In a little over one years time, the majority of Europe, and to a lesser degree the rest of the world, will mark the anniversary of an event that like a few other moments in human history is seen as the founding moment of the era that follows it. Examples of such epoch defining moments would be the Greek victory over the Persians at the battle of Salamis which ushered in the Greco-Roman dominance of the classical world and the (re)discovery of the Americas by Columbus and all the implications of that moment. The event that I make reference to here is of course the First World War. Pursuant with a casual browsing of history or the detailed study of the very same topics, I am sure that both amateur readers and academics would agree with me that in a long history of pointless, wasteful, mindless and utterly barbaric violence unleashed by mankind, the First World War must rank as the pre-eminent example of just how stupid mankind really can be. The reason I draw the readers attention to this impending anniversary is that already quiet rumblings are being heard and seen in the media about how the anniversary itself should be marked, for example with Britain’s leading toilet paper poopooing the nasty liberal left for not wanting to blame the war on any one nation. The form that the commemoration of such an event takes is critical as it will ultimately define for many their relation to the historical crisis which swept Europe more clearly than the a long lost relative ever could, they may have missed out on experiencing trench foot or the horrors of Gallipoli first hand, but people can still be manipulated by the emotions that a ‘fight for freedom’ evokes.
That the events should be commemorated is a certainty in my mind. I know of course, pacifists with an extreme bent in that direction may say point out the horrors of war and such and argue that due to these reasons that war is never something to be remembered or celebrated. Of course, you will note that in my sentence above I used the term commemorated rather than celebrated, as I believe the notion that certain right wing pundits are spouting that the anniversary of the First World War should be celebrated to be morally reprehensible. It is a firm belief of my own, that those whose lives were wasted by high command on the fields of Europe should be remembered for their role in ‘protecting’ the country. However I feel the need to highlight what I believe is a troubling political climate in which the anniversary will begin as I fear that the misuse of history will be highly likely when the moment comes for it. It is a notable lesson of history that political elites are happy to evoke moments or characters from history in an attempt to garner support for their own ends that otherwise would likely not achieve any great deal of support from the average member of the public. examples of such appropriations of history would include the Napoleonic adoption of Roman iconography in an attempt to link the two great empires, the title that the early Ottoman sultans took of “Sultan of Rum” which demonstrates their desire also to identify themselves as the logical progression of the legacy of Rome or certain Nazi’s identification with the Teutonic order of knights as paragons of Germanic Christianity. Such appropriations are very widespread throughout history and that this is so should come as no surprise as it is an easy task to adopt the stories of history, certainly an easier task than both creating mythologies for people to identify with and have them become widespread whilst still alive.
Whilst the practice of appropriating moments from history is widespread, this is not to say that doing so comes without its problems. Central among the issues such a practice churns up in its wake is that more often than not, the individuals doing the appropriation are the wealthy, powerful and educated elites who as a class of humans are not noted for the general inclination towards extreme philanthropy. Indeed, often the appropriation of history is done out of extreme self interest in making those without power, without money and without the full knowledge of the ugly realities of history do not what they want to do and believe to be in their best interests but to do things which otherwise might seem abhorrent to them. I would also highlight for the reader that the appropriation can also be very non-specific in nature with those doing the manipulating of history evoking nothing more than a general theme, an example of which being politicians in Britain arguing that austerity is nought but a trifle compared to the dark hours of the Blitz which our parents and grandparents experienced.
Now that I have highlighted the way in which history has previously been appropriated I will now explain my specific concerns about how I fear the history of the First World War might be misappropriated as the anniversary approaches on two different fronts. My first concern is that the government will turn the commemoration of the event into a celebration. There is a distinct possibility that the current UK government, a beleaguered and endangered animal if there ever was one, will be keen to turn the anniversary into some form of jingoistic lovefest where all sense of proportion and dignity will be abandoned in a shameless attempt to curry favour in the lead up to a general election. The reason for my concern about the government appropriating the legacy of the First World War is basically centred around my belief that the war itself was an unmitigated disaster that claimed at the lowest estimates 15,000,000 lives and lead directly to an even worse war which claimed, again at minimum, 40,000,000 lives. If the government can find cause to celebrate in amongst all those corpses then it would simply further my belief in the current governments absolute moral bankruptcy. However the problem does not end there I fear, my own squeamishness about celebrating large scale death aside, I believe we are on a slippery slope when governments believe that death and wars are something to celebrate. When you think about it, there is a logical line of progression between celebrating past deaths for a ‘good cause’ and a willingness to directly cause deaths for a good cause. I assure the reader that however positive their impressions of the human race are, the philosophical distances between celebrating a war as having achieved a purpose and a willingness to start wars and end life on massive scale aren’t that far apart. All of this might be hot air on my part were it not for the fact that large areas of the world are already on a knife edge and its difficult to tell how little a government need rock the boat before the whole thing capsizes.
My second concern, and if I am to be entirely honest, a much greater concern at that is that the misappropriation will not be committed by the traditional elite who are usually responsible for such actions. No, my concern is that the misappropriation here will come from ‘street level’ and that if this to be the case that the general public might be all the more susceptible to it. The concern specifically is that a certain movement (read EDL), that is already paramilitary in style, will attempt to align itself with the hordes of British ‘tommies’ that were slaughtered in the defence of ‘freedom’ and gain a lot more credence in the public eye for its shameless and inaccurate appropriation of history. I mean the reality that Muslims, amongst all of the composite religions that were practised throughout the Empire, fought as bravely for a lesser share of the reward would surely fry circuitry among Britain’s leading street thug group were it widely known. By aligning themselves with the ‘tommies’ who fought for freedom against the barbaric German Hun, that the EDL will gain a certain amount of credibility in the eyes of the person who buys into the myth of the Great War and nationalism as a whole. The thought of the EDL gaining anything resembling credibility should worry the reader as it does me. The extremely violent xenophobia it preaches is a curse on all our houses and threat such lunacy poses will only grow with such a movement co-opting the legacy of the First World War. You have been warned …