Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Fury of August

The memory of the First World War is fading. The horror of the Ur-Katastrophe does not register. Some are looking to noble wars (WWII) in which the fate of humanity laid in the balance. Others are embracing controversial wars (Vietnam) as a means of discovering what military power means to their political party. Last night, the History Channel played several hours of the documentary World War One in Color: the colorized films of soldiers and combat (both real and staged) made the experiences of combat more visually rich; the testimony of British soldiers and quotes from memoirs added to the story; but the story itself was nothing new. Ninety years after Wilhelm II declared war on Russia, the First World War is becoming fossilized in the past. [Added on edit:] This is the last opportunity to remember the First World War when any of the combatants are alive, yet more attention has been garnered by the sixtieth anniversary of the Warsaw uprising.

Several years ago Niall Ferguson asked if the war needed to be as long and destructive as it was. More specifically, he asked whether it was in Britain's interests to fight: a quick defeat of France would have saved Europe. When he proposed that Britain was mistaken, Ferguson set off a controversy in which historians began to question the extent to which Germany was responsible: did not the alliance systems and imperialism predetermine that the European nations would come to arms? Fritz Fischer's research that placed blame on Germany became less certain. Other historians have asked about specific issues: a communique from Bethmann-Hollweg that asked Austria to stop short of completely defeating Serbia; the reason why Wilhelm II did not seem to be planning for war, taking a cruise instead. Overall these arguments have become another way of talking about WWI as a senseless war (even Vietnam is recognized for how it transformed the generation that fought it.)

The literary legacy of WWI is enormous. Outside of books and films that dealt with the war directly, the images and tropes of trench warfare influenced how other twentieth century wars were written up. As Paul Fussell explains, modern notions of irony were born in the trenches.

Every now and then a new film comes out. I recently watched Bertrand Tavernier's film Capitaine Conan. In the tradition of Paths of Glory, it explores cowardice and justice as generals push for aggressive prosecution for the mistakes of men in a war the generals themselves cannot understand. I find this film especially remarkable because it shows how the war spilled over into the period of amnesty as peace: the soldiers are forgotten, taking their frustrations out on the people of a newly created republic until they are called to stop the entry of Bolsheviks.


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