It is one of great clichés of historical interpretation that our perceptions of the past are very often more a reflection of the present than they are of the past itself. For this reason, debates about, and memories of, historical events (especially ones of enormous magnitude and symbolic significance) are often much more useful for what they reveal about the contemporary world in which they take place than they are about the original event itself.
The bicentenary of the French Revolution, in 1989, ended up becoming much more about unfolding events in Eastern Europe and intellectual attempts to bury Marxism than about anything that actually happened in France in 1789. The centenary of the American Civil War, in the 1960s, was inescapably caught up in the civil rights movement of the era. The centenaries of the independence movement in Ireland that will take place in a few years time will say much more about contemporary Irish politics, north and south, than about what materially took place in the country between 1916 and 1923.
But there can perhaps be few better and more relevant examples than the current contest that is taking place in Britain about the nature and legacy of the First World War, and the very dangerous attempts in certain parts of the UK establishment, among others, to rewrite the futile conflict of 1914 to 1918 as some kind of ‘just war’. Not only have there been clear attempts this past year by the current right-wing UK government and the likes of Michael Gove and David Cameron to paint the First World War in a more noble light than it has conventionally come to have, but this year’s events seem symptomatic of a wider project in Britain to rehabilitate the war – to present it as a worthy fight for democracy with parallels to Britain’s role in the Second World War and by implication to downplay the significance of the massive waste, destruction and loss of life which it caused. This is evident, for example, in the change in tone surrounding Remembrance Sunday. World War II veteran Harry Leslie Smith wrote last year that November 2013 would be the last time he would wear a poppy, due to the change in atmosphere in the past ten years, from one of solemn remembrance to a celebration of the war itself and, indeed, of military conflict as a whole.
Throughout this narrative, basic, glaring and long-acknowledged aspects of the conflict are brushed under the carpet with remarkable audacity: the fact that Britain itself did not have even universal male suffrage in 1914, while Germany, though utterly undemocratic in many other respects, did; that their ally in the east was the hardly liberal and enlightened regime of Tsarist Russia; that Britain defended its entry into the war on the basis of the rights of the Belgians after they had been committing genocide in the Congo; and that whatever universalistic goals any government had at the outbreak of the war were utterly irrelevant in the new world that had been unintentionally and bloodily forged by 1918, after the loss of millions of lives including the lives of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers and soldiers from Britain’s colonies.
All of this is wrong in and of itself in terms of the insult it does to history, and to the significance of the lives lost in the war. But what makes these developments particularly worrying is that I do not think that this should be seen as merely an attempt at historical revisionism driven by nationalist wishful thinking. Rather, it may be a reflection of the direction in which Western society and politics as a whole has been going.
While the militarism which dominated European culture in 1914 and which helped lead it to war has thankfully for the most part not returned, in many other senses that world is much closer now to the way it was in 1914 than it has been at any stage in the last 100 years. The globalised economy in which we currently live is often said to be most comparable historically to the similar extensive integration of the international economy in the decades before the First World War. Laissez-faire capitalism is again dominant both ideologically and in practice and, like in 1914, remains seemingly irresistible at least in the immediate future in spite of growing tensions and dissatisfaction. As a consequence, society now faces soaring wealth and income inequality that is increasingly compared to the ‘gilded age’ of the decades before 1914.
Even more significant parallels are evident with respect to politics. As in the era before the war, this economic system is supported by, and in turn consolidates, an increasingly oligarchic and emaciated political culture within a formally democratic system. In the party political system, contemporary social-democratic parties have come to take on a role eerily reminiscent of early twentieth century liberals –ideologically confused, fractured and directionless, and possibly facing the same fate of increasing irrelevance and detachment from the most relevant developments in their societies. In the meantime, the absence of effective opposition contributes to a general conservative electoral hegemony within a broadly disenchanted body politic.
As the mass-based democracy that rejected the values of the World War I era fade, it is not surprising, then, that the same values which helped to justify the war at the time are coming to regain some of their lost appeal among a similar ruling elite. The utterly elitist and imperialistic politic of the UK and the rest of Europe in 1914 can at last be once again plausibly presented as symptomatic of “democracy” because accepted conceptions of “democracy”, as reflected in our society and economy now, are again coming to resemble the shell-like façade it was at the beginning of the 20th century.
Illustration: Julia Helmes