The way the British remember the war may have got in the way of understanding its full impact and reality, says historian David Reynolds.
Maintaining that the conflict has become “caricatured”, Reynolds told historyextra we must “get out of the trenches” and take a broader view of the First World War, in order to properly examine how it shaped the 20th century.
Speaking after the unveiling of the BBC’s planned centenary coverage earlier this week, Reynolds spoke of the need to take a long view of the war.
In 2014 the historian will trace how the conflict haunted the generation who lived through it, in a three-part BBC Two series Long Shadow.
We asked Reynolds what viewers could expect from the series, and what issues we should be aware of when covering the centenary.
Q: What do you make of the BBC’s planned centenary coverage?
A: I think the BBC has a really exciting range of coverage, and I particularly like the way they are getting down to the local level and trying to connect that with the big picture.
If you relate the coverage to specific people and local places, it should make the war more accessible.
But I also think it’s important for us to try and stand back and see this war as history.
What matters is not just identifying with individual people and poignant stories from that time, but actually saying ‘this is a war that changed the shape of history, it made the 20th century’.
And also, the 20th century has kept looking back on this war and seeing it in different ways at different times. That’s the point of my series Long Shadow, it’s about how the war shaped the century and how the century shaped the war.
Q: What can we expect from your series?
A: The series I’ve made with Russell Barnes of Clearstory looks at the long shadow cast by the war. We’re thinking about the way the British remember the war and asking whether, in some ways, that might have got in the way of understanding its full impact and reality.
I’m considering whether, for example, we’ve become too focused on the trenches and too readily seen war poets as the only authentic voice of the war. I am trying to move away from that perspective without in any way denigrating it.
The series is looking at a couple of examples of the way the war has cast a long shadow. One of them is the question of democracy.
In 1918 democracy hit Europe like a big bang, and for some countries that was deeply destabilizing – Germany in particular, and Italy as well.
One of our films is looking at how Britain coped with democracy, with an electorate that suddenly became three times as large as it was before and contained ‘strange’ features like working men and – shock horror – women!
The film explores how the British coped with that fallout much better than the rest of continental Europe.
Another film examines at attitudes to nationalism. There was a real crisis in the United Kingdom 100 years ago, real fears it was pulling itself apart – not just the possibility of civil war in Ireland, but also pressures for devolution in Scotland, and Wales.
The story we’re telling is of how the war helped to pull Scotland and Wales back into the union for most of the 20th century, and gave them a new sense of ‘Britishness’, as well as pride in being Welsh or Scottish.
But the war also splits Ireland apart. In 1916 you have two epic moments that etch themselves into the consciousness of different groups in Ireland. The Easter Rising, a symbol for Catholic nationalists, and the first day of the Somme, a symbol of Ulster Protestants’ commitment to the cause that Britain is fighting for.
These two ‘blood sacrifices’ are memory moments that echo through the 20th century.
Q: What issues do we have to be aware of when covering the centenary?
A: We have in this country developed a very sensitive and moving set of patterns of remembrance, which have become more popular in recent years.
Now they have meanings for new generations, perhaps because we’ve become involved in new wars, like Afghanistan and Iraq, and families begin to understand what war really means.
Those patterns of remembrance are really important, but what I also think we have to say, with 100 years having passed, is that we need to take a long view of the war – we need to see it as history.
All the soldiers have now passed on, and we have to try and take that long view as well as one of respectful, reverential remembrance. We have to remember but also try to understand.
Q: In the preview for your series Long Shadow you say the First World War has become caricatured. What do you mean by that?
A: The caricature is a sense that the only real story about the war is trenches, and that sense is associated particularly with the first day of the Somme, which is 1 July 1916. It is, in terms of the death toll, the worst day in the history of the British army.
Our view of the war has become focused almost on one day. We need to get out of the trenches and take a broader view of the conflict.
That’s what I mean by becoming a caricature – it’s become simplified down. A caricature is not necessarily untrue, it’s just a sharp oversimplification of what is going on.
This is a war that goes on for four years and it has multiple fallouts, which rumble on through the 20th century. We need to pay some attention to those as well as key moments like 1 July 1916.
Q: Do you think the BBC’s coverage over the coming years will help to redress that balance?
A: I think so. The great thing about all this is the BBC is creating a whole lot of avenues through which people can start debating.
The BBC is not going to control that debate, nobody is going to control it, but if you start doing things with the multiple media that is now available in the digital age, you’re going encourage people to communicate, to talk, and argue.
No one knows what kind of discussion this is going to create, but the BBC is making it possible.
Q: Your book, Long Shadow, is out on 7 November 2013. Will your 2014 series echo it?
A: A tiny bit, but the book has a bigger canvas. It’s divided into two parts. The first part is called Legacies and the second part Refractions ¬– in other words, seeing something through a prism.
Legacies is about the ways in which the Great War influenced the 1920s and 30s, when they were the post-war years, not the inter-war years. So I look at democracy, nationalism, capitalism, attitudes to empire, attitudes to art and culture, and the question of peace – all of them in the minds of people who don’t know that there’s going to be another conflict.
The second part, Refractions, is what happens to memory of the Great War after 1939-45 when it becomes the First World War, prelude to a second, and almost by definition a sort of botched first round that had to be done again.
And then I look at how the Great War is seen through the lens of our finest hour in 1940, how it’s seen through the Cold War and the fears of World War Three in the 1960s, and finally how it’s seen after the Cold War when countries begin to make up across national borders.
So the second half of the book is about how the 20th century has reshaped our attitudes to the First World War.
Q: Do you think when covering the centenary we need to be careful we don’t ‘overdo’ it in the early years, so by the time we reach the later years people are growing tired?
A: Battle fatigue – I think there is a real danger of that. I think it would be possible for people to say ‘I’ve had enough of the Great War’.
But there’s so much on offer, in so many different forms, that people will be able to tune in selectively to things that interest them. I think the centenary of the Great War is going to be a remarkable encounter of present and past.