological approaches associated with the 'new' cultural history - interdisciplinarity, sensitivity to cultural artefacts, analysis of discourses - to excellent use in a core field of comparative history." -German History

"Both medievalists and modern historians will benefit from reading this comparative study." -Central European History

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Stefan Goebel is Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, London.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-85415-3 - The Great War and Medieval Memory - War, Remembrance and Medievalism in Britain and Germany, 1914–1940 - by Stefan Goebel


In the aftermath of the first global and mass-industrialised war, contemporary observers coined the terms ‘the Great War’ and ‘der große Krieg’ to suggest a temporal watershed, a departure from the conditions of warfare as they had been known before. The Great War of 1914–18 and its attendant emotional shocks and socio-political upheavals rocked the foundations of all belligerent European societies. Some survivors, though, set out to heal the fractures of war by asserting historical continuity through memorials and acts of remembrance. The aim of war commemoration should be, the architect Herbert (later Sir Herbert) Baker suggested shortly after the Armistice, ‘to express the heritage of unbroken history and beauty of England which the sacrifices of our soldiers have kept inviolate’.1

This book explores the kind of temporal anchoring in the wake of the Great War envisaged by Baker, but from a comparative, Anglo-German perspective (excluding Ireland).2 In both Great Britain and Germany, there were people whose epochal consciousness was premised on continuity, people who refused to see history as irretrievably past. Looking to a misty past in order to understand the war-torn present, they enveloped recollections of the First World War in an imageryderived from interpretations of native, pre-industrial history, particularly the Middle Ages. The ‘medievalising’ of the memory of the Great War is the subject-matter of this study. It argues that the Middle Ages figured centrally in the remembrance of the First World War in both Britain and Germany between 1914 and 1940. The Crusades, chivalry and medieval spirituality and mythology provided rich, protean sources of images, tropes and narrative motifs for people to give meaning to the legacy of the Great War.

Sites of mourning, sites of mobilisation

Scholars have interpreted war commemorations in general, and war memorials in particular, as either sites of personal mourning or as sites of political (re)mobilisation. Grief was ubiquitous by the end of the First World War, but arguably, so were anger and resentment at the unfulfilled expectations of August 1914. In terms of casualties, the war's toll was appallingly high; in the military service of Britain and Germany roughly one in eight/six men died.3 Politically, Britain had not been transformed into the promised ‘land fit for heroes’, while Germany was burdened with the twin problems of defeat and revolution.4 The rituals and rhetoric of war commemoration have thus been read as attempts to console the bereaved or soothe the frustrated.

In an influential article published in 1981, David Cannadine draws attention to the existential character of commemorative activities. British war memorials, he argues, ‘were in large part spontaneously generated by the bereaved for their own comfort [. . .] this “cult of the dead” was not so much “an expression of patriotism” as a display of bereavement’.5 Jay Winter, taking his cue from Cannadine, is the most eloquent and decided representative of what might be called the grief school, a historiographical school which assesses the cost of war at much more intimate levels than historians interested in nationalism and identity politics. Winter's main contribution to the debate, which appeared in 1995 under the programmatic title Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, surveys the cultural history of the war in western Europe with the politics left out.6 The proliferation of commemorative artefacts and signifying practices (both public and private), he suggests, were above all reflections of the depth of the trauma of 1914–18, understood as a sustained mass experience leaving particularly dense memory traces.7

This is not to say that one huge community of suffering was created by the losses of the Great War; what mattered was the accumulated presence of death in society, and it is through this fog that individual emotions were mediated. War memorials providing symbolic foci of bereavement functioned as substitutes for the graves of the missing and the absent dead (soldiers and sailors).8 Notably, in Britain and Germany, the two major belligerents which, generally speaking, did not repatriate their fallen soldiers, monuments helped to trigger memory in the absence of bodies. Originally advanced by historians of Britain, the grief theory has recently been endorsed by works on the German memory landscape. A thorough case study of the Rhenish district of Viersen stresses the sombre, existential purpose of war memorials and – despite French occupation – their relative freedom from expressions of bitterness and revanchism.9

In placing emphasis on the personal instead of the political, these authors react against an older strain of historiography which has neglected to take seriously contemporaries' need to mourn the dead. The functionalist school conceptualises memory as a resource of symbolic power which can be marshalled just like material power. In a ground-breaking article published as early as 1978, Reinhart Koselleck traces the evolution of the cult of the fallen soldier in Europe since the late eighteenth century. In the modern age, Koselleck maintains, the meaning of death is no longer attached to references to the hereafter. Instead, political meanings of this world are invented. The war memorial as a political tool, Koselleck writes, ‘gives the remembering of the soldiers’ death an earthly function directed only towards the future of those still living. This disappearance of the Christian interpretation of death creates a vacuum for the establishment of purely political and social meanings.’10 In subsequent publications, Koselleck and his pupils have refined the argument, but the late Professor Koselleck's definitive work on European war memorials was still unpublished at his death. Meanwhile, George L. Mosse has written a stimulating account of Great War remembrance and its nineteenth-century precursors, extending the work of Koselleck. In his book Fallen Soldiers, Mosse shows how the dual impulses of trivialisation and sacralisation played into the hands of extremist forces who thus managed to instrumentalise the memory of the world war.11 A congenial discourse to right-wing politics, war commemoration, especially in Germany, became eventually subsumed in rehearsals for fascism.

The functionalist position taken by Koselleck and Mosse reflects two general features of the German historiographical agenda: its political focus and its preoccupation with National Socialism. Mosse's ideologiekritisch stance on inter-war commemoration, in particular, has been moulded by the Nazi cult of the dead. With the wisdom of hindsight, he conflates the phenomenon of war memory with its fascist incarnations. Unsurprisingly, British research into the political implications of war remembrance has, by and large, followed a different trajectory, emphasising negotiation rather than manipulation. Nevertheless the work of Bob Bushaway departs from this interpretative pattern. Like Mosse, he assumes that commemorations reinforced a kind of false consciousness. But unlike Mosse, Bushaway construes the British cult of the fallen soldier as a force of social integration and moderate conservatism instead of political polarisation and extreme nationalism. The elevation of the dead, Bushaway points out, inhibited criticism of Britain's social and political constitution.12 By contrast, other scholars have revealed the multivocality of commemorative discourses. Alex King, in his exhaustive study Memorials of the Great War in Britain, finds that the dead were invoked in both conservative and radical causes. Moreover, he allows that bereavement remained a decisive factor: ‘Personal feelings and needs were deeply involved in the practice of commemoration; but it was the organisation of public action which gave it form. At the same time, commemoration raised political issues which participants had to address.’13

This study aims to synthesise the two schools of thought outlined above. The commemorations I analyse colonised the grey area between the personal and the political. The survivors' decision to remember collectively, to act in public, originated in the overwhelming experience of war as trauma. While remembrance activities could not cure sadness, they helped with the management of bereavement. Narrowly political readings of war commemorations, treating them as monumental manifestos, have overlooked this aspect of their significance. Yet if mourning was profoundly personal, remembrance – through the establishment of social networks and the formulation of languages of commemoration – was a socially framed, value-laden practice and thus inherently political (in the broadest sense). The challenge is, however, to avoid the pitfall of equating political with politicised. To remember meant to affirm or reassemble community, to aver its legitimacy and morality, but not necessarily to engage in the partisan politics of the day. To be sure, the need of the bereaved for solemn, public acknowledgment of personal grief, on the one hand, and the interest of the state or its subsidiary organisations in giving this some concrete political meaning, on the other, have frequently proved compatible.14

European convergences, national peculiarities, and sectional diversities

This book ventures into a significantly underdeveloped field of historical enquiry: empirical comparative history. Notwithstanding decades of European integration and burgeoning globalisation, the overwhelming majority of historians today are still imprisoned in the national framework firmly established by the founding fathers of our subject in the nineteenth century. The shortcomings and distorting effects of a narrowly national approach are particularly apparent in the field of cultural history, for its categories have never been national in scope or content. Still, those who have embarked on comparative cultural history in search of a panacea have found themselves opening up Pandora's box. The archival holdings are vast, the secondary literatures rarely congruent, and languages unevenly mastered. Cross-national approaches involve a radically selective treatment of the past and its documentation. But language poses probably the greatest obstacle of all. Salman Rushdie's dictum that a culture is defined by its untranslatable words highlights the problematical situation facing comparative cultural historians who presume a primacy of texts and languages.15 In particular, the evocative rhetoric of medievalism tends to defy translation. I have attempted to render quotations from German sources into English, but the polyglot reader should consult the German originals provided in the notes.

The marginality of comparative research contrasts with the prominence of comparative assumptions and statements. A whole generation of critical German social historians has claimed that the German way of modernisation represented a Sonderweg, a ‘special path’, which diverged from the western democracies, notably Britain and France, and ultimately led to the Nazi dictatorship. Today, many historians believe the Sonderweg thesis to be dead, buried in the 1980s by British historians working on modern German history and its peculiarities.16 Yet Heinrich August Winkler has recently revived the idea in his magisterial Der lange Weg nach Westen, a history of Germany from the end of the Holy Roman Empire to the reunification. ‘There was a German Sonderweg’, he concludes, ‘It was the long path towards modernity taken by a country shaped and moulded by the Middle Ages.’17 Such a sweeping comparative conclusion to a mono-national study – quite illustrative of a number of works on the German Sonderweg – is both theoretically and methodologically problematic.18 First, it makes a normative presupposition, setting the exceptional (German) against the normal (western) model. Second, it is not the result of a thorough exploration of the comparative method, but of selective readings of Anglo-American and French secondary works.

The notion of a German special path of commemoration is also established in the corpus of the historiography of the First World War, although most authors eschew the Sonderweg terminology. George L. Mosse contends that the cult of the fallen soldier, while non-poisonous in the victorious countries, namely Britain and France, had not only greater urgency in defeated Germany, reinforcing fascism, but also a brutal edge, legitimising violence.19 While Mosse in his broad survey of four nations necessarily paints with bold strokes, narrower approaches singling out one specific feature for comparison have the advantage of drawing a more nuanced, and perhaps balanced, picture. Nevertheless, a recent comparative study of French and German war memorials basically confirms Mosse's thesis. German memorials after 1918, this study concludes, were monumental manifestations of dull heroism, overt revanchism and martial manliness, whereas their French equivalents conveyed a broad spectrum of messages ranging from pacifism to patriotism. What is more, monuments aux morts were generally places where people assembled to grieve in public.20 In a nutshell, it seems that the Germans mobilised and the French mourned. While victory meant cultural closure, defeat left a symbolic vacuum that the nationalists attempted to fill. The French side of this analysis owes much to the pioneering work of Antoine Prost.21 War memorials in France, Prost tells us, evolved into sites where the veterans could teach their children that war was an abomination, never to be re-enacted – in stark contrast, it seems, to their bellicose German counterparts, unwilling to accept defeat.

Historical comparisons, Hartmut Kaelble has noted, tend to concentrate on national idiosyncrasies and to overlook cultural convergences.22 Scholars disclosing the commonality of cultural history, however, often receive vicious criticism from their peers. Jay Winter has controversially drawn attention to the traditional overemphasis of the facts of victory and defeat. ‘They mattered; but all too often victory had a taste of ashes.’ He adds that ‘all major combatants went through a “special” path, the path of collective slaughter’.23 Victory was cool consolation for those who were in mourning. Among the major belligerents, Winter estimates, virtually every family had lost a father, a husband, a son, a brother or a friend. In fact, people were also shocked or sentimental about deaths of men they knew only slightly, or even not at all. The cultural history of the war is inseparable from its demographic history.24 Death and bereavement became the salient signatures of the then bloodiest war in modern history and its cultural repercussions. The exploration of mourning uncovers fully the European dimension of the Great War. Nonetheless, the codes of mourning can differ between nations since they are drawn from the respective national repertoires of cultural forms and practices. At the same time, national styles of commemoration were not independent of one another, and the historian has to consider the importance of intersecting memories originating in mutual observation and – positive as well as negative – inter-cultural transfer.25 For example, the meteoric rise of the institution of the unknown soldier throughout (and beyond) Europe – with the notable exception of Germany – illuminates the high degree of cultural exchange in the inter-war period.26

Even though the First World War was, by definition, a transnational event, commemoration was, on the whole, cast within the confines of national culture. The nation state has, therefore, remained the preferred analytical unit of cultural history. But increasingly, mono-national works employ an implicit or reflective comparative method, presenting national evidence in the light of international findings.27 Adrian Gregory's powerful The Silence of Memory, an exploration of the British Armistice Day ritual between 1919 and 1946, uses comparison as a heuristic tool. It seeks to answer the question why war remembrance in Britain was markedly different from the French and German models described by Prost and Mosse respectively. In the end, Gregory rejects the idea of a unitary national version of Great War remembrance but underlines the plurality of British memories of war. Instead of presenting a state-bounded narrative, he highlights sectional diversities (such as class, denomination, gender and region) within the national community of inter-war Britain.28

In sum, the comparative historian of the First World War seems to tread a tightrope between emphasising European convergences, national peculiarities, or sectional diversities within nations. However, the authors of Capital Cites at War conclude their collective research into the microcosms of wartime Paris, London and Berlin by reasserting that the ‘analytical force of the comparison is [. . .] to revise and rejuvenate, rather than to reject, national histories. For only after discovering convergences [. . .] can true national distinctions be made.’29

Medievalism and the modern

Much recent writing of the Great War discusses to what extent the years 1914–18 marked a cultural disjuncture in contemporary history. What is at issue here is the significance of the war as the incubator of ‘modernism’, often understood as a new, iconoclastic language of truth-telling about war in art and literature. The controversy has been sparked off in 1975 by Paul Fussell's classic The Great War and Modern Memory. Analysing the writings of (ex-)servicemen like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and other, non-combatant writers like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Fussell comes to the conclusion that the war gave way to an attitude of ironic scepticism and bitter disillusionment.30 Fussell's contention that there was a fundamental link between the between the war and modernism has been echoed many times.31 A more recent, stimulating contribution to the modernist interpretation is Samuel Hynes's examination of what he has dubbed the ‘myth of the war’ in British culture. The myth, defined as a narrative about the war, was generated by the clash of ‘big words’ like honour and glory with the terrors of combat. Those who experienced the ugliness of war identified the ‘big words’ with the elder generation who had sent them into battle. As a result, the young ‘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’.32

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. Catastrophe and continuity: the place of the war dead in history; 2. Mission and defence: the nature of the conflict; 3. Destruction and endurance: the war experience; 4. Chivalry and cruelty: the soldiers' character and conduct; 5. Regeneration and salvation: the prospects for the living and the dead; Conclusion.

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