Posted tagged ‘Great War’

War – and when memories become history

November 13, 2018

As absolutely everyone knows, we have just marked the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. We saw or heard about the various commemorations and ceremonies, and once more the Great War became alive. Peter Jackson’s extraordinary film, They Shall Not Grow Old, has added a new dimension of immediacy, a sense that we can see and hear and almost smell the trenches and the men who served in them.

I belong to the generation of people who remember talking with those who lived through the First World War. When I was a schoolboy in Ireland I occasionally got a lift by car from a local gentleman, appropriately called Mr Pickup, who fought in the war and was fascinated to meet a German. He had, as he told me, shot many Germans (and was nearly shot on some occasions by Germans), but had never spoken to one. I devoured his fascinating and compelling accounts of the fighting in France.

Both my grandfathers fought in the Great War, but I never knew either of them because they had died before I was born. One of my grandmothers told me stories of life in Berlin during the war. And there was Mr Pickup. But time moves on. Generations who could tell of their lives in the war passed away, leaving those like me who weren’t there but heard about it from those who were. And eventually there will not be anyone alive who was there our who heard directly from people who were. And at that point the war passes from memory to history.

Memories are precious, and provide rich materials for historians. But they are also personal, and carry with them the anguish and terror, as well as the pride and glory, of the experience. They keep all this alive, but also keep alive the impressions of contemporary politics, in which objectivity was not a huge concern. I grew up with the view, stated as fact, that the Great War was started by Germany in unprovoked aggression. More recent historical analyses (for example The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark) offer a more complex view. Whatever the judgement might be, it is better offered from evidence than from experience.

It is right, indeed it is crucial, that we remember and honour those who sacrificed themselves or were sacrificed in war. But these are experiences we must hope will not be repeated. To achieve that, history needs to take over where memories once dominated.

A hundred years on, lest we forget

August 5, 2014

A few years ago I needed some emergency dental treatment while on a visit to Germany. As I was waiting for my turn in the dentist’s surgery I picked up an old book from the shelves there and was immediately engrossed in it. It was the autobiography of a major scholar who became Rector (Principal/President/Vice-Chancellor) of an Austrian university in 1913. In June 1914 he was about to preside over a graduation ceremony for 52 graduands. As he was entering the aula maxima, an assistant whispered to him that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had just been assassinated in Sarajevo.

In his autobiography he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the potentially awful consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and gave a short speech in Latin on the benefits of education. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduands, 40 would die during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the Second World War in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the twelve surviving graduands would be tried for war crimes in 1946. He himself wrote his autobiography in 1947, and he died two years later at the age of 86. He wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But I could only say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’

As we reflect on the events of 1914 and all that follows, it may be worth remembering that a reference to the civilising power of education is not a platitude. It is, sometimes, all that we have, and it is everything.

Perhaps I can end this post with a short family note. The photo below is of my grandfather, a Lieutenant in the German army during the Great War. He made history by being the first in the history of warfare to drop a bomb from a plane; it landed in the Vicarage garden in Dover, thankfully hurting nobody. On 10 November 1918, just before the war ended, he was hit in the face by shrapnel. The somewhat basic treatment available at the time involved the insertion of a metal alloy to replace parts of his broken jaw. This subsequently proceeded to poison his blood and he died a few years later of the complications. May we all heed the lessons of that terrible war, and of all wars.

Lieutenant Alfred von Prondzynski

Leutnant Alfred von Prondzynski