The spectres of the Great War

The series of events which commemorate the Great War centenary are the first to utilise all the means of the digital age. A large number of countries have already generated special websites and virtual spaces; European foundations are also carrying out impressive digitalisation projects, while museums seem to be shifting their attention away from representing war memory to instead staging the war experience. What is more, the increasingly internationalised academic community has welcomed the centenary with a proliferation of conferences throughout the world, from Singapore, Australia and New Delhi, to Moscow, London, Paris, Munich, Istanbul and Sarajevo.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest number of commemorative events will take place in Britain, France and Belgium. The British government has invested tens of millions in various educational projects and the BBC has scheduled hundreds of broadcasting hours in what promises to be an enormous outpouring of popular history in the visual domain. In fact, many professional historians have already started to air their interpretations of the war, and the events that led to war, in documentaries and debates. I will deal with this in more detail in a future post.

German involvement is, however, much more moderate and de-centralised, with a number of events planned at state and not federal level. Austria seems to be following suit, despite burgeoning academic debates on war memory and experience. One of the more prolific commemorative events of the summer of 2014 will be the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert on June 28th in Sarajevo’s city hall — only a short distance from where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife took their last breath. Russia, finally, remains a mystery. Only two years ago President Putin, speaking loudly against ‘Bolshevik treason’, launched an official day of commemoration, thus putting an end to decades of Soviet discredit and post-Soviet indifference.

Enter Ghosts

From the very first days of 2014, before the opening of the commemorative events, two seemingly unrelated debates remind us of the continuing political dimension of the Great War’s institutionalised memory. The first refers to Sarajevo, le Coeur de l’ Europe, and its Serbian neighbours. The second concerns Britain, the country that has invested more than any other European country in the commemoration of a war that moulded Englishness, marking the passage from the mighty British Empire to the twentieth-century commonwealth. In both cases politicians, posing as historians while holding the banner of ‘historical revision’, are serving their own political ends. Significantly, both cases refer directly or indirectly to the question of German responsibility for the outbreak of one of the deadliest total wars of the modern age.

The Serbian state, as well as many Bosnian Serbs, has reacted to a number of events programmed for this summer in Sarajevo, aided initially by the financial support of France and, to a lesser extent, Germany. These include the organisation of a big international conference on the war’s legacy by the Bosnian Institute of History, in co-operation with a number of central and eastern European regional institutions. The prospect of reopening the discussion of the causes of the Balkan agitation, in light of new approaches that accentuate the contribution of Serbian nationalism to the European tumult, prompted the Serbian president to declare his opposition to the historical ‘revision’ of Serbia’s past. At the same time, Serbian historians are toying with the idea of organising a separate conference, while Bosnian Serb artists, such as Emir Kusturica, are preparing to place their art in the service of ‘historical truth’.

These Serbian protests resulted in the withdrawal of French financial support for the conference: organisers refused repeated suggestions to invite historians willing to present the Serb republic of Bosnia’s official point of view. Simplifying crudely a complex historical debate, mediated by the experience of the Yugoslav civil war, the crux of the controversy relates to the interpretation of nationalist ideals that motivated Gavrilo Princip, Franz Ferdinant’s assassin. Was he a Yugoslav republican or the hit man of Serbian nationalism?

Moving Westwards 

Such controversies entice commentators to write about the manifestation of yet another ‘peculiarity’ of the Balkans, the land where history and politics are inextricably bound together. Yet, the phantoms of the Great War do not manifest themselves only in the Balkans. On the other side of Europe, in Britain, First World War memories haunt British national identity at a time of growing anti-European sentiment and centrifugal challenges to the Great British union.

This time calls for ‘revision’ came from the education minister Michael Gove. In the pages of the Daily Mail, Gove sought to end the leftist intelligentsia’s leaning towards historical myths of the Great War. He argued that representing British wartime involvement as a sequence of errors committed by a detached and absent minded political elite plays down the heroism of the masses, distorts protagonists’ endeavors and undermines the fatal contribution of German Weltpolitik in the escalation of what, in July 1914, looked like yet another Balkan regional conflict.

Gove’s purported ‘revisionist’ thinking evoked the patriotic case for war, viewing Britain as the upholder of international public order positioned against German imperial might. What is more, Gove’s cheap political aims did not even allow him to reiterate a typical topos in the liberal internationalist justification for the war—the ‘two Germanies thesis’: Even in 1914 many commentators saw Germany as the land of spiritual and liberal progress which was nonetheless overtaken by the outright aggression of Prussian militarism.

In reply to Gove’s assertions, Richard J. Evans and Tristram Hunt contradicted his ‘revisionist’ assumptions and countered his attack on the left-liberal intelligentsia. Hunt pointed to the proliferation of new scholarship that shifts the responsibility for the outbreak of the war from Germany’s aggression to Russia’s expansionism and the ills of Balkan nationalism. To this, Boris Johnson reacted by demanding Hunt’s resignation from the post of shadow minister for education. As the Daily Telegraph put it, ‘the Mayor of London said that the shadow education secretary’s claims that factors other than German expansionism and aggression led to war are “fatuous” and show he not is “not fit” to oversee history in schools in government or opposition’.

 In Germany an increasing number of historians publicly denounce what in the ’sixties came to be known as ‘Fischer thesis’— the view that Germany’s Weltpolitik was solely responsible for the outbreak of war. In a recent article in Die Welt, four leading German international historians refer to recent much debated accounts by Christopher Clarkand Heinfried Münkler, among others, which reveal a ‘paradigm shift’, thus rendering German responsibility not only wrong, but politically dangerous in today’s European context.


From London to Sarajevo, we are witnessing controversies with politicians posing either as ‘revisionists’ or as sworn enemies of ‘political revisionism’. One the one hand, such disputes reveal unresolved national tensions and/or ethnocentric understandings of traumatic aspects of one’s national past. One the other hand, they suggest a broader anxiety over the future of the European project presenting itself either as a disappointment for the current course of European unification or a deep-seated hostility towards the very notion of a European union.    

*Originally published at the online magazine  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ

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