How do Germany and Britain remember the First World War, and can the differences explain Brexit?

In this latest guest Blog, Dr Ingrid Sharp of the University of Leeds writes about Germany & Britain, how they remember WW1, and voting.

Ingrid is one of the researchers funded by AHRC with expertise on the First World War and its commemoration. A list is held on the AHRC Website of these academics who are happy to be contacted about their research. Many of these are also heavily involved in the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres.

voting-30403_1280European commentators are baffled by the British decision to leave the EU following the referendum on 23rd June, in which over 17 million Britons voted to leave the EU despite the uncertainty of any measurable gains and the strong likelihood of substantial losses. Can a look at history, and the way we choose to remember it, help to explain why?

One area where history plays an enormous role is in determining the relationships between nations, especially Britain and Germany post 1945 – the Third Reich, the Second World War and the Holocaust have cast huge shadows on the diplomatic landscape, which deepen whenever we have a significant anniversary of these events. The way we mark these anniversaries often says more about our current political concerns than it reveals about our understanding of history, and can contribute to international relations in both positive and negative ways.

Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Holocaust Memorial – Berlin

Different approaches

The different ways in which Germany and the UK are approaching the centenary of the First World War 2014-2018 at an official level offer an interesting perspective on how the nations see their place in Europe and reflect very different attitudes to the European Union.  The EU is seen by the current UK government and many of the population as a purely economic project, as opposed to Germany’s view of it as a lasting symbol of post-war reconciliation.

Can we draw parallels between centenary attitudes to WW1 and the discussions around the UK’s continued membership of the EU?

In the UK, WWI is culturally very much alive, and our emotional attachment is sustained by the annual commemorations and the 2-minute silence observed at 11.00 on Remembrance Sunday in November.  Our commemorations emphasise the military aspects, prioritise the stories of combat soldiers and honour the memory of our nation’s military dead. The red poppy is a powerful symbol of commemoration that highlights the heroic patriotic sacrifice made by young men in times of war – and that tends to make it harder to challenge the cause for which that sacrifice was made. The red poppy also reinforces the UK’s tendency to commemorate rather narrowly along national lines. This was shown in 2014 by the massively popular installation Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red by artists Paul Cumming and Tom Piper, which featured  888,246 red ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, each of which stood for one British soldier who died in the war, including Colonial and commonwealth troops. This was a purely British commemoration, looking back to our Colonial past rather than reflecting our European present.

The Tower of London with the evolving art installation 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red'. The major art installation named “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” consists of 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British fatality during World War I and created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. POA(Phot) Mez Merrill, © Crown copyright
The Tower of London with the evolving art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. The major art installation named “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” consists of 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British fatality during World War I and created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. POA(Phot) Mez Merrill, © Crown copyright

The EU as a symbol of peace in Europe

In contrast, Germany’s commemorations are rooted in its European identity. We can see an attempt to integrate the story of WWI into the history of the European Union as a powerful symbol and tool of peace in 20th century.  The narrative goes like this: the war led to the removal of the old regime and, with the founding of the Weimar Republic, the introduction of democracy in Germany. This has eventually led to the founding of a strong democracy in a Germany deeply embedded into the EU, a Germany able and willing to set national interests aside in the cause of peace.

Notre Dame de Lorette-Anneau de la Mémoire (The Ring of Memory). Attribution: Daniel VILLAFRUELA
Notre Dame de Lorette-Anneau de la Mémoire (The Ring of Memory).  Attribution: Daniel VILLAFRUELA

An example of this international focus is the 370 meter wide elliptical Ring of Memory, opened in 2014, which commemorates 580,000 dead of several nations in the Lens area of Northern France that was subject to fighting, shelling and occupation.  The names of the fallen are listed alphabetically and no mention is made of their nationality.  The idea behind this monument is that the war was a shared catastrophe that has left a shared legacy of European co-operation that will prevent future wars tearing us apart. German commemorative events stress the importance of creating a European memory culture that transcends national memory, seeking to create a common historical narrative that has the effect of binding the nations more closely together and recognising their common interests.

In contrast, Britain’s approach to the Centenary is inward-looking, focussing in its commemoration mainly on the heroism of British sacrifices, seeking to find something uniquely British in our past to shore up our fractured national identity.  This is mirrored in our attitude to the European Union. During the referendum, on both sides of the campaign, the arguments were based on British self-interest – would we be better off in or out of the European Union?  – and not at all on the question of what our membership could contribute to the stability, mutual support and ultimately to the preservation of peace in Europe.

Field of Poppies
Field of Poppies

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