By Dr. Tim Haughton
This year is full of poignant anniversaries; none more so than the outbreak of the First World War. Whilst the century of the outbreak of ‘the war to end all wars’ has focused attention on the causes of the conflict, as the contributions to the forthcoming edited volume, Aftermath: Legacies and Memories of War in Europe, 1918-1945-1989 highlight, the sight of poppies in the first half of November should also give us pause to reflect on the long shadows cast by that war.
The First World War was the defining conflict of modern European history. Empires were swept away, new states created, social relations were transformed, and old orders were defeated or weakened, bringing in some cases new forces to power, galvanized and legitimized by radical ideological agendas.
Although a century has passed since the guns fell silent and we have lost the last living connections to those battlefields, the aftermath of the First World War, particularly the redrawing of the borders through the Peace Treaties of 1919–1923, continues to matter. Versailles, St. Germain and Trianon bequeathed demographic legacies which shape domestic politics and colour relations between countries, such as Hungary and Slovakia, long after the last casualty fell on the battlefield.
The shadows of war, however, not only matter for countries. We should not underestimate the impact of war and its immediate aftermath on ordinary citizens. Young men were forced to fight in the dirty, noisy and cramped trenches of the First World War, periodically putting their heads above the parapet and advancing into volleys of machine gun fire when asked to go over the top for the sake of a few metres of muddy Flanders fields. For them the war was a profoundly formative experience. The sense of loss and sacrifice felt by the returning soldiers marked them out and isolated them from others in their societies, and this inevitably created divisions.
Indeed, wars create multiple divisions: not just between different countries and empires, and not just between different ethnic groups and regions within a country, but also, as one of the contributors to the volume Mary Fulbrook argues, between generations. War is a transformative experience, which affects generations in different ways. Different generations draw different conclusions and find it difficult to relate to other generations whom they see as obsessive or fundamentally detached from the conflict.
Stress on the individual underlines that there are both private and public aftermaths of war which may sometimes stand in stark contrast. The reified historical narratives of the public may grate and be at odds with the painful personal aftermaths of soldiers and civilians.
Nonetheless, the dark clouds of war can have their silver linings. As Stephen Forcer’s chapter in the volume highlights, such tensions between the personal and the public can provoke – or at least contribute to ‒ innovative cultural trends like the emergence of Dada and Surrealism both of which emerged in part as a reaction to officials and national narratives about the First World War. Indeed, it seems appropriate that from the most absurd of modern conflicts emerged schools of thinking which reify the absurd.
Aftermath: Legacies of War in Europe – 1918, 1945, 1989, edited by Nicholas Martin, Tim Haughton and Pierre Pursiegle is published by Ashgate in December 2014.
This article was originally published on the Ashgate Publishing Blog. Read the original version here.