Thursday, January 02, 2014

Giving Shape To Memory

On June 28 in 1914, the world was plunged into war because some minor figure in Eastern Europe was assassinated.

One hundred years on, how best to commemorate, or denigrate, the memory of those war years that cost so many lives but also destroyed the old class system and entrenched social construction?

Hints of how best to shape this memory are found in modern culture. You've only to watch a few episodes of Downton Abbey to be presented with the dilemma of the British upper classes, whose way of life was upended by the First World War. The working classes were essentially freed by the demand for soldiers and munitions workers, who found there was more to life than going into service. To say nothing of the ladies who were essentially liberated by war work and never returned to the confines of the old social systems.

For the Irish, the memory of the conflict is itself conflicted. The poor Irish were actively recruited as cannon fodder and many took the King's shilling because they were desperate to provide for their families. But they fought on the side of the enemy, which was Great Britain, and that was brought home in 1916 when the Irish rose up in a failed rebellion. Only recently have the Irish dead been shown a touch of respect, as if it took one hundred years to accept the fact that too many had no other option because there were no jobs.

The Russian Revolution proceeded from the war, and we all know how that ended up. Are the Russians better off now, under Tsar Vladimir, or would things have shifted towards a constitutional monarchy in due course?

So many dead, and those who wish to commemorate the war seek to remember those who fell as heroes who sacrificed for a greater good. On the other hand, there are those who see those same men as lives wasted by incompetent officers who were officers because they were members of the aristocracy, thoroughly incompetent and blind to their failings.

Director Ken Loach would like his native land to shape the memory into one of disaster, not glory. The four years of war did not lead to an end of warfare, as was trumpeted at the time, but instead created a new disaster that bred the likes of National Socialism and another, even more destructive, war.

After one hundred years, how is the memory of millions dead and millions maimed to be shaped for future reference? The governments representing the nations who sent their own to die for an unclear cause will prefer to look on the positive side. What the citizens think will most likely appear in the public sphere, in books and films and television programmes that work to shape memories in a more powerful way than a grand parade staged for the benefit of tourism.

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