What is the “Right Way” to commemorate the First World War?

Michael Gove (from the Wikipedia Commons)

By Jonathan Weier

Those who regularly read the British press have been exposed, over the past three months, to a vitriolic war of words over the legacy and meaning of the First World War in Britain.  This controversy has become increasingly acrimonious as representatives of the Conservative government and their sympathizers have sought to paint a number of British historians as disloyal for presenting a view of the First World War that minimizes the glory and moral superiority of the British war effort.

The first salvo in this controversy was fired by Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary, in a January 2nd editorial in the Daily Mail.  In his editorial, Gove argued that there is a “right way” to commemorate and learn from the First World War, and to honour the sacrifice of British soldiers  Gove castigated historian Richard Evans, in particular, for attacking “the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub-thinking jingoism,’” and promoted new historical analyses that “challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.”  Gove went on to resurrect outdated and simplistic ideas about German war aims and the moral superiority of the British war effort.  In this article and subsequent defenses of his point of view, Gove also marshaled numerous oversimplifications and misreadings of major First World War historians like Margaret MacMillan.

This article, of course, resulted in a firestorm of criticism, led by Evans, Niall Ferguson and other historians, representing both the political left and the political right, who sought to remind Gove that in fact, the history and the commemoration of the First World War should be open to shared interpretation, a national conversation, and an openness to competing ideas about the past.  The irony of Gove’s article and his singling out of Evans is that the quote he was responding to actually came from an article Evans wrote last summer that, while criticizing a recently released history curriculum, lauded the Conservative government’s plans for First World War commemoration.

It seems that part of the reason for the intensity of this controversy is that the British government has committed a significant amount of money and effort to First World War commemoration.  Planning began two years ago with 50 million pounds earmarked for various activities, including local commemoration, academic conferences and a broad-based engagement program.  The active phase of this work began this past November with the ceremonial transfer of First World War materials and earth from battlefields in Belgium and France to England to be used in the construction of new memorial gardens. The Conservative government has included this initiative within a broader program of educational and cultural reforms designed to strengthen ideas of Britishness and emphasize a more favourable understanding of Britain’s history.  It was this program that was first criticized by Evans in his article last summer.

These commemorative activities have been mirrored in various countries.  Australia, in particular, formed a special committee of former Prime Ministers and prominent citizens to initiate First World War commemorative programs, and provided generous funding.  Other countries in Europe and elsewhere have begun similar initiatives with varying degrees of financial and political support.

Canada has done little to plan for the First World War centennial, despite the fact that it is only a few short months away.  That is not to say that no commemorative planning or work has been done.  History departments and academic programs have already begun to host and organize numerous conferences, Social History/histoire sociale is set to publish a First World War edition to coincide with the centennial of its outbreak, and the Canadian War Museum has begun planning for its own commemorative exhibits and programs.

What has not happened has been a concerted and well-funded effort on the part of the Canadian government to support a First World War commemorative program.  This is surprising, especially considering the generosity of government support for recent commemorative programs around the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the 400th anniversary of Quebec City’s founding.  It seems that there may be two reasons for the lack of support for First World War commemoration.  On the one hand this may have a lot to do with the timing of the coming federal election in 2015 as well as the government’s commitment to balancing the budget and lowering taxes.  In order to do so the government has reduced budgets across all departments.  As a result there is little money for a robust program of commemoration.

Conversely, there is a feeling that the government was disappointed with the reception that its War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations were met with, especially on the part of the historical community.  Historians generally critiqued the simplicity and the problematic and ahistorical nationalist slant to the advertisements, programs and publications that the government funded, and some of this criticism became more widely known.  The apparent result is that the government has little interest in funding First World War commemorative programs and events, at least until after the 2015 general election.

Though there are many who are concerned that this is a missed opportunity to educate Canadians about their role in the First World War, it strikes me that in the absence of government funding and government direction, Canadian citizens will be empowered to promote and initiate their own commemorative activities at the local and national levels and explore events outside of Vimy and other mythologies.  Similarly, journalists will continue to write articles, historians and other academics will continue to organize conferences, publish books and write blog posts, and cultural producers will continue to write novels and produce movies about the First World War.  While government funding for commemoration would be nice, if it comes with the type of controversy and political interference that is clearly the case in the United Kingdom, we may be better off without it.

Jon Weier is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Western University. His thesis is a transnational history of the First World War work of the YMCA. He regularly posts on twitter as @jonweier.

8 thoughts on “What is the “Right Way” to commemorate the First World War?

  1. Michael Cross

    The Feds are presenting a major sound and light show on Parliament Hill to lead up to 2017 and confederation celebrations. The war will undoubtedly play a big part and is likely to be presented in the most heroic fashion.

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  3. sanfercur

    Somewhere between Left-wing dismissal of anything even slightly linked to national integrity or patriotism, and Right-wing assertions of elusive moral primacy, is a true, valuable way to remember such a war. Britain lost almost a million men in the conflagration. That must be remembered – and in a way neither to front national arrogance nor to chip away at values that allowed those me to risk their lives.

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