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“Remembrance of the First World War in Interwar Europe. In search for new analytical categories”

Remembrance of the First World War in Interwar Europe.
In search for new analytical categories

International Conference
September 21-24, 2017
Nida, Lithuania

The significance attributed to the Great War in different societies of Europe is attracting increasing interest within the rich historiography on the remembrance of the First World War. However, its examination is still predominantly characterised by the use of two analytical categories: memory and oblivion. During the interwar period, we tend to assume that in one part of the continent narratives of wartime experiences were created by the means of ritual and ceremony, integrating different layers of society, while the Great War itself eventually became an object of bitter political and public debates. At the same time, historiography suggests that other parts of the continent “forgot” the Great War. This holds particularly true for the new states emerging from imperial collapse in East Central Europe, which had not participated in the Great War, but also for the Soviet Union. Here, the post-war experience of continuing warfare and political transformation allegedly overshadowed the role of the Great War in national narratives and politics of memory. However, by approaching the war experience through the opposing categories of its memory and oblivion, we inevitably gravitate towards the argument that not only the war but also its memory divided Europe much earlier than the Iron Curtain did.

But is there really any basis for such a division of Europe? After all, millions of citizens of the new states—from Finland to Hungary, from Poland to Russia—had participated in the war, witnessed the hostilities or become refugees. It was exactly the territories of many of the new states that had suffered most of the bloodshed and destruction of war. Recent studies on how the war experience was (or was not) integrated into discourse on the national level as well as on a group or even individual level have arrived at conclusions that challenge the assumption that the Great War was insignificant in the public life of the new states. While there were few coherent national policies of the commemoration of World War I in the form of museum activities, the construction of monuments, the integration into school curricula as well as rituals of commemoration, the picture looks very different if we look at the social and personal level. Associations of war veterans and war invalids kept the memory of the war alive, as did members of the former relief organisations for refugees. Families, almost all of which had been in some way or the other affected by the war, be it through displacement, military violence, forced labour or economic occupation policies, also contributed to a sustained collective memory of the war throughout the interwar period. People frequently suffered from loss of their parents, wives and children and this personal grief of bereavement from the war, as Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker once noted, still remains underestimated among historians. Moreover, the Great War fulfilled a specific function in political discourse even on the national level, as it took the form of a catalyst for political transformation and a source of political legitimacy. Rather than military activities, displacement, exile, and military service in national units during the war provided leaders with political capital, while collaboration with the occupation authorities or participation in the Russian Revolution complicated political participation (but did not rule it out). While not only those historiographies embedded in national narratives continue to neglect this, interwar politicians (especially the authoritarian leaders of the late 1920s and 1930s) frequently highlighted the roots of “their” states in the First World War and their own struggle for independence between the millstones of the Great Powers.

The term oblivion thus may indeed be misleading, as both group experiences and the use of images of the war for political legitimacy in fact did influence the formation of a coherent memory of the war in these states to a high degree. However, recent studies mostly cover individual states and thus do not provide an integrated view of what alternative patterns of the attribution of significance to the war existed in Europe and to what extent these patterns were indeed alternatives at all.

This raises the question of whether memory and oblivion are still the most useful categories to facilitate research on the variety of patterns of the attribution of significance to the war. Individual members of society as well as social groups and organisations remembered the war very differently. Political leaders, on the other hand, used the war as a source of legitimacy, but—as opposed to the wars of independence—framed it as a transnational, or even non-national event. The question thus arises whether there was such a thing as a national memory of the Great War in interwar Europe at all.

These issues will be discussed at an international conference, which aims at defining, re-conceptualising and innovating the field of memory of the Great War in interwar European societies. The organisers believe these issues are especially relevant for a broader understanding of the transformation of post-imperial societies, as well as of the change from the imperial to the national order and the ability (or inability) of the new nation-states to cope with the problems left behind by the former imperial regimes. The organisers therefore especially invited speakers who study various aspects of this subject in those states established after 1917/18. However, we also encouraged scholars to apply who examine alternatives to the dominant narratives in the belligerent states. The conference aims to cover the role that was given to the Great War in various European countries on the national level and to turn attention to the group level—memory carriers, their justified or unjustified expectations, and the relationships of different political regimes of the interwar Europe with these expectations. The organizers also invited those presenters who are interested in the issues of personal grief, collective mourning, and local patterns of the Great War remembrance and their relationship with the dominant narratives of memory.

The conference is being jointly organized and sponsored by the Institute of Baltic Region History and Archaeology of Klaipėda Lithuania, the German Historical Institute Warsaw, the Lithuanian Goethe Institute, the Neringa Museums, the Research Council of Lithuania, and the Thomas Mann Cultural Centre.

To see the programme please follow the link.

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