Thirty years ago the First World War seemed to be fading in the national memory. Now it appears a major fixture in the popular imagination. Why and how did this happen?
Not just 1914-18 but also war in general was fading away. The country had abandoned conscription and had not fought a major war since Korea in the early 1950s. But then the Falklands in 1982 and, more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq turned war once again into household news. Embedded reporters and 24/7 media made the sights and sounds of battle intensely vivid; people can now really empathize with what soldiers go through. So the patterns of remembrance we have inherited from the First World War era gained new power to move hearts and minds.
Do we in this country overemphasise the experience of the Western Front trenches?
In my new book The Long Shadow I argue that we do. Even frontline soldiers in the trenches spent most of their time not fighting. And don’t forget that the war in 1914 and again in 1918 was one of rapid, dramatic movement. I also think we are stuck in the trenches mentally when we think of the war’s consequences. After 1918 Britain adjusted far better than the Continent to the “big bang” of mass democracy – without the vicious struggles between right and left, fascism and communism, evident in Italy, Germany and even France.
And Britain’s economy survived the 1920s and 1930s far better than that of many countries. No collapse of the currency, as in Germany. No disintegration of the banking system, as in America.
How does our remembrance of the First World War differ from that of other countries?
The symbolic poppy was borrowed from France but it took on a unique life of its own in Britain. The two-minute silence has regained its appeal. And the centrality of a few War poets (especially Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon) is also distinctively British, even though in fact we select only a few of the 2,200 people who published war poems in 1914-18 – mostly male, public-schooled officers, complexed about the war and about their masculinity. Great poems, perhaps, but not representative poets.
Should broadcasters insist on obligatory poppy-wearing in the run-up to Remembrance Day?
Should broadcasters wear them? That’s up to the BBC and other news organizations. Should they insist on other people wearing them? No – that’s up to each individual. The power of the poppy lies in the extent of voluntary support. Over 40 per cent of British soldiers in the Great War chose to fight – they weren’t conscripts. It is surely apt that today people freely choose to wear poppies as a way to remember them.
Ed Miliband says that Clement Attlee is the politician he most admires. Do you see any resemblance between the two?
I understand why many in the Labour party, and outside, respect Attlee. Uncharismatic. Deliberately understated. (Recall President Truman’s comment – “He seems a modest sort of man” – and Churchill’s reply – “He has a great deal to be modest about.”) So not Churchillian but definitely courageous – in the Great War he fought at Gallipoli – and a man of principle. After 1945, as I argue in The Long Shadow, his government tried to deliver a fairer post-war settlement than the one that followed 1918. The nationalisation programme they set in place would become the subject of intense controversy, especially in the Thatcher era, but it shaped the second half of Britain’s 20th century. Even today we still live in Attlee’s shadow, as much as that of Churchill.
Is it right for the US security services to hack the phones of leaders of friendly countries?
No. Will they change their ways? I doubt it. Even though there is now momentum in Congress for tighter regulation, 9/11 has gouged deep into the American psyche. That was the most devastating foreign attack on the continental United States since our Redcoats burned Washington in 1814. But a genuine trauma in 2001 has been exploited to justify large-scale surveillance at home and abroad. The clock will not easily be turned back.
Should there be statutory regulation of the press?
The Government has slightly side-stepped the issue by proposing a Royal Charter, not a standard Act of Parliament. But it has decided to implement the essential recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, which have been supported by the three main parties. I certainly agree that the existing Press Complaints Commission, largely run by the newspaper industry, is unsatisfactory. The grotesque behaviour of News of the World journalists requires a body with some real teeth to restore public confidence, even though there may be possible risks to the principle of a free press.
David Reynolds is Professor of International History at Cambridge and the author of ‘The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century’ (Simon & Schuster).
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