Remembering the Guns of August

trenchesHow shall we commemorate war, if we should? The Great War centenary is raising these questions in Europe.

Norman Walter, of the German embassy in London, makes this invidious comparison:

There is simply a different culture in this country [Britain]. You have much more military events than we do, like Trooping the Colour. We don’t want to commemorate the battles. We want to commemorate the dead.

I have little expertise and no personal experience to contribute to this debate, but am sure it is important. I do find it strange though that some people see the war commemoration as a chance to celebrate the relatively closer integration of elites in Europe today, when so many of the leaders of the World War I nations were members of the same family (literally).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Remembering the Guns of August”

  1. If you haven’t read Adam Hochchild’s “To End All Wars” it’s an absolute must. Replaces Guns of August as my best book on the War

    1. The chapter on the Battle of the Somme in Keegan’s The Face of Battle is right up there on the muddy, bloody reality.

        1. I was underwhelmed by Keegan’s history of the First World War. I’d looked forward to reading it given the explosion of research on the war, particularly British operations on the Western Front, over the last 30 years. I didn’t really expect Keegan to agree with it but I wanted to see how he responded. Unfortunately, his response was to ignore it. He repeated the conventional wisdom about the Western Front without ever even engaging the work of Paddy Griffiths, Robin Prior, Trevor Wilson, and a host of other historians. If one wants a good one volume history of the war, Hew Strachan is much superior to Keegan. I really wish I thought he would ever get finished with the multi-volume history he’s working on.

          1. There have been two outstanding books released recently on the opening battles of World War I, one on each front, that set a new mark for both scholarship and readability: Holer Herwig’s The Marne, 1914, and Dennis Showalter’s Tannenberg. Each, in my opinion, dwarfs anything by Keegan or Niall Ferguson.

      1. Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme is a classic and is almost a longer account of Keegan’s chapter. Middlebrook leads up with a full account of Kitchener’s Army, composed mostly of enthusiastic volunteers. If you do not feel a wave of emotion (either fury or pity or both) reading about the “Pal’s Battalions”, volunteer units of men who worked with each other on a daily basis (like Manchester tram workers or Sheffield steel workers), then you are a stronger man than I am.

  2. As no one is yet able to forget the horror that was WWI why can’t all the countries involved just own up and at least say that it happened because they didn’t know any better? And that they’re sorry? All this worry about the “rightness and wrongness” of how each of them should now behave is a tad reminiscent of how Europe exploded into war to begin with. Old habits die hard.

  3. The victors write history — or at least make the claim to a definitive history…

    Maybe after two stunning defeats, the Germans bothered to start learning from the experience of war, rather than the rhetoric.

    Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have not, yet, given rise to similar mass reflection of either flavor in the United States. I think it has not given way to a rhetoric of victory, thank goodness, because that’s more than most in the public are willing to swallow about those misadventures. Ah, the sorrows of empire, it can’t even manage to self-deceive itself the way the Brits do. For many Americans, it’s now all about “might makes right,” with a garnish of “democracy.” Not sure how that may in itself set us up for the next inevitable, but highly-profitable-for-some defeat, but it will make it stick in the craw that much more for the taxpayer.

    1. No, in this case the losers managed to write history (for a while). Germany managed to sell the beginning of WWI as an accident in a highly volatile political atmosphere. Until the issue was revisited in the 1960s by German historians, that is. (Which isn’t to say that other nations were entirely blameless, but it was Imperial Germany that struck the match and held it to the gasoline tank, and rather willingly.)

      The War Guilt Clause of the Versailles Treaty was still a bad idea, but for political reasons, not because it was particularly inaccurate.

      As for the learning process, that didn’t really start until after the student protests of the late 1960s. The denazification process was largely an ineffective mess that made the population close ranks with former Nazis; soon after, West-Germany was needed as the frontline in the beginning Cold War, so forgiveness came easy (e.g., Operation Paperclip). The civil service, including the universities, and the judiciary [1] were still largely staffed with people who had built their careers during the Third Reich. Simply getting the Auschwitz trials underway required heroic efforts by prosecutor Fritz Bauer. Fritz Fischer was attacked, even reviled for his revelations about WWI, sometimes in questionable ways (for example, the German government withdrew funding for a visit at American universities where he was to present his research); conservative German historians still had a positive opinion of Imperial Germany at the time.

      [1] It was really crucial for the young republic that the new Constitutional Court was staffed primarily with exiled Germans and dissidents rather than members of the career judiciary.

      1. There is a telling contrast with Japan where the demons of 1931 to 1945 are being studiously avoided rather than confronted. In fact, Japan seems increasingly to present itself as a victim due to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

        1. This has been true almost from the day the war ended. When The Last Emperor was shown in Japan in 1987, the government edited out all images of the Rape of Nanjing.

      2. Katja,
        No real disagreement on timing, with an exception I’ll note. It was a drawn out process, which as you noted the “necessities” of the Cold War dictating a perhaps too hasty end. Yes, the 60’s deserve credit for finally overcoming the inertia the Cold War produced in a half-finished postwar process.

        As for Operation Paperclip, it touches on my own research. It began and mostly took place well prior to the end deNazification. While a major objective was to bring that “talent” to the US, almost equally important was the American desire to deny those talents to the Russians ASAP. Thus, a lot of it took place immediately after the war. Curtis LeMay was the AF general in charge of it for a time when he was directing R&D just as the Air Force gained its independence as a service from the Army in ’46 and ’47. I was just flipping through his autobiography [Mission with LeMay, 1965] and he mentioned his own involvement in OP during that period.

  4. A surprisingly un-self-conscious remark from the German diplomat. I’ve always given a lot of credit to the Germans for their willingness to confront the demons of their recent past, especially compared to a Europe chock full of their WWII allies, their WWII collaborators, and the indifferent. But, yeah: Britain is able to look back on its military history with a sense of gratitude and commemoration. You can do this when your military history isn’t the freaking Wehrmacht.

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